by Priscilla Whitley
A few years ago I picked up a book everyone was raving about. A story promising to keep you up at night, full of intrigue and twists. For months it remained on the New York Times Bestseller list and libraries couldn’t keep up with the demand. I curled up one rainy Sunday for I was all in. I walked away around page 50.
My reading takes in a variety of novels, memoirs and essays. As a child I took to books, it was something I discovered early I enjoyed, though when I began to take my writing more seriously I found I read with another caveat besides enjoyment or information.
With everything I read I learn something. But it isn’t always because the story was well told or the images, the characters, got into my head. Lately I delve into works which may have started out well but fell apart in the middle as I’d think, “Where was the editor?”, or “I know where you’re going with this, it’s been done before and better.” That’s what happened with that book by page 50.
I’ve discovered to not always put something down because I think it’s poorly written or the characters, the story, are not fully realized. I used to feel it had been a waste of time plowing through something which wasn’t worth it, though not anymore. Now I keep going for I can learn so much by reading a work which I think is, well, bad.
Once I realize this book is not for me I grab a pen and begin to make notes, marking them on the pages where the dialogue doesn’t move the story along, a transition is contrived, or I slash down many exclamation marks meaning, “what’s the point of this chapter?”.
I dog-ear pages, yellow highlight passages, I don’t care about marking it up for this is not a book I’m passing along, this book has become my classroom in how not to do something. There’s so much to learn from reading something where the story is wandering around or the author has gone on too long, too wordy, where clearly the research hasn’t been done and the setting is flat. By becoming a self appointed editor for some unknown writer, I become a better editor for myself.
Of course we learn by reading well written works, those which allow us to walk alongside the story. Though a poorly written, poorly edited piece can also help us see what we need to do to make our own writing shine.
I went back recently and picked up that book I never finished. This time I read it to the end not hesitating to mark it up. I made my notes, I learned something and then I tucked it away where it now sits somewhere towards the back of my bookshelf.
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Weston Magazine Group. Her memoir, August on the Porch, placed first in the Westport CT Arts Center Memoir Contest. As facilitator of the Candlewood Writer’s Group, Priscilla runs ongoing workshops for writer’s in Fairfield County Connecticut. Her website is http://priscillawhitley.wordpress.com.
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