Monthly Archives: December 2010

What to Read When You’re Writing

Here’s a question from a reader:

When you’re writing a novel, how do you know whether to read other books that are in the same genre as or otherwise similar to what you’re working on? They say that the best way to learn how to write is to read a lot, but at a certain point does reading actually put a crimp in your writing (because you are too conscious of what else is out there)?

My reader is working on a novel that she says “would probably be classified as post-apocalyptic fantasy (probably young adult, because the main character is a teenager).”

So here’s my experience with reading historical fiction while working on historical fiction:

Reading a limited amount of literary historical fiction has helped me figure out what kind of historical fiction I want to write and what approach I want to take to history. But I did read one book that I wish I hadn’t read (but not really, because it was a good book). It has enough similarities to what I’m writing that having read it makes me nervous. Will I accidentally steal the author’s ideas? Will people think I stole the author’s ideas?

On the other hand, I’m really glad I read “The Known World” in the earlier stages of writing my novel. It’s exactly the kind of historical fiction I want to write, a book whose characters and concerns could easily be transported to the present day but are also totally believable in the time and place of the novel.  (“Away,” by Amy Bloom, is that sort of novel, too.) But I never worry about stealing the author’s ideas, maybe because the details of the story are so different from mine. What I do worry about is, Am I being as honest as Edward P. Jones? — and that’s a good worry to have.

If you feel strongly about not reading stuff in the genre-you-think-you-might-be-writing, hold off till you feel like you want some inspiration. Then choose books you probably would have wanted to read anyway. When you finally get to the stage where you’re trying to sell your novel, you’ll do good to know what’s out there that’s similar to your book (so you can argue that yes, people want to read this stuff) and what publishers are generally looking for in your genre. But at this stage, I think you’re right to worry more about the actual writing of your story than about knowing the field.

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I’m no evil genius

Plotting doesn’t come to me naturally. I think it does for some writers (or so I hear). From the very beginning of drafting a story or novel, they know exactly what’s going to happen. They connect the dots, and voila! (I know it’s not that easy, but please just grant me for a moment my naïveté about other people’s writing processes.)

It hasn’t been that way for me. At the start, I knew that a particular historical event and historical figure (fictionalized) would be central to my novel. So that gave me setting – historical, geographical and vocational. I had several characters in mind, and I knew generally at what times in their lives the story would happen. I also knew a lot about my themes, although my understanding of them and of my characters has matured along with the novel.

But plot. Huh. I knew I sort of needed one, even if the novel wasn’t going to be plot-driven. At least a road-map for readers, a little momentum to keep them going.

I’ve recently written here about a scene that has finally come together. The scene centers on the disappearance of one of my characters. At first, she simply disappeared into thin air. Really. That’s what happened. No one knew where she was, most especially me. She never came back.

For a long time, I justified that plot point to myself: In my book, in my world, anything can happen. A character can just vanish into thin air. For no reason.

But as I’ve rewritten and revised other parts of the book, things slowly fell into place. Now her disappearance is explained and fits into an actual plot. (Not totally explained. As of now, readers don’t see the character’s disappearance from her point of view, and so there are still questions about what happened.)

I imagine that when I’m writing my next novel, plotting will be somewhat easier for me. But I’m also coming to terms with the fact that I’m not a linear writer. It’s sort of like – Lego building. Grown-ups and older children generally decide what to build and then start at the bottom, adding a brick or layer of bricks on top, and so on, and so on. But I’ve noticed that my toddler adds bricks underneath, to the side, all around. His structures end up being more organic and less building-y than the ones I build.

In writing, I think, I’ve kept my toddlerness. I move things around, add layers here there and wherever, and slowly the whole picture is coming into view.

I’m not saying this approach is better or harder or more rewarding than writing to the plot, or that it could result in a better novel. It’s just my way.

What are you plotting these days?

Break Down the Wall

I’ve mentioned before a technique for breaking through writer’s block (or writer’s uncertainty about how to move forward in a scene): shaking things up by making your character do something other than what you thought they were doing.

I love this technique. It’s a reminder of the control we have over our fictional worlds, and a reminder to try different things, be creative, shake up the status quo. Just because you invented the status quo doesn’t mean it should stand. You might decide you liked the scene as it was, but it never hurts to play around.

I was introduced to the technique by a writing teacher of mine. I think I may be making some of this up, but I believe he said that one of his students had written a story in which a character is confronted by a wall. The character turns around. The end.

The teacher suggested that the writer have the character do something else, just to see how that might change the story. The student pushed back. The character couldn’t do anything else. There was a wall in his way.

Hoo boy. I’m sure you can think of other ways to go. If you’re game, don’t read any further. Now, jot down a list of stuff you think the character could do.

Wasn’t that fun? In case you were stumped, here are some things I think the character could do instead of just turning heel:

1) Climb over the wall

2) Go around the wall

3) Try to go around the wall and fail

4) Break through the wall

5) Try to break through the wall and fail

6) Think about doing 1-5, then change his or her mind and turn around after all

7) Turn around, change his or her mind, and then do any of 1-5

See? Writer’s block, get out of our way!