Sunday, February 21, 2016

Would I Read This?

What I Learned About My Writing by Dissecting My Reading Choices

After writing four Young Adult novels (three of them speculative fiction) I decided to switch gears. I took a long, hard look at what I like to read – and how I go about choosing what to read. It suddenly seemed incredibly obvious that what I write should pass a simple first test: would I read this? When I asked that of my first four books the answer was a little shocking: probably not. Don't get me wrong, I read both YA and speculative fiction – plus a lot of other things. But if I'd picked up my own books in a library or bookstore, based on the description and concept it's pretty iffy whether I would have taken any of them home.

I learned something very important from this: I am very judgmental about what I read. And in a world where people have busy lives and endless distractions, most readers are probably fairly picky about what they commit to. So that's when I started analyzing my own decision-making process: I work in a library and can bring home anything I want, for free. But I don't. So what am I looking for?

Not only do I judge a book by its cover, I judge it first by its spine. In the library where I work, New Fiction and New Non-fiction have their own displays, but the covers don't face outward like they do in some libraries and bookstores. I realized I make silent evaluations about the spine before I even pick up a book to find out more about it. Especially in fiction, the spine reveals a lot of information – from how long it is to how famous the author is (based on font size). I am apparently adverse to both super thick books, and books that scream "Huge Commercial Success!" That's just me.

The books on my reading table.
After I approve of the relative size of the book and the style of its spine, I pick it up and look at the cover. Too girly, I put it back. Too masculine, I put it back. An interesting image intrigues me, and maybe a title that makes me say "What's that about?" Then I open the cover and read the jacket copy. My attention span is mercilessly short. Maybe it's the setting I don't like. Maybe it's the main character's occupation. My ability to say "no" is brutal. I am more biased than I ever realized. So what am I attracted to?

Sometimes it's one word – the setting or the concept. Sometimes it’s a few sentences that make me go, "Hmm, I'd like to see what happens." Sometimes, to further convince me that I've made a good selection, I read the blurbs. I prefer blurbs from reviews (as a former filmmaker I know how hard it is to get press coverage, so I appreciate that as a general accomplishment). Alternately, I like blurbs from writers whose work I know, but even if I'm unfamiliar with the blurbists, several dazzling comments can make me even more excited about reading something.

The next thing I usually do is open the book and read a bit of the first page. It's not a deal breaker, I just want to know if there is an immediate connection. Sometimes there is, sometimes there isn't. Again, it's not a deal breaker because I know you often need a few paragraphs, a few pages, to feel like you're involved. Admittedly, as I've gotten older, I've become less inclined to give books a hundred or more pages to spark something in me… But that's a different blog.

There are exceptions to this scrutiny of course. If "everyone's talking about it!" I might read a book regardless of if I find the description inherently interesting. This was true for both "The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt and "Dead Wake" by Erik Larson and I read both of them quickly and with pleasure. I'll read things based on a New York Times review if it's gotten glowing praise, or by a friend who gushes while recommending something. And obviously I'll read almost anything by favorite authors.

The challenge here was to dissect my own process for choosing a book unknown to me, with the intention of then writing a book that, based on the description and concept, was without a doubt something I would eagerly tuck under my arm and take home. With that in mind, I recently finished my first book for adult readers. (The words "artificial lifeform" will be on the dust jacket!) The enthusiasm and intention I had for this book from the beginning were very different from how and what I'd written before. It makes perfect sense that I should be the ideal reader for my own work. Especially given the precariousness of making an actual career in publishing… but that, too, is another blog.

For now, I've come to understand something important about myself both as a reader and a writer, and the very act of being able to be more intentional with my work is itself a victory.

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