Monday, October 02, 2006

Surprise and Delight Me

by Nancy Martin

Working Stiffs is a blog about day jobs. Sure, we're all mystery writers, but some of us must pay the bills and/or get our healthcare coverage from work that--what's the best euphemism here?--takes place more than 3 feet from the keyboard.

But me--well, writing is my full-time job, and have been for over 25 years. Which means I've applied a lot of what Elizabeth George calls bum glue. I have placed my bottom into a chair and kept it there until I have written pages. Can't get started?-I haven't collected enough ideas. Writer's block?--Chances are I haven't thought through to the end of my plot. Daydreaming about bestseller lists?--That's a primo way to stymie my muse. But focusing on entertaining my reader, playing the "what if?" game, grinding hard work, lousy first drafts, obsessive re-writing and lots of bum glue.--That's how to write a book.

Well, that and about 600 other things. I only know about 300. I've still got a lot to learn.

So when I'm not writing, I'm probably reading.

Like every successful writer I know, I read anything and everything. (There's a squabble taking place on a popular listserve these days in which a lot of writers claim not to see the difference between chick lit and literary novels. They're. Just. Not. Reading. Enough.) A wide variety of reading material is crucial to my way of working. I read mainstream, yes, but the weirder the better, too. Genre stuff?--I eat it for breakfast. There's no other way to stay in the game. Plus I consume at least 4 magazines a week (my latest find was Bust, but I also bought Bitch and I'm a big, big fan of Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and--okay, guilty pleasure--Vogue) and 2 newspapers a day. Not to mention websites and blogs, a daily search of which canbecome major procrastination if I let it.

My personal goal is to read a book a week--2 if possible. This week: Charlaine Harris's GRAVE SIGHT. Charlaine is always full of surprises and delights--my personal definition of entertaining. I'm also reading the new Carla Neggers suspense novel, THE WIDOW, in which Carla avoids the dreaded prologue with a device I found truly innovative. I'm also savoring some Alice Munro short stories.

Reading is still the best way for me to find inspiration. And language that stimulates the wordsmith in me, too. As well as an answer to the inevitable question: "Where do you get your ideas?"

Take Bust. In the issue I bought, there's a throwaway piece about a group of women in Houston who knit. Except they dart around deserted streets at night to "tag" things the way graffiti artists do. In other words, they pin little knitted hats on trees, buildings and fire hydrants. "We felt knitting needed to evolve into something more edgy and streetwise," one knitter explained. They, "...mix hip-hop street art with warm, fuzzy grandma craftivism." Edgy, huh? Well, whatever, but this is definitely something I can use in a book.

Does all this reading make me smarter? Uh, no. I tend to remember only the quirky stuff I can use in my own work. My brain is full of completely useless--and often inaccurate--trivia.

For a writer like me, it's just not possible to read everything that's reviewed in the NYTimes Book Review, but it's a good goal to at least familiarize myself with all those books every week. Plus what's on the bestseller lists, what books PW stars, what titles booksellers are buzzing about. (A savvy bookseller can save a writer like me a hell of a lot of time.) Genre-related magazines and bookstore newsletters are also a huge help to a writer--one trying to stay on top of the biz, that is. If you are in the coffee business, you keep current on whatever coffee innovations are happrning, right? And what coffee sells best? Which coffees are failures? What coffee shops are trying new things? Setting trends? Building on the past? Breaking out of the pack of competitors? And I bet you drink enough coffee to float the proverbial battleship.

I must admit I read a lot of first 10 or 25 or 50 pages. If the book doesn't have something new in the first act, I often toss it aside. (No, that doesn't make the book count in my book-a-week rule. But reading the opening pages of a bad book can remind me of what I don't want to do in my own writing--which can be equally valuable.) An author must surprise and delight me. A writer who's fresh, or has new ideas, a unique technique for telling a story, a bright voice, a clever way with words or maybe blends genres in a way nobody else is doing--those are the books I read until the end. They hold my interest. They entertain me.

I have a writer friend who only reads one book by each author friend she has. It's a good policy, because a writer with prolific friends can spend every waking minute trying to keep up. But reading your friends is a part of the biz, too.

