Writers are supposed to read. Most of us got our desire to write from reading. It’s good for us. It allows us to decide what we like and what we don’t like in a story. It lets us study craft, and appreciate both good and bad examples. It keeps us aware of what is being published, and helps us look for comps to what we are writing.
Here’s the thing, though. It’s not easy to read as a writer.
First, there is the time commitment. Even if a writer is listening to books (and I am absolutely a fan of the audiobook!) time reading is time that isn’t spent writing. For a writer who may only have two to three hours to write per day, taking an hour to read is the difference between finishing a first draft in four weeks vs six.
Then there’s the concern that reading while drafting an/or editing will create a difficulty for the writer in keeping their unique flow as they write. I don’t personally find that a problem, but I know many writers do.
Then there’s the simple fact that writers are readers when they read. As objective as a writer tries to be, it’s impossible to be completely objective while reading. Worse, it’s impossible not to compare your own writing to the polished book you are reading. Writers can go two ways. Either the published book is so good, the writer begins to believe their own writing is crap. Other writers go the other way: how on earth did this crap get published when their own work is so much better? The middle ground—accepting that published work has been through more rounds of editing than a writer wants to think about, and also accepting that while that work may not be great, it fit the publisher’s idea of what they believed should sell to the widest audience possible—is a hard place to get to.
But the part about reading that I find most challenging as a writer is dealing with a popular Meh Minus book.
I tend to grade books when I read them. First, I’ve got the A books. These are so awesome, I can’t shut up about them, I have to buy them in hardcover, read them multiple times, and they get a place of pride on my bookcase as the most amazing books ever.
Then I have the G books. These are good. Most of them I read once. They occupy an evening. In the days of my local used bookstore, these would be sold or traded in on new books, often by the same author.
Then there’s the M books: Meh and Meh Minus.
Meh books don’t lead me to despair. Every author has constraints. Maybe they weren’t allowed to end that book in a satisfactory way. Maybe they were constrained by word count limitations. Maybe it’s a debut, and the craft is just not great yet. Meh books mean there’s room for improvement, and that’s okay.
The Meh Minus is the real challenge. My Meh Minus this time was a book written by a well-established female fantasy author, and I was looking at it as a potential comp for something I’m writing. Eep. Let the spiraling begin.
First of all, Meh Minus books are published, and sometimes by a big publishing company. That means that if I personally hate the book, I hate something that a fairly large population of people like. That’s not encouraging.
Secondly, Meh Minus books make me afraid that I will be forced into the mold set by those books. That’s really terrifying. It’s like having your toes or heel cut off to fit a shoe. It’s a little worse as a woman writer, too. I feel that in general women fantasy writers are expected to write a certain way, about certain types of characters, and adhere to certain notions of what women are allowed to write about. In short—you’re either Galadriel or Eowyn. There’s not a whole lot of room to be Thorin’s sister, a hard-working dwarf mother with a beard and one heck of a war hammer.
Every Meh Minus book, especially one written by a female author, leaves me deeply afraid for myself and for other women who write boldly, dangerously, and on the edge of what is expected, skydiving off the ledges of our imagination.
The third and worst thing a Meh Minus book can do is make me terrified to pick up another book. If a popular fantasy book is one that I can’t enjoy, what if they’re all like that? What if everything I write is doomed because I can’t write in a way that I hate? That’s the hardest thing to get past, and yet it’s essential that I do conquer it.
I can’t find that next A book unless I keep reading. And I’m bound and determined to find five A books by women fantasy writers this year that I can put on my shelf as the ultimate triumph—I have found a woman author who can write characters, male and female, that I can love and identify with.
And I can have hope. The wonderful thing about publishing? What sold two years ago may not be what is wanted in two more years. What was accepted in fiction is changing. My next A book is out there. I will find it. And maybe someday, I’ll write a book that ends up on a woman fantasy writer’s A shelf as the first time she’s been seen and heard. And then—then I will have really achieved something I can be proud of!