“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” ― Stephen King
In the weeks I’ve allowed my NaNoWriMo project to rest, I’ve filled my time reading other people’s work. A part of the reason is to clear my mind of thoughts about my own novel, and part of it is to immerse myself in a good, well-written story. (I also critique others’ work, and that helps me stay on my toes and pick out things that are missing, lacking, or just not there yet.)
But the main reason I turn to a good book before returning to my own work is to establish a baseline, if you will. A standard of comparison. A constant against which my words will be measured. Because as any good algebra teacher will tell you, you can’t solve for x without having a few constants. In writing, x is your polished manuscript, and those constants are the books you love to read.
Now, it probably doesn’t sound fair to read J.K. Rowling or Neil Gaiman or Jay Asher and compare your work to theirs, but it’s a fantastic exercise, one I highly recommend. When you read another’s novel, you get a sense of rhythm in their descriptions, in their dialogue, in their prose. Your mind can analyze the mechanics of the writing and get a feel for what works and what you might do differently. You can immerse yourself in world created by someone else and take mental notes on how that writer drew you into it (or didn’t).
In other words, reading is the whetstone your Inner Editor needs to sharpen her claws so she can properly tear into your manuscript. And after being kept in suspended animation for several months, she could probably use a refresher on what a great novel looks like.
Once you’re excited about others’ words and stories and alternate universes, you can (finally) unleash your Inner Editor. You can look to your own manuscript from a fresh(er) perspective and appreciate it for what it is: a roughly cut gem newly hewn from the mine that is your imagination. After all, revising a manuscript isn’t just about filling plot holes and polishing grammar. Revising is about shaping your story: cutting out descriptions or unnecessary backstory or dialogue (often with a hacksaw but sometimes with a scalpel), examining it for flaws, and cutting (or adding) more where needed. Only then, when you’ve honed your manuscript into the best novel it can be, is it time to polish.
How do you know when it’s ready to polish? When you can read your manuscript while the last words from Eleanor & Park are still fresh in your mind and even your Inner Editor responds with a begrudging, “Yeah, that’s a pretty good story.”
You’ve got to read something else before you can revise.