“Reading Stress” is a Thing!

I suppose we all have a picture of what “being a writer” looks like. Your visions might include a cute little writing nook. Instagram is great for feeding this fantasy … you imagine yourself in an isolated cottage somewhere, tapping away at your typewriter, warming your toes on the stove and feeding your inspiration with huge pots of tea and warm scones dripping with butter and bramble jam. Or, perhaps your writerly daydreams tend to the exotic … a tropical island! You see yourself on a cool balcony overlooking the sparkling sea, laptop whirring softly …

As we all know, the reality is rather different. Most of us fight for a bit of laptop space among the toast crumbs and utility bills on the kitchen table, or we might head off to the nearest café where we’ll settle ourselves at a too-small table with a coffee large and strong enough to bring on a migraine.

I’m lucky enough to have an office but it’s not very Jane Austen. As I write, I’m surrounded by cameras, hard drives, chargers, printers—all the black, chunky, ugly accoutrements of my day job. When I find myself wishing for a more “conducive” writing space, I force myself to remember what Annie Dillard wrote in her writer’s companion, The Writing Life. ‘One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.’ Addendum: years after publishing The Writing Life, Dillard disowned the book, so maybe she was seduced by a pretty view in the end.

Ideal writing spaces aside there are other aspects of the writer’s life that have come as a shock. Other writers, feel free to put your hand up when you see where I’m going with this …

I’ve always been an avid reader. Each month I get through whichever book my book group has selected, as well as any number of other books, short stories, poems and essays. I buy books all the time. Recently, Bottled Goods by Sophie Van Llewyn because it’s a novella in flash (I’m working on my own novella in flash so I thought it would be useful to read someone else’s) and, Cold Water by Gwendoline Riley because Riley was recommended to me by Sara Baume (Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither and A Line Made by Walking). Riley’s novel features a twenty-year-old protagonist, as does my own work in progress, so I thought it would be interesting to see how Riley handles her subject.

Of course, I don’t only read books to inform my own writing. Like all writers, I simply love to read. Long, tall, short, epic. Fiction and non-fiction. I have shelves of books I’ve yet to read, stories I can’t wait to devour, but what no one told me about being a writer is that establishing wonderful friendships with other writers effectively doubles your “to read” pile.

Suddenly you find yourself battling a condition I’ve come to think of as “reading stress”!

It’s not just that I want to read the books my writer friends have written. I also want to read their blogs … and blogs contribute to even greater “reading stress” because blog posts often cite articles, other blogs, other writers and other books which I absolutely have to check out as well.

If you are a writer friend, it’s likely that I already have your book on my e-reader. I might even have a signed copy if I’ve attended your book launch! I will read your book, and yes, I will leave a rating and a review on Amazon and Good Reads … I just can’t say exactly when that will be because you see, I’ve come across this rather interesting link to …

Writing or Drowning?

I have spent the last six weeks completing the first draft of my second romance novel for Mills and Boon. I had a tight deadline which I was determined to keep, so I had to write even when I didn’t feel like it; even when writing felt like drowning.

Prior to this experience, I would have said that I’m a writer who likes to be immersed in a single project. Now I’m not so sure. The problem with working on one thing exclusively – and to a deadline – is that if things are not progressing well or fast enough, your heart rate climbs, your palms get sweaty. You panic.

When I spoke to a writer friend about how I was feeling, she advised me to keep working on other projects alongside the romance. Even an hour a day working on something else would be refreshing, she said, and would make me feel like I was making progress in other areas.

Initially I was sceptical, not because it didn’t make sense―it did. It was just that the thought of peeling myself off a project with a pressing deadline in order to spend time on a speculative novel filled me with anxiety. Nevertheless, I decided to give it a try.

I picked up my “big” work-in-progress, read a little of the manuscript and suddenly had some ideas about how to flesh out one of my secondary characters. I made some notes, and in turn, those notes suggested a couple of other ideas. After an hour, I had material which I know is going to help me take that project forward.

When I went back to the romance story, I felt calmer. I wrote 1500 words in an afternoon!

A few days later I remembered something I had read a few years ago―Jess Walter talking about his novel, Beautiful Ruins.

He said that Beautiful Ruins had been “written and rewritten and rewritten over parts of fifteen years; it was something of a puzzle to put together.” He went on: “I write until I’m stuck, then I move on to something else, and when I go back to it, I start at the very beginning to make it feel like a smooth, seamless surface.”[1]

It’s clear that Walter was not writing Beautiful Ruins to a deadline, but the methodology mirrors what my friend had suggested. We all write until we’re stuck, but it’s what you do when you’re stuck that matters. You might go for a coffee, or a run and find that it’s enough to get you past your sticking point, but there is another option— work on something else.

As I make my journey as a writer, I am learning that there is no correct way to write. Even if you think you know what works for you, there’s value in trying a different approach. Going forward, I intend to devote some time each day to working on side projects, projects which might otherwise fall by the wayside. “Working” may simply amount to thinking about my characters or ironing out a wrinkle in the plot. Who knows? Perhaps I will find that allowing my thoughts to run freely between two or even three projects at the same time is a more natural way for me to work.



[1] Interview with Weston Cutter. (Kenyon Review, July 2012)