Writing a Book? Here’s Why Your Reading Habits Will Make or Break Your Writing

Confession time:

I’ve been pretty discouraged the past few weeks.

It all started when I read Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. This book wasn’t the source of my discouragement — it actually blew my mind. (But seriously. If you’re a writer, then I recommend you treat this book with unprecedented levels of urgency. Move it to the top of your reading list, find the ebook on Amazon, and then click ‘add to cart’ like it’s the ‘submit assignment’ button and you’re a college student on a last-minute deadline.)

All the other writing books I’d ever read couldn’t hold a candle to Story Engineering’s roaring flame of genius. The book talks about the necessity of understanding story structure — and what happens when writers ignore it. I was thunderstruck by Brooks’ “Tale of Two Writers” analogy, where he describes a writer who understands story structure… and compares her to one who doesn’t. As I read, I realized something: I was the writer without understanding. The writer who, after the first 200 pages of her book, “faces one of two challenges—she realizes that her story is broken and that she needs to start over, or at least revamp it; or she does not realize the sad state of things and presses onward with a story that is already doomed.” (Brooks, Larry. Story Engineering (p. 18). F+W Media. Kindle Edition.)

I knew, at my very core, that this was me. I was around 200 pages into my book, and I was no longer enjoying it. I felt swamped in work, and nothing made sense anymore.

I reread the page over and over. She presses onward with a story that is already doomed…

“I won’t let that happen,” I resolved. Instead, I decided to fix things.

I took tons of notes on story structure. I made enough flashcards to paper a wall. I enjoyed doing it — but a part of me was driven by obligation. Obviously I’m going to be a writer, I thought. So I have to make sure I don’t make these mistakes again.

I spent a week re-outlining my book. A little excessive? Absolutely. But this compulsive overthinker would have it no other way.

Despite my determination, I kept spotting problems. I had no real storyline, just a bunch of scenes and subplots pointing in different directions. Just like my flashcard process, I had approached my writing with a joy that quickly evaporated once I let my inner critic take over. You have to be impressive, it said. Add more action. Add more villainy. You don’t have enough original ideas in here.

By holding myself to unachievable standards, I had robbed myself of the joy of writing.

Should I even be a writer in the first place? I wondered. I seemed to ruin every project I touched — all because of that darned overthinking.

And I was fed up with myself. I was done overthinking. So I did what I should have done in the first place: I prayed. I lifted up my efforts to God. I asked for a sign to show me whether or not I should continue writing, and whether my actions were even worthwhile.

After that, I tried to be still. To listen. Because when I’m rushing around checking boxes off my to-do list, I often don’t hear what God is whispering.

A few days later, I went to the Frisco Public Library with my boyfriend. While I dropped off my books, JonMichael wandered over to the computers. When I rejoined him, he was pulling up Muse of Shadows, Laini Taylor’s newest release. “I can’t wait for this!” He said, with a smile of childlike enthusiasm. “They’re having it shipped now — and there’s no other holds on it!

I beamed with joy. Muse of Shadows was the sequel to Strange the Dreamer, one of my all-time favorite books. I will never stop hyping Laini Taylor’s work, and I long for the day when she’s famous enough that autocorrect stops changing her name to Latino Taylor.

Months ago, I’d introduced JonMichael to Strange the Dreamer. He devoured it. I still remember discussing the plot with him at Rosa’s Tortilla Factory while plastic flamingos swayed above our heads.

As JonMichael hovered above the computer, eagerly reserving the sequel, I thought about how I’d led him to this treasure — and I couldn’t help but feel a little complicit in his joy.

I love getting people hyped for books. And I think this is why:

You’ve probably heard the theory that avid readers become writers. I think it’s true. Writers are people who share their voices with the world — and the way we shape our voices, and become motivated to share them, is by hearing the voices of others.

Don’t misinterpret the idea, though: I’m not saying that all avid readers become big-shot authors. Not everyone has to be one of those. (As they say in the comedy world… what’s the difference between a writer and a pizza? A pizza can feed a family of four. Ba-dum-chh!) If you publish an article in a newspaper, you’re a writer. If you send a letter to a friend, you’re a writer. If you write a journal entry that no one else sees, you’re a writer. And in my experience, you don’t do any of that stuff without words oiling the gears in your brain. At least for me, I know that without books, I wouldn’t be motivated to write anything besides the obligatory English paper.

By recommending a good book to someone, especially someone who isn’t a natural reader, you’re equipping them to one day tell their own stories. The ‘circle of life’, as they say.

Of course, some people who love books never become interested in writing — they simply enjoy good books the way they enjoy good movies; they leave the theater with zero desire to pick up a camera and film their own. But they still benefit. In the eyes of books, all men are created equal: they’ll give you their magic whether you’re a writer or not.

And that’s what I love. Finding good books, recommending them to others, and watching the passion for reading spread like a wildfire.

