Monday, June 14, 2010

When NOT to read a good book

By Steve Weddle

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.


Irene Ziegler said...

I dunno. Brilliance doesn't depress me; it inspires. Still, reading while writing leaves one open to subliminal emulation. During the revision process, if you can tell what you were reading when you wrote THAT part, that's probably not good.

Ron Earl Phillips said...

Baseball metaphors aside, I've never noticed a negative influence of reading on my writing. Perhaps because what I'm currently writing is short and trite.

Of course out of habit I read after my day is done, unless I'm wanting to just knock it out the park and finish the book.

I'm reading UNDER THE DOME this week (or so). Will also be plotting DIMES FOR DYING, so I'll see how that affects me.

Steve Weddle said...

Irene, I figure if it takes me a couple of years to finish a book and I've read 100 books in that time, it'll all mix together just how I need it. And I agree with you on the part about noticing where a certain part of your own book came from. I suppose you have to take the various ingredients you get and mix them together when you cook your book. If I can taste one particular ingredient -- the flour in pizza, the vanilla in french toast -- then the meal is not good.

REP - RE: UNDER THE DOME. I've heard good things about that one. I've never read King, but that one looks fun.

Chuck said...

I have the same problem.

I solve this by reading non-fiction -- if possible, non-fiction that has some bearing on the project.

Or, if I really want to read fiction, I read something way outside the genre in which I'm working -- sci-fi or something.

Very cool post.

-- c.

Steve Weddle said...

Chuck -- Yeah, non-fiction and out-of-genre. Good points. Maybe to get stoned with two birds a non-fiction book that ties into the novel you're working on. Kinda like research, so you take it off your taxes, but also a good book you can enjoy.

Joanne Young Elliott said...

I'm too easily influenced so that is a good idea not to read something intimidating before you write. At the same time, at least with poetry, reading something amazing spurs me on...makes me want to write a poem. So it depends on what I'm writing. Reading an excellent novel before may not be a good idea for me, but an amazing poem will get me inspired and writing good stuff almost every time.

Steve Weddle said...

Joanne, That makes perfect sense. Sometimes a line in a poem -- even an image -- is enough to push on to something of your own. Same thing with stories/novels, I guess, in that the author might go one way with the story and I get up and grab the notebook and go another way.

Scott D. Parker said...

Reading the superb "Perdido Street Station" this past spring unmoored my writing. I'm only now getting back on track. And I'm reading a non-fiction history book. Hopefully that put things back on track. I used to stop actual reading and, instead, get stories only via audio. That way, I still get stories but my time "to read" I spent writing.

Jay Stringer said...

I think Russel and I have a simmilar tactic, which is to read comics while we're knee deep in writing. They hit a different enough part of the brain that the brilliance can still inspire you without the craft level depressing you.

Best half time choaching I got at highschool was "stop overthinking it and just play the damn game." scored in the second half.

Steve Weddle said...

Scott and Jay -- Audio books and comic books. That's good thinking.

Seems the trick is to read/listen to something much different than what you're doing -- at least while you're doing it.

And, yeah, over-thinking can clog up the writing quicker than anything.

Dana King said...

"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."

Hell, man, that's like saying I should stop reading altogether.

pattinase (abbott) said...

When people say, this is the best book you'll ever read, I feel like saying, "Not now, please." After reading someone like Woodrell or Willeford, I am catatonic with fear and dread. Actually my daughter's books.

Steve Weddle said...

Dana -- Uh, yeah. Kinda how I feel.

Patti -- I have QUEENPIN on the shelf to read this summer. Maybe I'll wait a bit until I finish this draft?

Rob Kitchin said...

Steve, seriously, I've read a few of your short stories and you're in the coaching game, not being coached. Like Irene, I would like to think I'm inspired by brilliance. Sure, I ain't gonna match it, but I have no pretensions that I will either, so I don't find it paralysing. If I can pick up a few nice tips then grand, but I'm really reading for entertainment not coaching (which probably shapes how I read). I think if you have a background in English Lit or literary criticism, or you see reading as coaching, then that might affect how you read, and what you look for subconsciously or otherwise in a text. Perhaps I should start thinking of reading as a way of receiving coaching - it might improve radically my own writing - but perhaps I'm better off just being inspired and entertained!

Steve Weddle said...

Rob, Thanks for being nice. And, yeah, your own background and, um, presentground informs the reading. For example, I taught college lit and rhetoric for years. Lotta breaking down the writing going on there. That's my background. In my presentground, I want to know why something works as well as it does. And how. But I can't do that while I'm writing, otherwise, as we've hinted at here and as you say, that can creep right into the text you're working on.

With my background, I suppose I should be happy I'm not delivering a Marxist reading of a James Lee Burke novel at a conference. Reading for just the fun of it can't be beat. Er, beaten. Dang. Where'd I put them degrees?

Joelle Charbonneau said...

Great post. I find I have to read no matter what. I was a reader for most of my life and only came to writing over the last few years. So I HAVE to read....I just can't help myself.

But - that being said, I agree that I can't really read in my genre at certain times in the writing process. The middle third of the book is always the hardest for me to knock out. So, I avoid reading in the genre otherwise I always find what I am reading to be far more intersting than what I am writing and I lose writing momentum - and for me that momentum is important. Once I get to about page 200 or so I hit my stride again and I can read anything. In fact, I like reading in the genre then because I renew my feel for the quickening pace that I need for my book. I guess I agree with both BQ and you...go fig!

Steve Weddle said...

Joelle -- All about the timing of where you are in your own writing? That is pretty interesting.

Barbara Martin said...

Aptly said as I have exactly the same problem. Read a great book and the self doubts come creeping up.