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Reading as a Writer

Last week I went to an event at Birmingham University where the novelist Helen Cross was speaking.

Cover of "Charlotte's Web (paper-over-boa...

Cover of Charlotte’s Web (paper-over-board)

Helen was explaining how becoming a writer had taken away a lot of the ‘magic’ she previously experienced when reading. She told us that the first book she remembers getting utterly enthralled in as a child was Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White. The book made her cry. Even after she’d finished it Helen spent a lot of time musing over the book and wondering what the characters could have done to make things turn out differently and more happily.

But as she’s got older Helen has found such connections with books becoming increasingly rare. She puts this down to the fact that she now ‘reads like a writer’, for example she is looking to see how the book is constructed and what sort of tricks the author has used to withhold information from the reader. Helen finds herself mentally ‘editing’ the book and deciding which passages she would cut or how the dialogue might be changed.

I found this rather sad. To me the joy of reading is escaping into another world – something that can’t be done if you find yourself constantly critiquing the novel. I do admit to being more aware of the difference between good and bad writing since I started to write myself but I can also take off my ‘writer’s hat’ and just enjoy a book for what it is.

But maybe one of the secrets of becoming a good novelist is to analyse everything you read, and thus learn what works and what doesn’t.

What about you? Do you read as a writer or as a reader? Can you still get emotionally involved in a book?

Finally, thanks to Sharon Boothroyd for alerting me to this opportunity at the BBC.  The next window for sending in material to Opening Lines - BBC Radio 4′s showcase for short stories is January 6th – February 14th 2014. They are looking for short stories that work well when read aloud i.e. with the emphasis on the narrative and not too much dialogue or character description. Stories should be between 1,900 and 2,000 words and only one submission per writer will be accepted.

  1. December 15, 2013 at 9:21 am | #1

    I’m still ok with reading books but I have a different example. About 10 years ago, I worked at a wildlife trust as an education officer. Part of my job was running the school visits at the nature reserve – wonderful job. The only problem was that for several years after, I couldn’t just enjoy a walk – I was always trying to identify wild flowers or trees or looking for deer tracks. Luckily now I have got back to enjoying walks without analysing them.

    • December 15, 2013 at 12:42 pm | #2

      That’s interesting, Wendy. Glad you can enjoy walking again now though without your education officer hat on!

  2. December 15, 2013 at 10:22 am | #3

    i alao have this problem when reading novels. It also occurs when watching TV dramas. I’m always looking for plot faults and character incosistencies.

    • December 15, 2013 at 12:43 pm | #4

      And don’t you feel good, Keith, if you spot something that’s been missed in all the editing!

  3. December 15, 2013 at 10:26 am | #5

    For me it depends on the book. If I’m reading an Agatha Christie or a classic for example, I don’t tend to be critiquing in my head as people don’t write like that now. Our rules don’t apply (or not all of them) so there’s little point judging the book by them.

    With a contemporary, I do read more as a writer and will analyse things. It doesn’t stop me enjoying good writing – although I enjoy it in a different way than I did before I started writing.

    • December 15, 2013 at 12:45 pm | #6

      That’s a good point about reading older/classic books, Patsy. Glad you can still enjoy reading though.

  4. December 15, 2013 at 10:46 am | #7

    I know what Helen means I find sometimes I read a book that is difficult to enjoy but teaches me a lot about writing, like Margaret Atwood, and then I read a book where it is impossible not to lose myself as I read, like Markus Zusak. That’s when I hope I am learning via osmosis. So I guess it depends on the author as well as the story.

    • December 15, 2013 at 12:46 pm | #8

      Markus Zusak – is that The Book Thief? A brilliant book. I think we must all learn a little via osmosis, Sue (I hope!)

  5. December 15, 2013 at 1:26 pm | #9

    I know I’ve found a good book when I stop mentally editing it.
    One thing I have noticed is that I seem to be reading more slowly now. I used to be able to skip the boring bits but now I plod through them just in case there is a hidden gem in there.
    Thanks for the BBC link – I’ve put it on my to do list.

    • December 15, 2013 at 7:02 pm | #10

      I think I’m the opposite, Linda. I’m more likely to skim bits of description etc and move on to the action. Don’t ask me why – my attention span must be getting shorter!

  6. December 15, 2013 at 2:38 pm | #11

    I too analyze books. As an unpublished writer I try to learn all the time. I reached a passage last night in a book I am currently reading and enjoying, But new instantly that it was either padding or the author was having a bad time with the story. It brought me straight out of the book. I will finish it, but that passage has spoil it for me. Although, it has shown/taught me, what not to do.