The last ‘whisper’ from God came to me at the John and Judy Gay Library in McKinney, and it’s what inspired this blog post. Around four hours ago, I walked up to the library, stood there with my nose inches from the sluggish sensor doors, and waited until they finally opened. (This happens every time. It is now part of my routine.) On my way in, I noticed the “free books” shelf across the room. Catching a familiar book title on the shelf, I came to a cartoon-worthy halt and breezed on over. Two books from the Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children series were there, along with Champion by Marie Lu.

I nabbed all three. (My version of ‘swipe right’ is swiping an armload of good-looking books off a bookshelf.)

And then I spotted another one. American Heritage, published 1972. Normally, I’d never pick up a book like that. But for some reason, the title sparked my curiosity.

When I opened the book, it came open to a picture of a gentle-looking frontierswoman with a tight bonnet and a book in her hands. Above her were the words “A Mere Woman”, followed by a heading on the opposite page: “A shy Yankee named Hannah Adams never thought of herself as liberated, but she was our first professional female writer.”

Deeply intrigued, I kept reading. After some fact-checking, I can tell you that Hannah Adams — distant cousin of John Adams — is cited as the first American woman to become a professional writer (http://www.womenhistoryblog.com/2011/05/hannah-adams.html, “Hannah Adams | History of American Women”). Other women published works before her, such as Anne Bradstreet (the first published American woman, who released poems throughout her life in 1612-1672), though Hannah Adams was the first to make a living off her writing, which is what earned her the distinction of first female professional writer.

Hannah was born in Massachusetts in 1755, and she lived to seventy-six years old, dying in 1831.

Her passion for writing started with books. As a child, she was too frail to play games with the other kids, so she spent time in her father’s library instead. Her dad, Thomas Adams, was known as “Books” among his friends, due to a love of reading that most likely inspired Hannah’s. “Libraries were Hannah Adam’s real home,” the article cites.

But she was no J.K. Rowling: fantasy writing wasn’t her forte. In fact, she once considered opening up her own library, until she realized that she’d probably need a lot of romance and adventure novels to get it started. She was scared that these ‘extracurricular’ books would distract people from religion, so she decided to abandon the idea.

This Puritan attitude is also what inspired her first book. She believed that the Christians of her time were highly opinionated, so she set out to write a dictionary of religious denominations that was unclouded by pretentious attitudes. This is the title of her first book, I kid you not:

An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects Which Have Appeared in the world from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Present Day with an Appendix Containing a Brief Account of the Different Schemes of Religion Now Embraced among Mankind, the Whole Collected from the Best Authors, Ancient and Modern.

I’d kill to attend that book signing.

(Her second book, in contrast, held the simple title “A Summary of the History of New England”. I’m guessing that she got tired of her friends asking her, “Hey, what’s the title of your book?” and having to recite a paragraph-long answer.)

Hannah may have been the first female to make a living off her books, but that living was by no means affluent. She was repeatedly cheated out of money. One printer (in the present day, we call them “publishers”) signed a fraudulent contract, giving him all the proceeds from An Alphabetical Compendium, while Hannah received only fifty copies of the book to sell at her own expense. A pair of clergymen published a “school edition” of her compendium, then narrowly escaped a court case by the Boston board attempting to convict them for copyright.

Despite these challenges, Hannah still spent most of her life reading and writing. She was always elbow-deep in research for her books, poring over dozens of old manuscripts daily, until her vision got so bad she could no longer read them. A doctor advised her to wash her eyes in a solution of laudanum and saltwater — and miraculously, the prescription worked, and she was able to continue her writing.

Sitting there in the McKinney library, two centuries after Hannah’s death, I became invigorated by Hannah’s lifelong passion for books. What were the chances that I’d find this article right when I needed it?

In the margins, I wrote: I’m convinced that libraries are the great incubators of writers.

Because without books, what’s the point of writing?

After finding this article, I realized that the essence of my recent challenge has been relocating my passion for writing — and figuring out how it came to a grinding halt in the first place. And my experiences at the Frisco library, and the one at the McKinney library shortly afterwards, solved the mystery.

I used to tell people that my biggest dream was having a shelf full of books I’d written. I loved reading books, too — I just never considered them part of the dream, because I forgot how necessary they were.

Now, my dream has changed. I don’t want to base my dream upon securing a profession: I’ve tried it, and my brain just isn’t about that life. I want to build it on the things I love. I don’t just want shelves full of my own books. I want shelves full of my favorite books, the books that fueled my imagination and made me want to be a writer in the first place. I want those books to be dog-eared and coffee-stained and well-loved from dozens of re-readings, with notes in the margins of the pages I loved.

Now, if you’ll excuse me: I’ve got a lot of reading to do. 😉

SOURCES:

http://www.womenhistoryblog.com/2011/05/hannah-adams.html, “Hannah Adams | History of American Women”

Gene Gleason, American Heritage Magazine, American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc., 1972, “A Mere Woman”

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