Reading as a Reader

Shannon Donnelly is back this month with a topic that I have spoken with other authors about, but never seen in a blog before. I can’t wait to read the comments, to see what you all think!  Here’s Shannon:

Something happens when you read a lot—very often stories come to you. A lot of folks brush these off, or just don’t want the fuss and work of trying to take those bits and make something of them. But if you start writing the ideas down, you very soon start digging into the technical stuff. And then you start reading as a writer.

It’s like knowing how a magical act works—some of the enjoyment goes away when you know how that elephant really disappeared off the stage.

Generally, this isn’t a huge problem—but it can become one if it eats away at your enjoyment of reading.

Cellar_Door_Films

Credit: Cellar_Door_Films via WANA Commons

You start to look for misplaced commas, for the wrong word used, for poor characterization.

You shake your head over awkward viewpoint transitions—you start to notice viewpoint transitions.

You sigh over weak dialogue—and become envious over sparkling wit on the page.

In other words, you keep leaving the story because you’re too busy taking it apart.

This does not make for a fun read—and even great books can suffer from an overcritical mind.

However, every now and then, a book comes along that’s so good that you want to settle back and be a reader again. This is the time to turn off the editor/analyzer and read for the pleasure—for the joy. This is a place to remember why you ever wanted to be a writer—because for a short time you are transported to another time, another world, and you get to play with a bunch of cool people.

Now a really bad book can do the same—if there are so many awful mistakes, it overwhelms the editing part of the mind and you can just marvel at the awfulness. (Bad movies do the same—they’re so bad they’re good.) It’s the books in between that can be difficult to read as a reader.

The longer you are a writer, the more you tend to lose that ability to step back into reading. But it’s actually important to hang onto this joy—it’s what got you started with stories, and it’s what will keep you going. This means you have to do a lot of hunting—and a lot of reading too. And it’s a good idea anyway to learn how to turn off the editor and stop nitpicking and just enjoy. Even if you know how the elephant gets off the stage, you can activate that wonderful part of the mind—and just pretend.

shannondonnelly_nm1Shannon Donnelly’s writing has won numerous awards, including a RITA nomination for Best Regency, the Grand Prize in the “Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer” contest, judged by Nora Roberts, RWA’s Golden Heart, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: “simply superb”…”wonderfully uplifting”….and “beautifully written.”

Her Regency romances can be found as ebooks on all formats, and with Cool Gus Publishing, and include a series of four novellas.

EdgeWalkersShe also has out the Mackenzie Solomon, Demon/Warders Urban Fantasy series, Burn Baby Burn and Riding in on a Burning Tire, and the Urban Fantasy, Edge Walkers. Her work has been on the top seller list of Amazon.com and includes Paths of Desire, a Historical Regency romance.

She is the author of several young adult horror stories, and computer games. She lives in New Mexico with two horses, two donkeys, two dogs, and only one love of her life. Shannon can be found online at sd-writer.com, facebook.com/sdwriter, and twitter/sdwriter.

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39 Responses to Reading as a Reader

  1. Liz Flaherty says:

    You are absolutely right. I miss when reading was just reading!

  2. When reading is just reading and,despite wanting to do otherwise, I skip the words and become one with the story, i know the writing is fantastic. And that makes me want to read as a writer!

  3. Kerry Ann says:

    Yes, I do this all the time. Not only am I working on my own novel, but I review books as well. I miss surrendering myself to the story—but I get to read a ton of wonderful (and free) books. I do tend to learn more when I pay such close attention.

    • SD Writer says:

      One thing I have to do is not read in the genre I’m writing in–it’s too easy to start slipping over to someone else’s voice for me.

  4. You’re spot on with this, Shannon. The more I write, the less I can tolerate bad writing. Yet the more I write, the more I appreciate good writing. I live for those books that grab my interest and don’t let go. I aspire to write like that. When the story is SO good, I have to remind myself (later on) to go back and see how the writer did it.

  5. Cindy D says:

    I have always thought it magical when a writer can make me forget that I am an editor.

  6. Laura Drake says:

    Personally, I’m glad that being a writer has made me a more discerning reader…it is harder to find good books, but life is too short to read bad ones, right?

