I'm planning to write my fifth novel this November for National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo.
So besides just having the experience of writing four novels - well, really three complete ones, one that's stalled out at 65,000 words, and of those only one approaching anything like Good - there are some things that I have to do in order to get the most out of the month. The biggest one (besides planning the book, which I'll get to in another post) is reading an author I've never read before.
That may sound strange but here's the story behind that.
Back in 2008 when I did this the first time I picked up A Princess of Mars, which I had read more than twenty years before. I read it immediately before going into NaNo and had read some Ian Fleming (who I had never read before) because of a story on NPR about Quantum of Solace. I devoured Edgar Rice Burroughs while I was writing and the style he wrote in - pulpy with sharp details in some places and not so many in others - had an effect on me. Coupled with trying to emulate Fleming I was successful in completing my 50,000 words in 30 days.
They weren't necessarily great, but they were good. Completing a story of that length definitely scratched an itch to tell stories. After a suitable time I went back to the story and read it.
Oof. The writing wasn't so great. The characters were okay, the story was sort of thrilling but it wasn't what I hoped it would be while I was writing.
Nevertheless, it sits in The Trunk and waits for a day when I can expand it, building elements of the sequel I wrote the next year for NaNo. My second try at writing a novel was a bit better but too influenced by more Fleming and more of Burroughs' Mars stories. It just wasn't there, still.
The next year I had expanded my reading to include some non-fiction (a biography of Roald Dahl), more urban fantasy (I finished Mike Carey's Felix Castor series), and more crime novels (Jim Thompson, Elmore Leonard, and Raymond Chandler). I also watched The Prisoner in its entirety. Not the reimagined one with Jim Caviezel and Gandalf/Magneto (all right, Ian McKellen - I know his name) but the original with Patrick McGoohan. Talk about paranoia and mind-blowing spy stuff. That was a huge influence on the third book. I've got Thomas Disch's Prisoner book to read on a shelf somewhere here, too.
But last year I was determined to write a really great science fiction story set off-world and featuring the kinds of things I loved about SF. So I read and re-read a couple of Year's Best SF compilations, some dark fantasy featuring Cthulhu mythology, some China Mieville and I recalled all my Heinlein. Then, right before I started writing and into the first week, I read the third Sandman Slim book by Richard Kadrey, Aloha From Hell.
And I came out of November with the best thing I'd ever written. I took all the things I'd been reading over the year and picked the best things I liked from them: the creepy, the violent, the strange, the fantastic and then I amped them up with some interesting romantic elements. (By romantic I mean space opera-type stuff though there's sex in the book, too. And love but it's not a bodice-ripper.) And all the stuff I'd been reading for the last four years just sort of poured out of me in a relentless whitewater of writing.
I recommend, for all you budding novelists out there, to read a wide variety of stuff. Read things you don't think you should read outside of school. Read Ray Bradbury, read Joe Hill, read Richard Matheson, read non-fiction and biographies. Read everything you can get your hands on. You'll be amazed at how much you'll be able to write. All the stuff you'll recall and emulate will help you in the long run.
And keep writing. I do it every day. I read every day, too. I try to get thirty or forty pages of whatever book I'm into read every day. It helps.
More about my NaNoWriMo prep rituals soon.