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.
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.
52 thoughts on “Making Book Part 16: I Can Write, But I Can’t Read”
For years I have found myself emulating Vonnegut while writing personal letters. So it goes.
Ive enjoyed reading the locke and key series by Joe Hill.
“The man who never missed”; Steve Perry.
Such a good read! Classic Sci-Fi.
“Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” blew my mind the first time I read it. What a labor of love by a crazy talented writer.
50 shades of stain?
Or the American classic, For Whom the Grain Turns
Fun with Dick & Jane? I’ve read those books several times …..
Tale of Two Settees.
Lord of the Files
The Naked and The Deadman
Dovetails With Charlie
If I could only choose one writer to copy, it would have to be Patrick O’Brian.
Newel Post Captain?
For Whom Sapele Tolls — on exotic woods
The Bold Man And The “C” — on clamps
Asunder The Greenwood Tree — on lumbermaking
Drown Them Out In San Francisco — on epoxy slab tables
The Scion, The Stitch, And The Wardrobe — on grafted wood for furniture making
Activist librarian Jessamyn West is your cousin? She’s awesome! I know her as one of the regulars on Josh Kantor’s 7th Inning Stretch.
Foundryside is a pretty good read. What if your tools had minds of their own with their own hopes, dreams, and opinions?
The very hungry carpenter killer. (we have little kids but also read horror books)
A bit of H.P. Lovecraftian twist perhaps?
Furniture of the Elders – angles and shapes you did not know exist!
The Design that should not be (a music reference bonus)
‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Stick’
The Chest for Karla Trilogy:
Tinker, Jointer, Bodger, Spy
The Honorable Highboy
By John le Crochet
‘The Hunt for Red Ochre — the Defection of Peter Follansbee’
‘The Lord of the Rings’
‘The Fellowship of the Ring’
‘The Rebuilding of the King (size bed)’
‘The Plumb Bob’
‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Glue Up’
‘Polissoir: Burnisher on the Orient Express’
‘Waiting for Buffing’
‘Dr. Tage Frid or how I learned to stop worrying and draw bore’
‘I’m Stick Chair, Stick Chair, That’s Me’
‘Green Legs for Stands’
‘Go Dog Go — a supplement to AWB’
‘If You Give a House a Settee’
Piranesi was very interesting. Love Murderbot. If you like those, you might check out Jo Walton’s stuff. On bookmaking and typography, I like Robert Bringhurst (The Elements of Typographic Style).
Reading Patrick Rothfuss’ debut novel in 2007 “The Name of the Wind”. Excellent read.
Perhaps the best fantasy book I have read in years is Peter Flannery’s “Battle Mage” It has about 2,500 5-star reviews on Amazon and is completely worth every star.
Ooooo – the Rothfuss series is one of my favorites. (Now if he’d just finish the next one…)
The Call of the Wood
Brave New Wood
Vanity Craft Fair
Seems Murderbot is getting alot of recommendations. I have been considering it, so time to make the plunge I guess.
Just do it. It’s fun reading.
Glad you liked Board of the Annular Rings. I’m also fond of the prequel “The Holdfast: Veneer and Block the Grain.”
Chair Makers of Dune
When my kids were little, I would read them various Dr. Seuss stories every night. I would come downstairs afterwards and talk in Seussisms for a while until it got out of my head. My wife hated it but I couldn’t stop myself. I’m not sure that Seuss is the right voice to appropriate….
Surely, you must have read the influential French symbolist classic, À rebours, by the Frenchman Joris-Karl Huysmans in 1884.
It is more widely known in the Anglophone world as “Against the Grain”. The hero retreats from vulgar commonplace life to an ideal but reclusive aesthetic life.
I seem to recall that this includes some fine furniture but the detail that most sticks out is that he shares his salon with a live turtle that has a bejewelled shell.
Based on the tortoise decorated by Count Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac – see “The Man in the Red Coat” by Julian Barnes for plenty more details.
A Portrait of the Artisan As A Real Pain, Where The Lost Tools Are, Two Years Before The Bench, Plane And Planeability, Far From The Maddening Boss, The Tool Thief, The Anarchists Resign Book
Far from the Madding Baseline
Farley Mowat – The benchdog that wouldn’t die. Flannery O’conner – A good wood is hard to find
If you enjoy fast paced Sci Fi, try “Buying Time” by Joe Haldeman.
Shart of Darkness… good one
If “Magic” is your thing, try The Night Circus by Erin Morganstern. Luminous. There’s a 6 month wait for Paranesi at our local library so that’s a good sign.
With all them dark currents going on there is only one: Mister D’s ‘Notes from Underground’.
Mulberry Finn. A river traveling spoon carver
The lying witch’s wardrobe (with pointy hat finials)
Really hoping you write a book on photography one day, Chris. As an amateur shutterbug, I’ve always appreciated your talents behind the camera.
Cannot recommend the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovich enough. It’s a nice urban fantasy about a cop apprenticed to the last police wizard in London. Well written and enjoyable.
Another favorite series!
Imitating whoever translated your edition of Gogol, surely?
If you’re ready for a deep dive into Civil War history, I recommend Shelby Foote’s “The Civil War: A Narrative”. If you just want some fun, read Robert A. Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land”.
I came to post, “Stranger in a Strange Campaign Chair.” Leaving now, satisfied.
‘The Boys in the Boat’ Daniel James Brown.
The hook of a brief prologue pulled me into the hearts of the characters.
So Long and Thanks for Awl the Spelch, or anything by Kilgore Trout.
Anything by Raymond L. Atkins is a great read ..
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