Reading while you’re writing

When I first started writing, I noticed that whatever novel I was reading had a heavy influence on my own writing. I seemed to imitate the style of the author in my own prose which was a tad frustrating when I read my work back and noticed it – and then had to correct for it. I particularly remember reading ‘The Forgotten Waltz’ by Anne Enright, the narrator of the story has a really strong voice, and I began to write in a similar writing voice in a couple of chapters of my first novel (the practice novel).

So I came to the conclusion that I had to avoid reading fiction when I was writing my own novels, actually whenever I was writing anything because it seemed to affect even short bits of writing as well, and I decided to only read non-fiction books instead e.g. on aspects of the craft of writing. Bizarrely, when I made that decision, I did most of my fiction reading during periods of writer’s block, like cramming the goodies in when my own writing was driving me demented.

Over the last couple of months, I started reading novels and short story collections again, despite writing on the same days, and, low and behold, I’ve just realised, my writing has not being affected by what I’m reading, which is such a relief after two and bit years of worrying about it. I wonder if the initial problem was because I was only starting out and absorbing different author styles as I learnt, or perhaps it’s because through all the writing I’ve done over the last two years, my own writing style has settled down and I’m naturally moving into it – after writing 4×80,000 drafts, numerous short stories, pads of pads of notes, pads of writing at writing workshops and writing group meetings – it all must have helped cement my own writing voice.

Whatever the reason, it’s a welcome shift and a relief. I can read without being affected!

So finally, at long last, my reading has the desired effect. It stimulates my learning of the craft of novel writing and helps me generate ideas for short stories and other novels, adding to but without infecting my own style.

At last.

Characters made real

Getting sick and forced to stay in bed does have its advantages; I got to start reading books I have stacked in a pile of ‘must reads’. In fairness, the ‘must read’ pile has been growing for ages; it takes up a whole shelf in my study so it’s about time I made a dent in it.

I picked a collection of short stories called ‘Friend of my youth’ by Alice Munro. A member of my writing group mentioned that he found that she tended to span many years in her stories. I hesitated after the comment but was curious all the same and now I understand why she is such a phenomenal short story writer. Wow, the ease with which she weaves her characters lives, from present to past, is flawless, detailed, intricate. A comment by the Daily Telegraph on the back of the book says

‘The particular brilliance of Alice Munro is that in range and depth her short stories are almost novels’

and that’s exactly it. After each story you feel that you have read an entire novel and been with these characters forever. They are so real, unique and well defined along with the settings that I feel that I am with them, in Canada or Scotland, in whatever location, Alice Munro has set the short story.

Even the descriptions do not feel intrusive, they pull you in, make you privy to a range of secrets about these people, and the choices they make in their relationships to themselves, their partners, and the other people in the narrative. At the heart of each story is someone, sometimes more than one, coming to a stronger position of realisation of their situation, indeed their own future. In the story ‘Pictures of the ice’ even with the weaving of the stories of two main characters both is moving to a new decision that takes their life to a better (their choice) place.

Overall, the stories show people choosing how they live and the choices that have gone on before. These are not stock characters, they are living breathing individuals.

I fully believe Alice Munro knew her characters intimately as she wrote about them and this book is a master class in character development and the integration of ‘telling detail’ through a story that never holds up the plot. That’s what I want to achieve in my characters.