What I Read When I Write: A Guest Post from Christi Frey
TODAY’S BREW: I have no water due to PIPE ISSUES so anything I can get OUT.
After I wrote my post on what I read when I’m writing a buddy of mine wanted to do one, too, and lo and behold, it gives me new ideas on writing. So you should read it too.
What I Read When I Write, and Why
Okay. So, I’ll try and make this the quick n dirty version (I’m a long-winded windbag some days). The little guy’s almost two now, and over the past couple years I’ve found that (surprise, surprise) kids really drop a time-bomb into your reading habits, and I’ve had to adapt a more targeted strategy: when I’m having writing problems, I want to see what other writers have done in the same situation. I’ve also started using the local library a lot. God bless libraries. I look up a book online, put in a request, walk five blocks to the library, and pick it up off the shelf. So, while I can’t read as much as I used to, I read a really wide variety of stuff – because it’s free, so if something seems even vaguely interesting, why not have a look at it?
I’ve written non-fiction semi-professionally for several years now, mostly niche magazine articles of the educational type, and have also edited a small regional magazine. I tell you this because, in the world of fiction, I’m almost barely qualified to be speaking at you – I have two novels on the go, one in the “shows some semblance to words” stage and the other, Harthorn, in the “nearly ready for an editor to tear it apart” stage.
When I write, I have an idea of the start and the end, but I pretty much pants the middle. This means I write scenes, see if they work, and yank them if they don’t. Sometimes I get stuck. After I’ve been banging my head against the wall for a while, I go looking for inspiration.
I can divide the type of inspiration I find into two categories: overall philosophical, and scene nuts-n-bolts. The philosophical bits are usually things I find by chance that happen to shed some clarity on the overall WHY of the piece. For instance, I came across this quote on Twitter the other day by Ralph Waldo Emmerson: “The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.” And I thought, man, THAT right there is the essence of Harthorn. I saved it in my manuscript inspiration file so that when I’m re-drafting I can tighten up all the parts of the story that support that theme, polish them, so to speak, really have them sing within the overall text.
Another philosophical bit I came across that I think I’ll be digesting for a while is in Robert Greene’s book MASTERY. Chapter IV talks about social intelligence – the ability to put yourself inside someone else’s head, to imagine their feelings and motivations. Granted, in the book, it’s assumed you’re reading for some type of ulterior world-domination motives (MU HA HA HA *twirls mustache* – this is, after all, the guy who wrote the 48 Laws of Power, which is also fascinating reading if you’re crafting bad guys). Ahem. Anyway, anything that helps you get in someone else’s head is a great exercise for a writer.
When I find something useful, whether it’s a few pages in a book or an article on the internet, I make a copy, annotate where it came from, and put it into my writing binder. It’s kind of like a build-your-own-writing-course binder. I highlight relevant bits or make notes for WIPs as appropriate.
The other kind of inspiration I go looking for is scene nuts-n-bolts. For instance, I was recently stuck on a scene where my MC wakes up in a strange place. I’d re-written it two or three times, and it was feeling really flat. Hello, I’ve just woken up and I’m in a strange place – oh gee, there’s a window over there. Ugh. Kill me now.
So I asked myself, what similar scenes can I recall from other books? Well, there’s Frodo waking up in Rivendell in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, one with Hannah near the end of Melina Marchetta’s Jellicoe Road, and there are at least a couple of scenes the beginning of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods where Shadow wakes up disoriented and in a strange place. After reading those scenes, I had a good triangulation on how three other writers had handled the same kind of scene, and was able to go back to my WIP with fresh eyes. And I decided that I needed to write another character into the scene if I was going to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish, as all three of the other writers had done.
Obviously, we’re not talking about plagiarism here. PLAGIARISM = BAD. I’d never advise taking another’s writing, changing some words here and there, and passing it off as your own. People who do that deserve to be eternally tortured by Vogons.
But all the best teachers say the way to learn to WRITE fiction is to READ fiction. And what I’ve found is, for me, going back to re-read a scene in a novel I’ve already read is more efficient than diving into a whole new novel – because I tend to lose myself in the story really quickly, and completely forget to dissect the writing.
So now that I’ve babbled long enough, here’s a short list of a few other books I’ve read lately that might be useful to writers:
- The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley – this book’s a little grimdark for my normal reading habits, but wow, the gender-role-swapping that she does with some of her characters (because that’s what’s normal in their society) is amazing. I’d recommend it for that reason alone. Really well thought out, deliberate character building. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice is on my radar for the same reason but I haven’t read it yet.
- The Horse and His Boy by CS Lewis. Yep, I’ve read this one before. Many times, in fact. But Lewis’ narrator’s voice is just so darn personable. I wanted that quality of being able to explain things to the reader, without being patronizing. It also helped me determine that I wanted to write Harthorn in third person, since I wanted an old-fashioned feel to the story (rather than contemporary YA, which is mostly told in first person).
- WHY Did I Do That? Psychological Defence Mechanisms and the Hidden Ways they Shape our Lives, by Joseph Burgo, PhD. Interesting insights into motivations for less-than-heroic actions. I tend to turn to stuff like this when I need a character to go off the rails in a realistic way – to figure out why someone would be ashamed or scared or angry in certain situations.
- The Isles of Many Gods: An A to Z of the Pagan Gods & Goddesses worshipped in Ancient Britain during the First Millenium CE through to the Middle Ages by David Rakine & Sorita D’Este. Basic background research for Harthorn. I didn’t want to follow Celtic mythology exactly, but wanted sort of a similar flavor in how the non-human characters flow from the natural world.
- Vanity Fair’s How a Book is Born: The Making of the Art of Fielding by Keith Gessen – Some people may not find this worth reading, depending on your tastes and aspirations, and I totally get that, but it’s my favourite “how I got published” tale. I love reading about other people’s success stories, even if I ultimately end up taking a different path to publication. A girl can dream, right?
Find Christi on Twitter @ChristiFreyCA or follow her blog at http://www.christifrey.ca
The first three chapters of Harthorn can be read here: http://www.harthornstory.com
If you’re interested in reading more Harthorn, please sign up to be a beta reader!