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.