Bookshelf Landmines

[picapp src=”7/0/5/e/Girl_810_sitting_f1cf.jpg?adImageId=5164369&imageId=5065931″ width=”380″ height=”253″ /] I was three when I learned to read—or so my mother supposed. In reality, I had heard Old Doctor Goat so many times I had soaked up the words and could recite them from memory, moving my finger along the pages to suit.

Then I was about twelve when we drove the thousand miles to the ocean, and my mother says she had to yell at me to look at the view. “That’s nice,” I guess I said, then put my nose back in a book, where it stayed the entirety of the trip.

In short, almost from the moment I first drew breath, I have been a slave to the written word.

And from the vantage point of my forties, nothing much has changed. I cannot conceive of a day where I don’t wish to read myself to sleep, or a week that would elapse without a visit to bookstore or library. These things are as essential as eating to me, yeast in the bread of my life.

But writing—more specifically critiquing—has put some kinks in my relationship with books, and something another writer said on the weekend made me wonder whether I’m alone. See, whereas I’ve always struggled with the issues of storage and time around books, now my biggest issue seems to be one of quality. Let me explain.

I have a loooong way to go before I’d consider myself competent when it comes to craft. However, now that I have a critique group, my understanding of what makes good writing has undergone a sea change. I’m picky. Well, pickier.

The unhappy result is that a lot of books—both old favorites and newcomers I’m almost certain I would have enjoyed in days of yore—have lost the ability to pull me in to the story and keep me there. Nowadays, I’ll be cruising along, enjoying myself, and then, whammo! I’m distracted by head-hopping, irritated by dialogue tags (yes, the ones I’m extracting from my own work with the diligence of a dentist in pursuit of a diseased root), and noticing the hero or heroine’s passivity. 🙁 Grrr!

So on one hand, I feel like I’m mourning the loss of my readerly innocence.

On the other, my bookshelf now groans with books by better and brighter writers, which should be a good thing, yes? Except they’re books I dare not read.

See, my Internal Editor is alive and well, and although—as some of you may recall— it resides in the hunkalicious personhood of Daniel Craig. Still, who really wants the IE  to interrupt a moment of writing genius? Particularly when they’re all-too rare.

And that’s what happens to me if I attempt to read a book by the writers I hugely admire. It’s like I succumb to the worst case of sibling rivalry you could imagine, invoking self-doubt on a Nobel Prize-winning scale. Except on steroids. In Technicolor. It’s gotten to the point I feel like I’m walking a minefield each time I open one of my papered friends. Will I be bored, irritated and frustrated? Or blinded by brilliance, dazzled, and dejected?

But I cannot not read!

The only solution I’ve found thus far is to do one of the following: stick to reading non-fiction, or reading something so completely outside of my genre that I’d never have the ambition to write anything similar. It’s good that I’m reading more broadly. I just hate that it’s at such a high price.

So I have questions for those of you who write and are passionate about reading?  Have you experienced anything like this? Or am I alone in this neurosis? And if you have gone through this already, will I improve? Can I hope to acclimate to this new level of readership and go on as blissfully as before, albeit with new literary friends? (Sniff) What say you, Gentle Readers?

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30 thoughts on “Bookshelf Landmines

  1. Hee hee.

    Well, putting Daniel Craig aside (for a brief moment), let me say I understand completely. 🙂

    I also can’t read as I once did. Not because I’m pickier, but for one of the following reasons:

    1) I’d rather be writing
    2) Writer’s Envy (please don’t even MENTION Shadow of the Wind, only one of the most deliciously written books I’ve ever panged over)

    I also read for insight now. I read to see how someone else handles magic, or structure, or time, or … pick it, I’ve looked at it. Which means if I don’t see how the book applies to my own work, I don’t have the time for it. Even if once I longed to read it.

    Last night I read something for pleasure, but by the end I was reading it to get my mind AWAY from my own manuscript, which was causing me some angst as I tried to nail down a plot point of crucial import. *sigh*

    No, it’s not the experience it once was. But it still gives me joy when I pick up a book which allows me to disappear, and at the end to realize the tale was well-told. But heaven forfend the voice was one I’d like to have. 🙂

    1. Yes! This is the other conundrum: even if I could let go of reading for pleasure, I can’t if I want to learn. Of necessity that means reading the writers I most admire and doing my best not to get pulled into the envy.