    Great post!

    • SD Writer says:

      Thank you — but I’ll tell you, there are some really, really bad books I’ve read that I wouldn’t want to have missed. (You can learn a lot from the bad.)

  7. Laurie says:

    Yes, life is too short to read bad books, or books that just don’t “capture” me. I put down several books last year, where in the past, I would have soldiered on. What’s the point?

    • SD Writer says:

      I’ll often give a book three tries — sometimes it’s my mood that affects what I’m reading, and a book will grab me on a later try where it didn’t earlier.

  8. I like the trend in the comments: it’s not a bad thing we’re doing here. Becoming more discerning readers will help widen the chasm between great writing, and everything else.

    We should all be striving to be great writers. We become who we associate with. Lowering our guard enough to feed on mediocrity is dangerous.

    Bank tellers are not taught to recognize counterfeit money. They’re taught all the distinctive characteristics of the genuine article. That way, when a fake bill comes along, it stands out.

    Studying bad writing (honest, I’ve seen it recommended) is only a way to recognize bad writing. I got that one, thank you very much. I want to recognize more *great* writing.

    I read like a writer, but it doesn’t prevent me from getting hopelessly lost in great fiction. I can read Chandler or Rex Stout over and over, and I couldn’t tell you what errors might exist because the stories are unequaled at putting me in the zone.

    • SD Writer says:

      Yes, I think when a writer drags you in and makes you forget, it’s not so much the writing — the writer learned how to get that out of the way. It’s the story telling that’s brilliant.

      • Laura Drake says:

        Yes Joel! I love it when I’m critting something, or judging a contest, and I have to keep going back to read discerningly, because I’m getting caught up in the story!

  9. Great post, Shannon! Like the others who have commented, I find myself with less patience for bad writing and mistakes. But I also find that I appreciate good writing that much more now.

    • SD Writer says:

      I sometimes feel as if poor writing is really just the author not paying attention and really caring about the work. That’s why it feels poor.

  10. I think it’s a universal problem for writers and I often wish I could turn my need to critique off.
    There are a couple of benefits, though. When we read a book that needs improvement, we’re more apt to spot the same weakness in our own writing. And when we find a great book, we appreciate the talent and hard work that went into it.

    • SD Writer says:

      Yes, it’s always amusing to me when I find another author has fallen in love with a word in a book–makes me go back to try and find what’s my word of the moment.

  11. Carrie says:

    I read a lot for reviews and I’ve noticed a much more critical eye when I read those books since it’s expected of me🙂 However, I’m trying to read at least one book a month just for fun. Those books I usually let myself get lost in the story.

  12. Kaye Munroe says:

    I have a little trick: I try not to analyze while I’m reading; instead, I wait til the end then analyze the book as a whole. This allows me to love – or hate the book – on a gut level while I’m reading. If I see small errors, I bypass them by considering them the fault of the typesetter. That way, the only errors that leap out are the historical fumbles, which have always been obvious to me even before I started writing myself. I have an advantage over most writers because I’m also a professional musician with a degree in music, so I had four years of ‘”Performance Analysis” – a class which focused on remaining unbiased when critiquing both my own work and that of others. Promise yourself that you’ll do a full analysis once you’ve finished, then put your inner critic on standby!

    • SD Writer says:

      That sounds like a great class — and, yes, I usually try to ignore the small stuff. It’s horse stuff wrong that always kills a story for me.

  13. Kaye Munroe says:

    And speaking of poor writing, I just realized my own original comment falls into that category. This is what happens when you wake up too early and are reading your email before you’ve finished your first cup of caffeine!

  14. There is nothing like that magical moment when you “come back” from reading a book and realize that you’ve been reading, rather than living, the story. I live for those moments!

  15. As always, a great post, Shannon. I have a very strange system for reading that has followed me since grade school. I can go through three or four books a week for months … then nothing for a couple of months. What I tend to do when I am in my reading “mode” is follow the strange advice of Doris Lessing from The Golden Notebook. I don’t feel a twinge if I start reading and the book annoys or bores me. I put it down. I might pick it up again later just to see if I was being too difficult that day. But once I turn off to a book, I usually don’t change my mind.

