A couple of weeks ago, I asked the age-old question, "Why do 'meh' books sell?" My friend and colleague, Thomas Pluck, had a good answer:
Because people like to be entertained, and they are not always as bored or jaded as we are. They don't constantly hear "what is a good book" and anguish over it. They like a good story and will forgive what we consider "grievous errors" to follow a character they enjoy reading.
It made me think about something I've known for a long time, but haven't figured out what to do about. I've been writing fiction seriously for nearly ten years now and over that time, I've forgotten how to read for pleasure.
It's not that I don't enjoy reading anymore--in some ways, I probably enjoy it more than ever. But that enjoyment often comes more from analyzing the books I read rather than just sitting back and savoring them.
Referencing the title of this post, I still don't actually know how sausage is made (writing-wise or meat-wise) but with writing, I'm learning and getting better. One of the ways I learn is by reading and as a result, I'm constantly studying, constantly thinking about the choices authors make, the way they construct a story, trying to figure out if there's a better way...
A couple of years ago, I re-read a book that had been one of my favorites in my mid-twenties. It was a mass market paperback historical romance saga, purchased from the supermarket. Back in the day, I marveled at how beautifully it was written. Someday, I'll write a book like that, I thought.
So I re-read it and I couldn't believe what absolute dreck it was. The story itself was fine, interesting even, and well-researched (as far as I could tell). But the writing. MY GOD, THE WRITING. It was terrible. Awkward sentence structure, poor word choices, overuse of cliches, pretty much all the things I try to avoid in my writing.
Would my re-visit of this novel have turned out differently if I hadn't been writing myself these past several years? I don't know. Possibly, I've matured (not bloody likely). My tastes may have changed (improved?). But I suspect the real reason the book didn't hold up is that I looked at it through a different lens than I used to.
And if you make any jokes about my bifocals, Imma cut you.
I don't think there is an answer to my dilemma. Reading different genres is sort of helpful but even if I don't I fixate so much on plot, I still obsess over phrasing, character development, and word choice. The even sadder part is that this analyzing has carried over into the films I watch, and even television. Once you start paying attention to this shit, it's like something changes in your brain. It's not enough to like or dislike something. No, you have to pinpoint what it is so you don't make the same mistakes in your own work.
I'm pretty sure I'm not the only writer who has this problem. Anyone have any ideas on how to break this habit? Not altogether, mind you. I'm still trying to learn how to make the damned sausage. Sometimes though, I just want to enjoy the sausage someone else makes, you know?