Being a Reader Who’s Still Becoming a Writer
The story in my family goes like this: When my big sister was learning to read, she would come home in the afternoon, and she would play school with me. So at the same time as she was learning to read, she was teaching me. I’m sure that story, like most family stories, has some truth and some myth to it. All I know for sure is that I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t read. Or when I wasn’t reading.
I complained in second grade about not liking school, and I told my mom I didn’t like the reading time. Since that made absolutely no sense, my mom talked to the teacher and found out the class was doing out-loud reading together, and we weren’t supposed to read ahead. The teacher was a good one, and guess what–I got to read ahead. I kept reading. I became an English major in college, because there wasn’t anything I was going to do for four years straight except read novels. I had a bit of a scare in grad school when I hit burn out on Victorian novels, but I switched to mysteries and just kept adding to the piles of books on my shelves and the piles of words and sentences and paragraphs and plots in my brain. And throughout the years, I kept reading my old children’s books and eventually added the stories I found while my son was growing up. My entire family reads gobs, but there’s a reason why, some years ago, my sister gave me a copy of Sarah Stewart and David Small’s The Library, and it’s not just because Elizabeth Brown and I both have frizzy hair and glasses.
Do I have a point? Yes. I’m pretty sure it’s all those years of reading and reading and reading that have helped me be a good editor and critiquer. I think you could talk to most editors and agents and librarians and booksellers (and, yes, writers, but I’m getting to that part of the connection in a minute), and they would agree. Words have patterns, books have patterns, and all those patterns carve little grooves of understanding and recognition in our brains. So when I am critiquing, and the pattern isn’t there or it’s flawed or off-center, I can see that. Or feel it, maybe. A little alarm goes off. And I make my note in the margin, and I write a deeper, more full explanation in the overall critique, and I keep reading and watching for how the patterns are doing. It’s nice, it’s why I like doing this kind of work, and it’s a happy feeling to be good at something, right?
Cue fingernails-on-the-chalkboard screech as I shift jarringly away from talking about reading skills to talking about writing skills. When just understanding and seeing the patterns aren’t enough. I’ve been working on a picture book for a while now, one that was pretty good to start, but not good enough, and on which I’ve slowly been inching closer and closer to getting it right. I got an agent critique on it at a conference, and my critique group has seen it several times, and I’ve had a couple of other strong readers share their thoughts. And everybody is saying the same thing–the balance between scenes is off, and the stakes aren’t high enough. Okay–that all meshes with my own feelings, the ones that come from those reader grooves in my brain. But I still hadn’t figured what to fix or how.
Because that’s the writing part. Now I’ve also written for a long time–I’ve mentioned before that when I about twelve, I fell in love with Phyllis A Whitney’s teen mysteries, and that’s when I decided I wanted to do what she did. And I’ve been writing since. Now, as I get older, the gap between four years old and twelve years old gets proportionally much smaller. But the hours I’ve put into writing still don’t come close to the hours I’ve put into reading. Thought, yes; learning, yes; I’ve taken it seriously and I’ve worked hard at it, but there is just no way that the writing grooves are as deep as the reading ones. (Cue sci-fi movie idea where we can order the grooves we want from a shopping site and have them instantly implanted in our brains!) So while I can, even with my own stories, get that recognition of the flawed pattern, it’s another, very different thing to know how to fix the flaw. Which is why, yes, it’s called work!
Yesterday, puttering around the house, I barely realized I was thinking about the picture book, and suddenly–there it was, the fix for the flaw. Not an alarm, this time, but a lovely little inner chime. I knew exactly what the stakes were, and I knew they were high enough, and I knew they fit perfectly with the story. I also saw what I needed to do to shift the balance so that it was right and solid. I could have written my own critique and explained it clearly and concisely to myself, and then I could have put my pen down and gone away.
Except it’s my story. Which means I have to do more than point out a solution; I have to write it. In actual words and sentences. I have to create the actions and the tools, and I have to find a way to insert them smoothly into pages that, while not finished, do already have a certain flow and pacing going for them. Am I nervous about whether I can do this? Am I worried that I’ll chop something decent into something worse? Well, sure. But the ideas have been coming–I emailed myself notes at about 3:00 this morning, and I sent some more before I got on the treadmill for some exercise. And, after I put up this blog post, I’m going to stay put at the computer and do just enough research to get a few more ideas. And then I’m going to start placing the pieces. And with every hour I spend on this, I’ll know I’m digging the writing grooves deeper and deeper.
And that can only be a good thing.