Welcome back to my blog folks! Today, I thought I’d return to my reader roots, because as Stephen King says:
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
One of the difficulties of being a writer is that reading can start to become more like work than pleasure. You notice things like sentence structure and word choice more than you did before, studying the writing instead of allowing yourself to be absorbed in the story. You might even compare the author’s abilities to your own, and either wind up struggling with feelings of inferiority or wondering how this book was chosen to be published while your infinitely superior manuscript languishes on the slush pile.
If you read within your own genre, which you absolutely should, then you’ll undoubtedly come across similarities to your own WIP, and you might find it discouraging. Ultimately, there’s nothing completely new or original in this world, it’s all about the different twist or spin you put on it, but it can definitely be worrying to read a book with several of the same themes or tropes as your unpublished manuscript. Don’t let it put you off querying, remember that book was written years ago if it’s just been released, and if you get a publishing deal it’ll be years before your book comes out too.
Reading as a writer doesn’t have to be a negative experience though, in fact it’s probably the single most positive thing you can do for your own craft. The way to get around the compulsion to study the writing and scrutinise the story is to reread.
If you’ve seen About Time, the absolutely delightful movie with Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams and Bill Nighy, then you’ll remember that Bill instructs Domhnall to use his time travel ability to make the most of every day by living it once as normal, and then going back to live it again, but noticing all the wonderful minutiae that we miss as we hurry through our lives. This is my advice to you for rereading.
Allow yourself permission to read the book once through and simply enjoy the experience – speed through it if you can’t wait to see what happens, luxuriate in it if the prose is deliciously lyrical. Just read it as a reader, safe in the knowledge that you will read it again with your eagle vision switched on.
On your second reading, really pay attention to the author’s style. Maybe even grab a notebook and scribble down your favourite words and phrases, or if you’re into book defacing (you monster!) take a pencil or highlighter to the text. Notice all the clues the author dropped throughout to the conclusion, pick out thematic elements and recurring imagery. Really learn from the experience and take away as much as you can from it, using it to strengthen and expand your own writing.
You could even listen to the audio book as well as reading the print version, as you’ll notice different things from each – just like when you copy your manuscript into a text-to-speech app to hear it out loud and pick out any mistakes or unwieldy sections.
Reading as a writer is an excellent tool for improving your skills, but rereading can be even more useful and beneficial, allowing you to enjoy the experience as well as learn from it.
Do you reread books? Which book have you read the most times, mining it for literary gold? Returning to an old favourite feels like coming home, personally I can’t wait to read the Harry Potter books to my little boy, they’re some of my favourites and hopefully will be his too.
See you next time!
I’ll be honest: sometimes, my stack of to-be-read books keeps me from re-reading old favorites. As a teacher, though, I’ve done a lot of re-reading, and there’s no doubt that it helps you see more clearly how authors achieve the results they achieve. These days, I tend to read a book once but mark passages to return to–effective scenes or adept applications of some particular craft element (like a flashback or an incorporation of setting or some rich character interiority).
Great post, Lyndsey! I reread some sentences so many times, it’s a wonder I finish as many books as I do (and that’s not saying a lot compared to some of the readers I know.) I have definitely been audiobooking a lot lately, and maybe this is something for me to consider.
Great tip. I struggle so much with turning off my inner critic when I read, so a second reading just for that is an awesome idea 🙂
(Not going to deface any books though!)
I adore re-reading books! I think that the minutia really helps bring the story to life, and I agree with what you said in regards to print vs. audio editions… you do hear different things listening than your see reading. As a writer, I try to learn from books but it can be SUCH a BUMMER when you’re reading your same plot line and feel, “back to the drawing board, then….”. This is all great advice to balance reading for pleasure and reading as a writer. 🙂
It depends. I reread a series like Stephanie Plum. I love the crazy world and find it up lifting. I don’t, however, read to analyze the work. That happens every time I pick up a book. 🙂
Anna from elements of emaginette
I quite often re-read (or re-listen to) books and I often find there are details I missed the first time around. I like the idea of applying your method to those, thank you.
I only reread a book if there is something specific I thought the author did really well, such a dialogue or description, and on second reading I highlight those areas and try to learn why I liked it. if I didn’t like a book, I don’t finish the first read, so I have to say a second read is not going to happen. I will try to remember what I didn’t like and not do those things as I write.
I used to reread a lot in the days before Kindle and the neverending to-read pile. I did (and still do) read quickly the first time, to get the plot. I’d then reread to pick up the nuances I’d missed the first time. I never articulated it, but I was doing what you suggest: re-read to pick up the clues and admire the best writing. But I wasn’t doing it intentionally–now I will!
P.S. I love the Stephen King quote. I often quote it myself.