I don’t know what happened to me.
I used to be able to devour books like a hungry, gasoline-fed fire. It wasn’t unheard of to finish a book in a matter of days, and never more than a month. But now, I can barely finish a book in a month if I’m lucky.
I know a lot of things keep me from reading as fast as I used to—TV is probably chief among them, as well as the fact that I seem to have a much shorter attention span than I did before, thanks in no small part to the Rise of the Devices, where I feel this idiotic need to constantly check my email and Facebook and Twitter. I used to be able to read for an hour or two straight with no problems. Now I read a few pages then start feeling distractions pulling at the corners of my brain. My ability to focus while reading has seemingly gone by the wayside.
As I’ve been working on strengthening my writing, I’ve put in a lot of work and I think that hard work is starting to pay off. Even though I still have a long way to go, I’m feeling a certain confidence in my writing that I didn’t have before and I think it shows. The thing is, for all the writing, editing, and studying I’ve done to improve, there’s one piece of advice I haven’t taken, and it’s always bothered me.
That advice is (paraphrasing): Read as much as you possibly can, even books you don’t like or that aren’t very good. You can learn just as much if not more from a bad book than you can from a good one.
I mean, it makes sense on a certain level. I suppose that carries over to other arenas as well, not just writing. But the thought of spending my valuable time reading a book I don’t like or isn’t very good seems, well…crazy.
Now that’s not to say I won’t finish a book I don’t like by an author I do like. I’m about 50 pages into Bag of Bones by Stephen King, and even though I’m still waiting for something actually happen, I’ll be patient and I’m sure I’ll finish the book even if it doesn’t pick up. But reading a mediocre-to-bad book by an author I don’t even like?
Reading a book is something I try to enjoy. I say try because unless what I’m reading has me absolutely engrossed, I’m still a little distracted, looking at word choice or use of punctuation, and not enjoying the book like I feel I should. I’m reading more like a writer than a reader. If I was trying to read a bad book I’d probably never finish it because I couldn’t keep myself interested. It is worth noting, however, that of the very small amount I read of one of the Twilight books, Stephanie Meyer managed to make sure I never use any form of the word incredulous.
One thing I have been doing, though, is slowly dipping my toe into the pool of online critique groups. I mentioned my Reddit ‘No Sleep’ experiment before, and that was fun, but you don’t get any actual feedback there. I did some more exploring and found the subreddit Shut Up and Write, which is a point-based peer critique system. As you review and critique the work of others you earn points that you cash in when you submit your own work for review.
So I guess I’m still improving my writing by reading stuff that isn’t necessarily top of the line, it’s just that instead of going ‘Ugh, this sucks,’ and chucking a book in the trash I’m giving some hopefully useful and constructive feedback that helps the other writer. It feels much more productive than reading a poorly written book.
Hopefully then end result is pretty much the same, because I really don’t want to read bad books. I really, really don’t, but I will if it’s that valuable to my writing. But you tell me—do you finish every book you start, even the crappy ones? What do you take away from them?