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Writers as Readers (Plus, the winner of the book giveaway**)

April 12, 2012

Sometimes when I speak to a group of aspiring writers, I’ll start by saying, “Raise your hand if you’ve read a book in the last week.” I’m always amazed at how few arms I see. So then I’ll try again. “In the last month?” This longer time period might generate one or two more responses, but I’ve never spoken to a group where every single person in the room raised their hand. In fact, it’s never been close.

How can this be? How can all of these people I speak to, people who say they want to write a book, not be readers? It reminds me of the time my teenage daughter said she’d like to be a chef.  My response? “But you don’t even like to try new foods.” It seemed only logical that if she wanted to learn to cook, she needed to learn to eat. Likewise, I believe if you want to be a writer, you need to be a reader.

I understand it’s not easy. I realize that sometimes other obligations get in the way, and that finding time even to write is often a magic trick. But honestly, how much of each day do you spend on Facebook? Or watching television? If you, a writer, can’t even forgo these activities so you’ll have time for a good book, how can you expect non-writers to do so? (You know, all those people you expect to read your book after you finish it?)

Maybe time isn’t the issue. Maybe it’s something else. I’ve been an avid reader my whole life, but recently I noticed that my reading had slowed considerably. Being the over-analytical person that I am, I tried to figure out why. Here’s what I came up with:

(1)   Reading had become a chore instead of a pleasure, because I spent way too much time – you guessed it — analyzing the writing. I couldn’t accept the story for the story and go along for the joy of the journey. No, I had to pick apart every sentence. I had to stop at the end of each chapter and consider why the author chose to end it just then and how such choice affected the pacing. I found myself noting the location of each major plot point in relation to the overall structure. I paid attention to verb tense and point of view. In other words, I studied the enjoyment right out of books. As a result, I picked up books less often.

(2)    I had begun to read too many books out of obligation instead of choice. One of the upsides to becoming a published author is that you tend to meet a lot of other published authors, which can be sort of cool. The downside is that you suddenly feel as if you need to read all the books of every author with whom you have become friends. This can be a problem. You may not like the genre in which your new friend writes. Or you may like the genre, but maybe – uh oh – you don’t particularly like your new friend’s writing. He’s a great guy, but, um, you’re just not wild about his books. Now multiply your friend several times over and you see the problem.

I made a conscious decision to get out of this rut. Fixing problem number two was easy – I simply started reading only those books I wanted to read. Problem number one proved a bit more difficult. Analyzing books had become a habit, and kicking the habit required discipline. I had to learn to catch myself whenever I slipped into a critical mode. I’m proud to say I think I kicked the habit, for the most part. The writer in me will never let me be a pure reader again, but I think the two have struck a better balance.

So what about you? Are you a reader? An avid reader? Has the volume of your reading changed over the years? And if you don’t read much, why not? What do you think? Is reading essential to being a good writer?

(**I’m happy to announce that the winner of the March 29th book giveaway is Maureen. Maureen, shoot me an email and I’ll get the book to you! Congrats!)____________________________________________________

Julie Compton is the internationally published author of two novels, Tell No Lies and Rescuing Olivia, both from St. Martin’s Minotaur. She can be reached at julie@julie-compton.com.

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