As I write this, my to-be-read pile is teetering precariously. With my debut novel, The Black Hour, out this week, I’m behind on just about everything. The dog always gets her walk. No one in the house is starving. Sure, the bathroom could use a good going over—with a flamethrower. I’ll get to it.
The book stack only grows taller.
Yet this week instead of picking up one of the many (many) new books I’ve purchased to support a mystery-writing friend or to keep current with what’s selling in the genre, I took up a book I’ve probably read five times before.
If I tell you that it was Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, maybe you’ll understand why I turned to the same book again. If you haven’t read it, Bird by Bird is a book of essays but also a balm for the soul of any fretful writer. Since on any given day what I’m fretting about is finding a few minutes to write some fiction, the advice, the balm, and the off-genre reading are all part of why I return again and again.
Stephen King said in his book On Writing (which I have read three times), “If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
I would amend: If you don’t have time to re-read something once in a while, you’re missing out on one of the best self-education tools available to you.
Writers are often fast readers. That’s good news if you like to see your to-be-read pile decimated as though it’s being fed into a wood chipper. You are the wood chipper. But if your goal, like mine, is not just to know what happened in a story but to understand how it all came together satisfyingly—or rather how it petered out and bombed, which is another good thing to understand—then once in while, you need to pick up a book for the second time.
The first read, you’re finding out what happened. You’re experiencing the book as a reader—emotionally. This is not an unimportant part of the process, because you want to write stories that take readers on an emotional ride. The trick is: can you go on the ride and not stand to the side, spectating? You’re a reader on the first time through, a passenger.
The second time, you’re a conductor, pointing out to yourself the twists and turns the other writer took. You’re also probably going more slowly, which has its own benefits. This time through you’re not a tourist. You might still enjoy the ride, but you’re also hanging over the side watching all the mechanicals underneath.
With so many books on my shelves—and yours, I’m willing to bet—is it crazy to reach past those signed hardcovers your friends wrote and whose online reviews you’d really like to add to? There’s only so much time and so many (many) books. Sometimes I mourn that I’ll never read all the books I want to. You probably do the same. We’re a different breed. All we can do is go bird by bird—read the books that speak to us, learn from those that call to us a second or third time, read widely, read deeply, read.
Lori Rader-Day is the author of the mystery The Black Hour (Seventh Street Books, 2014). Born and raised in central Indiana, she now lives in Chicago with her husband and dog. Her fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Good Housekeeping, Time Out Chicago, and others. Visit her at LoriRaderDay.com.