Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Not reading when you’re writing: it could be worse

So, on Twitter the other day, a few of us were having a conversation. And by “us” I mean Brandy from Random Musings and Sage Blackwood. Sage commented that she also has trouble reading while she is working on a project of her own, but this is not for the same reason that I have trouble with that.

For me, the problem is that reading is absorbing. First it takes up time that I need for writing (if I start a book and enjoy it, I *will* finish it, ignoring other minor things like deadlines), and then also at some point in the writing process, if it’s going well, I will get absorbed in *my* world and I do not want to interfere with that. If things are going *very* well, I don’t even WANT to read anybody else’s work.

Also, I used to find other people’s writing styles invasive, which was both an advantage and a disadvantage. I mean, it’s fine as long as you want to absorb their writing style for your current project; otherwise not so much. If I ever settle down and seriously attempt to write another fairy tale (like THE CITY IN THE LAKE, I don’t mean a retelling, I mean the fairy-tale tone) then I will once again read through all of Patricia McKillip’s books beforehand. But basically this is less of a Thing for me than it used to be. CJ Cherryh’s style used to be terribly invasive for me; now, not so much. She gets into my speaking style a bit, though. I find myself saying things like, “One is certain that this pie crust would have been far superior had you made it,” to my mother. (Really.)

But Sage says she is simply enjoying books less now that she is a writer — as she tries to edit Annoying Stuff out of her own work, she notices it more in other people’s work. It makes it hard for her to read any fiction unless it is by authors who, quote, “… are far better than I could ever be.”

Well, that’s dreadful. Not that there is going to be a shortage of Extremely Good Writers, although given that, what, 800,000 novels are published every year, finding them among modern writers will of course present exactly the same discoverability problem that everyone faces. But it’s still dreadful.

I am much more aware of Annoying Stuff than I used to be, but this is still not a big problem for me and I don’t think it ever will be. And I think this is because I stop reading fiction for a month or two at a time, once or twice or even three times a year. This is hard and I don’t like it, but on the other hand, I think this could be what keeps reading exciting and enjoyable for me, even when I can see Annoying Stuff in a book. This relates to what I discovered last year, that I can enjoy a book even if it has clunky prose as long as the dialogue is good.

I am positive I have heard of a phenomenon in which critics stop liking most fiction. I can’t find a link describing this phenomenon, but I’m sure that’s a Thing. Of course this makes sense.

If you read A LOT of genre fiction (say), then you are going to start thinking that everything is derivative of something better. You will say, “Another werewolf book,” and roll your eyes.

You will encounter Really Great Books and then whatever you read next isn’t going to measure up.

Whatever stylistic things or plot components or particular tropes especially annoy you, you will encounter six books in a row that have that issue and after that you won’t be able to bear it, no matter whether the book is otherwise great.

To some degree, we probably all experience this. I think this is probably one reason we all fall in love SO HARD with whatever books we love when we’re in high school. For me this was The Riddlemaster of Hed and The Blue Sword and Lens of the World and, I don’t know, various others that no doubt I will think of as soon as I close this post. We aren’t tired of anything yet, so a great book hits us right where we live, even if it is quote derivative unquote or otherwise imperfect.

Then we read ten million more books and eventually start going, “This one isn’t doing it right” and from then on we’re pickier. Not everyone. I have met someone, an adult, who shows no signs of being able to tell Terry Brooks from Tolkien. No perception of quality at all, as far as I can tell. But surely that is rare. Certainly that can’t be the case for any decent writer. Or critic.

This is separate from the snobbishness of those critics who can’t bring themselves to like anything popular. You know the type. But I don’t mean that, particularly.

I like this post from Book Riot, in which Greg Zimmerman poses the question Does liking vastly more books than you didn’t like make you a less discerning reader?
And answers it: The simple answer is certainly not.

I don’t agree that every book, no matter how terrible, has bits to like in it. (Sword of Shanarra?) But I do agree that a lot (a LOT) of flawed books are decidedly enjoyable.

Actually, to answer Zimmerman’s question: Liking vastly more books than you don’t like just means that you are pretty good at selecting books that you are probably going to like and pretty good at not picking up books that you are probably going to dislike. That is why (thank you, Internets) you find people whose tastes are similar enough to yours that you can trust their recommendations.

