Why I Read, As a Writer

Again... I've read all of these. Not really.

Again… I’ve read all of these. Not really.

This’ll be a short post. As a writer, and as a seasoned critic (well seasoned. Old Bay is my favorite), I’m constantly fighting a tug-of-war battle with reading and writing and other forms of research. We all have jobs. We all have passions outside our jobs. And we all love to write (or want to love to write). It’s not easy for me to read for long lengths of time, mostly because I have so many other things going on (like diligently testing new video games as they come out. haha I could manage my time better).

The good news is I take as well as I give, and although I’m a pretty hard critiquer, I’m not a jerk. I’m actually a really nice guy. So, every writer should read. It’s powerfully important. Why SHOULD I be reading?

To expand vocabulary, to improve sentence structure, to research, to emanate a favored author, to give assistance to others, and to have fun.

So I boiled them down into three reasons, which incorporates all of the above fragmented sentence. I read for three reasons: for a friend, for research, and for fun. Two of these get me very far. The third doesn’t. You might be surprised as to which one.

Let’s start with “for a friend.” I love to critique. Absolutely love it. It’s like looking at a little puzzle that SHOULD have all the pieces, but sometimes pieces are missing, sometimes pieces are bent, and sometimes pieces are just faded too much to see. And on top of that, you’re not actually looking at a puzzle, but being described one. It’s brilliant. I love it. Unfortunately, having critiqued for so long and for so many people, I get short-sighted when I look at a hastily-communicated puzzle. Sometimes it takes only the first sentence for me to say, “Nope.”

Funny story about that. Remember my previous post? With the excerpt for Of Salt and Wine/Fire? I did something I thought I’d never do for a book, and that’s begin it with a quote. Not only that, I begin it with a quote, AND THEN, the main character speaks. So a second quote. In the writing world, that should be a HUGE no-no, unless it’s a quote-heavy book. See, the important thing for most readers is to be given a proper stage, and that’s literally down to the first word they read. I’ve taken it to heart. Furthermore, if I read the first line of a book that wrote what I did, I’d be dying to read it, so I feel it’s fine. It’s intriguing enough to set my gears whirring. Anywho.

So when a friend passes something over to me, I’m super excited. But! I have to know what kind of person this friend is, so I can critique accordingly. A lot of people don’t have a thick skin. They’re offended when you say, “This word doesn’t belong; this phrase is weak.” Why? Because a lot of people believe you’re attacking them when you critique something they write. For some reason, they think, “This represents me, therefore it is an extension of me.” Please don’t take things personally. I might be wrong–heck, most of what I end up writing is stylistic, anyway: poor flow, poor word choice, forgotten dog in the scene, etc–all of which you can say, “I disagree,” and we move on.

But I read to help. I love it. I love reading others’ words, especially when I have an emotional, or even a communicative, connection with them. It’s part of why I love Pollock’s City’s Son book: he replied to THREE of my tweets to him, and that made him a superstar in my book. It was super cool, yeah, and he didn’t want a critique, but whatever. Good stuff.

I have a LOT to offer the general writing community, especially since there are so many beginners out there–or not even beginners, but those who haven’t gone to college to get a degree in doing this exact same thing. Yes, people. I’m a Pro-with-a-capital-P-fessional. While a lot of other skills fell by the wayside (I don’t fire my bow and arrow enough…), I work my tail off to keep these skills steel-sharp and ready to shave. Yeah. Sounded better in my head.

Next, for research. I don’t know how many times I looked at an intriguing book, stared at it for a really long time, and never read it because it wasn’t interesting enough. The style was awesome, the ability of the writer was through the roof, but for whatever reason, it didn’t work for me. Then one day, I look at it and say, “Would you like to write like him? Even a little? Uh-huh. Then research why you like him.” Boom. Gobbled that book up quicker than a Thanksgiving turkey. In fact this is the easiest way for me to read a book. If a novel is interesting, and can be used toward my personal writing, I don’t ACTUALLY put it down until I’m done. The only time it didn’t work is that accursed House of Leaves novel, where I got so depressed and angry just from the mood, I can’t go more than twenty pages at a time.

And OH! All the cool stuff I learned. And even if I read it to get in the frame of mind to write in that, I dunno, atmosphere or setting, it works. It works brilliantly. I highly recommend looking at a book you’d love to read but aren’t particularly interested in the content (for whatever reason), and try it. Works like a charm for me.

For example: my latest work involves a girl on a boat built for forty souls. Lots of seawater. Lots of cramped spaces. How do I get in that mindset? Well, the first place I went was the classic Moby Dick by Herman Melville. The first time I tried to read the thing was ten years ago, and I got through, oh, two chapters. Nope. Not for me. But now? I’m halfway through in four days, because it’s in the same headspace as I am. It’s dark, rainy, diluted with all sorts of information no average reader would care to know, and full of these little descriptive gems that make me want to write it down in a notebook. SO I DO. See that? Research. Managed.

I also watched Captain and Commander: the Far Side of the World (I know they’re books. But I’m broke right now.) and plan to read Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea because: awesome.

Finally: For fun. This is the hardest thing for me to do anymore. My critiquer mind does not ever seem to quit. It aggravates Magnolia to no end: she’s a “shush and watch the movie the first time” kind of person, and I’m the “WHAT!? THAT DOESN’T MAKE SENSE!” kinda person. I don’t ever want to see Magnolia brood. That could end up hurting my shoulder.

