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Writer versus Reader

Tuesday, March 20, 2007
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When do we stop being readers? I don’t mean a cessation of reading, but a slowing in or absence of the joy of reading. When I think about former reading habits, I wasn’t just avid, I was voracious, insatiable. I read four to five novels per month–or more–even during the first few semesters after I went back to college. If I discovered an author whose book I liked, I went out and bought every book by that author and feasted upon them. And this was not in exclusion to writing–I was writing 3,000–5,000 words per week, too.

I went to my first writer’s conference six years ago, then joined ACRW (now ACFW)—and I discovered so many new writers that I feared I would never have time to write again if I read all of their books. Then, in 2004, I went to grad school. In this program, we were taught not just to critique our peers’ writing but to break down and analyze published novels in our genre. Very much like the literature courses I took as an undergrad English major, reading became a task, a chore—something that I couldn’t just lose myself in; rather, something that I had to remain analytically alert while doing. If I started losing myself in the story, the left-brain analyst would kick in and make me stop to figure out why I liked it (or, conversely, why not).

Then, to compound the problem, a year ago, I changed jobs and became a copy editor with a small publishing house. While I am still very much a beginner at it, it’s hard to shut it off when I get home. It has affected the way I critique, judge contest entries, and read. Because each house has its own house style—choosing whether or not to use a serial comma or capitalize pronouns for God—whenever I read something not punctuated the way I’ve learned to do it for our house style, the copy editor part of my brain wants to take a purple pen (my designated color at the office) to it.

So, I figured I’d just switch completely over to audiobooks. I’ve always enjoyed them. I have Jane Austen’s six major novels, the Harry Potter books, a couple of Star Wars spinoff series, the Little House books, the complete Narnia series, and all three Lord of the Rings–and that doesn’t include the titles I’ve bought through audible.com and downloaded straight to my MP3 player. Audiobooks help me reclaim parts of the day that are otherwise “wasted” time–getting ready for work in the morning, in the car, on walks in the evening. I still occasionally rewrite the sentences in my head, but it’s easier to get into the story when my mental copy editor isn’t scrutinizing all of the punctuation on the page. But even still, I’ve been having a hard time sticking with a novel all the way through.

I’ve done enough critical analysis of the few books I have managed to read all the way through and enjoy to realize that it’s not because they’re perfectly punctuated nor the best at craft, it’s the strength of the storytelling and character. In the past two or three years, I have picked up so many books at Barnes & Noble; read the back; thought, That sounds interesting; and put it right back on the shelf because I knew if I bought it, I might read the first few chapters, but then, or one reason or another—historical inaccuracies, issues with craft/voice/tone, or technical difficulties with a different house’s style—I would set it aside and never finish reading it.

But since putting myself on a schedule, I became determined that I was going to become a reader again. And, now that I’m writing a contemporary romance again, I need to be reading currently published contemporaries. So, a little over a week ago after the monthly MTCW meeting, I made a trip to Lifeway. I usually buy all of my books online, but I was determined to find something new by picking them up, reading the first few pages and buying whatever drew me in enough to turn the pages. I picked up two—Laura Jensen Walker’s latest chick lit, Miss Invisible, and Fireworks by Elizabeth White, a contemporary romance set in a small town in Mississippi (my contemporaries are set in a fictional city in Louisiana). Then, in the mail that week, I received review copies of Susie Warren’s Reclaiming Nick and Tricia Goyer’s Valley of Betrayal for blog tours.

All of this is the lead-in to say, I am about halfway through Miss Invisible and it is such a good story with so unique a main character that never once has the analyst in me pulled me out of it to break it down; nor has the copy editor raised any purple flags over a technical aspect. Maybe all I needed was the break I’ve had since last spring of not reading anything new at all—just returning to many old favorites—to get the analytical part of my brain to stay quiet when I’m reading and just let me lose myself in the story.

Although it sounds (and feels) conceited to admit, since learning as much as I have about the craft of writing, I have come to a conclusion when determining the strength of a particular story. If, when I put it down, I don’t think about how I would have done it differently, it was a pretty darn-good book!

Do you have trouble “just reading”? What will make you put down a book without finishing it? What will keep you reading, even if you have to overlook something that’s a personal pet peeve?

Speaking of reading/reviewing, check out a couple of reviews of novels by members of Middle Tennessee Christian Writers, posted by members Ruth Anderson and J. M. Hochstetler, on our group blog, http://mtcw.wordpress.com.

7 Comments
  1. Tuesday, March 20, 2007 10:35 pm

    Head hopping. It DRIVES ME NUTS! By now, doesn’t everyone know that it’s a no-no? Or is that one “rule” that’s going by the wayside? Can’t stand it. That’s the main reason I’ll put a book down, other than that it’s sheer boredom. If the pace is too slow, I’m chucking it!

