Separating My Writer and Reader Selves

I have read some spectacular books lately…Marissa Meyer’s Cinder and ScarletHelene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni, Aaron Starmer’s The Only Ones. And I just started Francisco X Stork’s The Last Summer of the Death Warriors. The quality of writing in all these books, at every level–from character to plot to storytelling to voice to prose so absolutely gorgeous you can taste it–is phenomenal.

And I’m being reminded all over again that (and why) I need to make sure I separate myself as a reader from myself as a writer.

Why?

Well, frankly, because each of these books could scare off my writer self.

I’m usually pretty good at this. I’ve been writing only a few years less than I’ve been reading, and books and authors have always been inspirations to me. Sure, yes, they’ve also been distractions, but they haven’t been deterrents. When I was twelve, I wanted to be as good a writer as Phyllis A. Whitney (in her teen mysteries). To be honest, at that age, and with that level of hero-worship, I probably wanted to write books just like hers. In later years, I got over the flattering wish for mimicry, and mostly felt like I wanted to be able to put words on the page as well as some of my favorites, but certainly not in an identical way.

Have you read those books I mentioned above? Okay, maybe you don’t aspire to writing fantasy/sci-fi, but which of us wouldn’t want to have the world-building talent that  Meyer does. Who wouldn’t want to tell a story like Wecker, to dig deep and come up with characters like Stork’s Pancho and DQ? Who wouldn’t want to be able to fashion words with the beauty that all three of those authors do?

Not me.

I don’t think this is a problem/solution post, more an observation of yet another stage in my writing journey. I’ll continue to lose myself in other writers’ books, and I’ll continue to remind myself that if I even want to get close to what they’re doing, I need to step away from their stories and get back to mine. And then I’ll get out the staple gun and attach myself to my chair and desk. And write.

My own words in my own way.

I seem more vulnerable to staring at that gap these days–that gap between what authors like this can create and what I–realistically, I think–am capable of. Today. So far. I’m not letting this turn into discouragement or push me away from my own writing. That path leads only to poison, as far as I’m concerned. But things have shifted a little for me in the past year–a combination, I’m sure, of struggling with one book for so long before deciding to “drawer” it; returning to work part-time; reminding myself that this is a long-haul path, not a quick flick of the magic wand. I’m a little less certain, a little more conscious of my writing flaws. (Ah, youth, I guess–loads of low self-esteem and lack of confidence in so many things, but apparently not in my writing!) Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as I keep it reined in and don’t let it get in the way of my writing.

I know some people who don’t read (as much?) when they’re in the throes of writing their own novel, maybe just for the first draft. Maybe they just don’t read books like their own. I’ve said before that the only time I had to pull back from reading certain books was when my 12-year-old male protagonist started sounding too much like Meg Cabot’s Princess Mia. In general, though, if my writer self even looks at the idea of pulling back from reading, my reader self comes at me in a fury, all teeth and claws and really loud screams. Besides, the corollary to my question of who wouldn’t want to write like those brilliant authors is the question of who wouldn’t want to read their words. Every day.

One more time: Not me.

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12 thoughts on “Separating My Writer and Reader Selves

  1. I’m with you, Becky WHen I read great prose I also doubt if I can ever live up to that example. But, I guess our goal is to live up to our own potential–not someone else’s. It is a VERY long road. Agreed. Have you shelved your historical WIP? Wondering which project is in the drawer. Hope you haven’t given up on it.

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    • beckylevine says:

      That is exactly our goal, Carol. It’s just tough to always remember it. I have shelved the historical YA for now–it turned out to be something I was, at the very least, not ready to spend another year writing right now. I am, though, in love with the MG WIP I’m working on instead. It feels like the right choice.

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  2. As long as you’re happy with what you’re doing…we sure need our own passions to keep us going, don’t we? But I hope at some point you’ll return to the historical novel. Certainly that involves a lot more time to research. I’m still plugging away…almost finished my second draft!

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    • beckylevine says:

      I’ll come back to it when/if it feels like the project I want. It was a tough decision, but I’m much happier in my writing time these days. I think I spent the last year actually feeling depressed by my lack of connection to that story!

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      • Thanks. But I don’t really want to add up how long it has taken me to get here. I had to learn to write without looking back, know what I mean? I can’t believe that I used to spend a month on each chapter–fixing, tweaking,etc, etc. But this is my first novel, and I have learned a TON just about the process. In the process. Know what I mean?

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        • beckylevine says:

          And that doesn’t change, I don’t think. I knew, I always know, that I had/have more to learn, but the THINGS that were still there to think about, to shift, to do differently–in the last project and on this one–still blew me away. I guess if it were too easy, it’d be boring, right?!

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  3. I used to be a HUGE reader, but the more I started writing, the less I read. I know that’s the opposite of what I should be doing, but I start to get the worlds mixed up in my head. I need to find a way to balance both.

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    • beckylevine says:

      Jocelyn, I hear writers say this, and…wow. This is hard. Have you tried reading books that are absolutely NOTHING like the ones you’re trying to write?

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  4. Last year, when I read John Green’s THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, I seriously came close to throwing in the towel. For a few minutes I saw no point in writing anything because – clearly – nothing was going to be as good as that book. It’s an awful feeling. But it’s also a false one. I know this because not everyone thinks that book is as genius as I do (how?) Because taste is subjective and so are books. I don’t have to write a book as transcendental as FIOS, I only have to do the best I can with the story I got. And maybe, if I’m really lucky, some reader some day will feel that way about one of my books.
    As for my reader self. I am INSATIABLE. I combat the worry of what I’m reading seeping into my writing by reading 2 or 3 books at once. Right now I’m staying up late reading THE ONLY ONES (thanks for the late nights, Becky 😉 while listening to audio of THE HANDMAID’S TALE during morning runs.
    The only time I don’t read is when i’m in deep revisions. I can’t have anything but my story in my head. I’m weird, right? 🙂

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    • beckylevine says:

      First, I can’t believe I forgot THE ONLY ONES (now added to the original post.) Isn’t it amazing? I think if I tried running to THE HANDMAID’S TALE I’d trip and fall from the stress going into my ears!

      Yeah, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. Another one, although probably not as big a personal hit for me, since that YA writing path isn’t the one I see myself on. And, yes, it is a false feeling–great point. We’re all writing for “our” readers, and they’re probably out there.

      Interesting about the deep revisions. I always feel more like I’m playing with a puzzle at that point, more detached from/separate from my reading, than when I’m early drafting. You’re not weird, no more than we all are, anyway–it’s so different for each of us. Which is probably what makes it hard. Or one part of that, anyway!

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