Of the 200 or so books on my TBR piles, I expect to like about, what? 175 at least. (If I ever get around to reading them, of course.) And the exceptions will probably mostly be books I picked up on a whim at library sales or whatever.

How about you all? Do you mostly find that you like the books that you start?

Different question: Do you finish the books you don’t like? And if so, why? Because that one baffles me.

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10 Comments Not reading when you’re writing: it could be worse

  1. Hanneke

    Yes, I mostly like the books I read. As you surmise, this is mostly because I’m a bit careful about not starting on a book when I think I probably won’t like it.
    This is one reason why I love the longer and more explicit book-reviews: I don’t mind spoilers, I want to know before I start if the book ends badly or on a real cliffhanger, because then I won’t read it. If I wasn’t sure, in a real bookstore I’d read the end before deciding if I wanted to buy the book. None of the digital bookstores will allow that in their previews, and sometimes anything considered a spoiler is removed from the description and reviews, which means I’m relying more and more on recommendations from people who’s taste and reviews I trust.
    The same grumble about unhelpful descriptions and reviews to avoid spoilers goes for making erotica hard to find by removing the hints that point it out – I don’t mind a bit of sex if it’s useful to the story, but if it takes up toomuch of the book I get bored or don’t like it. Deleting those descriptors to make it hard to find for anyone looking for it also makes it hard to avoid if I’m just looking for some mild romance like the ones MaryStewart wrote.

    And yes, I’m one of the people who often will finish a book even when I don’t like it. I strongly dislike horror and dystopias and bad endings, but I get stuck into a story, connected to the people having the adventure, and so I will keep reading hoping things will improve, because I hate leaving them in a bad place. If I do that, I keep worrying about their situation for days, and I’m likely to wake up at night with it going through my dreams/nightmares. Maybe I get too invested in a story.
    So I’m really careful about starting any book like that.

    On the other hand, if a book just bores me, and/or I dislike all the people in it, I will probably lay it away without finishing it. Even then, if I expect it to get better (e.g. I’ve liked all the other books this author wrote) I will probably finish it. I just have an aversion to leaving stories unfinished – maybe a bit compulsive, but that’s just the way I feel.

  2. Elaine T

    I start many fewer books that I dislike than I used to, and when I discover I’m not interested or actively not enjoying a book I put it down without a qualm. The library helps, here. If it’s a library book and I had started but not finished it, when the ‘book due in x days’ notice comes in I have to decide if I want to bother to finish it or renew it so I can. Life is too short to spend reading fiction I don’t enjoy, or aren’t getting something out of.

    Sometimes it is simply the wrong time for a particular book, even if it is a reread, even if it’s a comfort book. What makes a book work for a reader is weird.

    I have been known to finish books I otherwise am not very interested in just because I’ve liked everything else the author has written. But any writer can put out a dud. It’s when there’s a sequence of a couple or more by the same writer that I decide either the writer has developed away from what works for me as a reader or has lost their touch, and stop trying. For writers new to me I rarely give them that chance. I MAY try another by them in a different setting, if the previous had almost worked for me.

  3. Mary Anne

    I find that since I got my Kindle and started buying really cheap (or free) books, I am disliking more books than I used to. Many are self-published, and many have glowing reviews that lead me astray. I actually make myself look at the less favorable reviews anymore to try to weed out some of the chaff – but this is not always successful. My “To be Read” (virtual) pile has also expanded exponentially. The reason I keep trying is because every so often I find a gem that makes it worthwhile. It’s how I found Andrea Host, Lindsay Buroker, Sabrina Chase, Nathan Lowell, Courtney Schafer and others. Andrea Host is an awesome writer, the others are really entertaining with occasional flaws – but I enjoy their stuff. A lot.

    I also find since I got my Kindle that I am a lot more willing to stick a book in the “Ughh” pile and not finish it. Sometimes after only a chapter. I think it’s partly a function of age and awareness of how precious my time is. And partly because I know I did not drop a huge (for me) amount of money on the book, so I don’t feel shortchanged when I don’t read every word and enjoy it to the hilt. I can blow a raspberry at it, and say, “Yeah, you suckered me into buying you and you really stink” but I don’t carry hard feelings much beyond that. I actually feel worse if I force myself to keep reading. Which is the exact opposite of how I used to be.

