How I Write Novels
What to Read (and Not Read) when You’re Writing Your Novel
When I have an idea for a book, other books, that tell a story in a similar way to what I’m envisioning for my own, come to mind. Maybe it’s a voice I want to emulate. Maybe I want to study how time moves in another book. To someone else, the books in this category might not look as though they share kinship with the book I’m scheming up — but there’s always something elemental in them that help me understand what I’m working on — like this brilliant memoir by Claire Dederer, that really changed my understanding of how Saskia, the narrator of my psychological thriller, Fierce Little Thing, could think and speak.
Then there are the books I have to read for research. These are usually nonfiction books, and inform me about some aspects of my own book that I simply don’t know enough about yet — above, you’ll see few that helped me immensely with thinking about my characters and the landscape of Fierce Little Thing.
The third (and arguably most dangerous) category is: books that I have to avoid. This is where things get tricky, because when I have an idea for a novel, other novels that deal with similar topics come right to mind. I almost always make a very excited list right away…
And then? I almost always realize I’ll have to avoid reading these other novels until I’ve finished writing my own.
Why? Not because I think those books wouldn’t be a good read. Just the opposite! Because if I read them when I’m in the process of world building, I run the risk that those other stories and other characters will move into the space in my mind where the world I’m imagining should be growing by itself.
Want an example? When I was writing my psychological thriller Fierce Little Thing, set at a cult, I avoided reading any other novels that were set at cults. I knew that as soon as those other cults in those other books felt alive to me, I wouldn’t be able to tell the story I needed to tell.
After Fierce Little Thing was written, I read them all.
What are your habits around reading when you are working on a project? Are there certain kinds of reading material you avoid too?