Do I Have to Read?

This was the question from a girl at the writing workshop I did last week: Do I have to read to be a writer? Because I don't really like reading. My short answer was no. You don't have to do anything. You want to be a writer? All you have to do is write.

I read a lot less now than I used to. Part of it is life changes - I don't commute anymore, I've got three kids bouncing around me half the time and books these days seem to induce form of narcolepsy that never lets me get through more than half a page. But more, it's that writing has changed my reading habits, something that continues to evolve.  I used to swear off reading completely when I was drafting a book so the voice of the novel wouldn't creep into my novel. But last night I found myself reading a book (before the narcolepsy took over) even though I'm just thirty pages into a new draft.

I still never read in the specific genre I'm writing in early on. While I was drafting The Mark and The Vision, I completely avoided paranormal books. And with How It Ends, I bypassed whodunnits. The new, as yet untitled WIP, has a similar narrative style to Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak. I pulled that book down yesterday to get a sense of length, found myself reading the first page and immediately snapped it shut, knowing it was too close to what I was working on for me to read it. And also, it's so darned good I might just give up on mine if I kept reading.

Conventional wisdom says that if you want to be a writer you should read. Over time, you build up this whole core of stored words. Even though you might not remember specifics, you have a familiarity with words and how they fit together, the cadence of sentences and variations. I can't point to any specific book in my childhood that made a difference because I think the effect is cumulative. Like hearing a second language spoken at home, it becomes innate.

I can, however, point to two specific books that made a difference while I've been writing: Lisa McMann's Wake and Nelson DeMille's The Talbott Odyssey. Wake showed me what tight prose meant - something my editor had asked me to work on in my revisions to The Mark, but that I just didn't understand until I happened to read that book.

The Talbott Odyssey was even flukier. I was in the middle of reading it when my agent told me she didn't think my re-write of How It Ends was working. I needed fewer adults in the story and more development of the teen characters, more interaction between them. Nelson DeMille writes adult military thrillers - couldn't be further from what I write - but they're awesome and his dialogue is amazing - sharp, witty, quick. And as I was reading it, I started to hear my characters interacting like that in a new scene I was developing. It ended up really solidifying their voices for me and became the groundwork for a much improved version of the story (for those who've been following...yes, I finally got it right).

I couldn't have made either of those things happen, it was just the right book at the right time.

So, my long answer...you don't have to read to be a writer, but it really, really helps, sometimes in unexpected ways.