How Writing Has Changed My Reading Habits

I fully admit I don't read as much as I used to. In 2011 and 2012, I finished over 100 books. This year I'm course to finish about 90 or so. Part of the reason I don't read as many books is because I don't have as much time, as writing is the best sort of time suck.

There's another reason, though. To quote the great oracle Stephen King:

“Almost everyone can remember losing his or her virginity, and most writers can remember the first book he/she put down thinking: I can do better than this. Hell, I am doing better than this! What could be more encouraging to the struggling writer than to realize his/her work is unquestionably better than that of someone who actually got paid for his/her stuff?"

I think I still pick up the same amount of books I once did, I just don't finish them, because there is some flaw that prevents me from doing so. I don't think that means I'm a snob, or think I'm better than everyone else. No, not at all. As Mr. King states, you reach a point in your journey when a light bulb goes off and you can grasp what's good, and what's not. I mean, all of us can see truly horrible writing, but writers can pick up the smaller things that may not bother the average reader.

There are two sides of this coin, though. I can be brought to a swooning state by a great book. I used to be filled with envy when I read a quip like this:

“Boys like him didn't die; they got bronzed and installed outside public libraries.” -The Dream Thieves, Maggie Steifvater
The entire book is filled with quips, elegant prose and deep characterization. I savor each page and dread the last.

Once upon a time, books like this reassured me. "See? There's no way you'll ever be as good as her. So why try?" Now, I realize I will never be like Maggie, and that's just swell, because I can imagine she wouldn't like that idea all that much.

I could write books like Maggie, but I would agonize over each word, and I'd probably end up hating myself and the book in the process. Instead, I polish my own prose. Which will never be deeply poetic, but that's okay. My voice is my own.

Comparison really is the thief of joy (so says Teddy Roosevelt, anyway) and comparing your work to others is foolhardy. But reading a lot, in different genres, is a great way for any writer to learn. You need a little bit of ego to launch yourself and your work into the public domain, and there's no better way to see what you're doing right or wrong than reading a lot. Read outside your comfort zone, and learn from the literary masters. Read different genres, to see how they do it. Read "easy" reads to see what makes them so popular.

Learning from good books is a no brainer, but those "bad" books have a lot to teach as well, if you're paying attention.