Reading as a Writer

7 Jul

A Guest Post by Jodi Meadows

~~~

When I was a teen, I read anything I could get my hands on. Books, newspaper, cereal boxes, warning signs. Anything. If there were words, I read them. During this time, I was writing a little–not very well–but mostly I was reading, filling my head with stories from the library and whatever I could afford from a bookstore.

I loved books indiscriminately. I almost never left a book half-finished. I loved big, never-ending series because they were like going to a second home where I knew all the characters, might get introduced to new ones along the way, and I understood the rules of the world. I got to go on adventures without ever leaving school. (Since a lot of my reading time was hiding the book under the desk so the teacher wouldn’t catch me. . . .)

After I got married, I had the opportunity to write full time–so I took it. I joined the Online Writing Workshop and learned a lot about prose, grammar, structure, character development, my utter lack of logic when it came to character motivation . . . Oh, I could go on about everything I needed to learn, but, heh, let’s not. In addition to receiving critiques, the OWW requires members to give critiques. They say you learn just as much–if not more–from identifying and discussing what does and doesn’t work for you in others’ work. Anxious to do well, I did as many crits as I could possibly manage while still writing The Best Fantasy Novel Ever.

Over the next few years, I became sharply aware of all my failings as a writer and, as a result, hypercritical of any other piece of writing I encountered. Every time I picked up a book, the newly awakened editor part of my brain reared up and made me think about how I would have written that sentence differently. Better, in fact. And oh, look at that horrible use of passive voice. Or an adverb! Kill it with fire! (It was pretty dramatic in my brain for a while.)

I stopped being able to read books for enjoyment. I didn’t realize that was what was happening at first, only that there had been a book on my desk, half-read, for months. And I had no desire to pick it up again. It was a sad time. But still I wrote. Still I critiqued. As I grew more confident in my craft, and better able to turn off my internal editor (or at least shove her into the same dirty closet other writers were shoving theirs), I began reaching for books again. Sometimes they were books I’d picked up on my own, and other times they were books a group of friends and I had decided to read at the same time. Either way, I began to enjoy reading again. I had to. I love books, and being without– It was awful.

A lot of writers go through this. It’s normal. It’s easy to start feeling judgy when learning a new skill and someone does exactly what you were taught not to do. How dare they break the rules??? But there are no rules; there’s only what works. What we think of as rules are actually just things that typically work.

Eventually, you claw your way out of the unfun nonreading time. It gets easier to recognize that the story the author is telling may not be the story you wanted to be told, but that doesn’t make it a bad story. It gets easier to stop nitpicking every sentence because you would have written it differently. And it gets easier to remember that you didn’t write the book; someone else did.

Learning to tell the internal editor to shut up is an important skill if you want to be able to read a book without screaming. For writers, reading is an essential part of the job. (And often why writers start writing in the first place.) It’s important to know what books are out there, what’s currently selling, and what’s making readers swoon. Even more important than being able to tell what an author did wrong is being able to tell what they did right.

I wouldn’t want to go back to being able to read indiscriminately; it’s important to know the difference between good books and bad books, and keep a healthy diet of good books. As with food. But mostly, it’s important to read, because how can anyone who’s not feeding their creative brain hope to produce anything?

It doesn’t matter where you are in your writing: reading is part of the job, and great books will open your eyes and change the way you think. They’ll inspire you, entertain you, and stay with you long after The End.

~~~


Jodi Meadows lives and writes in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, with her husband, a Kippy*, and an alarming number of ferrets. She is a confessed book addict, and has wanted to be a writer ever since she decided against becoming an astronaut. Her debut, INCARNATE, is coming January 31, 2012 from Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

*A Kippy is a cat.
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16 Responses to “Reading as a Writer”

  1. Ladonna Watkins July 7, 2011 at 12:32 AM #

    Thanks, Jodi, great post. All the best with your book.

  2. C.B. Wentworth July 7, 2011 at 12:33 AM #

    My favorite writers are those who break the rules. πŸ™‚ Even before I decided to invest most of my free time into writing, I marveled at how some writers can get away with breaking nearly every rule, while other’s were too timid to put their toe on the line. When it came time for me to attempt to write a novel, I couldn’t decide what I was willing to do – wander down an untraveled path or follow the herd. I read everything there was on writing the perfect novel, participated in endless critiques online, and picked apart every book I read. Then I realized, I don’t want to write like everybody else. I wanted to break a few rules and have a lot of fun with it along the way. I ended up with a novel that probably falls somewhere in the middle of the two paths I could have taken. I still pick apart everything I read, but not with a judgmental eye. I found that if I read with curiosity and wonder, it gives me the freedom to try new things myself as a writer. πŸ™‚

    Great post!

