The Rules of Reading

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Sometimes I have a love-hate relationship with reading. I love to read. I hate finishing a book and wishing it had been better. One-third of the way through reading a non-fiction book that has been well-reviewed, that has set the author up to write a series of similar books and has established her as a figurehead of the “fuck up the patriarchy” movement (I’m paraphrasing but that’s definitely the kind of language she would use), I was finding it a bit… tedious. So much so that the idea of picking it up again made me not want to read at all.

I looked longingly instead at my TBR pile. And then had guilt. The most ridiculous kind of guilt. As if I was considering cheating. On a book. Because of some arbitrary rules that I must have set for myself somewhere along the way without realising it.

So I’m creating a new set of reading rules (as much for myself as for anyone else).

You don’t have to buy a book.
If you want to own a book, then you have to buy it. But if you just want to read it, then you can borrow it from a library or someone you know who has a copy of it. But whatever you do, you must never steal a book. Never download a pirated copy of a book. It is stealing from the author. If you can’t afford to buy a copy, become a member of a library and borrow it. Some authors will even give you a free copy of their book if you ask nicely. It doesn’t cost anything except a little bit of your time.

You don’t have to read all genres.
Reading widely is a great way of expanding your knowledge of the world. But most of us read simply for pleasure and the expansion of our knowledge is just a by-product. If we are reading for pleasure, then it’s unlikely we are going to enjoy all genres of writing. If you don’t enjoy a particular genre, then you don’t have to read it. It’s completely counterintuitive. If you only enjoy one genre and you only want to read that one genre, then you are perfectly within your rights.

You don’t have to stick to one genre.
There is also nothing that says you can’t read more than one genre. Read them all if you like. Read any combination of genres that satisfies your reading appetite. Read the popular and the obscure, read the bestsellers and the flops, read the critically acclaimed and the universally panned, read fiction and non-fiction, read romance and horror, read thrillers and dramas, read sci-fi and historical, read steampunk and erotica, read fantasy and urban realism, read crime and westerns, and when you’re done reading all the genres that exist now, look for new ones because they are being invented every day.

You don’t have to read age-appropriate or demographic-appropriate books.
Most fiction seems to get divided up into categories based on which age group it is meant for: pre-school, new readers, middle grade, young adult, new adult and adult. And then there are the categories we’re told we should like based on who we are: women’s fiction for women, adventure for men, sci-fi for nerds and so on. But you can read books from any or all of these classifications. Most publishers stumble into books that go on to be bestsellers and that’s if they aren’t too busy falling all over themselves to reject them completely. The idea that they know who should be reading what, better than the readers themselves, is laughable.

You don’t have to read a book just because everybody else is.
FOMO (fear of missing out) is real, even when it comes to reading. But just because everybody else is reading a book because it was Oprah’s pick or it had a billion dollar marketing budget or it’s currently being made into a movie that may or may not suck doesn’t mean you should feel obligated. Getting sucked into reading a book that everybody else seems to be talking about often means it will fail to meet expectations because they’re almost never as good as the hype suggests. It’s perfectly reasonable to instead spend that time reading something you actually want to read rather than something you have just been tricked into reading.

You can read the last page of the book before reading the first.
Oh, how it pains me to write that! You will never catch me reading the last page of a book before reading all the other pages before it linearly. Mostly because the words have no real meaning to me if I haven’t read all the words before them. But if reading the last page of a book before diving in at the start is what floats your boat, then go for it. If it’s a crime, then it’s certainly a victimless one.

You don’t have to finish reading a book just because you started it.
On several occasions, I’ve read books – struggled through them actually – only to find that getting to the end made all of that struggle worth it. And with just as many (probably more), I’ve struggled through only to find that it wasn’t worth it at all. And then there are the books that I never finished. The one I always cite is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. It just didn’t speak to me. But there have been a few others. The Haldeman Diaries, a memoir kept by HR Haldeman for the four years he was Richard Nixon’s Chief of Staff. It’s still in my library with a bookmark marking the place where I gave up over a decade ago. I might go back to it one day. But I might not. And that’s perfectly okay.

You don’t have to finish reading a book before starting to read another.
Ah, the dilemma that propelled me into writing these rules. I’m not very good at remembering what happened in a book if I don’t read it all in one go, so I try to stick to one book at a time. But whether it’s circumstances or the book itself, sometimes you feel like reading but don’t feel like reading that particular book. So it’s completely acceptable to read something else instead. You might go back to the other book. You might not. It’s entirely up to you.

You don’t have to like a book just because everybody else does.
I won’t name the two books that I dislike the most but one of them is considered a classic (my review: “this is the story of – to be frank – nothing very interesting and nothing much happening… the kind of bad novel a teenage boy might write before compiling a manifesto and then going on a killing spree”) and the other was made into a TV show (my review: “the only redeeming thing about this book is that it serves as an important lesson for everyone out there writing: if something as bad as this book can be published, then there’s still hope for the rest of us”). Different books speak to different people for different reasons and just as often they don’t speak to us at all. There’s no right and there’s no wrong when it comes to opinions, just lots and lots of them.

