Saturday, February 17, 2007

Reading as a Writer

Leslie Budewitz

At Left Coast Crime in Seattle two weeks ago, a woman asked me what I liked to read. Her question, and three days of hanging out with readers, only some of whom are also writers, prompted a realization. Or maybe it’s a confession:

I am not a normal reader.

And I’m kind of sorry about that.

Writers are readers, too, of course, but some conferences – and LCC Seattle was one of them – are programmed with a focus on the readers who aren’t writers. Writers adore these readers. Readers admire writers, ask about their days, their process, when the next novel or story is being published. Even where they get their ideas, a question that the much-published often scorn but that I’m still new enough to enjoy answering.

Readers who go to cons aren’t just potential buyers. They’re the heart of the writing world, the people we do this for. The people we want to satisfy most, after ourselves. They’re the people we once were.

They can sit for hours in front of the fire with a good book, and sometimes even a bad one, only getting up for more tea or a visit to the bathroom. I miss that. Me, I’m reading with a notebook nearby where I jot down an image that works or doesn’t, note an awkward sentence, question the use of point of view. I read wondering if some detail is going to play out later in the story the way I think it is, or if it’s a red herring. Or worse, a bit of sloppy writing that diverts me for no good reason. I’m reading with one eye on the magician’s hands and the other on the curtain, asking How did she do that?

Readers don’t feel compelled to finish a book just to see if the writer can pull it off.

Readers keep reading a series they enjoy without feeling like they can’t spend the time on a book they’re not likely to learn new tricks from, or that they should be reading the new hot thing.

Readers choose a book because it looks good, not because they want to know why it made the NY Times Bestseller list despite lousy reviews, or why it got great reviews but tanked.

Last weekend, Judy Clemens wrote here about discovering mysteries. And what she described started with her love of the genre, how she couldn’t wait to find out what Lord Peter said to Harriet Vane next, how she scoured bookstores in unfamiliar towns for new discoveries. Only later did she realize she could try writing the kinds of books she loved to read.

I am convinced that when I started writing fiction, my work took the shape of a mystery because that’s what I’d been reading and listening to. I’d been working several days a week in a city 45 miles from home, a city whose library held an excellent audio collection. Many of those tapes – and they were tapes, back then – were mysteries: Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Tony Hillerman, Ellis Peters, Elizabeth Peters. What I loved to read became what I needed to write.

Writers, remember that connection that first brought you to the page. Remember the joy. Your readers want that experience, too; honor their passion. Take time to relive that experience yourself. Pick up a book you last read ten years ago – or one you’ve been saving for a snowy day – and read it again for sheer fun. Leave your review notebook by your desk, and keep your bottom in your reading chair. Stay up too late reading just because it’s fun.

The more you do that, the more that joy will dust your own manuscripts.

In the spirit of remembering the books that brought us here, let me paraphrase Jane Eyre: Reader, I thank you.

Leslie Budewitz is a published short story writer with novels in progress. She provides legal research for writers through Law & Fiction,


Sandra Parshall said...

One thing I can't do anymore is enjoy a book that lacks a strong structure and high stakes. I'm impatient with stories that meander and end up not meaning much in the end. That's too much like the average person's life. I want to read about things that matter profoundly, and I want a feeling of narrative drive throughout.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Leslie's put her finger on quite a paradox: we start writing because we love reading, and then being a writer screws up the way we read. My impatience is directed most frequently at shallow characterization. The books I still snatch up and devour are those whose characters feel not only real, but like family: Judge Deborah Knott, Sharon McCone, Miles Vorkosigan, to name a few I especially love. No matter how much of a page-turner the plot is, if the hero is a stick figure who won't come alive till Tom Hanks inhabits him, I won't read the book--I'll see the movie.

Lonnie Cruse said...

I think I basically still enjoy books as a reader more than a writer. But a really funny scene, the type that Bill Crider or Donna Andrews write, makes me laugh out loud and wish at the same time that I could do as well.

That said, newbie writers are taught the "rules" or dos and don'ts of writing fairly early on, by editors, publishers, or critique groups. So when I read a book where a rule is broken, unless it's done truly well, it makes me want to toss the book.

I generally only give up on a book if I don't care what happens to the characters, or if the suspense is unending, with no "take a breath" breaks.

Julia Buckley said...

You make a great point, Leslie. Liz is right, too, though, in that once we see the other side of the industry it can sometimes change the way we read or even our enjoyment of reading. However, if I didn't have a day job I would stay up into the wee hours all the time with a nice book, the way I always do in the summer weeks I have for vacation. There's nothing like having a book that you just can't put down--the one that ends and leaves you feeling satisfied, yet depressed that it's over.

That really is the kind of book I'd like to write. (And hope I have).

MysterLynch said...

I understand what all of you are saying, but I find my mood dictates what I will and will not tolerate.

There are times where some tasty dialogue will carry me through any number of issues that might otherwise cause me to drop a book.

There are times that the latest Spenser novel is just what the doctor ordered, even though nothing will ever happen that might have a lasting impact on the main characters.

Generally, I want strong characters. I agree with Elizabeth on that front.

If it is a series, I need to feel like it (the series) and the characters are evolving from book to book. Otherwise I lose interest three or four books into the series.

MysterLynch said...

P.S. It is not always tea that we hardcore readers drink. Many a time I have found myself sipping a nice martini while digging into the latest by SJ Rozan or Kent Krueger.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Mysterlynch, you are absolutely right: some days and some moods call for a light fluffy read, while others demand something equally absorbing but with another tone entirely. And some days, only nonfiction will do.

I suspect, though, that many writers put their personal moods and desires aside and choose what to read next not based on what they will most enjoy, but on what they think they ought to read to improve their craft. What I'm advocating is, occasionally, following the heart instead of the head and reading for pure pleasure.

Which is what I did this weekend, reading Elizabeth George's What Came Before He Shot Her, a gripping read, her best book in years.