Push and Pull

booksI’ve been reading a lot lately, which means I haven’t been writing a lot lately. In theory, it seems like it’s a good idea to read a lot in hopes of improving my writing – but for me, it hasn’t worked out that way so much, at least not in the short run.

Part of it, of course, is just time. If I’m reading a 400+ page novel, I’m not spending a bunch of hours writing. Duh.

But it’s more than that, I think. I get cramped up reading something that’s really, really good (like anything by Haven Kimmel) and then the self-doubt kicks in more and more and Ms. Internal Editor stands on my computer monitor shouting ‘it’s no good!’ to every word, every sentence I write. And so I do something else instead – go back to reading my novel, or baking, or even, God forbid, cleaning a bathroom. (Okay, not that so much.)

I’ve also read a bunch of stuff that feels so-so and I’m being far more critical of it than I used to be, Ms. Editor pulling out her virtual red pen and marking where it could be shortened, expanded, dumped. So I’m not even enjoying someone else’s breath-taking (or not) writing – I’m just using it as a backdrop to compare it to my own pitiful efforts. And this feels destructive in a number of ways.

Here’s a brief run-down on what I’ve read – or tried to read – in the last month.

The Solace of Leaving Early by Haven Kimmel. Kimmel started out as a poet and that comes across loud and clear in her writing. Her characters, word choices, the events of the novel are luminous, dreamlike, beautiful. I’m only sorry I got it from the library instead of owning it because just opening it to any random page and reading is a sumptuous pleasure that I’d like to enjoy every so often. Very descriptive, evocative, and lots of internal monologue stuff. It moves along at its own pace, which is often quite slow. Not necessarily for everyone, but definitely for me.

Something Rising (Light and Swift) by Haven Kimmel. It’s the second book of a loose trilogy (along with Solace) that takes place in small-town Indiana. Though probably small town anywhere, it has a real southern Gothic feel to me –I can see it happening a lot more easily in North Carolina than in upstate New York (where I did grow up in a distressingly small town – population around 600 and falling…) The book is filled with characters who have spent way too much time being poor, way too much time sinking under the weight of life, living in the kind of town where when we drive through them now I still shudder and feel claustrophobia grab my throat and run away with it.

Cassie, the main character of Something Rising, is seemingly unflappable as she takes care of her unbelievably needy family and friends by hustling pool. Then someone cuts her off in traffic. With breathtakingly few words and a short scene, Kimmel shows us that Cassie’s frustrations are there, alive and well and ready to show up at an inopportune moment. Great, great example of ‘show, don’t tell.’

The Used World is the third book in Kimmel’s Indiana trilogy. It’s sitting on my desk, but I think it’s going to head back to the library unread right now. I might get more out of it when I’ve taken a Kimmel breather. And I need to start writing again.

I read The Opposite of Love by Julie Buxbaum somewhere in among the Kimmel books. It’s okay, but nothing special. It felt too yuppie to me, but that might be because I was immersed in Kimmel’s characters and my own characters, and I felt like a stranger in a strange land reading the Buxbaum book. I didn’t really care about the characters, but maybe it was just a matter of when I read it.

Something, anything, by Nicholas Sparks. I tried, I really tried. I opened a bunch of his books to random pages to see if something would grab me. The writing was so clunky that I simply couldn’t put the books down fast enough. I understand he is all about story, but writing that clumsy would just get in my way of enjoying the story. As a side note, Sparks spoke at my local university a couple of weeks ago. I wanted to go because I was curious to hear him, but the event was sold out days before he spoke. Apparently most people are able to read his books.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Another debut novel, hanging around at the top of the best-seller list forever now. The Help is set in Jackson, MS in 1962, when a privileged young white woman determined to become a writer decides to tell the stories of black maids who work in the homes of privileged young white women. Given the time and place, it’s hard to believe that these maids would actually put their lives and livelihoods in jeopardy by telling a white woman what working for white families is really like. Each of the three main characters (the white writer and two black maids) tells her story in first-person POV, which I found an interesting approach but a little disconcerting, especially the dialect that one of the maids uses. I thought the characters were all pretty much caricatures. Still, I stayed up until 1 AM last night to finish it.