  2. After I started writing, I couldn’t read novels for years. It was a real loss in my life. (I filled it with computer games, apparently–where did those years go?)

    It’s like knowing all the buttons, and being able to see when they are pushed.

    Or like watching a movie and knowing in your mind that off to the right is the make-up trailer, and there are cameras swooping around, and a director stopping the action to give advice. You can’t let your imagination loose.

    So it takes a very VERY high-quality novel to allow me to let go of what I know about writing and just read.

    1. I have started a response a dozen times, yet I have deleted it, as I sound as if I am on a soapbox each time.

      So, I will just say I haven’t been deterred from reading, just turned off certain authors I once loved, due to a forumla driven prose, mostly driven from agents/authors lack of insight and wanting to make a fast buck and cashing in on an award winning author’s name.

      If this sound like I am on a soapbox still, feel free to delete it, hope101.

  3. Laura, that theater analogy is exactly right. I’ll find myself reading and think, “Oh, she just inserted that quirky sidekick so I can learn backstory now.” That’s not the experience I look for when I’m trying to live vicariously through another person’s eyes.

    And may I just say, if this is the Laura Kinsale—the multi-RITA’s historical romance writer; the one regularly feted on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books in the most glowing of terms—your books have given my Imposter Syndrome more than a few nights of fuel with which to torture me, lady! So much so that I have your entire backlist on my shelf but don’t dare touch them. (Intended as a compliment, btw, in case I’ve been too oblique.)

    So which books are the ones that pull you in and allow you to forget the mechanism of story?

  4. I don’t think I’ve gotten far enough into the process to be truly bothered by reading other writer’s work yet. I’m only about 30k or so into my first novel. I did get ruined by reading somebody who totally blew my mind last year though.

    Jacqueline Carey really stepped up my expectations for what I want from a novel. Now I want many more complex characters and sweeping narrative. I love learning about large casts. It keeps me on my toes trying to figure out where they fit into the greater scheme of things.

    I hope this problem with reading doesn’t develop. I don’t really read outside of the fantasy genre and that’s what I write as well, so I won’t be able to just read another genre. I’m usually pretty good about turning of my IE while trying to be entertained though. It’s why I don’t think I could ever be a book blogger. Writing and entertainment are things I try to keep separate in my head. Maybe finding a way to draw a line there for yourself could help.

    Best of luck!

  5. Yes. You will basically hone your reading selection to those that ring your internal writer’s bell. However, don’t toss aside the books that seem a bit ‘fluffy’. There are lessons to learn from those books as well. 🙂

  6. I am sooo there!

    Last night, I picked a grammar mistake, and an inappropriate sentence fragment in just one chapter of the novel I’m reading. I think that’s why critique group is so addictive. It’s a the whole learning process to out-write stuff like that. I’ve already noticed the steady improvement of our group as the weeks roll on.

  7. Robert, I like your idea about boundaries, and I hope very much you are able to maintain yours. Just because I have this problem doesn’t mean that anyone else need experience it. And congratulations on the 30K! How long have you been writing?

    JLC, I can’t bear to toss any book. Well, unless they put forward a racist view, or something I find morally repugnant. Everything else goes to my library, my friends, or the second hand book store. But there are some “fluffy” books I’ve had to let go. Others have enough story in them I’m willing to overlook clunky mechanics. It’s like that old saw which goes something like “readers will forgive bad writing but not a bad story”.

    Donna, yay for improvement! Let’s hope we just keep getting better. 🙂

    1. I only started writing my novel at the beginning of August, and the last 4 weeks or so have been pretty dry. I’m just starting to get back on track. So, most of that 30k was written in August.

  8. Yes, this is Laura Kinsale, The. 😉

    Hmm, good question about which books. In the past few years I’ve very tentatively begun reading fiction again. I re-read NEUROMANCER and thought it was wonderful. Re-read THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN (John Fowles), it also held up, along with Dickens.

    Recently, much enjoyed the writing and characterization in HAVEMERCY, a sort of steampunk novel by two young first-time authors. Their writing is very mature and while I skipped over some parts I was staying up late to finish it, always a good sign!

