Monday, July 28, 2014

So Many Books, So Little Time

As writers, we often hear the same tired advice dragged out time after time. Write what you know. Show, don't tell. If you want to write, you have to read.

Good advice, all, but there are exceptions to those first two -- plenty of them. Writers who stretch themselves beyond what they know often find themselves transported to new and exciting places, which they then share with their readers. And showing is good, but too much showing drags a story down, leaving readers skimming the page in search of action, or at least a promising stretch of dialogue.

But that last one? That bit about reading what you write? It's true without exception. Writers must be readers first.

I'm embarrassed to admit that I don't read enough. Oh, sure, I read posts on social media. Texts. E-mails. I skim magazines and newspapers and online articles. But real reading? The kind where I sit down with a book and let the world drift away? I don't do nearly enough of that.

This week, I am on vacation. Because of this, I can voraciously and unabashedly read. I always take magazines with me when I travel because I can read them and dispose of them, which means more room in my travel bag for the trip home and less clutter when I get there. I also pack my Kindle with its wide variety of books and samples.

But the thing I look forward to the most (unless I'm in the middle of something really riveting on my Kindle) is the small stack of real  books I take along. Most of them are novels, but a good non-fiction book usually makes it into the pile as well. And when I go to the beach and camp out under my umbrella, these are the books I focus on first.

I read a statistic the other day that said that "57% of new books are not read to completion." I don't know if that's true or not (the chart was bright and clear, but I don't recall a citation), but I must admit to feeling a guilty little twinge of identification when I read that piece of information.

As much as I hate being part of that 57%, I subscribe to the the "so many books, so little time" philosophy. No longer do I feel obligated to finish a book that's not fascinating. The whole thing doesn't have to be entirely fascinating, mind you -- I will also read a book all the way to the end to find out what happens to a character who takes me by the hand and bids me to follow. But something about the book -- the people, the voice, the pace, the story -- must grab me and pull me along for the ride.
And on vacation, the stakes are even higher. I have one week to get in four times the amount of material I can realistically read in that time. If a book doesn't grab me quickly, it gets set aside because there's another promising candidate right there to take its place. (And if there isn't, that's all the reason I need to make a trip to one of the bookstores at the beach). On this trip, I couldn't wait to finish the so-so book by a highly acclaimed writer that I'd started a few weeks ago (the characters bid me follow, even if the story was not as inviting) so that I could get to the ones I'd checked out of the library to read on vacation.
Like most writers, I read what I write, or at least a close approximation thereof. So, when a book in "my" genre grabs me, it becomes more than a good read. It becomes an education.

I love the folks in my critique groups, and the feedback they give me is invaluable. But all of it -- every single piece -- needs to be measured against the books that are succeeding in my genre. If I don't read "what's out there," it's easy to be swayed against my own instincts by a simple majority. If that majority consists of writers who read and/or write in my genre, then the validity of their input is substantial. But changing voice or language or style to match another writer or another genre can be a well-intentioned mistake.

Years ago, I couldn't imagine reading like a writer. Back then, it seemed to me that reading in that fashion sucked all of the joy out of the reading experience. Now, after more than twenty years as a writer, I can't imagine reading any other way. I discard a lot more books than I used to, but when a book succeeds in pulling me in, I revel in it on an entirely new level.

And sometimes, I even get to go back to my critique group and say "I told you so."

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