You don’t have to like everything one author writes.
Some writers write to the same formula in book after book. If you like the formula, then you’ll probably consider that a good thing. But it’s possible that you might get tired of the formula after a while. Similarly, some writers bore themselves sticking to the same writing formula, so decide to try something different. They might like the results. You might not. It is not compulsory to like everything that comes from one writer. And if the day comes that it is compulsory, then they’re no longer an author, they’re a cult leader.

You don’t have to review a book once you’ve finished reading it (but the author would probably appreciate it if you do).
If it isn’t clear by now, let me spell it out for you one last time: when it comes to reading, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. And that includes posting reviews. Yes, writers like reviews (particularly positive reviews) and if you can manage it, they’ll be eternally grateful. But if you can’t, then don’t worry. You don’t owe them anything. In fact, if you’ve read their book, then you’ve already done more for them than most people have.

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So that’s it. And the rules of reading all really come down to one thing: do whatever the hell you want. As long as you keep reading. After all, as Mark Twain so eloquently put it, those who don’t read have no advantage over those who can’t read.

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A Guide to Writing Drunk

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“I was drinking a case of 16-ounce tallboys a night, and there’s one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing at all.”
On Writing, Stephen King

One of the persistent stereotypes about writers is their fraught relationship with alcohol. For some, it’s absolutely accurate. But for most of us who write, we know it isn’t true. While there may be plenty of creatives who struggle with sobriety, it’s no greater in percentage terms than members of the general public experience. Still, why let that get in the way of giving it go?

Stephen King is the cautionary tale but what he did was alcoholic writing. Drunk writing is less intense, less destructive to life in general and a much more rare occurrence. Continue reading

Why Do Some Writers Hate Adverbs?

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“The hatred of adverbs amongst writers, and specifically teachers of creative writing, has become so commonplace, so unquestioned, and so unthinking, that it ranks only with ‘show, don’t tell’ as the most ubiquitous cliché in writing advice.” Colin Dickey

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The thing about clichés is that many of them are accurate. It’s how they become clichés. “Show, don’t tell” is essential writing advice. It is how “He went here, he went there, he did this, he did that” becomes “The crowded train to the edge of the city was oppressive but the only alternative was to take the bus since what he was heading to was the mechanic’s workshop holding his car hostage until he paid the enormous repair bill. And the only thing he hated more than mechanics was buses.”

But the ongoing campaign against the use of all adverbs isn’t helpful at all. So whenever anyone says that writers shouldn’t use them, I want to scream, “Stop telling me what to do!” No adverbs in that sentence so they shouldn’t be too offended unless the screaming puts them off. But oops! One has snuck in. (Don’t see it? It’s the “too”.) Does that little modifier render everything I’ve written here unreadable? I don’t think so. Apparently some do. Uh oh, there’s another! (“Apparently.”) Continue reading

Rules versus Styles versus Preferences When Editing

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The English language is one of the hardest in the world to master and only seems to be getting harder thanks to its constant evolution. The fact that there are so many different opinions about what’s “right” and what’s “wrong” doesn’t make it any easier, especially for those wanting to edit their writing and looking for definitive answers. After all, as writers, we generally don’t want to get involved in the battle. We just want to know who won.

Unfortunately, I don’t have good news on that front. Because while there are some definitive rules, there are also styles that change depending on which country or publication you write in and there are even preferences that individuals make up their own mind in relation to. Continue reading

The Writer’s Commandments

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Remember when you were a kid? A large part of the learning process was accomplished by doing. And then being screamed at by an adult to never do it again. Like putting your hand under the running hot tap. Like running out onto a road to collect a ball without checking for oncoming cars. Like riding a mini motorbike into a barbed wire fence (okay, so maybe this one was only me).

It would have been so much easier if someone had told me before I did any or all of these things not to do them instead of waiting until after I’d done them and then shouting at me. Maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference. But we’ll never know because nobody thought to try the learning process in a different order.

Even for older children these days, a common refrain is, “But nobody told me not to do it.” So here’s a few commandments for writers out there. You probably shouldn’t have to be and don’t need to be told these things. But just in case, here they are so that you can never say, “But nobody told me not to do it.” Continue reading

Another Triolet – A Poem

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Last post I talked about not having written poetry for such a long time before posting my newest poem, a triolet. And then, just like that, I wrote another triolet – literally. For anyone who needs reminding it’s a poem with eight lines in which the rhyming structure is ABAAABAB and in which the first, fourth and seventh lines are identical and the second and eighth lines are identical. Continue reading

Triolet – A Poem

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It’s been a long time since I focused on writing poetry but as I was reading my dictionary recently, I came upon an entry that described a triolet as a poem with eight lines in which the rhyming structure is ABAAABAB and in which the first, fourth and seventh lines are identical and the second and eighth lines are identical. I had to have a go, so here is the result. And as a consequence, the first poem I have written in many years. Continue reading