Monday, May 20, 2019

Don't Read Shitty Books

Among the first—and best—pieces of advice every fledgling writers hears is, “Read. Read everything. The good stuff will inspire you and the bad will teach you what not to do.” While that’s sterling advice for a newcomer, I have an addendum that applies to writers who have found their way enough to become comfortable with their own voice:

Don’t read shitty books.

That’s good advice on a superficial because life’s too short. None of us has time to read everything we want to. Why waste precious reading time on something you don’t enjoy? Reading should always be a pleasure. True, academic or training texts often are not, but that’s the fault of the author. Even technical journals can be fun to read if done right. Not necessarily “ha-ha” funny, but not drudgery, either.

When it comes to fiction, though, enjoy everything you read. “But wait,” you say. (I heard you even if you didn’t yourself. I’m good like that.) “Haven’t you said that once one commits to being a writer one can never read solely for enjoyment again?” Yes, I have. “Isn’t this a direct contradiction, you hypocritical prick?” No, it’s not, and you need to take a deep fucking breath before this gets testy. (I’ve been bingeing Deadwood in preparation for the movie. Sometimes it shows.)

My position is unchanged. Once you commit to being a writer, you lose the luxury of reading solely for pleasure. Some part of your mind has to be analyzing the work. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the reading of it. In a really good book you should enjoy even the analytical part, as appreciation for recognizing something done well, and wondering how you might improve yourself by this insight.

Shitty books are more inclined to lower your standards. The last thing you want when reworking a tricky passage is to remember the most recent piece of dreck you read and start to figure, even subconsciously, “This is already better than the book I’m reading now.” Down that path lies shitty writing with your name on it.

I know some friends who don’t read fiction when they’re working on a book. I see their point but disagree. Too many times have I been plodding along in a rewrite when I’ll see just the right thing in a novel and know exactly what to do next. Not plagiarizing. Noticing a technique that will work. Maybe a different POV character. Show by looking back through dialog. Scene reversal. Could be anything. 

The absolute last thing I want is for some shitty book to have that kind of influence, even subliminally. This takes eternal vigilance. Shitty books abound in nature, as natural as black mold on a wet wall. That’ll make you sick. Stay away from it. I’m not saying if the first page doesn’t grip you by the nether regions and drag you along you should quit, but if you’ve read 20 – 50 pages and have to talk yourself into continuing, leave. Even better, get the fuck out. (Which is leaving with extreme prejudice.) You’ll be happier and your writing will be better for it. 

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