Reading to Write
I’ve recently read two marvellous though very different books. Both shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, one in 2010 The Book of Emmett by Deborah Forster, and the second a current contender Bereft by Chris Womersley.
Almost all of my reading over the past three years has focused on either non-fiction research into era, settings, lifestyle, history; and/or fiction written either during or about the era of my current work-in-progress. Lately I’ve moved on to works that inform on other aspects addressed in my novel to see how authors accomplish tension, pacing and balance in their works. I feel secure in doing so now that my style, voice and story are firmly set and complete.
Bereft is Chris Womersley’s fictional account of a ww1 soldier’s post-war return to Australia. Returning to the shattering family murder and subsequent accusation he ran away from years before the war. All the old misbeliefs, biases and issues still exist as if not a day has passed, when into the man’s path steps a young, fanciful girl giving the young soldier a chance for redemption in saving her as he could not save his sister.
Womersley’s beautifully wrought prose weaves through the era and transported me to the harsh bleakness of the times.
An amazing telling. (And by that I mean showing in the best sense.)
Deborah Forster’s The Book of Emmett, set half a century later, is a grab-you-by-the-throat page turner with unrelenting tension gripping from page one until I was begging for release. If I’d not been reading as a writer to see how Forster has so brilliantly achieved this breath-taking effect, I think I’d have had to put the book aside. Just in time, the pace and setting shifted to allow me to catch my breath.
TBOE is a vivid, heartbreaking look at domestic violence in the suburbs; realistic and chilling, and made worse because you well believe it’s authenticity and can imagine it still many families truth.
I recommend both unreservedly.
My reading makes me ponder a point I’ve troubled over. During various course and workshops I’ve participated in, I’ve heard the occasional writer comment that they don’t read while they’re writing, or don’t read in the genre they’re writing. Most state that to do so might overly influence them or that they fear they might subconsciously plagiarise something in the book they’re reading.
It is an interesting point. One I’ve not worried about because, firstly, I have to read, and, secondly, during the initial drafts of my WIP, my reading tended towards non-fiction and the research needed for my novel.
I only really began to immerse myself in fiction written in or about the era once my initial story was complete. I did this deliberately more because my main character and novel has a unique voice and one I wanted nothing to influence or disturb until it was fully established. It’s the voice and accent running through my head when I’m writing. It’s the voice I’m painstakingly aware of as I redraft now in fear I’ll mess it up or risk editing it out.
Last night, as I read the final chapters of my latest novel choice, I nearly dropped the book to read of a character doing something identical to one of my characters. A common enough way of the times to try to dislodge an unwanted pregnancy, but I was so disappointed to see someone else had used it. I learned of it through an older person telling of a girlhood friend. Do I take it out because I’ve now read it in another book? No. It’s a tiny reference in my story, plus I wrote it two years before I read this book. Most importantly, it’s written in a very different way from my fellow writer’s story.
Getting back to reading. I still follow the three rules, I was taught for good writing:
“READ – READ – READ”
So fellow writers, do you read in the genre, era, area you write in? If yes, why? If no, why not? I’d love you to leave a comment and share the benefits or pitfalls as you see them.