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.