  4. Rachel

    Hanneke makes a good distinction, between books that are good but that seem to be heading somewhere you don’t like and you’re not sure how the author is going to handle the end, and books you really don’t like, full stop. There’s a big difference between getting connected to the characters but not liking what the author does with the plot, and not getting connected to the characters because the writing isn’t good enough.

    In the first case, I, too, will probably read to the end. And then, if I am furious about what the author did with the book, I will probably never try another book by that author. I am thinking of Tana French’s IN THE WOODS here.

    In the second case, well, life is just too short to read badly written books. If they’re boring, that counts as badly written.

    Now, what Elaine says about reading all the way through a book by a familiar author even if you don’t really like it, yes, that can happen. It happened to me with Cherryh’s RUSALKA. But though I bought the other two books in that series, I never actually wound up reading them and eventually gave the whole trilogy away. That has no effect on my excitement when a new Cherryh novel hits the shelves, because of the rest of her work.

    If that had been my first exposure to Cherryh, well, a lot would depend on whether someone made a serious effort to push another of her books on me, and who that was. If I dislike a work by a new-to-me author, it won’t stop me trying another book of theirs if enough of the right people tell me I really really really need to read it. Maureen, say, because her taste is A LOT like mine. I would trust quite a few of you if you shoved a book at me.

    Mary Ann’s comment about trying a lot of inexpensive or free books and being disappointed is reasonable, but I never — hardly ever — try a book based just on the back cover and the price. I pick up a fair number of inexpensive Kindle books, but based almost entirely on recommendations and almost not at all on the back cover copy, so that probably cuts down on the number of “meh” titles I pick up. But yes, when I do make a mistake, I definitely stop and discard the book — sometimes before I’m through the first chapter. Sometimes in just a couple of pages, really.

    After being burned just a handful of times, I now ignore all reviews except by people I know, unless I’m specifically interested in a title and no one I know has commented on it yet. Like ICE CREAM STAR. I am reading it right now. I got it because of reviews that mentioned the language in which it’s written. This made it sound really intriguing, even though I don’t know the people who wrote any of those reviews. I’m really liking it so far, btw. I am just in awe of the writing. The author must have disabled her spell checker, and OMG the copy editor who worked on this book deserves a bonus.

    If I like what Newman does with the plot, this will be on my Hugos and Nebulas list for next year, because ICE CREAM STAR definitely has the ambition and outside-the-box qualities I most look for in a nominee. It may take me a few days to get through — it is not an easy read and it’s pretty long, nearly 600 pp. I really, really hope I love it.

  5. SarahZ

    Looking at my Goodreads stats, I have a lot of 3 star reviews, but not too many 1 or 2 stars (9 of 93 in 2014). Since I only add books if I finish them, I guess I’m pretty good about picking the right books. If I feel like I’m just not in the mood for a book, but I’ll really like it some other time, I’m more likely to abandon it. I try to feel ok abandoning a book if it’s just not working for me, but if it comes highly recommended or if it’s got something in the premise that had me really excited initially, I have trouble giving up on it. Sometimes I’ll start skipping ahead to see how long I have to wait for so and so to realize what’s going on, or how long before a really annoying plotline gets resolved.

    Not quite the same thing, but I do have a couple authors that I keep revisiting, because their books have such interesting premises, and they sound like things I’d love, but they keep disappointing me. It’s like having a sore tooth you can’t stop from poking.

    Elaine: I sometimes let the library pull the plug on a book too – if it took me that long and I still haven’t gotten enough into a book to finish it, then that notice from them is the signal.

  6. Kim Aippersbach

    I’m with Elaine and the library: if three weeks is up and I haven’t finished a book, or even been tempted to start it, then it’s going back, no regrets, no guilt. Life’s too short, TBR list is too long! (I can always take the book out again if more reviewers convince me I should at least give it a try.)

