A while back, I stopped reading fiction after I asked my mother to read a chapter from my novel and she said: “Oh! It’s lovely! But it sounds just like Annie Proulx.”
I cringed. She was right. It was a good lesson because it forced me to edit my own work with a steak knife instead of with a plastic spoon. And, I decided right then, as I ripped it apart, that I would stop reading novels for a while.
That “while” lasted ten years. My first jump back was The Secret Life of Bees, and I sat in my bed all weekend and ate things like banana chips, my favorite reading food. My family ate food they pieced together and stared at me from the bedroom door, but they allowed me this time in my comforter cave.
Then I stopped reading novels again.
Today I’m back reading some novels, and frankly, I’m glad I took that time away. In my early years of writing fiction, there was a gap between story in head and story on paper. I didn’t yet have a voice. It shifted as I grew, then one day, Jasmine jumped onto the page and just like that, I had my voice. It has since been tweaked and made more, shall we say, mainstream-y, with my own twang.
During my hiatus I continued to buy novels and give novels as gifts and support authors in my own quiet way, hoping karma noticed. While I wrote, I sensed a freedom with my fiction and was alone with my words for the first time. I began to lean upon the simple story arc, initially taught to me by my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Brown. The more I wrote, the more I became a real writer: I thought about how I was crafting a scene while I was writing. I seemed to have two minds at work: the writer and the crafter. (Notice I didn’t say “editor.”) True, I haven’t published that first novel yet, but believe you me, I will.
And so will you. If you’ve been rejected, use the rejection as motivation. More on this handy tool in an upcoming post.
The best advice to new writers: Follow your gut. If you find that you learn from other writers and love reading novels, certainly don’t change up your recipe. But if you feel intimidated while reading published authors, and you begin to feel lousy about your unpublished self (like I did), then maybe take a break and read something else. But overall, read something that’s good for your brain. Always have reading material nearby. I started reading cookbooks during my hiatus. Lots of magazines and nonfiction books (In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick, ah-mah-zing; to laugh out loud hysterically read Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country). I always read The New Yorker every week, and I remember loving 1776. Read high-level stuff in between People and US and you’ll be fine.
Get a Sharpie and jot this three-word phrase on a piece of paper and tape it to the wall in your writing area: Story is King.
More on that next week.