    I think my reading brain has been very successful in turning off the writer, editor side of me. I use reading for entertainment, knowledge, escape. I also need to mix up all types of genre or I get bored too quickly. If I read three or four mysteries in a row, I need to break it up by switching to something else. Honestly, if I find myself thinking more of “edits” or what I didn’t think worked in a book … I don’t want to continue. Besides, ultimately we learn much more from only reading those books we love from page one … well with some fiction you need to give them a break and read the first 100 pages. Also, as Kaye said … even books published by Random House these days have typos or misprints. The NY Times as well. The days of the strict editor is gone and we need to adjust our thinking🙂

    • SD Writer says:

      It’s not the small stuff that throws me out of a story–it’s the contrived characters, the weak characterizations, the plot hole that no one bothered to fix. It’s the big stuff that really is the writer’s fault.

  16. Julie Glover says:

    So true. What I’ve encountered is that I no longer reach a point in a book and simply think, “This isn’t working for me.” I now add in my brain, “And I know what could have fixed it.”

    It’s a bit like when I went through my counseling program, and we students started seeing mental illness and emotional defectiveness in everyone around us. LOL. Eventually, you settle back into not diagnosing people you meet. They’re just people.

  17. C. K. Crouch says:

    I usually just read the book. BUT if I find something that trips me say a sentence with something missing or that doesn’t make sense I tend to back up and read it again thinking okay I missed something there. I was reading a book last year for a contest and the deeper I got the less I liked it and had a hard time finding a fair score. I try to give a mediume score if the book is a turn off for me because one of you might pick it up and find it great. I’ve just finished reading two non fiction books. Funny when I finished the second one I said okay I need some mystery/suspense/romance now. The two books were Chris Kyle’s American Sniper, this was the second time I read his book, and Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell. I chose both books because I decided to write a book about a Navy SEAL and needed to understand the things they went through to become SEALs along with seeing their mindset and to borrow a friend’s word “ethos”. I hope I can protray that in my hero’s character.

  18. SD Writer says:

    My research reading always seems more fun to me than anything — but, then, I love research, too, so that helps. And if it’s non-fiction, you don’t have to end up with a story that doesn’t work.

  19. Sharlarae says:

    When I read a book that brings out my inner critic, I stop and ask why. After all, it got published. I actually ask myself why it brought out my critic. (Talking about Traditional here). So I continue to read to find why it got published. I usually find out it’s because of the story premise being so wonderful even though the writing itself made be grit my teeth. But for whatever reason a book gets published, I always figure there’s a reason–maybe I’m just looking for the good in all things. I don’t know, but I’m loath to put any book down that I’ve started to read. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve tossed a few. As I get older, I’ve lost patience.🙂 If I just can’t enjoy the book at all, without editing it in my head, I stop reading. Surprisingly, I finish most of the books I start.

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  21. I use bad writing I see in books as inspiration. After all, if they can get published, then surely I can, too. Don’t bother telling me this is a vast oversimplification of the way the publishing world works. While I’m logically aware of this, my emotion center continues to be fooled, remaining utterly convinced that upon completion of my ms, publishers will bang down my door. Silly emotions.

  22. Dani Beith says:

    Like others who have commented, I am able to let the writer/editor sleep as I begin reading, but if something on the page wakes her up, it’s rare that she’ll go back to bed!
    This “keeping the joy of reading alive” question has always been fascinating, to me and I dealt with, daily, when I produced audio books. As well as pushing all the buttons, setting and monitoring sound, monitoring the performance for accuracy to the text, continuity of accents, energy arc – so many things – I also had to be constantly aware of the experience that a first-time ‘listener-reader’ would be having. One of the responsibilities of a producer, and it applies to editors, too, is as advocate for the reader, so we need to stay in touch with what we want as pure readers.

    When I stopped producing audio books, several years ago, to focus on my writing, I didn’t read anything new for about 18 months because I agonized over which book would be the first book, in 7 years, that I had chosen myself, to read for pure enjoyment. When I’m trying to read like a reader, I try to remember how precious that was, and it helps.

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