Monday, August 23, 2010

Writer as Reader

Reading for fun is actually hard work when you're a writer. In fact, I find it very difficult sometimes to read what other people write without reaching for my red pen. If the errors are minor bumps in the road and can be easily forgiven, it's easier to stay in the role of reader. At other times it's harder to put the red pen away, kick back and pretend I don't know anything about dangling modifiers, confused pronoun reference, or periodic sentence structure.

However, sometimes those dangling modifiers, confused pronoun references and weak sentences cross the line into - frankly speaking - bad writing. Three books I read recently took me twice as long because I was editing in my head whole paragraphs that offended my sensibilities. It's very frustrating because when I stumble over a rough sentence, I go into teacher mode and look for three or four ways to suggest revising it.

Why do I read a book that isn't well written? Ultimately I have to decide whether I want to spend time reading for the story and the characters or being offended by Amelia Bedelia usage and badly written prose. In another way, a badly written book can be very instructive. When I see what the author was trying to do and didn't quite succeed at accomplishing, I learn how to avoid those same mistakes. Sometimes it's easy to overlook rough patches and sometimes it isn't. When I decide to read a book, I just open up the place in my brain where I keep my willing suspension of disbelief, shake it loose, and plunge full throttle into the story.

To my great delight, I have found a few well-written books lately, and reading them has been immensely satisfying in all the important artistic and technical aspects. I don't even think about my red pen. My taste runs to character- and idea-driven stories, but I'm not much for murder and mayhem. Occasionally I like fantasy but dystopian worlds are annoying rather than exciting or challenging to me. A few of my recently read memorably written books:

Counting the Cost by Liz Adair - A New Mexico cowboy who loves the land and adheres to a strict code of personal behavior falls in love with the beautiful but abused wife of one of the ranch management team.

To Have or To Hold by Josi Kilpack - What begins as an unconventional bargain between two people who each need what the other has to offer turns into a gripping story of honor and commitment.

Rift by Todd Robert Peterson - A story of stubborn men who take a personal grudge way too far, this takes place in Sanpete County, Utah, a place I'm somewhat familiar with, which adds to the enjoyment. One LDS reviewer said this is how LDS fiction ought to be written, so naturally I had to read it, being a purveyor of LDS fiction myself. I didn't like the way the book was marketed, however; it made it sound like it was going to be racy or daring somehow, but it was an endearing story that made me feel I should be sittin' and whittlin' and spittin' with the main characters out front of the barber shop.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows - This is, to use EnglishMajorSpeak, an epistolary novel, one written in the form of letters to and from the characters. It takes place on the Island of Guernsey in the Channel Islands (that's in the English Channel between England and France, and although closer to France belong to England) and reveals what happened when the Germans occupied it during World War II. It's funny and dramatic and has all the elements of a very satisfying novel.

The Persian Pickle Club by Sandra Dallas - A "friends staying loyal to friends" story turns into a mystery, but you have to be tolerant of the 1930s social values a group of quilters in the Dust Bowl of Kansas. Sometimes it seems to wander a bit. All the women had their charming eccentricities, but I really got interested when the main character's husband appeared. He's a guy I could really like.

Don't You Marry the Mormon Boys by Janet Kay Jensen - An award-winning novel about two medical students at the University of Utah who fall in love - he committed to his LDS faith, she committed to returning to provide medical services to her polygamous community. They break up when they graduate and each has a job to go to, but things change and when their paths cross again, they realize they still are attracted to each other. Polygamy is incidental to the story, a vehicle for motivating the character to action, without being a central focus. Folk music is important in the story, which is where the title comes from.

I'm off to immerse myself in another book, hoping that this one won't require any rewriting as I go.