Reading a good book is probably the worst thing you can do if you're writing a novel.
Some coach in some sport somewhere was saying, uh, wait, you're not going to believe me if I say it like that. Um, OK. When the Omaha City Oilers were down three games to none in the best-of-seven Super Bowl back in 1987, Coach Tom Fauxnomme called his team together before the game.
"Boys," he said, as they were all gentlemen of a certain age. "Things haven't been going our way out there on the ice pitch this week. When we needed a three-pointer, we got a foul. We we needed to draw a foul, Randy there killed a pigeon." Then he went on a long discourse about fighting hard and having fun, comparing their troubles to the castaways on "Gilligan's Island." And then he said something about winning one for the Skipper.
After they lost that game 15-0, one of the players asked the coach why he never yelled at them during the game. "You don't coach during the game, son. You manage."
And that's a lesson we can all learn and apply to our crime writing.
The worst thing you can do when you're writing your book is to read someone else's, especially if it is better than yours.
If I have a day to myself, I'll try to split my time between reading and writing. I have to get the writing done first before the reading. I'd thought that this was because I'm freshest early on and need my brain functioning at its best to write. Once I've broken all my brain cells to pieces, then I can kick back and read through the afternoon. (At least until I have to go upstairs, put my suit on and then wait down the block in my car until my wife and kids get home and then drive up like I'd been at work all day because if she knew I took off every Friday she'd expect me to do some housework instead of just driving into the garage, getting out, grabbing a bottle of gin, and falling asleep to another Nationals' loss.)
Turns out, if I read a good book in the morning, I never get to the writing. Especially if I'm reading a really good book. Maybe I'm thinking, "Gee. This is quite entertaining. Perhaps I'll continue reading as I am being quite entertained." That's what my excuse will be. I just didn't want to put it down. In truth, though, when I'm reading a good piece of crime fiction, I'm at least partly thinking, "Well, hell. I can't do that." And then I'm frozen. Did I have the reveal too early? Is that about when it was in the Reed Farrel Coleman book? Oh, was my bad guy as much a surprise as the dude in the Michael Connelly book I just finished? As scary as the JT Ellison one? As easy to get along with as the one The Gischler just put out? Why even bother, right? When you've got so many great books out there, what's the point?
Just look over there to the left. McFet's Canada crime stuff is phenomenal. Russel's McNee books are just so well done. And then there's Joelle's book which is an absolute delight and on your store shelves -- and your nightstand -- this fall. And Dave's New Jersey novels make me want to curl up with a nice hunk of Taylor Ham and keep reading. And Stringer's OLD GOLD is so brutal and thrilling. And stories from Scott and BQ, too. Westerns and sperm bank hold-ups, how can you go wrong with those two?
Right now I'm reading that chick with the dragon ink on her shoulder book. Hell, I can't do what he's doing. It's like, I don't know, part Thomas Mann and part Sean Chercover. Hell no I can't do that.
I don't care what BQ said on Sunday. I have to stop reading books while I'm writing. It's like the books are coaching me in the middle of the game.
My high school baseball coach once tried to help me out of a slump. I was dropping an elbow or moving a foot or blinking in the wrong eye. He gave me some advice that got into my head. I got to thinking about things too much. So many things can go wrong. The ball -- even when you keep your eye on it -- is really kinda teeny-tiny. And it's moving around. Not just fast and towards your face, but sometimes the damn thing just drops a couple of inches just before you swing. And you have to catch it at just the right time. And on just the right part of the bat. And at an angle in which you don't pop it up or ground into a double play. How can you ever get that right?
The thing is, I think, you can't let anything get into your head when you're trying to get something out. Whether you're trying to line the ball into right field so that the guy on second can get around or you're trying to figure out just why the hell your main character wouldn't just call the cops instead of going into the building alone, you can't let the coach get into your head.
I read when I plan or after I've gotten a draft down. Before the game and after the game, I take my coaching. During the writing, all of that just becomes muscle memory as I manage the best I can to keep it all straight.
You gotta play your game. You gotta write your book.
And then you gotta knock the damn thing out of the park.