    THE #1 LADIES DETECTIVE AGENCY series are great, particularly in audio, as they happen to have a wonderful reader. Not sure if I’d love them as much if I’d read them, but they are great fun to listen to.

    1. Hahaha. No fair. You’re an excellent writer and you have a sense of humor. Leave some of the good stuff for the rest of us. Please. 😉

      I love Dickens myself. Read TFL’sW a looong time ago. Mayhap it’s time to revisit.

      You have a new book coming out in February 2010, right? LESSONS IN FRENCH? If you’d like to leave a little teaser here, I’d honestly be thrilled. Particularly since I know you took a writing hiatus for a while.

  9. Before I knew anything about craft, I was all about Nora Roberts/JD Robb. I’ve read and re-read everything she’s written, but as I go through her books again, I’m noticing things I would never have cared about before – and they frustrate me.

    Despite this, I admire her sheer star power and the ability, craft aside, to keep her loyal fans happy. Even now, I’ll still race to the bookstore for the latest Nora book.

    However, it is Greg Isles (as far from romance as you can get) who captivates me. I have yet to discover a craft issue in his work, and am blown away by his stories. David Morrell (yay Canada) is also a craft master.

    Laura – I’m with you on NEUROMANCER and THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN.

    1. I don’t think there’s anyone who can beat Nora Roberts for discipline or commitment. Honestly, it boggles my mind how any one person can write that much.

      You’ve mentioned Greg Isles before. Do you have a particular favorite I can borrow? I’m in the mood for something gripping and completely outside of romance.

  10. I am definitely picky. But I’ve found that if there are certain elements of a book that I really enjoy, I’ll think of it as a good reading experience — “Well, this didn’t work for me, but I loved that.”

    What everyone has said here re: clunky stagecraft metaphors — yes. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!

  11. I did get burned out for a long time. But never ask a writer to plug their upcoming release! How much time (and space) do you have?

    LESSONS IN FRENCH is a light Regency, something of a Georgette Heyer tribute, very different from most of my other books.

    Lady Callista Taillefaire has been jilted three times in spite of her fortune and her father’s best efforts to find her a husband. Now her greatest desire is to win the silver cup at the agricultural fair with her gigantic prize bull, Hubert. But when Callie’s only old flame returns from his long and mysterious absence in France, her quiet spinster life turns upside down.

    Dark-eyed, elegant and a magnet for trouble, Trevelyan d’Augustin has given Callie lessons in more than his language in the past. Her father put a harsh and humiliating end to any dreams of romance with a French émigré scoundrel, however, and Callie never thought to see him again. Swallowing his pride, Trev has finally come home to care for his failing mother, but his secrets and misdeeds follow him.

    First, they have to get the bull out of the kitchen…

    http://search.barnesandnoble.com/booksearch/isbnInquiry.asp?ISBN=9781402237010&

  12. Late to the party, again.
    Since I started on my latest writing jag, the only book I’ve read for pleasure, was Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix. It’s completely out of my genre so I felt ‘safe’ reading it, that is, safe from books that could influence my writing. The only other stuff I’ve read is non-fiction for research purposes. I feel bad, because I know, as a writer, I should read but I feel like I’ve done more than my fair share of reading in the past 40 years. I know what I like to write, and I acknowledge the influence of writers/books in my past but, I just don’t want to read at the moment.
    I know it makes me sound like an oddball, but I’m having too much fun writing at the moment.

  13. I’ve read an excerpt of Lessons in French 3 times so far. Cannot wait to get my hands on the actual book.

    I can usually turn off the Writer in me to read a book. I have more trouble turning off the history teacher and the copy editor (p.t. dayjob) than the writer. But even then, I can usually manage unless there’s something so egregious and repeated I can’t ignore it.

    (The book I’m currently reading uses “Orientate” rather than “Orient” consistently, and while “orientate” is in the dictionary, it is not the word they want to be using. I think it’s because they put the non-copy-edited electronic manuscript out as the e-book version. Grrr.)

    I read fast, so most of the time, I’m at the end of the book thinking over my impressions of the book before the Writer gets started. Then I can figure out what I liked or didn’t like about the book and why. I’m pretty easy to please most of the time. (Although this current book is Really Long, and I’m starting to get a little impatient with its rather leisurely pace…)

  14. Suzanne, I’m certain there are writers who push themselves—or are pushed—to meet deadlines or expectations that stop them from producing their best work. I’m thinking of a book I started last week by a normally dependable writer. This 2009 release was, IMO, far, far below her usual quality of work. Disappointing for me; I can’t even imagine what that will feel like for her when she sees it in print.