    • December 15, 2013 at 7:04 pm | #12

      Thanks, Ann. I’m sorry the book was spoiled for you but it’s reassuring to know that published novelists have bad times too!

  7. Susie
    December 15, 2013 at 6:33 pm | #13

    Recently I have been trying to turn films / stories into scripts for my daughter’s drama teacher. Now when I read a book I try to imagine how each passage would be if I was watching, rather than reading it. It probably makes me think a bit more about the characters.

    • December 15, 2013 at 7:05 pm | #14

      Sounds like a good exercise, Susie. I’m guessing that you have to add lots of dialogue too.

  8. December 15, 2013 at 8:28 pm | #15

    I completely agree (and can feel a blog post coming on!) Reading has been pretty much ruined for me since I started editing my novels. I can’t help but critiquing even bestseller books when I’m reading them (especially as best selling authors are just as prone to being a bit ‘too clever’ in places, something I really watch for now!)

    • December 16, 2013 at 11:30 am | #16

      Perhaps this critiquing means you are developing as a writer, Amanda. Just a shame that it spoils the reading experience.

  9. December 16, 2013 at 11:35 am | #18

    When I was studying for my OU degree, I did a module on popular culture, which included watching TV with a critical eye, deconstruction the plot, analysing character development (or acknowledging lack of it), etc, etc. Far from detracting from my enjoyment, this has enhanced my viewing pleasure, even so many years later. Of course, this does sometimes mean that knowing the grammar of the medium is a bit of a spoiler – first person you see after the body is discovered is usually the murderer!

    • December 16, 2013 at 11:45 am | #19

      Interesting, Julia. I love crime/mystery/murder series and Midsommer Murders ties me in knots trying to work out ‘who done it’ – now I’ll know straight away!

  10. hilarycustancegreen
    December 16, 2013 at 11:14 pm | #21

    Writing has definitely changed my reading habits and yes, I have lost the easy enjoyment of some kinds of writing. On the other hand I remembered, from studying poetry at school, that beyond the analysis there is a deeper enjoyment to be had. This is sometimes, but not always, the case now. With TV, I rarely lose myself any more, I tend to be ‘writing ahead’ of the plot. There is some satisfaction when you mind-read the writer, but I would rather be surprised. Most of all I still want my readers to lose themselves.

    • December 17, 2013 at 9:35 am | #22

      Hilary, it’s just as well that most readers aren’t writers – otherwise no one would enjoy novels or TV anymore!

  11. December 17, 2013 at 3:28 pm | #23

    Thanks for the reminder on Opening Lines, Sally. And agree with all your comments. I find myself pulling novels apart all the time. A good sign is when you just find yourself read, totally immersed in the story, but I find this happens less and less now. After reviewing other writers’ work from my MA workshops I also find myself itching to start ticking in the margins of books when I come across a good bit! Don’t worry – I never would deface any actual book!!

    • December 18, 2013 at 10:11 am | #24

      I understand that with e-books, Tracy, it’s possible to mark particular passages and then other readers can also see what you’ve highlighted. I’ve never done it but I suppose it’s possibly a way of sharing your ‘critique’.

  12. December 20, 2013 at 6:56 pm | #25

    I tend to do both. Sometimes I know I want to read a book purely for pleasure, and somehow switch off the temptation to analyse. Sometimes I start reading as a writer and simply become too immersed in the story!

    • December 21, 2013 at 11:35 am | #26

      Thanks, Karen and I’m glad you can still get immersed in the story. I didn’t start off trying to analyse the book I’m reading at the moment but now it’s starting to annoy me because I feel that two of the characters have very similar ‘voices’ and I’m getting confused between the two. Surely the editor should have picked up on this, I’m thinking!

  13. December 21, 2013 at 3:47 pm | #27

    I can still enjoy a book to read without analyising it too much. My problem is that I find myself copy-editing them. I’ve read one or two recently that were in dire need of copy-editing that I find myself wincing, (No, I shan’t mention which ones, I wouldn’t want to hurt the author concerned) Maybe I should take up a new career as an copy-editor!

    • December 22, 2013 at 9:34 am | #28

      Hi Anne – I agree, it does spoil a story when there are spelling or punctuation mistakes. It is difficult to spot these in our own writing which is why we need to get our work in front of other, trusted people before sending it out into the big wide world. Although, this is often easier said than done!

  1. December 16, 2013 at 10:44 am | #1

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