With all due respect to naysayers, writer’s block DOES exist. When work on my current work-in-progress stalled several months ago, I panicked and sought advice about overcoming the writer’s woe from all sorts of folks. Suggestions ranged from writing through the block to going for a run or visiting a museum to finding a good book to read.
Read, you say? There’s a thought!
I’d tried running, lunch with friends, meditation, and watching movies, but nothing seemed to pop me out of my slump. I knew I had to try a different approach.
I opted for reading.
After my daughter told me about Goodreads, I opened an account in April and immediately signed up for the 2015 Reading Challenge with a goal of reading 24 books by December 31. The year was nearly a third over before I started my first book, Burial Rites, a gorgeous novel by Hannah Kent. I finished reading my 24th book, Kevin Brockmeier’s post-apocalyptic gem, The Illumination, on Sept. 14.
I wish I could say my writing hit Indy 500 speed after finishing Kent’s book because her writing was magical, but my muse wasn’t so easily satisfied. A steady diet consisting of two dozen books of varying genres was the right muse medicine. Each book had a lesson for me and pointed out something lacking in my writing, knowledge, or way of thinking.
Here’s a list of my favorite “teachers,” their text books, and lessons learned:
Lesson 1: Without atmosphere and emotion, all is lost. About 31 pages into Burial Rites, I realized my book’s first two missing ingredients: atmosphere and emotion. I’d plucked the volume off the “New Arrivals” shelf of my local public library because I found the blurb fascinating. It was all that and more – stark, beautiful, emotional. But what grabbed me was how Kent made me feel the bone-chilling cold of Iceland, the desperation of its inhabitants, the humanity of convicted murderer Agnes Magnusdottir, and the fear inside members of the Jonsson family charged with housing her until her execution. I began searching my manuscript for ways to create atmosphere and emotion.
Lesson 2: Know your subject. My new novel revolves around two fictitious musicians of differing generations and Gram Parsons, a legendary pioneer of country rock music. My writing hit a wall when I realized I didn’t fully understand the evolution of the country rock. I grew up in the 1970s when country rock was already established and bands like the Eagles, The Marshall Tucker Band, Poco, and the Allman Brothers Band were staples on the radio. Wrapping my head around the concept of country rock and understanding why Gram Parsons remains a controversial cult figure were two big challenges. John Einarson’s Desperados: The Roots of Country Rock, is hardly the best written book I’ve ever read, but it IS a treasure chest of quotations and insight from or about the musicians who created a new music genre by combining several existing styles. Now I get it!
Lesson 3: Never underestimate the power of “What if?” and making your dialog count. I discovered the power of Brockmeier’s imagination and use of sparse dialog through two of his books, The Brief History of the Dead and The Illumination. This guy tackles some pretty wild, “what ifs” and he weaves story lines together like a super-strength rope. Everything counts.
Lesson 4: Pat Conroy’s writing still makes me slow down and linger inside books. Oh, Mr. Conroy, how I’ve missed you! I pulled My Reading Life from my bookcase where it had sat unread for a few years, and found The Death of Santini – a bargain for a buck – tucked on a shelf in my public library’s used bookstore. Reading Conroy is like sinking into a gushy chair and sipping a mint julep as the most succulent words in the English language wash over you. Yes, there’s still a place for gorgeous description and thought-provoking language in novel writing! Don’t be afraid to use it.
Lesson 5: Learn to hypnotize the reader with your writing and story. When I finished Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, I closed my eyes and sat still for several minutes in my silent house. When I opened them, I announced into the quiet, “I want my writing to affect people like that.” She transported me to an exotic locale that made me both squeal with delight and squirm in discomfort. But the ending was – well, it was one of the best I’ve ever read. I have so much to learn.
Lesson 6: Marketing my work is doable. I’d ordered Michael Hyatt’s Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World a couple of years ago, but stashed it in my bookcase unread because the whole concept of platform building overwhelmed me. With my book publication looming later this year, I pulled Hyatt’s book from the shelf. A fast, easy read, Platform gave me the courage to build a website with the help of my friend, Andrea Cruz; activate my long-dormant Twitter account and Facebook author page; join Pinterest; and begin marketing myself as a public speaker. I CAN do this marketing thing!
So, I send the good folks at Goodreads a big THANK YOU for motivating me to schedule reading time into my daily routine. In today’s busy, fast paced world, it’s easy to sacrifice reading for a host of other activities. Now that I’ve re-established my voracious reading habit, I’m not letting it go. I feel like me, the bookworm, again!
And this bodes well for my writing.
To the 20 authors mentioned below, I’m grateful to each of you for leading me back to my story through yours.
The full list of books I read during the Challenge:
The Illumination and The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier
Between the Lines by Jodi Piccoult and Samantha van Leer
The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
The Death of Santini and My Reading Life by Pat Conroy
The Prince of the Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafron
Mohawk by Richard Russo
The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve
Phantom Evil, Waking the Dead, and Ghost Walk by Heather Graham
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Partners by Nora Roberts
Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World by Michael Hyatt
Desperados: The Roots of Country Rock by John Einarson
Down by the River by Lin Stepp
Wildwood by Posie Graeme-Evans
Offcomer by Jo Baker
The Jazz Palace by Mary Morris
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent