03 October, 2012

Reader or Writer?

Reader?

Not all people who read books, write them - or even try to write them. But all writers must read. At some point before they became great novelists, playwrights, essayists or poets, even the most famous writers learned to read and were readers rather than writers.



So at what point do you stop being a reader who writes, and start being a writer who reads? 

I've been thinking about this because as writing takes up more of my time and I learn more about the technical and creative aspects of it, I've found that the way I read has changed. I find it very hard to read now without editing sentences in my head as I go. It's almost as if I can see the thought-processes of the author.

I'll note the way a paragraph is built up and the particular choice of words a writer has used. I can see why they might describe something in a certain way or how they've played with sentence length. All those effects that we pick up subconsciously as we read - mood and charactersiation etc. - are suddenly appearing like stage directions in my head. I see how the author constructed them and manipulated us, the readers. It's almost as if I'm reading two books at once - the published one and the one written between the lines - the scaffolding behind the story,

Once I'm settled into a book I find gripping I can usually stop myself analysing, but it takes effort. As with a good film you shouldn't notice how it was shot, in a good book you shouldn't notice the writing*. It should appear effortless, not contrived or trying to be too clever. But when writers read other writers it's a bit different. You can't help analysing. (Just as I imagine somebody who knows the film industry can't help analysing camera angles when they watch a film).
Writer?

Sometimes I get annoyed with myself. I want just to read and not edit sentences written by other authors decades earlier. But it has also enriched my reading experience. I appreciate those moment of brilliance that I may have never noticed if I hadn't started writing. And both ciriticism and amazement are making me a better writer. It's a positive circle - reading makes me a better writer; writing makes me a more engaged reader; more engaged reading make me a better writer, which makes me a better reader and so on...

So what are you? Reader, writer, reader who writes or writer who reads? I appear to have evolved into a writer who reads. But I'm OK with that. All readers should try writing sometime - it really enhances your appreciation of the art of literature.

If you don't write at all I'd be interested to know what sort of book you might like to write - if you could be brilliant at writing without any effort. I've always thought that I'd like to write thrilling 1930s crime novels, but I would have no idea where to start!

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*This rule goes out of the window when you get to the great works of film/literature, or particularly stunning moments in them. I spend most of Steinbeck's or Marquez's books with my mouth open at how awesome the writing is. Similarly, while watching Downton Abbey at the weekend, I found myself exclaiming over how beautiful composed/lit a certain shot was (and I know nothing about TV or film!)


14 comments:

  1. This post reminds me of going to the theatre with Joe. He's spent enough time backstage that he always notices exactly how lighting etc are used to good effect (and when things aren't as smoothly done as they should be).

    I'm firmly in the reading camp, having written very little of consequence since finishing my GCSE English! However, even before reading your last sentence, I was reminded that I'd love to be able to put together a plot line for something ala Agatha Christie. I've always wondered how she works her storylines out and love re-reading them to spot all the subtle clues I missed the first time.

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    1. I think theatre is particularly interesting in that way (I grew up in a family of actors and spent much of my childhood there!) because it's live. A book is the same however many times you read it. Every theatre performance has the potential to go wrong in hundreds of ways!

      I do notice some technical things with theatre/cinema/tv, though nowhere near as much as somebody "in the know". But I particularly notice the story-telling - the visual equivalent of what I do when reading a book. I spot symbolism in the way a shot is set up and find it easier (too easy - it's ruining things!) to work out what's about to happen from the phrases used.

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  2. I can never settle to a book if it is spoilt in the early pages by over-writing, bad grammar and repetition. It seems to put me on my guard against the rest of the book, which is probably unfair. I feel that the writer is struggling somehow,and am impatient that no-one seems to have proof-read for him.
    I'm definitely a reader who writes a bit, but like you, if the writing passes muster in the first chapter or two,my critic-button switches off and I can enjoy. Otherwise it's a chore,or the book has to go. Ceve

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    1. I'm the same with bad, or even average books. The real change has been recently I can't stop doing it with good books too. Not criticising, but I have a constant background chatter in my head of "That's really clever how those paragraphs link"... "He's used the word 'just' because he's already used the word 'only' in this paragraph already"... "Good use of gradually decreasing sentence length to build pace" etc. etc. I imagine it's like being an English teacher!

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  3. I've been starting to notice that stuff more too and it is annoying sometimes. Inconsistencies. Too much telling. That stuff is standing out more often.

    But at least now I can figure out why I did or didn't like a book. Before I never gave it much thought.

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    1. Yeah, it has that advantage. Although, I'm talking about noticing the good things about structure etc. too, not just criticising bad grammar and inconsistencies (though I do!). It's like seeing the bones of a story as well as the outer appearance.

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  4. I try to be as forgiving with other people's writing and I'd like to be with my own. I often fail on both counts! Once the writing bug bites then, I'm afraid, that makes you a writer. If you see a drama on the bus and want to commit it to paper, or borrow a snippet of dialogue you heard, that makes you a writer too. It's possible to have dual nationality in Writeria and Readany, but the real test is whether you pack a notebook or a paperback first when you're going on a long train journey.

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    1. Sigh. Notebook. I'm so predictable!

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    2. Same here. But I bet we're smiling as we think about those crisp white pages, just waiting for fine words.

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  5. I'm a writer who reads but I wish I wasn't! I've become much more aware of things like weak characters and wandering POVs, especially in books from my childhood I've revisited which were written in innocent days when people just wrote stories and didn't worry about such technicalities.

    These days I find myself thinking 'Ah, the author's put that bit in because he wants to achieve such-and-such', which kind of breaks the spell - unless, as you say, it's such a good story that you forget yourself and become immersed in it.

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    1. That's exactly what I'm talking about! (probably put a bit more clearly!)

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  6. I get really annoying when I'm watching anything historical. I'll point out that a certain car hadn't been built by that time, or the ship is too modern and the uniform is wrong.

    As for books, instead of beating myself about reading as a writer I admire how it's written...and notice the spelling mistakes that give me hope.

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    1. I think anachronisms are distracting. It may be annoying to point them out but it's annoying they're there in the first place!

      Stephen King says that the critical point in becoming a writer is when you read something published and know you could do better. I quite like reading badly-written things when I'm lacking in confidence!

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