Monday, July 20, 2009

Does being a writer make you a lousy reader?


By Kathryn Lilley
I brought home many, many books from Thrillerfest. So many books that Delta charged me an extra fifty bucks for the sardine flight back to LA.

As soon as I settled into my seat, I opened the first thriller from my TBR bag. I was looking forward to it. The book had an eye-catching cover that was plastered with snippets of positive reviews, accompanied by blurbs from BNAs (Big Name Authors). Best of all, the story opened with a plane crash. I'm a nervous-Nelly flier, so I was ready to be terrified.

But ten pages into the book, I was yawning. Worse, I was getting
irritated with the author.

As the pages dragged on, I started pulling apart each paragraph in my head, muttering things like, "This dialogue is way too symmetrical. You should have changed up the rhythm here, lost that attribution tag there. How the heck did you get those BNA blurbs?"

After a few more pages, my mental rewrite got too exhausting. Thriller #1 was a bust. I tossed it back into the bag.

Thriller #2 was a winner, but I still couldn't get into it fully. Every time I hit a taut scene or a seamless transition, I detached and thought, "Okay, so how did this writer pull that off? What can I learn here?"

Unfortunately, being a writer has spoiled the reading experience for me. I can't lose myself in books the way I used to. I'm like a nosy, jealous chef, sampling dishes and trying to figure out what spices were used.

My reading rut started about the time that I started writing my current series. I had no time to read due to a combination of deadline pressures and my day job. Now that I'm shifting gears to write in a new genre (and am sans day job, say hallelujah), I'm reading again. It's like I'm mapping brand new waters, separating the sharks from the flounders. (I know: Block that metaphor!).

It's good to be reading again. But darnit, the thrill is gone.

How about you? Does being a writer kill some of the joy of the reading experience?

19 comments:

  1. Totally agree. Not only has becoming a writer changed my reading experience, but also my movie going experience. I used to enjoy going to "guy movies", you know, where things get blown up. Can't do it anymore and it bothered me for a while, but I've just become more selective.

    The same happened to my reading. When a scene works, I'm trying to figure out why, so I can copy it.

    Missed you at Thrillerfest. It was awesome for me.

    twitter.com/thenextwriter

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  2. So true, Kathryn!
    Unless it's a truly outstanding book, I'm analyzing as much as reading. Once in a while, I'm so involved, I don't critique. Most recent example: the newest Dexter book. I know I can't do what Lindsay does, so I don't even try!
    FYI -- it's already out in the UK and some bookstores have it.

    And, like Douglas, the same with movies ...

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  3. Katherine, I agree totally. I rarely enjoy reading these days. I remember when I was younger aqnd I could have three books in different rooms and I would read whichever I was with at the time and keep them straight. I read for pleasure only, well, and for information. Those days I miss.

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  4. I was always a picky reader anyway. I've put down multiple books after a 100 pages or so because I either don't care about the characters or like the story.

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  5. Absolutely! When I took my first class on "writing edgy fiction," Alton Gansky told us, "Once you start writing, you'll never read a book the same way again." How true.
    It doesn't take away my enjoyment when I find minor errors, but it still hurts when I find a significant craft mistake in the work of a favorite author. Makes me wonder if they were in too much of a hurry to make deadline.

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  6. We do have more things stop us. My critique partners would never let me get away with that. How did the copy editor miss that, etc.

    So maybe I need to quit reading the "How to write" books?

    However I still find some gems to read. =)

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  7. Good blog, Kathryn. I spent over 21 years in broadcast post production. It got to where I couldn't watch TV or go to the movies without analyzing every aspect of editing technique, sound mixing, lighting, effects, transitions, titling, and on and on. I still do it today. There's a Verison commercial currently running where a father strikes a piñata at a child’s birthday party and 12 tons of candy falls out. Enough to fill 20 piñatas. While everyone else is concentrating on the message of wide area callership, I’m trying to see how the blue screen was set up and looking for the CGI masking to cover what would have to be a huge container of candy. Or maybe they shot the dropping of the candy on a blue-screen stage and CGI’d it into the shot of the piñata. Or maybe they . . .

    And the same goes for books. It’s rare I can get through the first 5 pages of any novel without dissecting every aspect of the writer’s style, voice, construction, and all the other elements needed for a decent read. And having judged the Edgars this year and been exposed to 228 original paperbacks, there were times when I slammed the book shut and threw it across the room wondering what the acquisition editor had been smoking? Being a writer is a curse when it comes to reading other’s work. It’s impossible for me to just enjoy without disassembling a book down to its bedrock. Maybe I need a nap.

