The Joy Thief

Before I had the desire to write anything, I loved a good book. There are so many good memories: Curling up under the covers with a torch until the battery ran flat; reading in the family room on a rainy day – tears streaming down my face because Aslan let the white witch kill him in Edmund’s place – and everyone staring at me like I was a nutter; or my teenage-self reading Stephen King’s Pet Cemetery at a sleepover and scaring myself silly.

Stories have also marked seasons in my life.  I found One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in the reading resource room at school when I was supposed to be doing debate practice.  When I was at University one of our friends got hold of Terry Goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule.  We passed that one copy around, and all of us (fantasy and non-fantasy readers alike) devoured it in one sitting.  More recently (before all the hype) I remember my friend telling me about this book Twilight that she’d really enjoyed.  I read the entire thing that night and was around at her house the next day for New Moon and the rest of the series.  She told me later she didn’t really believe I’d read the first book at all…

Memories aren’t even limited to the stories.  I can still remember the thrill of being able to choose any book I wanted from the library.  My young self read almost everything in the junior section.  I love the smell of new print, unbroken spines and pristine covers.  Even the musty, dusty, old hardcovers filled with archaic language have their own siren song.

Some of the books were better than others.  I couldn’t tell you the names of half of the books I’ve read, or even the storylines a few years down the track.  But there are very few books I’ve ever put down without finishing.  Even if they’re a bit slow, or a bit weird.  Because once I’ve tumbled down the rabbit hole, I want to see how things pan out – for better or worse.

But like some nasty dark shadow (or “the nothing” in the Neverending Story), there has been a change in my reading habits.  Something insidious and subtle has crept in, and has been slowly but surely eroding my life-long joy of reading:  Learning the craft of writing.

Before I got serious about writing I cannot ever remember scowling at a clumsy sentence, or being overly bothered by clunky dialogue.  I certainly wasn’t acutely aware of passive voice, or the fact the author didn’t show what was going on – but horror of horrors – told the story.  If the book was a bit long winded (my first few readings of The Lord of the Rings) – I just skipped over the boring bits.  But the more I learned techniques to make my writing tighter, smoother and ‘better’, the more I caught myself editing instead of reading.

I even became a bit book-snobbish.  It was hard to admit I enjoyed Twilight on this blog because once the movies were made it became something else entirely.  Teenagey, and a bit gauche.  People who hadn’t read it – or certainly hadn’t read it in the spirit it was written had an opinion or ten… Poor old Stephenie Meyer was bashed for her perceived literary short-comings.  And yet her story has become a phenomenon, capturing the hearts of millions around the world.  And do you know what – I really liked it.  I like a lot of books that might not be perfect in form, but still enchant and entertain, or at worst help me fill time in an airport.

There’s nothing wrong with not liking a book.  In our small writing group of three, we have never agreed on a book yet.  The few times we have all liked a book, at least one of us will have a different opinion about the plot, or outcome or one of the main characters.  That’s just human nature.  But this trend of pulling down work we don’t like isn’t very becoming.  In this digital age we are going to see many more books published that don’t meet the exacting criteria of the craft.  We can either become elitist and pour scorn on their efforts, or we can open ourselves up to stories that capture our imaginations.  Stories we might never otherwise come across .

I blogged the other day that I became disillusioned with a favourite author a while ago.  I didn’t write a scathing Goodreads Review, or send him a disappointed letter, or turn into that woman from Misery.  I just didn’t buy the rest of his series.  Maybe he’ll write something different later that will appeal to me.  I hope so.

I’m still trying to learn the craft of writing, but I’m also trying to recapture my joy of reading.  Turn off that pesky internal editor and enjoy the tale someone has taken the time to weave for me.

How about you?  Has writing changed you as a reader – for better or worse?  Would you read a story with a great premise, if it meant forgiving loose prose?  I’m almost too scared to ask if you have a strong opinion about self-publishing verses the traditional route…  

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6 thoughts on “The Joy Thief

  1. Your Twilight “coming out” made me smile. I actually read the 4 books because it was a vampire story, and if it has vampires in it I HAVE TO read it. But I wasn’t a big fan, because I saw all the shortcomings that have been mentioned everywhere else. Having said that, I did like Breaking Dawn quite a lot because it was more gory/adult-themed than the previous books. Anyways, I like what you say about liking “books that might not be perfect in form, but still enchant and entertain, or at worst help me fill time in an airport.” I read a lot and I still enjoy a good story, even if the writing is not perfect.

  2. I’ve also been recently disappointed by a favorite author — actually two — when I’ve found their latest offering to be, well, not so well written. It still had all the characters I’ve come to know and love, but since being beaten into honing my craft by a tenacious Beta reader, I am far more critical of other’s writing. Especially others that are *there* — exactly where I want to be. How dare they use “was” five times in one paragraph! And what’s with all the weasel words? 😉 *sigh* Yes, becoming a better writer has made me a worse reader. And there are some old favorites I’m almost afraid to go back and read for that very reason.

    1. Apparently you can choose to turn that editing brain off, and I have read that it gets easier over time. (Not sure if true or not). But it makes sense that while we are still very focussed on catching our own clumsy prose, we’d see other people’s too. I agree about the older stories though. Styles have changed, and some of the old classics feel harder to read now. I’m trying to make a conscious effort to stop analysing books I read for fun. It saddens me I have to make an effort to stop turning into the book Grinch!

  3. That is the one skill I have never been able to train my brain to do (editing while reading other author’s books) and I’m glad now that I didn’t. I want to enjoy reading the book for the value of the book and not be so critical of how someone writes it.

    1. I’m not sure it ever was a skill – just an unfortunate side-effect. I totally agree with you about wanting to enjoy the book for its value. Less criticism – more contentment!

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