Book Reviews / Editing

How Writers Read

I don’t remember exactly when it started… maybe two years ago, maybe more. But I wasn’t completely aware of it until this year, after I’d finished the first draft of my novel. And then I realized that reading books was no longer fun, but work.  

Don’t get me wrong—I still love to read. I’d read all the time if I could. But I don’t think reading will ever again be the carefree hobby it used to be for me.

As a kid, I loved summer days when I could curl up and read for hours if I wanted to, getting lost in a fantasy world until Mom or Dad dragged me back to the real one. I’d often think, I love this book, without really pondering why I loved it or what exactly made it so fabulous. I just read and read, finding new favorites and rereading old ones. 

Perhaps the change started in college—all that scientific reading for classes left little time to read for fun. Perhaps it was just the transition to adulthood, when obligations and responsibilities make it hard to get lost in a book and not consider the repercussions of the stolen time. In 2006, when I set goals to become a writer, reading became even more professional. Everyone’s heard the advice given to writers:  read, read, and read. Sometimes I even use it as an excuse; I tell myself I need to read so I can improve my writing skills. It helps take away the guilt if I feel I should be doing something other than reading. Unfortunately, it also turns reading into part of my job. 

Sometimes I’m reading to research for one of my stories. But even if I’m reading fiction totally unrelated to my writing, I still find myself analyzing it. I look at punctuation and mechanics and formatting, writing style and metaphors and word choice. Maybe I  think about the bigger details, like dialogue and plot devices and realistic characters. All sorts of things I didn’t even notice when I was a kid—at least not consciously.  

In 2007, I began to edit/critique for other people. My analyzing grew noticeably worse after that. I got so used to looking for mistakes that I did it automatically, even while reading for “fun.” This year, after spending so much time rewriting and revising my own novel, my inner Grammar Nazi is more formidable than ever. I can’t help but study authors and their writing, and think, What makes this good? Could it be better?

That’s one of the many reasons why I listen to audiobooks so often—I can’t study punctuation with an audiobook. On the other hand, metaphors and word choices probably stand out more with an audiobook. Still, since I’m more of a visual learner than an auditory one, I can usually enjoy the story more if I listen via audiobook. Plus, it teaches me patience. Instead of skipping pages to see what happens, I’m forced to wait on the narrator. 

As much as I love writing, I feared I would never recapture my innocent approach to reading. But then last week, unexpectedly, it happened.

I read THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman (weeks after everyone else has read and praised it, but I finally made it to the party). I might have been slightly biased by my time and setting (because what could be more romantic than reading a ghost story in the middle of a snowy night?), but I think the result would’ve been the same no matter what.

Of course, I tried to analyze TGB. But the fascinating thing—I couldn’t find anything wrong. Not to say that’s it perfect necessarily, but just that I couldn’t see past the surface to find the mistakes. Or maybe I was too distracted by all the fancy tricks Gaiman pulled out of his hat. Tricks including:  unique and fitting dialogue for characters spanning hundreds of years; hinting at the paranormal without coming right out and explaining it; delivering wonderful themes without preaching; a villain as multifaceted as the hero (I love Gaiman’s villains. Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar from NEVERWHERE are quite possibly my favorite fictional villains of all time).

And of course, I did notice some little details—but in a good way, a wow-how-did-he-do-that?! kind of way. I liked how he capitalized certain words, and how he was so confident with his sentence structures, and so many other things that I don’t even know how to articulate. One excerpt I loved so much that I jotted it down:

He could no more hug Silas than he could hold a moonbeam, not because his guardian was insubstantial, but because it would be wrong. There were people you could hug, and then there was Silas.

Maybe that’s not a good example of the writing, but for some reason it resonated with me. And the best thing about this book—it’s marketed as a MG novel. Which means no swearing or sex or graphic violence. Which means I can recommend it to everyone from my nieces to my mom, and it would appeal to them all. Those are my favorite types of books, the ones you can share with everyone you love. So if you haven’t read it yet, what are you waiting for??  Go get it!

For a few hours, I read TGB and almost felt like a kid again. I read it with a writer’s eyes, yet I curled up with it and disappeared in its pages. Now I have hope for my reading future. I just have to find those “perfect” books.

Today’s question:  has reading changed for you over the years? Do you think it’s a result of getting older, or something else? If you’re a writer, do you have trouble reading without analyzing? 

Off-topic:  Nathan Bransford, literary agent extraordinaire, is hosting a contest at his blog. All you have to do is post the first paragraph of your WIP in the comments. If your paragraph is chosen, you could win a query critique or even a partial critique. How cool is that?! I entered, despite the four hundred other people currently entered, LOL. Worth a shot anyway, so go enter before 4 PM on Thursday!

Off-topic #2:  Go here to find out more about a Thursday podcast featuring urban fantasy authors (Jeaniene Frost, Rachel Vincent, Jenna Black, Patrice Michelle, and Jeanne Stein) as they discuss first books in a series. Listeners can either call in with questions or ask online. I’m hoping to be online for it if I get a chance!

Thanks for listening to my rambles! Have a great week, everyone!

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7 thoughts on “How Writers Read

  1. The same thing happened to me many years ago. I started being a lot more critical of what I read. I’ve got two pieces of good news for you. 1 – eventually it kinda passes. You still find yourself doing it, but you also enjoy reading again. 2 – every once in a while, like you mentioned, you find a book that you cannot be critical of, no matter how hard you try, and you lose yourself in it.

    Side note, I still have no idea who most of these bands that you like are. Guess I’m showing my age.

  2. One other thought, I’ve also learned to differentiate between an author’s mistakes and a publisher’s. It seems to me that a lot more publishers are getting sloppy and letting typos through.

    Oh yeah, one more thing: 😉 Can you send me the revised first chapter again? It wouldn’t download to my computer and I lost it.

  3. So in ten years, when I’m your age, I’ll enjoy reading again? LOL! (No doubt you will get me back for that one! But since you’re already mad at me, judging by your email today, why not make it worthwhile?! HA!). Speaking of age, would you like me to introduce you to some of my music? 😉

    That’s interesting about the publishers’ mistakes… hadn’t considered that. But how do you know the publisher is truly to blame? If the author hadn’t made the mistake in the first place, it wouldn’t be an issue. Of course, no author can write 100,000 words without at least a few typos!

    Thanks for the comments! And yes, I’ll send you the chapter again… for the third time! 😀

  4. Well, about the publisher’s mistakes – when you see the same sorts of mistakes in books by different authors by the same publisher, it’s a good chance that it’s a publisher’s mistake. Also, they do have editors who are supposed to catch such things.

    And I thought I was 15 years older than you, not 10. Good grief! I’m a whole driver older than you. Can still whoop you in basketball and tennis though. =)

    And as long as your music is NOT country, I wouldn’t mind being introduced to it. Otherwise, I’ll stick to my Beatles and Stones and Aerosmith and U2, thank you very much.

  5. RE: publisher’s mistakes–yes, that makes sense. A noticeably trend among different authors would definitely be a red flag.

    15 years?! We just had this discussion back in June, when Jeanette thought I was 23 or something ridiculous, but you remembered my age because of our decade difference. So much for your memory, LOL. You could whoop me in any sport… but I might not be incapacitated afterwards. 😉

    I don’t have any country bands listed on my favorites. I’ll give you my EOL playlist. If you like Aerosmith and U2, you’ll like most of my music. 😀

  6. Well, you know, the mind goes when you get to be my age. =)

    As for being incapacitated, well … okay … I’ll give you that. Man! Getting old sucks!

  7. Pingback: The Best Way to Improve Your Writing « E. M. Rowan’s Field Notes

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