Bad words

If you wanna write, write a thousand words and read for at least half an hour a day.

I can’t remember where I found that advice – I was going to say ‘quote’, but I’m not sure it qualifies – but it’s still the best advice I could ever give any prospective author. The more you do the better you become. But there is a cost.

I love reading. I always have – I think all writers are readers first. Nothing thrills me like getting a new book by my favourite author – or, having picked a title up at random, look up an hour later and realise that you’ve just let someone new into your heart. It’s a dream. It’s bliss. It’s calorie-free and more nutritious than any diet.

But these days I’m finding that the more time I spend on writing, the better I get as I refine my craft, the less tolerant I am of bad writing. And, unfortunately, there’s a lot of it out there. I’m currently listening to an audiobook that is tormenting me with its overwrittenness. Not in a Terry Pratchett honeyed-prose way, or in an Adams-esque layering of surrealities, but in that bad old way:

“He frowned. He seemed unhappy.”

That sort of thing becomes extremely annoying over the course of a novel.

It’s frequently-given advice – to read books with a mind to its qualities of dialogue, of structure and character. But I don’t read to learn – or, if I do, I want to set aside time to do it properly. I read books because I love them. I love stories, of worlds far away or simply of worlds contained within one soul. My question is: does learning the skill of writing detract from the joy of reading?

I never pick up a book with the hope of being able to sneer at it. No-one, not reviewers or agents or (especially not) friends of the author, hopes a book is error-strewn and incompetent. I want to be enraptured. I want to learn. I want surprise, or thrills, or delight, or comfort – or all at the same time.

There is truly nothing in this world that gives me as much solitary pleasure as finding a book that I just cannot put down – no, not even that old male standby. Now, though, I find myself less able to get past the introduction without thinking ‘ah, so that was the inciting incident.’ ‘That character must have a deeper role to play or he wouldn’t have been brought in here.’ It is, frankly, a pain in the bum. Nothing gets my goat like a misplaced comma or unnecessary adverb.

Thankfully I’m still able to forget my practice when I get about a third of the way through. If I get that far without hurling it against a wall – and I’ve not needed a plasterer yet – than I know it’s all going to be okay. I’ve been ensnared by characters and story and the imperfections slowly fade into obscurity.

But it’s a good job I’ve got the audio version of this particular novel. My old desktop PC is a bit heavy to hurl around. And any resulting impact would likely need more than a plasterer to smooth out.

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