    Lisa, you’re absolutely right that I’m not taking the same care to notice what the writer does well, rather than just what they do poorly. Thank you for pointing that out. I think that’ll help me check my critiquing brain at the door when I read.

    Laura, I love Georgette Heyer! Exclamation marks and all. 🙂 I was just saying to my critique group the other night that she wrote incredible dialogue. Pages and pages of chatting in which the reader doesn’t require a single dialogue tag to know who is speaking.

    Wrt your book, this one definitely sounds lighter than your previous works. Also, I wouldn’t have left the opening for you to plug it if I lacked interest. And I’m certain the romance world is glad to have you back on any terms.

    Sue, a few years ago, I wouldn’t have understood what you meant about needing to keep the purity of your own voice intact. But yours is a keeper, m’dear. So I say, do whatever it takes!

    Gail, I’m suddenly grateful I’ve had no occasion to use either “orient” or “orientate” in these posts. 😉 Okay, so what I’m learning here is that if I can just speed up my reading pace, some of the craft issues that frustrate me may not feel as…viscerally offensive. I’ll have to think about that, because part of my pleasure in reading is about word choice, well-executed sentence structure, metaphors, etc. But maybe on those books that have a good story behind clunky execution, that would work for me.

  15. I’ve actually found I like reading *more* now that I’m helplessly aware of all the devices that go into writing a good book. It does mean that I have more scorn for and am far more frustrated by the utter crap, and it also means that sometimes I read something so good it makes me shrivel up a little when I think of where I am with my own writing — but by and large writing, revising and critiquing has made me appreciate just how fraking HARD it is to write really well and sustain that level of skill consistently over the course of a novel.

    …Even knowing the skill I’m seeing is so far out of my league I might as well be throwing a softball at the moon, I still love to see it and pick it apart.

    I think writing and critiquing have made me a better reader. A pickier one, to be sure, but that’s not such a bad thing. 🙂

  16. The other night I was in the middle of a dream, and the POV shifted, and I said, “Hey–no head-hopping!”

    So, yes, craft awareness affects my every moment, waking and sleeping. This makes me appreciate a job well done; when I encounter bad writing, I squirm and skim.

    It usually doesn’t keep me from reading. If I hit a few “eh” books in a row, I’ll choose a palate cleanser, re-reading something I know is well-written (often a Crusie or a Laurie R. King).

    But right now I’m having a hard time choosing reading material, because I don’t want to absorb another writer’s rhythms, good or bad. It’s probably time to pull out my books on papier mache and just look at the pictures.

  17. Amy, I agree with you 100% about having become a more appreciative reader. If I could keep that aspect of having become more educated, along with the ability to be swept away in most every book I read, I would be a very happy woman.

    MJ, and this is why I love you, lol. I’m the kind of person who gets all angsty when I think about things—which makes me a highly-sought after party guest, I promise you ;)— and then there’s you, cutting through to the heart of the matter and moving on into action. I so admire that!

  18. MJ, that’s hilarious. 🙂

    Although I will say that my most recent painful love (Shadow of the Wind) had a few moments of head-hopping and backstory, but… the book was FANTASTIC.

    So, I think the rules are… sometimes bendable. When brilliantly bent, of course. 🙂

    There’s the rub… 🙂

  19. Ah yes, the reader innocence is gone. I have this trouble too. In fact, I am a rereader of certain books and with more writing knowledge my whole base of how I define books I LOVE has changed. It is hard because these books feel like old friends, but now when I read them I notice all those little things. It nags at me. I can’t let it go. I put the book down and wish I could be ignorant.

    Good discussion here, love your thoughts on this.

    Ah, and I know you’ve already gotten one but I think you deserve another Kreative Blogger award. I nominated you on my site 🙂

  20. JM Donahue, I just got back from a five-hour critique meeting where I’ve learned my own significant failings around the issues of craft. Can I just say that your post is the perfect antidote?

    Thank you! I am honored! I will visit your blog tomorrow and leave a message when my brain approaches coherence.

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