Making Book Part 16: I Can Write, But I Can’t Read

The hardest part of writing a book is that I forbid myself from reading for pleasure until my book is done.

My problem is what some people call “code switching” – where you imitate a local accent. Sometimes unwittingly. At my last corporate job, we had a corporate VP who spoke in a Cockney dialect. Whenever we were in a meeting with the guy, a coworker would start talking exactly like Mr. Bow Bells.

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I took the coworker aside and gently broke the news to him. His response: “I know! I can’t stop myself! It’s horrible!”

Code switching is easy to do with writing. And it can be used to your advantage.

When I teach writing, I encourage code switching. If you don’t have a “voice” as a writer, borrow one. Find a writer you adore. Study how he or she structures sentences. Are the sentences long or short? What words get repeated over and over? How do they handle dialogue? How do they describe objects?

Now imitate them as best you can. Really. Rip off their writing style without shame. I did this when I was a student. I imitated Kurt Vonnegut, Noam Chomsky, Nikolai Gogol (especially Gogol) and (nerd alert) Vonda N. McIntyre. Imitating good writing is a good thing. It’s like making reproductions of good furniture. You get the feeling of good writing (or good furniture) in your veins. And as you do it, you will say “Yes, that’s what it feels like.”

When you start writing in your own voice or designing your own pieces, you will know what it feels like when the words are flowing and the furniture is stunning. In time, your imitative prose and furniture knock-offs will fade in the past as you find your own voice.

Once you find your own voice, however, that’s when the danger begins. If I read Vonnegut while writing a book, it’s going to come out as “The Anarchist’s Cat’s Cradle” or “Welcome to the Monkey House Vol. 2, Monkey Dreams Come True.” So I cut myself off from reading anything for pleasure while I’m writing for profit.

Right now, I am in a joyful place. I’m building furniture for “The Stick Chair Book,” taking notes, making photos, drawing chairs and thinking (so much thinking). But I’m not writing. So this month I’ve gone on a bender of fiction and nonfiction. 

The slutty fiction: “The Murderbot Diaries” by Martha Wells, a six-book science fiction series recommended by my cousin Jessamyn West. Wells’ writing is a great thing to try to imitate (if you are looking to do a little code switching, sailor). The higher-brow fiction: “Piranesi” by Susanna Clarke, one of my favorite novelists. I’ve read her her first novel, “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell,” more times than any other piece of fiction. And the nonfiction: “Thinking With Type” by Ellen Lupton. This was a textbook for one of my youngest daughter’s classes. It’s an interesting and contemporary take on typography (again, nerd alert).

With any luck, I still have another six or eight months of being able to read for pleasure. And I have a big pile of books to dig through. 

But after that, I’ll have to close the book(s). Otherwise you’ll be in for “Shart of Darkness,” “Board of the Annular Rings” or “Love in the Time of the Emerald Ash Borer.”

Feel free to suggest other book titles in the comments (you know you want to).

— Christopher Schwarz

Read other posts from the “Making Book” series here.


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