Yes, I'm a professional writer. I started out as a rabid reader, though, eager to be surprised and delighted by every page I turn. To the outside eye, I might look like a lady curled up on the sofa reading a trendy magazine. But that's a big part of a writer's life.

What are you reading these days? Anything good?


Tory Butterworth said...

My big excitement these days is that, with the new job, I actually have bus rides to and from work to read fiction. Not a book a week, though. That takes some doing!

And, of course, I get to read lots of the deadly non-fiction at work. My favorite sentence of the week? "Respecting Choices is a comprehensive advance care planning program that advocates professional training, consumer education and organizational systems." I guess you need to advocate organization systems, because otherwise you might end up with systemless organizations!

Judith said...

My reading tends to veer to pop culture a lot lately. I love Wired Magazine and MORE, along with Scientific American and Newsweek. Real life seems to be stranger than fiction these days.

And I confess to one terrible reader sin. I always read the end of the book before the beginning. It's a guilty pleasure being able to see how the writer plots the story.

Anonymous said...

Oh. Of course I also read Pittsburgh Magazine. :)

Joyce said...

It's amazing that we get any writing done with everything else we have to do to keep on top of things!

Right now, I'm reading Faithless by Karin Slaughter. It's very good. I'm especially impressed with how accurately her detectives are portrayed. Not a cliche among them. Her police procedures are correct, too. If a writer messes those things up, I usually throw the book against the wall!

I've found that reading as much as possible recharges me and makes me a better writer. When the well goes dry, I pick up a book and read.

On the down side, it's hard for me to just read for pleasure. I have to analyze everything and pick it apart. Why did the author do this? Or, why does this character have a POV? Stuff like that. I even make notes on placement of clues, etc. Anyone else do that?

Rebecca Drake said...

Ooh, I like being introduced to new mags. Never heard of Bust, I'll have to look for it.

Wired is so fun! Even if I don't understand the more techie articles, I can always drool over the latest gadgets.

I just finished Red Leaves by Thomas Cook and am about to finish End in Tears, the latest Wexford novel by Ruth Rendell. Also reading Rusty Nail the latest Jack Daniels book by JA Konrath and I'm one behind in the Lee Child Reacher series, having just finished One Shot.

I love to read the NYT Sunday Magazine, plus the entire Sunday paper has enough fodder to keep me in ideas forever...

Nancy said...

Tory, I think you win the prize for the most challenging reading!

Judith, my sister just sold a non-fic piece to More magazine about the trip she took to the Galapagos after her husband's death. It's a good one. Watch for it next spring, I think.

Joyce, it takes a really great writer to pull me out of analytical mode into the realm of pleasure reading.

Kristine said...

I know a lot of writers claim they can't read books in their genre while they are working on a book because it influences their writing style. For me, it's the opposite. They inspire me and get me excited about the genre, which gets my juices going.

I just finished reading THE PACT by Jodi Piccoult, WHISPERS AND LIES by Joy Fielding, and THE GLASS CASTLE by Jeannette Wells. All of them were fabulous.

Cathy said...

I am delighted that you've written full time for over twenty-five years, but not surprised. What a great record, and thank you for sharing your methods.

I'm reading a paranormal mystery, Murder Under a Mystic Moon by Yasmine Galenorn which I'm enjoying.

Brenda Roger said...


Vogue is NOT a guilty pleasure. It is as neccessary as oxygen. Everyone should read it and absorb it and not feel guilty about it!

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I'm reading a historical fiction, The Secret Book of Grazia Dei Rossi, which is so dense, I usually collapse around 10 at night and go in search of something mindless -- a good paranormal (so I know what my friends are talking about) or romance. Stuff I ordinarily save for ... well, times like this.

Gina said...

I'm currently reading Rebecca Drake, of course! I usually read a book or two a week, whatever I pick up, mostly mysteries, plus a lot of magazines. Not Vogue. (Those who've seen me in person know I tend to dress from the K-Mart sale rack.) The magazines I get and read cover to cover include Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, American Archeology, Archeology, Biblical Archeology Review, Bottom Line Health, Fate, National Geographic, Vegetarian Times, Writers Digest, and Yoga Journal. If nothing else is at hand, I'll read the ingredients listed on the ketchup bottle.