Hi there, and welcome to The Daring Writer, with me, your host, Sherry Peters, of sherrypeterscoach.com, helping writers bust through the block, the self-doubt, and the fears holding them back.
Today we’re going to talk about reading. You heard me right. Reading.
I decided to talk about reading because a friend recently asked me what books I’ve enjoyed lately. And, I had to think, a long time. I needed a bit of clarification to the question. I asked if it had to be a book I’d finished. My friend laughed and said that presumably if I’d enjoyed the book, I would have finished it.
The sad truth is that I haven’t read much in months. I’ve read some non-fiction, but I haven’t read any fiction, in months. I’ve started several books, but I just have not been able to get past the first few chapters.
In August of 2018, I decided to take a break from writing, and just read. I read four or five books and it was nice, but it was also a bit of a slog.
And I’m a self-proclaimed bookworm. When I’d get called to the dinner table, or to go places, I was always saying “Be right there! Just have to finish this paragraph, this page, this chapter!” I always had my nose in a book.
There are several reasons behind why I find reading fiction so difficult. I know I’m not the only one experiencing this. The social and political climate over the past two years is messing with a lot of people, making it difficult to focus long enough, to shut out the noise, and even to justify taking the time to escape into a book.
For me, that’s one reason. Not the only one, but definitely one of them.
As writers, there is another, almost universal, reason why we have lost the ability to sit down and enjoy a book, and it is this: We have developed critical reading skills. We have taken classes, read books on writing, we’re active in our writer’s groups giving and getting feedback. That’s how we grow as writers. And that critical brain is hard to turn off when we sit down to read, resulting in us critiquing books, instead of sinking into them like we used to. I’m going to talk more about this in a bit. But first I want to address the greater problem that comes up for writers: The comparison game.
Who doesn’t love to pick up a book from their favorite author? Next thing you know, you’re thinking “I can’t write like that.” “I’m a terrible writer!” Or, “What? How are they getting away with breaking that rule? I’d never get away with that!”
It’s the comparison game. Never compare your beginning with someone else’s middle. Your favorite author has probably been publishing for a dozen years or more. They had to learn the rules of writing, they made mistakes, not everything they wrote got published right away. They took the time and have had the years to develop their craft. You’re not there yet. Yet. If you put in the time and the work, you could be.
The comparison game. You’ve probably picked up the bestseller that everyone is talking about to try and find the key, the trick, to writing a bestseller. You want to know what everyone is talking about. Why did this book become so popular? Sometimes the bestseller is amazing, and other times, writers wonder why, or even how, the book got published in the first place.
There have been a few really, really big books over the past several years. I’m not going to name them. You probably know which ones I’m talking about. They routinely get trashed by writers. You would never, ever, admit to reading it for fear of being ridiculed by your fellow writers.
Admittedly, sometimes we do this to make ourselves feel better, prove that we’re smarter than the average bear. We’ll pick out all the flaws – the typos and grammatical errors, the plot holes, the character flaws — and wonder how it could have possibly gotten published because it is so bad. And then we wonder why our own manuscripts keep getting rejected when such bad writing sells. It can be endlessly frustrating and can lead to feeling hopeless because why do our manuscripts have to be so fucking perfect, when no one else’s does? Why bother?
And if I’m feeling that terrible about myself as a writer because of reading? I’m not going to read!
We have a choice to make. We can turn off our critical brain, or we can do what we’re supposed to do as writers, which is to read broadly to know what is out there, to learn, and to grow.
You’ll notice that not reading wasn’t one of our choices.
I am all for shutting off the critical brain. Sometimes we do just need to sink into a good story. But I don’t want that to be the choice you make. If you’re reading, and the story pulls you in, excellent. Go with it. Analyze why afterwards.
I want you to choose using your critical brain while you read. Instead of viewing this as a loss of enjoyment, see it as having leveled up. What happens with leveling up in a game? New challenges are presented. New challenges means new ways to grow as a writer. Every book has something to teach.
What is it about your favorite author’s writing that you like so much? Marian Keyes is one of my favorite authors. I love how she writes about serious topics such as abuse, depression, and addiction, and yet has such humorous characters. Though I write in a different genre than she does, it is still a method I try to incorporate when it fits.
How do the master authors in your genre craft their description, or characters, or plot? When I’m struggling with a certain aspect of my writing, which is usually description or action, I read books by authors who are known for those exact elements and study how they do it. There are several techniques to use, and I can pick and choose from them for what works best for me.
What about those of us experiencing the other stuff, the personal, psychological, reasons for not reading? Are we going to be stuck? Unable to grow?
Nope. Even television shows, and movies have something to teach us about storytelling.
How do your favorite television shows craft suspense and tension? Do all the twists and turns make sense within the world they’ve created? Most dramas these days end up having some kind of twist to heighten the tension. Sometimes this means bringing characters back we thought were dead, sometimes it means killing off main characters, and sometimes it means adding a secret history to the characters. Do these twists work? Should they have been foreshadowed a little more? Do these twists change the world we came to expect every time we tuned in? How do the writers of the books you’re reading or shows you’re watching break their own rules? Does it work? If not, how can you avoid doing the same?
Even the books that sell millions of copies and writers love to rag on the terrible writing of those books have something to teach us. Maybe the writing really is that bad, but the publisher saw something of valuable in it. What did the publisher see?
What element made this book so marketable? What made Twilight so popular? It wasn’t just the cute boys in a love triangle. It tapped into the idea that obsessive love is romantic love. It isn’t simply saying “I will die for you.” Bella said, “I will give up my soul for you.”
What made The DaVinci Code so popular? It wasn’t just that it was a series of puzzles to be put together. The heart of it was the controversial idea that Jesus had a child, which means there are descendants of the Son of God walking the Earth today.
We can always learn something from what we read or watch.
It is our job as writers to grow in our craft. Instead of feeling hopelessness by comparing our writing to what is published, or upset by not having the same innocence we once had when approaching a book, cherish this more mature enjoyment of your new level.
If I want to keep improving as a writer, developing my skills, I need to get back into reading fiction in all different genres. I may not enjoy every book, and that’s OK. I don’t have to devote all my time to reading either. My writing will be better for it. And I will be better for it.
There’s an historical fiction I’ve been meaning to read for years, “The Princes of Ireland” by Edward Rutherfurd. It has been on my to read shelf since 2005. I think I am finally in the right place to read it. I’m looking forward to it. I’ll let you know how it goes.
What about you? What are you reading? What books have you enjoyed lately? More importantly, what did you learn from reading that book, that helped you as a writer? Message me, leave a comment, let me know.
If this has been value-based to you, feel free to share this with your fellow writers. As always, I will put the links in the comments.
Until next week,