Does Writing Ruin Reading?

This is how reading fiction is supposed to make you feel as if Pegasus is carrying you aways on his back to some magical realm. And not just fantasy books. Any book.

Lately, I’ve been disappointed in the books I’ve been reading, even with books by favorite authors, people I’d always thought were very good writers. Is it because I’ve gotten more impatient as I’ve gotten older? Or is it because I’ve been writing more and editing my own material? Being a nit-picky writer has turned me into a nit-picky reader.

Now, I pay more attention to such cliches as “She kept her eyes on the floor.” (Be careful not to step on them) Worse yet, “She raked him with her eyes.” (I didn’t know eyes have claws) Eyes do all sorts of unlikely things in books. Substitute “gaze” for eyes to make the prosed less absurd.

“I hate it when people breathe dialogue,” she breathed. Period, after dialogue instead of a comma. But don’t people breathe all the time?

Even the best writers use the annoying, nonsensical description, “He felt, rather than saw.” “He felt, rather than heard.” Why not just, “he felt” without “saw” or “heard”?

I love books that have include a rich tapestry of details. It’s the sort of thing I write myself. I have to rein myself in so as not to overdo it. It’s hard to know when there is too much detail when charming becomes annoying. I recently read Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth for the second time. The first time I loved the book. It contained the sort of information that I loved in my class on Medieval and Renaissance art, which I thoroughly loved. Years later, not so much. A cast of thousands in Pillars, along with their detailed storylines, didn’t help

Thinking to find a book by someone who’s a graceful writer, whose other books I’ve enjoyed, I ordered Geraldine Brooks’s Year of Wonders, based on a true story about an English village that quarantined itself during the Black Plague. As expected, the book has some gruesome details. Considering the subject gruesome could be expected. But then she throws in a gratuitous murder, turns a saintly character into a sociopath, and writes a totally off-the-wall ending. This time the fault is in the writer, not an overly-critical reader.

My current aggravation is with a book by Philippa Gregory, another writer whose books I’ve enjoyed. Were her historical novels always this tedious or is it me? She has chosen an odd way to write The Constant Princess about Henry VIII’s first wife. Some scenes are written in first person, present tense from Katherine’s point of view. These scenes are printed in Italics. A couple of pages or even a paragraph later, Gregory switches to third-person, past tense, printed in regular font. Back and forth all through the book. ARGH! It does not make for immersive reading. If this book had been her first, instead of her ninth, I doubt that it would even have gotten published.

Editing is stressful, so is being edited, especially if you’re doing it yourself.

Maybe I should switch to reading books that were written when editors actually edited. Books by authors such as Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald whose I manuscripts were edited by editor par excellence, Maxwell Perkins. I could use an editor like Perkins myself. The publishing world could use more editors like him.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maxwell_Perkins

Can’t Stop Editing

Yup. Fits me. No doubt there are others out there who are also insecure perfectionists. Or just insecure.

Probably one reason for my inability to stop editing is that I have a slight (?) case of dyslexia. Someone who is even more of a fussbudget informed me that what I have is dysgraphia–a writing disability. Because of it, my high school typing class was sheer misery. I couldn’t even type a mailing label correctly the first time or the second. Anxiety dos not help matters. Thank goodness for word-processing programs.

Printing out your material and reading it out loud, with red pen in hand can help.

E.B. White was the author of the children’s books, Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and Trumpet of the Swan. He wrote for The New Yorker magazine and was one of their contributing editors. And he was the co-author of The Elements of Style, a book that was a must for English majors. I once had two copies, which I read, but never memorized.

I don’t remember where I read the two anecdotes I relate here; it’s been ages since I came across them. I don’t know if they’re apocryphal, but they’re sure memorable.

Not White’s post office, but it could have looked much like this one.

E.B. White is said to have mailed a manuscript to his editor and promptly went to the postmaster in the small Maine town where he lived and begged to get the ms. back. He’d thought of some edits he could make. I can identify with that. 

I remember these pre-wordprocessor deleters.

One thing about publishing your novel on Amazon’s Kindle Vella is both good and bad. You can take down a chapter any time and do some more work on it. That’s what I’ve been doing the past few weeks even thought I have other stories to write. A  friend and I signed up for the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this November. I started writing a new novel, got about a quarter of the way through, and stalled. I didn’t care enough, I guess.  A Home for an Exile’s Heart called me back and I answered the call to edit it some more. I can’t believe I thought it was finished.

Writers aren’t the only ones who can’t stop editing. 

I have no idea which of his paintings he was touching up.

A shocked museum guard once came across a man who’d gotten behind the velvet rope and was touching up a painting handing on the wall.

“Sir. stop! You can’t do that!” The dismayed guard exclaimed. “Don’t you know that’s a painting by Picasso?”

Man with palette and brush, “I am Picasso and it’s not finished!”

Whether it’s true or not, and I hope it is, I love this anecdote. I don’t recall if the artist in question was Picasso, but it seems a Picasso-like thing to do.

Would White have been able to write more books if he hadn’t been such a fussbudget? We’ll probably never know. No unpublished manuscripts have turned up.

For Picasso, who was a ceramicist, sculptor, printmaker, and stage designer, as well as a painter, that episode in the museum must have been a one-off. During his lifetime he created fifty thousand (!) works of art. Obviously, he knew when to let go and go on to the next project. The fact that he started to paint in his childhood and lived until he was ninety-one surely made a difference, as did being a genius.

Those of us who lack the confidence of geniuses have a harder time stopping editing and submitting our work to a publisher, or taking our portfolio to a gallery have a harder time figuring out when something we created is good. Or, if we had the gumption of Snoopy and wrote to the publisher to come get our mansuscripts.

Stop correcting and mail that manuscript. Most of us use email, but I had to post this photo because the mailboxes are so cute.