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  8. I don't know that it has killed my reading experience, but I do notice things now that I don't think I ever did before. For example, reading Twilight was absolute torture for me. There may be plenty of people who like it, but I found the writing simplistic and torturous. I literally dragged myself through it, just to see if it got any better, but alas it didn't. I'm hoping that I don't always analyze every book in that way, since I like reading so much.

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  9. Wow, I love these responses! Now I don't feel so alone (grin).
    Douglas, sorry to have missed you at Thrillerfest. Wasn't it a great conference?
    Camille, I have one of the Dexter books and really enjoyed it, so I'll give the new one a shot. Maybe it'll cure my reading malaise.
    Martin, it's great that you give a book 100 pages. I just checked where I stopped on my airplane book--page 14! I must have the attention span of a guppy.
    Richard, I'm with you about the craft thing. I use one of my writing books, "Don't Murder Your Mystery," as a technical checklist. It has helped me catch many craft gooflaws.
    Sharon, maybe we should take notes about all the things that stop us and write our own "How To Write" book!
    John & Joe, thanks for your comments--I was gobsmacked by that Verizon ad, Joe. Considering all the whiz-bang special effects we take for granted, it's funny that I get totally mesmerized by a waterfall of candy. But of course, I am a chocolate junkie!
    Eric, I'm so glad to hear that someone else thought Twilight was torture. At first I thought I'm just too old for it. But my daughter also couldn't stand it, and she's in the right age group. I never liked soap operas, bodice-ripping romances, or werewolf stories, either. I did have a crush on Barnabus of Dark Shadows back in the day, however, so maybe I would have loved Twilight as a kid!

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  10. Kathryn - I have had just the same experience and felt that writing had ruined reading for me. Just recently however I have found that I have been able to swicth off the writer brain and just fall into a book. The books have been outstanding mind you but I have LOVED being able to be transported again. So for me at least the thrill was lost and then it was found! If it's a mediocre or crap book mind you I can't last beyond about page 10 before the analyst takes over...

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  11. I do find myself more impatient. It used to be I could never NOT finish a book. Now, if I'm not grabbed by chapter 2 or 3, I'm going to go to the end then put the book aside.

    But like Clare, I do find I'm able to get lost in a good book when one comes around. Last night I started Joe Gores' Spade & Archer, his prequel to The Maltese Falcon. Since the latter is one of my favorite novels of all time, I was extra wary. But I'm loving it. It's so nice to have that happen.

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  12. Last year it was Tana French's book The Woods that did it for me - brought the magic back that is:) Just last week I devoured a YA book called The Hunger Games - it was just so well done I was totally captivated and didn't even think about technique or style. I just got lost in the book...aah...it was great!

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  13. I agree completely. In fact, I wrote about something similar on my blog a couple days ago.

    I have noticed that I can't read for fun anymore. The books I used to enjoy, I don't...mainly because I can see all their flaws, and am reminded of my own, and how I can fix them.

    I am on the lookout for a book that can make me forget about stuff like that, but I haven't come across one lately. I know they're out there, so I'll keep looking!

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  14. I guess I'm lucky because I seem to be able to turn off the overly critical eye when I need to. If I'm reading a book to learn something about the author's technique, I'm picking it apart as I go. If I'm reading for pleasure, I turn that off and just try to enjoy. Only if there is a glaring issue do I notice it.

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  15. Oh, I agree, although it comes and goes. I was a Thriller award judge this year and that was a fairly frustrating experience, not because the books were necessarily bad, but because (gulp) there was such a sameness to them for me. (I didn't read all entries and oddly enough didn't read any of the finalists).

    I find myself increasingly reading nonfiction books, something I didn't used to be able to do at all, but I discovered all sorts of things I was interested in--American history, anthropology, archaeology--that I wouldn't have guessed I was actually interested in.

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  16. Mark, I wonder if some thrillers suffer from a certain sameness because writers are chasing after an established "success" formula. Probably the next breakout thriller will be one that is very distinct, and maybe even breaks some conventions.

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  17. I dunno. Catch me when I'm too tired to write and the inner editor is way too sleepy to stir.

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  18. I wrote more books in the past 5 years than I have read. Does this answer your question?
    Harry Mulisch, a Dutch bestseller writer sold more than 2 million copies of one title in a country with 15 million people, but never read books.
    There are writers and readers. Readers don't write books and writers probably don't enjoy reading books. That's why they write books that they enjoy.

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  19. My formal education was to be a classical musician. In graduate school, I took a course called Chamber Music Interpretation. First day of class, the teacher told us, "You have all chosen to earn your living as musicians. This means you have given up the luxury of ever listening to music purely for entertainment."

    he was right. Even now, 15 years removed from my music career, I can rarely tolerate "background" music; I have to LISTEN to it as a performance. I read like that now, too. It goes with the territory.

    (Word verification is hicksise, which tell you how large clothing is in West Virginia.)

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