Is Not Reading Any Novels While Writing Your Own Novel A Good Idea or a Bad Idea?

One of my favorite pieces of reading and writing advice comes from the master of Southern gothic lit, William Faulkner. His advice is plain and simple:  “Read, read, read. Read everything —trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.

Thing is, I’ve been doing a phenomenally lousy job of reading lately. I haven’t read anything in over two months, and for someone who’s never been without a book in his hand since he could read, that’s saying a lot. There’s a reason for that: I’m neck-deep in getting this GODDAMNED WORK-IN-PROGRESS FINISHED ONCE AND FOR GODDAMNED ALL, and I’m wanting to concentrate on writing, not reading. Plus, I’m worried about being “influenced” while I’m writing.

Let me explain: the last book I was reading (not finished) was The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner. I was looking forward to reading this novel, and while I wasn’t quite hooked by the first couple of chapters, something about the opening chapter must have stuck inside me. I later found myself writing something in my work-in-progress that sounded unlike anything I’d written before, and I didn’t like it at all. I didn’t feel like it was anything I would have written.

I realized I basically re-wrote the entire first chapter of The Flamethrowers.

This wasn’t the first time I’d been influenced by a book I was reading at the time, and that influence poured into my writing. And I don’t like it. Some writers may not mind that, especially if they’re reading the works of the writers they most admire. But I haven’t been doing that, it seems.

(Oh, there’s an idea: read some of the works that have inspired you, and maybe that’ll help you’re writing. There. Problem solved. Stop blogging now. Shut up and write already.)

So, until this draft is finished and ready for final edits, I’m laying off any and all reading of novels. I’m going about my writing with just my wits and what I’ve managed to collect over the years. I’m learning to trust my instincts rather than subconsciously try to mimic what I might have just read in the last chapter of the latest Haruki Murakami novel.

I didn’t say, however, I was forsaking all reading, just reading novels. I am reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (seriously, I think all writers will end up reading this one; it’s like a rite of passage), and The Artist’s Way is sitting on my desk, waiting for me to tear it open. So it’s not like I’m being a complete novel celibate until my novel is finished.

I’m not crazy, am I? This makes sense, right? I mean, go on, tell me I’m going about this strangely. I can take it. Or tell me I taking the right approach. I can take it as well.

Either way, I’m taking a novel-reading break. And that means I might even have to swear off reading Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which comes out next week. Ugh. But, if anything, I better have my novel finished by September, because there’s a trio of novels coming out that month I can’t fucking WAIT to read: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King, MaddAdam by Margaret Atwood, and Bleeding Edge, by Thomas Pynchon.

Seriously, I’m not cray cray, right?



27 thoughts on “Is Not Reading Any Novels While Writing Your Own Novel A Good Idea or a Bad Idea?

  1. You are inside my head. I didn’t read a single novel whilst writing my own. Now it is finished and with my editor and I can’t stop reading. It’s as though I have been deprived of something. I am now gorging myself with books.

  2. I think I’m the opposite of you. I love reading, and I’m always reading on the bus, train and during my break at work. I can’t write at those times. But what the reading does for me is inspire me. I find that it’s pushing me to write. My only obstacle is finding time at home to write. Having a very active toddler and a talkative wife doesn’t help much.

    • Don’t get me wrong, I love reading. I’m a voracious reader. For me, not reading is like a sugar junkie laying off sugar.

      Those times that I would have normally used to read, I’m using to write. I too have a busy home life, but I’m making the time.

    • I’m normally not excited for a new Stephen King novel – I have a ton of respect for him, but I can’t say I’m a huge fan of his work – but the thought of a sequel to “The Shining” has me super-giddy. I just hope it won’t disappoint.

      • Did you know King worked with John Mellencamp to write a musical? This is not a joke (I’m a musical nut).
        It’s called Ghost Brothers of Darkland County and I’d give anything to see it, but it’s not touring near me anytime soon.

        • That’s certainly not the first author/musician collaboration. U2 collaborated with Salman Rushdie (“The Ground Beneath Her Feet”) and I remember reading something about Douglas Adams wanting to collaborate with David Gilmour and Nick Mason of Pink Floyd, shortly before he died.

          I think that King/Mellencamp collaboration sounds pretty awesome.

  3. An interesting conundrum. I also find that I get too busy writing to have time to read. But these days, I make myself find the time, otherwise I simply miss the reading too much. I had the same problem for a while, of finding my writing influenced by what I’m reading. What works for me is to either read something way off the genre you’re writing in, or else something so totally different in style they’re incomparable. I actually find that can give you great inspiration in terms of how you think about your own work. A good example: my work-in-progress is set in present-day London and I’ve been reading my way through the Game of Thrones series (even though I’m not usually a big fan of fantasy). The genres are so distinct, there’s no direct influence on my writing, but the epic sweep and mass of characters in GoT made me think about how narrow and confined the world is that I’ve created. Helped me to broaden the scope.

  4. That’s some very good advice, thank you for sharing. I do tend to read different genres, so I find my writing has often times been influences by the style and scope of several genres.

  5. I’m with you on this, Gus, especially novels that “seem to get into my head.” When they start to haunt me then I find myself channeling the voice or reworking the plot (like you did with Flamethrowers). The only solution is to finish the novel completely before continuing so it’s not a “living thing” in your head.

    But then you’ve managed to delay writing your own work even longer!


    • Good point, Roger. When I realized I was starting to mimic exactly what I was reading, I felt it would only hurt my writing, especially if it didn’t fit with what I’m writing.

  6. I can see both sides of the argument. I have definitely had issues where the most recent book I’ve read has influenced the tone or pacing of what I try to write for days thereafter. Without realizing I was doing it, I even wrote two entire chapters in 1st person POV present tense when the rest of my book is in 3rd. Whoops.

    On the other hand, reading other novels has frequently helped me evaluate where I’m lacking in my own work by asking myself what I really enjoyed or detested about other books. I think as a new writer, evaluating the writing of others is part of the learning process.

    But, it can backfire if you’re actually using reading as an excuse not to write (no, I would never!) or letting yourself overanalyze and compare too much. So, I guess we each have to figure out what works best in our own circumstances.

    • I think I finally just got to a point where I decided that I need to trust my own instincts and devices, and just finish writing the damned thing. I really need to stop overanalyzing and subconsciously comparing myself to what I’ve read or am reading. Basically, I need to write with a clean slate. When I’m done writing, and I’m in the editing phase, I’ll probably find that going back to reading will help me analyze what I’m doing right and what I could be doing better.

      Excellent points, Kira Lyn. Thanks for stopping by!

  7. I am reading light stuff but in 1st person POV. My new WIP is in 1st person and it helps me stay in 1st person. It’s weird but it works for me. I am supposed to be reading The Artist Way, but it would distract me from writing right now. I’ll dive into it next month.

    • I’m a big fan of writing in 1st person POV. The 1st draft of my WIP was written in 1st person, but I found I was limiting the scope of my work, so I’ve switched to 2nd and 3rd person.

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  9. If I read a novel while I’m writing, I find myself in edit mode!!!! Critiquing is not enjoying. But I can’t say I don’t peruse a good book or two: Cina Mieville’s UN LUN DUN or Colin Meloy’s UNDER WILDWOOD for instance, both of which I can’t seem to put down…I am only human. 🙂

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