Monday, April 16, 2012

Writing, Reading, and the Inherent Dangers Therein: Guest post by Elise Rome

Thanks so much to Brooklyn Ann for inviting me to blog today! When she first approached me about the idea for this post, I immediately said yes. She asked me to write about how we readers-turned-writers can turn off the “critique” side and read just to be a reader again.

The truth is—at least for me—I’m never “only” a reader anymore. I’ve spent too much time editing my own work and critiquing others’ manuscripts. Even when a friend asks me to just do a beta read for her (i.e. reading full manuscript without comments and instead giving summary of feedback at the end), I can’t help myself. I have to turn that track change marker on and mark anything I see that could be improved. Even when I tell myself that I’m just going to read a book for fun, I might not be as analytical about what I read, but I’ll still be reading along and hit something—a specific plot device, perhaps—and my writer brain will wake up and shout, “Look at that!” I’m tempted to say it’s a curse, but I have to admit that I like it. =) More on that in a minute.

For example, right now I’m re-reading one of my favorite books of all time, DEVIL IN WINTER by Lisa Kleypas. I haven’t re-read this book since becoming a writer, and although I still love it with an equal amount of passion as before, I’m now able to notice things about Ms. Kleypas’ (who just happens to also be one of my very favorite authors) writing that I never noticed the first time around. Here are just a few things I’ve seen:

1)      She gives one or more paragraphs of information about a specific historical fact or tradition. It’s not coming from the character, but from the author herself directed at the reader. We’re always told to show, not tell, but this is very obvious telling.
2)      In the hero or heroine’s POV she gives physical tags about that specific person—taking a step out from the third person limited to omniscient and back again.
3)      She repeatedly uses the same words when describing her hero’s mannerisms. For example, he raises a brow sardonically or murmurs wryly.

All these are things that I would mark up in a critique, and yet, here’s the thing that strikes me as I’m reading this book again. Despite the three instances I mentioned above and any others I may come across in the future, I’m still enjoying the book. I notice these issues and move on, but the book still works! In fact, I can’t turn the pages fast enough. Perhaps even more importantly, I remember that when I read DEVIL IN WINTER for the first time, before I started writing seriously, I didn’t notice any of these—and I loved the book. Makes one wonder about all the “rules” we have as writers…

As a result, I now have two differing opinions on reading books from a writer’s perspective. First of all, I think it is a blessing rather than a curse to be able to notice what works and what doesn’t work in books other than our own. I believe this can only make our own work better, because we’ll be able to translate that knowledge into our manuscripts. Secondly, however, I think it’s important to realize that just because we see something “wrong” as in the Lisa Kleypas examples given above, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it was wrong for that author or that book. We personally may not like writing like this in our own work, but instead of calling something wrong and turning our nose up at someone else’s book, we should instead look at how that author makes the “wrong” look right.

Again, using the examples from DEVIL IN WINTER from Lisa Kleypas given above:

1)      Although she gives the reader direct information about historical information, she only gives enough of it to satisfy the reader’s curiosity—and then she moves on. Because of this, rather than it slowing down the pacing or shouting at me as author intrusion, I appreciate this piece of knowledge that doesn’t detract from the story but rather enhances it.
2)      Although she gives the POV character physical tags that they wouldn’t be able to see in their POV, it is subtle enough that as a reader I still feel like I’m in the scene with the characters, and I even feel that I know them a little better than I would otherwise if only given access to their direct POV.
3)      The consistent use of certain adverbs and adjectives in the hero’s mannerisms keeps his character consistent, reminding the reader of the villainous bad boy persona we were introduced to at the beginning of the book.

As you can see, analyzing how an author violates “rules” and yet makes them work can be just as effective as analyzing how an author does something “right” or does something “wrong” that we should try to avoid in our own writing.

As for trying to read for pleasure and leaving our writer brains elsewhere, I have to say that I think this is one of the inherent dangers in becoming a writer. You’re never not one. However, there have been a few times when I’ve had success with getting lost in a book, and that’s when I’ve given myself permission to enjoy the book as it is and later come back to it for a full analysis of what worked and what didn’t. I’ll cross my fingers that this approach works for you, too! =)

As a reader-turned-writer, what do you think is the most valuable part about reading other authors’ work? Have you had success turning off your writer brain for the sake of pleasure-reading? If so, how?

1 comment:

  1. I'm not quite answering the question, but this hit a nerve for me. Rules are a load of crap and I abhor how the craft discussion in the community has embraced such a narrow definition of good writing. I wish we would broaden the discussion to issues of style and recognize that there is not one single road to good writing. "The rules" are a great starting point for absolute neophytes and I absolutely believe in them as a teaching tool, but at a certain point of sophistication and experience, *every* writer should graduate beyond them. Tastes vary. Style is different and that is a *good* thing. If everyone followed the rules so closely we were basically writing in the same meta voice, how boring would that be?

    Nathan Bransford said this well in his blog post, Ten Commandments for Editing Someone's Work:

    9. Remember that personal taste is personal - We humans can be too sure of our own viewpoints. We may hate things other people love and love things other people hate. Never be too sure of your opinions when editing; you may be the only person who feels that way. Be cautious when making suggestions and frame your thoughts as your own personal reaction rather than as a pronouncement from the editing gods.