    I’m a bit concerned that, like Mary Anne, my new Kindle is going to make it way too easy to buy books that I don’t end up liking. I used to be very selective in the books I bought: I only want to own them if they’re going to be favourite rereads. But I already have a few duds on my Kindle.

    I totally know what SarahZ means about poking the sore tooth! Great metaphor!

    As to the original question: do I enjoy fewer books now that I’m a reviewer (and a writer); I don’t think so. My criteria for what makes a good book hasn’t changed; I’m just better able to define and express it. I’m finishing a lot fewer books (proportionate to the ones I start) these days, but I think that’s because I’m reading more, and deliberately reading outside my comfort zone. And, yes, maybe I’m less patient with bad writing, but I don’t think I was very patient with it even before I had the experience to know why it was bad.

    Reading while writing is a terrible temptation for me. Writing’s really hard today? Run away! Run away! Bury myself in a book! I’m trying to use critical skills to learn from my favourite books rather than just escape into them (oh, look, that’s why I care so much about this character; I wonder if I can do something similar to make my character more likeable), but it is hard not to get thoroughly depressed at the large gap in skill level between me and the writers I love.

  7. elaine T

    I know about that sore tooth, too! MacAvoy was one of those, and Elizabeth Bear is now. They keep sounding like I’d love them….. But I don’t, I slide off.

    I know what Hanneke describes, too. I had with Donaldson’s Mirror duology. Kept skipping. GAME OF THRONES’ sequel too but I decided Martin was probably going to continue being depressing so I stopped somewhere in the middle of #2

    The Teen & I have just finished a manga (Pandora Hearts – she insists on talking about her reading if it captures her attention, so I have to read to follow the talk) where the author did everything right to the ending, then blew it by forgetting the worldbuilding, or losing courage, or something. The setup was for bittersweet and the author gave ‘happy.’ I don’t know if it will count as connecting to characters but not liking what the author did with the plot or what yet – I’m still letting it gel. The Teen is plotting a fanfic that does it right. :-)

  8. Rachel

    Interesting about that sore tooth! I’m not sure that happens to me. I can’t think of an author like that. If I don’t like the first couple of books I try by an author, I don’t think I’m at all likely to pick up another. That could be my bad luck in some cases.

    I will occasionally skip ahead to see where a book is going, but only if I’ve already disconnected emotionally from the characters and their situations. So it’s not a good sign.

    Kim, it’ll be interesting to see how you feel after another ten years. But so far, at least, I’m with you. I actually like some books better than I would have because I see what the author is doing *well*. But I think it might be different if I was a real critic and HAD to read just one book after another all the time.

    Elaine, MacAvoy, really? Although come to think of it, I don’t particularly care for about half of her smallish list of titles. But the other half I really love!

    Interestingly, my editor . . . or maybe it was Caitlin . . . suggested the ending of KEEPER OF THE MISTS might be too happy and I wound up going with a touch more bitter with the sweet. The desire to hand happy endings to your protagonists can be pretty strong.

  9. SarahZ

    One of my sore tooth authors is Scalzi. It’s not that I hate his books, it’s just that he never does what I was hoping he would with the premise (if he surprised me with something more ambitious or more exciting that’d be great, but so far they mostly feel like cop-outs).

    Another is China Mieville. I loved Un Lun Dun, the first book of his that I read, but nothing after that has worked for me. He’s plenty ambitious and inventive, but I just can’t seem to get invested in his characters. Andrew Smith is similar, with the added wrinkle that each time I become more aware of how his female characters get so much less development than his male characters.

  10. Rachel

    One difference may be that I often don’t have any particular expectations for an author until I’ve read a lot of their books. I’ve read a couple of Scalzi’s and they were perfectly fine, but not the kind of thing that makes me want to seek out someone’s backlist. I’ve read a couple of Mievilles and I really liked one, didn’t really like one, and liked another in an intellectual kind of way. Based on that . . . I have no real expectations for his other books. But I have two on my TBR pile: UN LUN DUN and RAILSEA.

    It’s interesting how different it is when I suddenly discover a new-to-me author I just love. That’s a whole different experience as I suddenly buy all their books and read one after another. SO FAR I haven’t hit an author where I turned out to simply love just the first couple I read and then not the rest.

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