    I picked up Miss Invisible after you mentioned it last week and I’m absolutely loving it!

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  2. Tuesday, March 20, 2007 10:42 pm

    There are certain things that will make me stop reading. First and foremost is an author who doesn’t really know her subject matter. Case in point: Fern Michaels’ books about a Virginia horse farm. I love Thoroughbred horse racing and read everything I can get my hands on that touches on this subject. She did so little research and made so many things up that I simply could not finish it. It’s one of a handful of books I’ve never finished and an author I will never read again, nor will recommend to anyone. Even a casual fan of the sport will have the enjoyment of this book completely ruined by her lack of research into breeding practices and jockey requirements.

    The only real pet peeve I have in my reading is when an author doesn’t do their research. I’m a walking encyclopedia with all sorts of strange facts stuck in my head, so I catch a lot of things most people don’t even notice. If the subject is something I’m only casually familiar with, I’ll keep reading. But if it’s something I’m intimately familiar with or have done a lot of research on, the book goes right back to the library and never gets finished.

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  3. Tuesday, March 20, 2007 11:09 pm

    Georgiana–
    Head hopping KILLS me. Limited POV was one of the first things I learned when I started studying craft. But you know, in talking to people who are only readers, not writers at all, they don’t even notice it. It’s so pervasive in fiction writing that writers are really the only ones who have a problem with it (unless it’s done so poorly that even readers pick up on it). There are certain writers whose books I avoid at all costs simply because their style of headhopping bugs me so much.

    Rachel–
    I’m with you on the lack of research. When I was writing Ransome’s Honor, set in England in 1814, I spent so much time reading and researching the era (easy to do with my love of Jane Austen; much of the research I started with was from my senior thesis from undergrad). I was trying to be diligent about reading other currently published books set near my time period, but so many of them I put down because the details were off (couples waltzing in England before 1820–just not done!–or historical figures mentioned who were either already dead or too young to be doing what they were supposed to be doing in the novel). Being a history minor as an undergrad, I love research and one of the reasons Ransome’s Honor is 30,000 words over the limit is because I probably included too much historical accuracy about the carriages, the hero’s ship, the dresses, and the customs. Most of it’ll be cut down to only what’s necessary, but at least I’ll know the details behind what eventually appears on the page!

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  4. Wednesday, March 21, 2007 12:57 pm

    Just overall poor writing — dialogue isn’t realistic, characters are flat, telling instead of showing, unbelievable plot or scenes.

    Since I’ve become serious about writing, Kaye, I’ve become a bit like you. I had one writer tell me that if I started a book and it wasn’t written well, put it down because you don’t want to pick up their bad habits. Only read well-written fiction and study that to see how to do it write. I’ve followed that advice but did go through a year where I critiqued everything. Now I don’t bother. If it isn’t good enough to make me stop critiquing, I don’t read it.

    That’s affected how I buy fiction. I now am much more careful in buying new authors than I used to be. If the book is just making me drool, I’ll go ahead and buy a new author’s book, but I’d rather read their first at the library and if it’s written well, then I might buy their next one.

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  5. Wednesday, March 21, 2007 6:35 pm

    Kaye, and people like me will notice! The plantation I work at is an Empire plantation founded by French Creoles. In our dressing and things we tend to run more towards the French styles, colors and customs. With English necklines! We’re not *that* daring, lol.

    And I can’t stand split keyboards. They’re too stiff for my fast speed. I’ve tried multiple times to switch to one but they just slow me down too much.

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  6. Wednesday, March 21, 2007 7:38 pm

    I go through seasons of being a critical reader. I find myself being more critical when I read new work than when I’m reading an old favorite. I guess the characters and story have to pull me in before I can turn off the editor.

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  7. Thursday, March 22, 2007 11:52 am

    I’d call myself a voracious reader too. 10 – 15 books per month. Trying hard to cut that in half to make time for writing. But some of the books I’m reading now are about the writing craft.

    I dislike books with major technical flaws. Not the occasional misspelling or punctuation error. I mean bad grammar, all telling, etc.

    I’m finding that more and more books are head-hopping, which can be done nicely even in limited POV, if it’s not sentence by sentence, but more scene by scene. However, I only recently learned what a scene was and the difference between scene and sequel so I suspect many writers don’t know. Not sure I understand how some stuff gets by the editors though.

    I also dislike heavily cliched plots. Same premise with new twist? I’m good.

    And yes, having said all that, to answer the question, as I learn more in an effort to improve my writing, it is getting harder to read simply for enjoyment.

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