  3. Jodi Meadows July 7, 2011 at 9:44 AM #

    Rules schmules, I say! It’s important to know what rules you’re breaking so you can do it in a responsible way, but after that, there’s only what works. As a writer, it’s your job to write the book how it needs to be written. Sometimes the best way to communicate the story is to break all the rules.

  4. Elissa J. Hoole July 7, 2011 at 10:12 AM #

    I agree so much about learning so much about writing from doing crits, and about the double-edged sword that critical reading can become, as a writer. It’s hard to remember, sometimes, the way I used to be able to get lost in a book without thinking about the craft of creating that book. But one positive of this new writing perspective is that sometimes, as happened to me several months ago, I read a book that isn’t *quite* doing it for me, and instead of thinking it’s an awful, stupid book, I’m able to see the difficulty of the novel’s structure, how ambitious it was, and how amazingly close the author came to achieving something awesome. So instead of dismissing the book entirely, I’ll keep my eye on that author, looking for growth and excited about what will happen when he really does accomplish his ambitions.

  5. Vanessa Di Gregorio July 7, 2011 at 11:23 AM #

    Thanks again Jodi for writing a guest post for us! πŸ˜€

    I definitely went through the same thing when I interned at a literary agency. There were some things that just drove me absolutely NUTS after a while, and it ruined a lot of books for me. It took some time to figure out how to shut out the editor/critical reader in me and start enjoying books again.

  6. Jodi Meadows July 7, 2011 at 11:40 AM #

    It’s a wonderful thing, being able to turn off the editor brain for a while. Or at least muffle it. πŸ™‚

  7. Kat Zhang July 7, 2011 at 12:41 PM #

    Thank you for the lovely guest post, Jodi! I’m SOO stoked for INCARNATE. Glad to see it’s early 2012! πŸ˜€

  8. Sandy Williams July 7, 2011 at 2:31 PM #

    Something must be in the water this week because I’m working on a post about reading as a writer as well, and I just stumbled across this post by Candace Havens on the Genreality blog: http://www.genreality.net/why-you-should-read/comment-page-1#comment-10889.

    It’s good to know I’m not the only writer who’s been through a reading slump! I do try to read as much as possible, though. I think it’s the best way to improve my writing.

    I’ll link back to this post when mine goes live!

    • Jodi Meadows July 8, 2011 at 12:08 AM #

      Thanks for that link, Sandy!

      Lots of authors struggle with reading once they’ve learned the “rules” and how to be critical. Lots! Just do what you’re doing. It gets better. πŸ™‚

      Looking forward to seeing your post!

  9. Sarah J. Maas July 7, 2011 at 2:38 PM #

    FANTASTIC post, Jodi!!!! I can’t WAIT for INCARNATE!!!! And I still can’t get over how gorgeous your cover is–I’d totally hang a poster of that in my house.

    Thanks so much for guest-posting!!! πŸ˜€

  10. Jodi Meadows July 7, 2011 at 8:54 PM #

    Thank YOU guys for having me!

  11. Safferina July 7, 2011 at 10:10 PM #

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!!
    You are describing my situation perfectly.

    I used to be a voracious reader, and pretty much enjoyed everything I read. But ever since I though about becoming a more serious writer and honing my craft, reading just wasn’t the same anymore.

    I became more critical of books, always finding faults or how something could have been done better. It was killing my enjoyment, I wasn’t the same person who just dumbly thought highly of every book i read.

    You’re right, it is important to turn off that internal editor sometimes, and how important it is to read and know whats going on.

    Really, thanks so much for the post, its exactly what I’m going through.

    • Jodi Meadows July 8, 2011 at 12:05 AM #

      Thank you for reading!

      I think the overcritical reading period can be really lonely. It feels weird! But it is very, very common. Almost every writer I know has gone through it. As frustrating as it is, it’s part of learning a new skill. Reading for pleasure again will get easier. πŸ™‚

  12. brandimziegler August 24, 2011 at 4:14 PM #

    Catching up on summer bloggin’! Great post, Jodi! I totally know what you mean. For me, it was characters. For a while all characters sucked: they were 2D, boring, too flawed, too perfect lol you name it! Thank God I got over that… for the most part… thanks for your guest post on LTWF. Love these ladies!

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  2. Reading as a Writer (via Let The Words Flow) | Of a Writerly Sort - July 8, 2011

    […] But here, read this instead! A Guest Post by Jodi Meadows ~~~ When I was a teen, I read anything I could get my hands on. Books, newspaper, cereal boxes, warning signs. Anything. If there were words, I read them. During this time, I was writing a little–not very well–but mostly I was reading, filling my head with stories from the library and whatever I could afford from a bookstore. I loved books indiscriminately. I almost never left a book half-finished. I loved big, neve … Read More […]

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