Reading as a Writer

Saturday, April 02, 2011
The curse of learning the craft of writing is that you learn all the "rules." You learn to avoid adverbs, changing "he ran quickly" to "he galloped", look out for weasel words, limit the use of adjectives, pare down backstory, pay attention to the difference between which and that, and all kinds of other things.

Now, this isn't a bad thing for your writing career, but it does change the way you read other people's work. I first noticed this when doing a writing exercise that was supposed to teach you about voice. It suggested that you read a page of a book you enjoyed and then try to write a paragraph in the same style. Being new to the whole writing thing, this sounded like an interesting exercise to try.

I chose "The DaVinci Code", a book I had raced through, caught up in a story I found hard to put down. After just a few sentences, I stopped to reposition my dropped jaw. Dan Brown had broken all the rules in this bestselling novel. Adverbs and adjectives abounded, gerunds were plentiful, and the quality of the writing, according to the rules, was awful. How had I not noticed? Moreover, how had so many people not noticed that it became a mega-bestseller?

That's when I learned that most readers don't pay attention to the rules. Yes, a poorly written book will generally not sell many copies; but story trumps all. Including, apparently, poor writing.

But not for a writer. Once you become attuned to what is good writing and what is bad writing, or perhaps a better way to put it would be strong versus weak writing, you can never read a novel in quite the same way again. Reading for pleasure becomes more difficult because you get distracted by sudden switches in point of view and infodumps and passive sentences. It takes an unusual book to make me stop paying attention to how a book is written and focus on what is written.

This week I started reading "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." I had read other writers' comments about the quality of the writing, but the idea of a hacker as a main character was intriguing. And, after all, it's been on the bestseller list for over a year. But, after fifty pages, I had to quit. Those first fifty pages were all backstory, the most onerous example of telling versus showing that I've read in a long time. There was only so long I could push through it and try to get to the good parts. I'm not sure there are any good parts and I doubt that I'll ever go back to the book to find them.

Is it me or is it the book? Have I changed in my reading habits to such an extent that I now miss good stories? I will tell you that it takes an outstanding book for me to ignore the technical details of writing in it. Dennis Lehane does that. I started to reread "Gone Baby, Gone" to study the technique. I bought a new copy to mark up with notes. But I got so wrapped up in the story, I forgot to make any notes after the first chapter. But most books are disappointing. And I do miss getting lost in a story.

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Elise's bookshelf: currently-reading

A Clash of Kings
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