If there is one piece of advice that runs common across all writing advice articles that I have ever read, it is this...
All the experts, including Stephen King, emphasize the importance of reading for writers.
I understand this and completely agree, therefore, I try to read as much as possible. I admit that I don't read nearly as much as I should. I certainly don't fit the bookworm stereotype.
The truth is, I am an incredibly slow reader. I like to read every...single...word. I like to digest the words, absorb them into my brain, and silently pronounce each one. If there is a word I don't know, I immediately look up the definition (much easier with a Kindle, but I still do it when reading hardcovers).
When I read posts on social media asking how many books I read in a year or what am I reading this weekend, I always feel a bit ashamed. I am a writer. I should be reading all the time! I should read a book a week, perhaps I should even be reading several books at once!
A Model Reader, I Am Not
My reading habits do not fit the typical mold of a writer, at least according to all the articles and blogs I read. Here's why:
1. I avoid the New York Times best seller list like I avoid the plague
Maybe it's my inner rebel, but I rarely read recommended books, especially those recommended by the gatekeepers of literature. I like to find my own way to a book. Rarely, the book may actually turn out to be a NYT best seller, but I don't know it beforehand. Most of the books I read are what I call "know nothing" books I find at flea markets or the free shed at the local recycling center.
I make an exception for recommendations regarding the "classics", as I figure enough regular people have read them to prove they are worth the time. I also confess to taking advantage of the monthly Kindle First offerings as a member of Amazon Prime. At this point, though, my list of Kindle First books "to be read" is freakishly long.
2. I easily forget author names, titles, character names, and plots
Read a good book lately? I have. In fact I have read many good books. Just don't ask me who wrote them, the title, or what they were about.
There are maybe a handful of books I have read in my life that I can easily remember the title and author and a bit of the plot. Most of the time, however, the minute my eyes hit THE END, I'm on to the next.
It's not that I don't enjoy the books, or that I don't become engrossed in the characters and plot so deeply that I lose track of time, because I do. Perhaps I read books "in the moment", like I am living them along with the characters, so that when their story is done, so is my participation.
I've even started reading a book only to discover that the story and characters seem familiar. Surprise! I'm one hundred pages in before I realize I've read it before. Maybe I should start keeping a journal...
3. Reading makes me sleepy
You know the image of the young child reading under the blankets with a flashlight late at night? Yeah. That's not me.
I read in bed every night. Three pages in and my eyes start to wag. Then I reread the sentences I slept through...several times. Then I doze a bit, realize I've drifted off, and try to read some more, until finally giving up. But the story is so good, I want to keep reading. I just can't.
I decided the problem was that I save my reading for the end of the day when I am most tired, so a while ago I made the commitment to read in the afternoon as well. Every day. No excuses. I sat on my sofa with a different book, not my Kindle, and began to read. Within a few minutes, I struggled to keep my eyes open.
I tried to vary the location, the book, the lighting, the time of day, and it always ended the same. Finally, I had to just accept the inevitable.
Reading makes me sleepy.
4. I am a picky reader.
This may seem contradictory, since I have admitted to reading the aforementioned "know nothing" books, however, my pickiness has more to do with the author's writing style than with the story line. Although, a lazy plot is a frequent source of frustration with me.
Professional writers who give advice suggest reading best sellers within your own genre to learn what works. Fledgling fantasy writers should study the Harry Potter series like a master class in popular fantasy writing. Aspiring romance novelists should study Nora Roberts' many titles to understand their audience. Novice horror writers should study Stephen King's novels (actually, all aspiring writers should at least read some of King's writing, especially On Writing).
While I understand the reasoning, I rarely like to read novels like homework assignments. I prefer recreational reading, which is why I am a picky reader.
Because I am a writer I have learned how to avoid certain pitfalls of bad writing (whether or not I have been successful at avoiding those pitfalls is for the reader to judge). Even if I am guilty of bad writing in my own work, I have a keen eye for identifying bad writing in the work of others (maybe I should have been an editor). I have read books from best selling authors that contain tired cliches and other writing crutches, which makes me wonder how they ever made it to final copy.
I have started to read several books lately, only to be so turned off by bad writing that I had to give up. I hate not finishing books, even not-so-great books, so the writing has to bother me a lot to warrant giving up.
Not Reading Like a Writer Should
There are other ways in which I don't "read like a writer", but those are the big ones. Sometimes I feel bad for not reading more. Sometimes I wonder if the image of the writer as an avid (even rabid) reader is realistic in today's world. Maybe it's a romantic notion, or simply a fantasy of what we want a writer's personality to be.
I don't think I'll start reading fiction for my writing anytime soon, however, I always read like a writer.
Next week, I'll discuss the signs of bad writing that drive me crazy, how the fear of my own bad writing can paralyze progress, and I will lament how I wish I could ignore bad writing and just enjoy the story.
I write novels and poetry and this blog.