That’s it. As you can see, today’s post is yet another endeavor to keep me away from my own little world with Libby, Reed, Earl, Becca and the rest of them, but at least it has my fingers moving across the keyboard and if Ms. Inner Editor is screaming at me, I’m turning down the volume a bit. (Yes, I realize that I’ve mixed tenses a fair amount in this post. And I’m not gonna fix it.)

I’m feeling like my NaNo novel, and Libby and Reed in particular, are on another train going somewhere else, and I want to get back on the same track. Do I have to put a moratorium on reading for a while to do that?

I don’t want to write in a vacuum, but it almost feels like reading is putting a damper on my writing. Part of it is the time, and part of it is – what?

How do you handle the pull of reading with the push of writing?

10 comments to Push and Pull

  • As for me, I love a great book, but I have picked up and never finished more books than I will ever be able to count (or finish)! I really have tried to get in to some books, but when I do, I find them annoying or difficult to read, or just plain dull, and I don’t finish. I say to myself, “Is this really worth my time when I could just go in the other room and grab a Jane Austen or something?” As a general rule, I am very bad about finishing things I don’t like (that goes beyond books).

    But as for the writing/revising, I have decided at this point to fully abandon the notion that The Bended Tree will ever be published. And I am not saying that like, “whoa is me, I suck.” I am saying it because if I focus even a little on the publication part, I will feel eternally frustrated with it and constantly compare it to every other piece of writing (and therefore, feel totally sub-par as a writer). So I am revising it as an exercise for me. If I end up loving it, we’ll take it from there.

    I’d love your feedback on what I just said about this, too! 🙂

    • Nancy

      I think your attitude is EXTREMELY healthy and positive — and definitely one worth following! I think looking at the revision process for our first NaNo novels (first novels, period!) as a worthwhile learning experience/exercise in and of itself is a very good idea.

      • That being said, I desperately desire to be published!! I’m just trying to take it all one step at a time, which is a new thing for me…totally not natural!

        • Nancy

          But I think it’s realistic. Yeah, we hear about people who sit down one day and a year later they, never before published, have a NYT best-seller on their hands. And a movie contract.

          I’m gonna do another post in a couple of minutes, so read that…..

  • Oh I feel the tug and shove! I’ve had the opposite problem. Lately I’ve devoted so much time to writing, editing, and researching that I haven’t had much time for reading again.

    Why is it such a hard balance to strike. When I write, I mourn my time with pages of others. When I read, I feel as if I’ve abandoned my own writing. Maybe we should establish some type of schedule. Oh there I go again with my organization stuff.

    I still stand by my belief that there is a lot to be learned from reading the books of successful authors. As long as you remember that it is not the voice you are trying to mimick, but the skill of the composition. It’s all about attitude – you have to have alittle, but not so much that it makes turns you into a diehard critic.

    • Nancy

      As usual, good points, DS. I think there’s stuff to be learned from reading not-so-successful authors as well.

      I know I’m not too good with the balance issue. My writing quantity has really slid in the past month while I’m wolfing down other people’s writing. But it can’t, ultimately be a bad thing. I hope.

      • I don’t think it is a bad thing at all.

        I was speaking/typing to another author just yesterday about how she has stepped away from writing while she learns more about the craft. She is, as you say, wolfing down everything she can get her hands on.

        I asked her if she was afraid that it would be difficult to return to writing. She was fairly firm in her belief that what she is doing is making her a better writer in the long run and will ultimately help her approach writing with a stronger skillset. She looks forward to one day applying everything she has learned.

        She had a finished MS/draft waiting to reap the benefits of her new knowledge.

        So I say – Do what works for you!

        • Nancy

          Absolutely. And do invite this person to join our little discussion group! I’d love to learn how this is working out for her.

  • I enjoyed The Opposite of Love but I got hooked by the letter in the beginning of the book. I’m a sucker like that.
    I remember reading this piece in one of Nicolas Sparks books where he went on and on about last names and color. I don’t remember the exact words but it was something like. “Why do you see Brown and Green as last names but you never see someone with the last name of red or orange.” It was reeally pointless and stupid. I remember staring at the page and thinking–why? LOL!

    • Nancy

      I enjoyed Opposite of Love, I just didn’t get blown away by it the way I was getting blown away by other books I was reading at the time. Who knows? May be like that color test, where I got different results a week apart.

      Maybe Sparks had a word count he had to hit in order for the book to be considered done, so he just threw stuff like that in for the count…

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