It’s often said that it’s important for writers to keep reading stuff that other people write. This helps us to keep improving our own craft, and may also serve to keep us in touch with what’s current in the genres and markets that we ourselves write in. This should not be especially onerous for most writers, given that we’re generally a pretty bookish bunch anyway.
I agree totally with the above. However I’ve realised I have two problems that have affected how much I read, and my enjoyment of it. The first it the most obvious: time. What with writing swallowing up the hours, plus the day job and everything else, reading can easily become a causality of the highly inconvenient fact that there are only twenty-four hours in a day.
The second is perhaps less obvious, and something I’ve become more aware of recently. It’s basically this: as someone who’s been writing seriously for a few years, I’ve inevitably begun to read books as – well, a writer. That means I’m now much more keenly aware of how stories are structured, how plots develop, the words that are used, the point of view, and so on. All the stuff that we learn and think about and discuss as writers.
Of course to a great extent, that’s the point. When we read outstanding books, with brilliantly-drawn characters, involving storylines, cracking dialogue, economic and cliché-free prose … we learn valuable lessons. We hope this will rub off on us, that our own writing will progress as a result.
The problem is, we will probably also start to notice the not-so-great things elsewhere. Clichéd prose, over-use of adverbs, typos, unconvincing plot developments, padding – that will all also start to jump out at us.
The last novel I was reading, I had to stop because I decided the standard wasn’t high enough. I hope I don’t sound arrogant when I say I concluded that the author wasn’t any better than me, and in a couple of respects maybe not quite as good. It was actually a pretty reasonable book in many ways, professionally published, and was well-reviewed on Amazon. But there were some aspects of it, some deficiencies, that were starting to grate on me. And I concluded that, with time so precious, I need to focus on higher quality.
Last year I read another – again, conventionally published – that I did actually complete but wasn’t greatly impressed with. There were a couple of errors that shouldn’t have appeared in a professionally-edited book, and the author had one unhappy habit (i.e., over-using a variety of speech verbs) that I found increasingly off-putting. And this was a well-established and reasonably successful writer.
Of course, I can’t expect to love every single book I read, or to enjoy everything that others do. It’s a much too subjective business for that. But I’m now asking myself – has being a writer in some way reduced my ability to simply enjoy books? Do I over-analyse everything I read? Do I now see faults when previously I would have overlooked them?
The answer is – I’m not completely sure. I think it might be true up to a point. My standards may be higher than before – but they probably need to be. My reading diet needs to be good.
But, having said that, in the past I’ve given up on books too – but probably didn’t realise why a particular story wasn’t engaging me. Now I’m more likely to see why, the exact reasons I don’t like it, when before I’d have just said it’s boring or something like that.
And if a book is really good, especially well written, then I will still enjoy it. Then I know I’ve struck gold, and that as well as enjoying the experience it might also help to nudge forward my own writing. Such books are truly inspiring and one of the great pleasures of life.
What do you read? Do you look at books differently as your own writing has progressed? Do you sometimes give up on books, or do you always plough on to the end?