The Writer As Reader

A question I’m sure most authors get asked from time to time is, “Does being a writer affect the way you read?”
woman reading
The easy answer is that of course it does, in good ways and in bad ways. It also affects what I read.

my ibrary
I’ve always been a voracious reader and a book collector. I love books. I can’t get rid of a book after I’ve read it. I have a huge library in my rather small house. Every room has book shelves, all of them filled. I get asked two questions by people who visit and note the abundance of books. The first is, “Have you read all these books?” My answer to that is, “No, there are many of them I haven’t yet read. After all, isn’t the purpose of a library to provide a reader with books they haven’t yet read? I’ll always be able to find something new to read.” I’m using the term “new” quite loosely, as I have books on my shelves that I acquired years ago and haven’t yet read. But every now and then I pick up one of those books and read it and find it fresh and new—to me.

That has little to do with my being a writer, though I do use as an excuse for keeping so many books that “I might want to read that book again,” or “There might be something in those books that will help me with my writing.” But the truth is, I’m a book hoarder. I admit it. Why not? There are far worse vices. I have all my books catalogued and arranged on shelves in an order that makes them reasonably easy to locate a particular one when I need it.

But to get to the specific ways in which writing affects how I read. First, let me explain that I love editing. I’ve edited manuscripts for my writer friends, and I edit mine several times before being satisfied that it’s ready to be sent off to a publisher. I’m never fully satisfied; I just reach a place where I decide it’s time to stop editing and do something with the manuscript.

Unfortunately, the editing habit carries over into my pleasure reading. If I’m reading a novel that has errors of spelling or grammar, it really bothers me. A sentence like, “She was laying on the bed, eyes closed, but not sleeping,” takes me right out of the story. I think, “Not laying, damn it! She was lying on the bed.” And I fume a bit before going on reading, trying to reestablish the connection with the story that I’d felt before coming across the offending error. If it happens once, it’s mildly annoying. I can think, “Maybe it was just a typo.” If it happens two or three times, it’s more annoying, but I continue reading. If the novel is riddled with that and other grammatical errors, I may put it aside, or I may read it with the thought of using it as a bad example when speaking to a writers’ group. (Just kidding!) The confusion of the forms of lay and lie is one of the most frequent errors I see, and it always jerks me right out of the story. Spelling errors bother me less because they are more easily attributable to typographical errors or the writer merely being so engrossed in the story he’s crafting that the error slips in unaware. But when the same spelling error appears several times in the same novel, it’s difficult to be so charitable. When an author mentions several times that something is resting on the mantle above the fireplace, I have to conclude that she doesn’t know the difference between mantel and mantle. And when a new author writes a science fiction story that takes place at an airport in which frequent mention is made of the planes being kept in hangers, I lose all confidence in the story.
woman looking over book
The past two weeks I’ve written about the willing suspension of disbelief. Errors such as those I’ve just mentioned reduce my willingness to believe in the story. Would that be just as true for me if I weren’t an author? I think it would, but to a lesser degree. I would be more inclined to shrug off such errors, though I would certainly still note them. I’m quite sure I would be less inclined to notice when an author employs over and over a phrase such as “just then” or “all of a sudden,” apparently in an effort to heighten suspense. Actually, phrases of that type do just the opposite, especially when overused. When some sudden event occurs, the fact of its being sudden or unexpected doesn’t need to be pointed out with such a phrase. Rather, if the reader is immersed in the story, she will feel the suddenness along with the characters and judge how surprised and shocked they were by their reactions. Also, the overuse of an unusual word or a particular phrase stands out and affects my enjoyment of the story, though I’m sure that sort of repetition is something I would not have noticed before becoming a published author and having received excellent editing and also having attended numerous seminars and writing conferences.

Those are all mechanical faults. More serious are plot problems, superfluous scenes and/or characters, inconsistencies, telling rather than showing, long blocks of explanations that could have been shown through dialog, actions, or by brief descriptions tucked in here and there. I’m especially conscious of viewpoint shifts within a single scene where it’s obvious that the author is not doing the shifting deliberately to create a desired effect but simply doesn’t know any better.

These are the bad ways in which being an author affects my reading. They are things that spoil a story at worst or at least disappoint. But I learn from them as well. The effect they have on my reading teaches me to take greater care with my own writing. It makes me more wary of falling into the same traps. And it definitely makes me a better copy editor.

But there are far more good ways in which I’m affected by what I read. When I read a work by a skilled writer, I learn something new about technique or find what I already know strengthened. I discover new techniques and gain the courage to experiment in my own writing. And, yes, I sometimes get discouraged and think, I’ll never be able to write like that, but then I remind myself that I don’t have to write “like that.” I have to develop and improve my own writing style, not attempt to emulate someone else’s.

I watch how a skilled writer develops her characters and learn tricks I can use in my writing. I see how a writer I admire uses dialog both to advance the plot and to reveal character. I note that good writers often provide a learning experience for the reader, yet without being in any way didactic. I see how an adept writer can take what in other hands could be a tired, overused plot and transform it into something new and marvelous. I observe how setting is employed to make the reader feel that she is there, in that place, with the character, by establishing the setting not with long-winded, detailed descriptions but by letting the reader experience the character’s surroundings through the character’s senses — all of them: sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch, and others–yes, there are more than five.

I am currently reading the speculative fiction novel In War Times by Kathleen Ann Goonan and I am in absolute awe at the way she puts me, the reader, right in the midst of the action. I do not normally care for war stories, but this book has me enthralled. She so accurately invokes the feeling of being an American soldier stationed in England during World War II and going on sorties into occupied France and even on a daytime bombing run over Nazi Germany that it’s hard to believe that Goonan didn’t herself see and hear and feel and smell the things she describes. Furthermore, she interweaves into the story the history and nature of jazz, a music form I love, and I find myself learning things about the music and the people who play it that I never knew and find utterly fascinating. And then there is the element of particle physics and the possibility of alternate timelines. All woven into the story of a young enlisted man whose training in chemical engineering places him in contact with a mysterious woman who entrusts him with plans for a device that could alter the course of the war and allow access to alternate time lines. It’s a book I highly recommend both for the story and for the brilliant way it’s crafted.
World War 2 soldier
You would enjoy Goonan’s book as a reader, but if you are a writer, I challenge you to read it to study her technique in creating plot, characters, and setting. Experience the utter believability of it. Ah, yes, if only I could write like that …

About E. Rose Sabin

Fantasy and science fiction author.
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