“Ladies and gentlemen, prepare to be entertained as you watch two titans of the ring locked in an eternal struggle for your…er…time. In this corner, feast your eyes on the Tome, masked in fancy vellum, costumed in elaborate prose, as big as the New York City Public Library. A fearsome foe indeed.” The emcee pointed toward the ropes, where a massive rectangle, his name in raised gold lettering across his chest, riffled his pages at the throng.
“And now I direct your attention to the other corner. Please give a cheer for Quill the mighty scribbler!” The audience turns to see a gangly welterweight stand up, his eyes streaming purple ink, his long thin fingers clenching and unclenching, clearly longing to wring the Tome’s neck.
Unfortunately, this kind of duel doesn’t draw in the big crowds (nor, sadly, the big bucks). It is the conflict that has existed ever since Mr. Cro-Magnon wanted to focus on painting his wall epic while his wife insisted they go see what the neighbors put on their wall in case they could learn something from it. It is the abiding war between Reading and Writing.
Now you, Dear Reader, may not see it that way. I’ll bet you love to read (you’re reading this, aren’t you?). You spend hours of your day racing through paragraphs, flipping pages, humming as you go. You put off the book report or letter in order to get to that last page before supper. Then with a sigh you pick up pen and paper. Writing is the chore after the fun.
You, Dear Writer, are another story. Perhaps you plod dutifully through the novel, always aware of the page you’re on, checking your watch, then closing the book with a happy sigh at the appointed time. You turn eagerly to the pad of paper. You prefer to create the sentences and the story, not have it thrust upon you.
Of course there are people who think both activities are equally enjoyable, but as a writer I often find myself torn between the two, unsure which should take precedence. Reading, as we all know, increases your vocabulary, your facility with language, your knowledge of the world and the human condition, in a way that writing in a cave will not (unless you’re a Cro-Magnon, but let’s move on now, shall we?). However, if you’re a writer, putting words on paper is the immensely satisfying fulfillment of an internal necessity. I speak of the urge, on the one hand, to teach and to reach other human beings, and on the other, to create and to control the means to that end; in other words, the desire to produce something original that will affect the reader in a new and different way.
My fear is that too much concurrent reading interferes with this creative process. I know that sounds radical, even stupid, but hear me out. Every book, every author has a certain individual style. Every culture and era promotes a certain literary style. Shakespeare’s rhythmic prose is different from Jane Austen’s perfectly constructed sentences, in contrast to Anne Rice’s florid paragraphs-within-paragraphs. But if you are steeped in Shakespeare, how do you write a contemporary romance that doesn’t sound stilted? If your favorite author writes in two-word sentences and minimal dialogue, how do you write that lush erotic love scene?
Some might recommend using bits and pieces of other styles to perfect your own. It is natural, likely impossible, not to. Your writing is, for better or worse, informed by the authors you admire. But when you’re searching for your own voice, you must be careful to keep those elements at arm’s length. So how do you train yourself to be aware when someone else’s voice starts creeping into your prose?
Simple. Stop reading while you’re writing. I hear you gulp, but think of it as a pause between lessons, a diet between the holidays if you will. A candy diet. You have to clear your mind of other writers’ styles in order to find your own. As long as you give in to the urge to call your hero Mr. Darcy rather than “Fitzwilliam” (yes, that was his first name) or even Fitz, you can’t make your story your own. Readers are very sensitive to a style that isn’t owned. It’s confusing and irritating. Besides, if you truly are a writer, you want to have your own voice. I challenge any but the most seasoned of writers to find that voice if tenors are singing in your head while you’re trying to channel a baritone.
Confession: when I was young I read voraciously. I’d pick up anything and read it, from Dostoievski to Joseph Conrad to Evelyn Waugh. Those years provided me with a voluminous internal library, making it easier to set the reading aside while I concentrate on my own skills. Writing is, after all, a profession like any other, to be studied, but also practiced and honed. A trial lawyer may have the precedents at his fingertips, but in the end he’ll have to fashion his own creative defense. A fullback studies the playbook, but at the snap he goes after the quarterback on his own. A mathematician could not create his own original theory without knowing the multiplication tables. Now that I’m writing professionally I have an obligation to do the same: to draw upon my internal library, yes, but ultimately to provide my own unique perspective on the world. Otherwise, why would any reader want to read me rather than Shakespeare?
I’m sure other writers have their own means of balancing reading and writing as they work. For me, if I’ve been reading a lot, it takes a real leap to get back into my writing. I lose the thread of the story, the atmosphere I’ve worked hard to create. I have to clear my mind and focus on the characters, sometimes even reread a large portion of the story, in order to slip back into the world I was constructing before I dove into someone else’s. You can’t churn out those bestsellers if you have to keep stopping to regroup.
Although I have lived or traveled in five continents, the last 30 years have been spent mostly in Washington, D.C. as a librarian, Congressional staff assistant, speechwriter, editor, birdwatcher, kayaker, policy wonk, chair of a large volunteer program, and non-profit director. I am blessed with two fabulous grown children, and the company of Iggy Pop the cat and have published 5 romantic suspense novels.
Contact M. S. Spencer here:
Facebook Author Page: www.facebook.com/M.S.SpencerAuthor
Amazon Author Page:
My Books are all full-length, romantic suspense/mystery novels.
From Red Rose: Lost in His Arms
Available both in eBook and Print (ASIN: B003WMA72O)
And Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Lost-In-His-Arms-ebook/dp/B002T0HZVQ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&m=AG56TWVU5XWC2&s=books&qid=1276984415&sr=1-1
and Lost and Found, love and lust in the wilds of Maine:
From Secret Cravings comes Losers Keepers, rekindled romance and murder on Chincoteague (eBook and Print):
Triptych, lost artworks, jealousy, sex, larceny & genius above the mighty Potomac River (eBook and Print):
and Artful Dodging: The Torpedo Factory Murders, a five-star mystery that has love in stitches (eBook and Print):
My books are also available at www.amazon.com, www.bookstrand.com, www.allromanceebooks.com, B&N, and www.fictionwise.com .