So the biggest problem with “for fun” is there is little I enjoy reading anymore. Mostly? I don’t make time for it. Somewhat? I. Keep. Getting. Burned. By. Boring. Books. And I can’t turn the critical stuff off. Like, if there’s a major issue with the story somewhere, it eats me up. I mean, grammar and spelling errors and missed periods (that’s what she said) are fine. I don’t mind that one bit. But some people have a writing style that’s lazy, or sloppy, or overlook vast amounts of important information that I deem weak writing.

I WAS going to talk about Lev Grossman but I won’t. It’s a great book. I really can’t find much to gripe about it, after letting it settle down in my gut. I WILL talk about a guess-buy book called The Sheen on the Silk by whoever: she was lauded as a masterful storyteller, multiple best-sellers, really understands the topic material, and great. I just played Assassins Creed and was in the mood for 1400’s undeveloped ocean towns, wanted to find a diamond in the rough, as Jafar would say, and set my gaze on her. The first part felt rushed–she talked about this woman escaping from somewhere and surviving to somewhere–and then, in a sentence, removed all the intricate details of an important story. She wrote something along the lines of “She then spent some time establishing herself in the community, and before long she was selling bread. She set her sights on the royal house.” Like, it stopped me. How does an outsider simply walk into Mordor and say, “Here’s bread!” and people go, “Oooh! Outsider bread! My favorite! Even though I have other friends who make bread next door to me, the way I like it, and we’ve known each other for thousands of years, let me just go over to this person who is stealing OUR business by setting up shop in THIS corner. Who does she think she is!? Mmm. Disgusting. But. I’ll continue going.”

This wasn’t the first time. After a few paragraphs, she was suddenly advising some high-end official about something or another, and got the opportunity to do business with some conniving guy in the royal court. Like, in four paragraphs, she went from barely surviving some war to being so well-established in the community, she had a date to sit in on court the following week? Seriously. Talk about meteoric rise (and about that phrase. Meteoric rise. Wouldn’t it be more of a meteoric fall?). I WANTED so bad for that book to shine, I even bypassed the first time the writer skipped the hard work (and nearly impossible to explain work). Nope. Three chapters in, done.

The opposite side of the whole “for fun” reading is I am SO inspired, I set the book down to go write. This has happened several times, mostly out of inspirational Eureka moments where something grandiose came to me and I wanted to slather salivations all over my characters. They loved it. Seriously.

For example: Guy Gavriel Kay is an impressive writer. He’s one of those guys that burrows deep into history, or legend, or myth, to dig up intense truths. He wrote a novel about Vikings. He talked about something called the Blood Eagle. He wrote about it a lot. Sparing details, it’s a gruesome way to die, and shows your contempt by doing it. I have NEVER heard of that before. NEVER. And EVERY time I read it, I want to go skipping into my office/second bedroom/family room and write about new and clever ways to kill someone while they yet breathe. I don’t. Because there’s a strange line I haven’t crossed from fantasy into horror. And it’s a tough book to read. Dry. Magic is sparse, names are rampant, kingdoms rise and fall, and shit gets done.

Most of my novels, lined up in a row, are “for fun” novels. Rothfuss’ second book is “research.” Simmons’ Carrion Comfort is a for-fun, but research-worthy.

How do YOU read? I know I’m a strange bird, and surely I don’t make up the majority of readers. Is it all simply for fun? Is it research-based? Do you have Eureka moments? I’d love to know.

Chris

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4 thoughts on “Why I Read, As a Writer

  1. And you don’t mention Lev Grossman. It’s like you can already imagine what I’m going to say. 😛

    Have to say, I have the same critical-process ‘reading for fun’ problem you do. My thing is, I actually think the critical process is PART of reading for fun. I like a little meat to chew on, something to disagree with, something to mull over and consider multifacetedly (shittiest adverb ever, yes). It makes you grow as a person and as a writer to read something, find a fault in it or a question, and examine it. And I know this makes me crazier than a sack full of cats, but I find that way more entertaining than the ‘getting lost in a good book’ that gets advertised in libraries countrywide. I don’t like to get lost. Or perhaps: if I do, I enjoy clawing my way back up.

    I guess I’m with Magnolia at first here: I like to shut up and watch the movie, because something that doesn’t make sense at first, or seems like a plot hole/mistake, might later prove important. But after it’s over, I’m with you. It’s Critique Time. DND’s threatened my voicebox on several occasions over this, and even I can’t say I blame him.

    • Maybe I should have Emily add-ons at the end of my posts. 😉 Rah rah rah JK JK.

      You’re completely right. My definition for “just for fun” is entirely different than most readers I’ve met. They read to escape (“get lost in a good book”), and even though we both love books, it’s nearly impossible for me to talk to them about anything. It’s kinda strange, and a little surprising. Gosh. The world needs more people like you and I. Just saying.

      AND! Movie example: Oculus. At one point, Sis says something to the effect of, “It controls our thoughts. Nothing is reliable.” I said, ah. I can’t depend on anything. And I frowned. And I looked at Magnolia. And she said, irritably, “What?” “Nothing they say or do, in this movie, is dependable. I have nothing to hold on to.” She pursed her lips. I watched it, and it happened that way, and it griped me. And she was griped because, you know, I talked and ruined it for her. 😦 I need to work on that.

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