Reading others while writing fiction

SO … here I am, another dreamer, another American writing a novel. It’s bad enough that I spend so much time screaming at myself why are you doing this? what IS that sentence you’ve just completed? how can you even put that on the page? but … looking at other fiction feels almost fatal to the project. Jonathan Franzen speaks of the writing of his recent novel (around nine years passed between The Corrections and Freedom) as mostly a matter of “the accretion of bad pages” … if that’s the case, I am well on my way. I read and read and read, my entire life, and now trying to write a novel, I can’t touch a novel or a short story.

Do you read other fiction at all while writing? I think I am discovering I cannot. Even the novel workshop I just started in NYC might be bad for the project, though I’m not convinced of that yet. What DO you read when you’re writing? The recent Cheever biography is marvelous, though he keeps somehow fighting through the nastiness and the A L C O H O L and all the self-hatred about who he wants to have sex with and completing these beautiful stories. So even this reading is dangerous. Just wondering what other writers retreat to between all the self-immolation.

(Pardon the drama.)

(Also, thanks for Scrivener! It changes everything.)


A novelist friend thinks it may actually be dangerous, because you may, even if subconsciously, pick up and plagiarise ideas, tropes and idioms.

He may be right. Other writers I’ve heard say that they read all the time. But shouldn’t they be writing? A good compromise may be to read, but if in your own genre, only between drafts, not during.


I reckon it depends on the individual. I sometimes like to listen to music when I’m writing, others may demand silence, others may not care. If I was reading a novel than was written in a different style to my own then I doubt that would have an effect on my writing, but it could help my brain get focussed on the flow of words and their rhythm. Reading a sci-fi book full of lasers and spaceships is probably unlikely to affect a historical drama in the works.

Not that I’m an expert or anything, it just seems logical to me.


At least Franzen admits his novel is an accretion of bad pages. Of course, he could have used a five-cent word there instead of being so abstrusely pompous and all…

A mentor friend of mine (who has been a professional and steady author for forty-four years) tells his students not to bad mouth their own work; why would you expect others to read your work if you call it crap?

“I know everything I write is crap. Wanna read some?”
“Uh, no…”

“I’m a beginning writer, would you take a look at this story I just wrote?”
“We all were beginning writers at some point. I’d be glad to read what you’ve got.”

I read stories from young writers on a regular basis. A number of them even return for further blue pen evisceration. Three of them have taken their stories on to publication in the past year. As an editor of their early drafts, I am thrilled to see their follow through make it to print.

What I don’t read are stories which I’m told up front are crap.

Just one perspective. Like any editorial. 8)

Well, that’s not at all what he meant; but I’m pretty sure you knew that.

Freedom is wonderful.

But I didn’t start this thread to debate Franzen. God knows that’s out there if you want it!

If I would not read while writing, I would never read anything at all … So: Yes, I read other fiction while writing. As much as possible. And is it influencing me? Of course. What does not?

Some writers I can’t read when I am writing, because they make me feel inadequate, or sap my will in some intangible way, or distract me too much from my own thoughts. Others I can, because they relax me, or entertain me, or make me want to write. There is no rhyme nor reason to the distinction between the two categories, and no single quality seems to drive my reaction. Some quite outstanding novels make me want to get out my keyboard and start typing, while others make me despair of ever stringing together a coherent paragraph; likewise, some truly atrocious books shrivel my creative juices, while others make me hopeful of being able to do better.

Last year, after reading a couple of Thomas Mann novellas, I borrowed his The Magic Mountain (in translation) from my children’s school library. It was brilliant, and I really enjoyed it (at least, as far as I ever got with it). But it made me want to write. Months later, I was still less than half-way through the book, and I had to return it with a note of embarrassed apology before the school accused me of book-thievery. There was something about Mann’s descriptions of the tuberculosis sanatorium, its location, and the intricate interactions between the odd cast of characters that made me want to write (in a completely different style, genre and subject area). Maybe I should get hold of a copy and keep it by my computer in readiness for moments of demotivation. :wink: Aside from anything else, I would like to find out what happened!

On a related note - pardon the pun - I can’t listen to lyrics while writing - I listen to a lot of jazz, post-rock and the odd bit of classical or Scandinavian pop.

I don’t have a great deal of time to read at present, so I listen to audiobooks whenever I can - pointedly trying to listen to award winners to inspire or annoy me. I think it’s helping - and as I have a fairly poor oral memory, I’m not too concerned about unduly influencing myself - it helps set a tone without dictating it (again, no pun intended).

If anyone talks to me when I am writing, I have a tendency to type the words they say to me, however irrelevant they are to what I am meant to be doing. It is the same with song lyrics, so if I listen to music when I am writing, it has to be either instrumental or a requiem mass. Is that morbid? I don’t think of it that way, perceiving requiems as musical compositions rather than as religious expression. The lyrics are predictable and in Latin, so they are are non-distracting, fading into background noise rather than interrupting the creative flow. The music changes in emotional intensity for each song-segment, which stops me from slipping into torpor and describing the weather for hours on end. There are many stunning requiems to choose from, so I can choose the composer to match my mood. And the fact that they are vocal music means that background voices in other rooms of the house are masked and become less intrusive. A winner, all round.

Hrm, when writing music (what I normally/professionally do), I find that I can’t listen to other music, but that’s more of a stimulus thing, kind of like eating too many sweets. I find I don’t have the same problem writing prose, but I write fiction for fun.