Thursday, March 7, 2013

Writer as Reader


Ever since I started writing seriously for publication, reading has had to take a back seat. On top of the daily writing on the current manuscript, there are multiple rounds of edits and revisions on manuscripts I’ve sold, blog tours and promotion, posts to blogs I’m a member of—such as this one—and to my own blog (which is sadly languishing), social media, conventions and conferences, and always one more thing popping up that has to be done. In addition, I have a full-time day job.

I used to consume books, but I realized when I looked at Goodreads at the end of last year that in all of 2012 I had read three books. Three. So this year I took the Goodreads Challenge and made a New Year’s Resolution to read at least one book a week. So far I’m about two weeks behind.

I’m discovering that in addition to taking time to read that must be squeezed from something else (sleeping is the first to go), reading actually takes a lot out of me. I become emotionally invested to the point of being in major anxiety if something bad is happening to a sympathetic character. I can’t seem to cope with fictional tension.

A book is nothing without tension. But does it need the level of constant rising tension without valleys in between the peaks that I seem to be finding everywhere lately? I think maybe this is a recent development in the publishing world, this demand for outrageous tension. Or maybe it’s the genre I’m reading currently, as I seem to notice this more with urban fantasy, in which it seems there’s some rule that the main character can never be truly happy and must face increasing misery a real human being would never be able to survive.

Or maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s my anxiety disorder (admittedly, I have one) and books have always been this way; I’m just having new issues I didn’t used to have with separating myself from the fictional world of the book.

I’m not really sure what the cause is, but it’s making me think about what I’m putting out there in the world. I hate the idea of making other people feel the way I’m feeling right now with the particular book I’m reading. It’s part of a series that didn’t seem to have the level of tension this one book has. And it’s great writing. The author dug deep and is sparing no punches. But I feel really bad—uneasy and angry, and afraid to keep reading lest it get even worse. (And then it does.) Is that how reading is supposed to feel? It used to be something I loved.

I’ve been known to take a certain sadistic pride in tormenting my characters. But I never intended to torment my readers. On the other hand, if the character doesn’t suffer, he or she doesn’t grow, and the reader won’t be invested in the outcome.

There’s a delicate balance in this contract between writer and reader. As my reader, you’re taking a journey of trust with me, and I don’t want to betray that trust. I want to give you a story that makes you feel, but not one that makes you feel you’ve been punched in the gut.

If nothing else comes of this reading challenge, it’s certainly been an eye opener to be on the other side of the page from where I’m used to being.

10 comments:

vaughnroycroft said...

Good point, Jane. Before I knew anything about writing (not that I really do yet), I read Diana Gabaldon's posts about her technique on her website. I think she was the one who put it in my head that there had to be a respite after every scene of high conflict, so the characters and the reader can gather themselves to go on. I knew what she meant immediately. Tom Bombadil springs to mind as an example from epic fantasy. In years of studying craft, I have never heard this advice from any other source. So I guess, thanks Diana...? (You are good at offering comforting lulls, btw.)

Cindy Spencer Pape said...

I find I go through periods of not reading much, then weeks were I scrape out every minute I can to read. When I do read, it reminds me of what I love about the written word, and refreshes me for my writing.

Jody W. and Meankitty said...

I don't read as much anymore either. That's why I always volunteer to judge the RITA awards! Forces me to read 8 or so books in the first quarter of the year....

Jane Kindred said...

Vaughn, I read that as comforting lulz. ;)

I'm thinking I may need to read something a little less stressful for a bit, something where I know it will have an HEA, so I can get back to loving reading again. Usually, I'm inspired to write more after a good book, but this kind of book (which I finished last night instead of writing when I realized I couldn't concentrate on my own words) just stays in my head making me feel a bit lost in someone else's characters when I need to get lost in mine.

Seleste deLaney/Julie Particka said...

Personally I love break-neck pacing that leaves me breathless. Yes, it's more strenuous to read sometimes, but I rarely feel bored with it either. On the other hand, I tend to genre jump in my reading and writing. At the moment I'm reading Days of Blood and Starlight that while depressing in many ways has this gorgeous lyrical language that I love. After? I'll probably read a romance. Then maybe a steampunk or UF.

But I hear you on the time to read issue. It's one of the reasons I had to step back from reviewing. Too many things...and I want time for them all.

Jane Kindred said...

Pacing is one thing, but feeling gutted for hours on end is another. Again, it could just be my anxiety disorder. But I read another similar book by another favorite author that didn't have this same effect on me. I was riveted by the story, but didn't feel shredded like I do right now. I trust that author and look forward to everything she does, but the other author...even though I was loving her series, I don't think I can ever read anything by her again.

Steve said...

I think we're kindred spirits, Jane (hahaha, sure you never heard that one before). I go months without reading and then I'll devour everything in sight. As far as pacing, even though it's out of vogue, I'm a big fan of the "aftermath" scene, letting things sink in, deepening the stakes and resolve. Breathless good, evisceration bad. :) Great post!

Steve Vera

Nicole Luiken said...

Jane, good for you for trying to make more time to read.

It makes me sad when I hear authors talk about not having time to read anymore. If all of us are writing and none of us are reading, that can't be good for the market. (I blame those pesky day jobs...)

Angela Campbell said...

Finding time to read has become a real challenge for me since I've decided to pursue writing. I have a full-time job and other obligations, but I still try to find time to read — even though I admit I cheat and rely on audiobooks during my work commute. Much easier for me, but I still try to read an ebook or paper book when I have a free weekend.

Great post!

Shawna Thomas said...

I have to echo what everyone else is saying. It's a struggle to find time to read...and at times I feel guilty when I do because I *should* be writing, or blogging, or...

I find I enjoy fast-paced books, but not without a few places for reflection, to let the characters catch their breath...otherwise you have to suspend disbelief that they can go go go without a break and not break.

But then again, maybe I'm making excuses for myself because I don't write that way.