The unfortunate shift occurred when I decided to take my writing “seriously.” Like many of us scribblers, I began reading and writing at an early age. I filled reams of notebooks and diaries. I wrote because I needed to. The same with reading. I didn’t think about it. I just did it.
However, after I had several novels and writing awards under my belt, I noticed an unfortunate shift not only in my attitude about my own writing but also about reading. Suddenly, it felt like work. For a while, I deluded myself into thinking this critical approach would enhance my writing skills. After all, I was now developing a greater appreciation of important concepts like flow, plot structure, and style. My critical brain loved to dissect a paragraph as an editor might, often jotting notes in the margins or using my Kindle highlighter to mark certain passages. My critical brain loved highlighting eloquent prose and brilliant turns of phrase. But more often in was the shitty passages that would get my attention, a note to self of what not to do. With all that highlighting, I frequently missed the pleasure of getting lost in the story.
My critical eye turned on my own writing like an exacting tutor, hovering over my shoulder during my writing sessions. You call that a paragraph! Awkward! or even You suck!
Overnight, I became my own worst critic to paralyzing effect. I quickly discovered that work produced this way, if you can manage to get any words to stick to the page, is often stilted and boring and blah. Pablum par excellence and no fun to produce. No wonder it felt like work. When the things I enjoyed most in the world became chores to cross off a list, I knew things had to change.
As if Google read my mind (I’m pretty sure it does), a video appeared in my YouTube recommendations, and I spent the next several days devouring the videos of veteran author Wesley Dean Smith. Smith, who mostly writes Westerns, looks and sounds like he just stepped through a swinging saloon door. He’s written over one-hundred books, brags of making a good living at it, and lectures new writers on how he does it. His advice centers around Heinlein’s Rules. Robert A. Heinlein was a prolific pulp fiction writer who offered the following deceptively simple advice to aspiring authors:
- You must write.
- You must finish what you write.
- You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
- You must put the work on the market.
- You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.
Most of us writers will come up short at that third rule, but there’s a lot here to consider. Smith also wrote a book about the method titled Writing Into the Dark. I discussed it in a recent YouTube video.
While binging on Dean Wesley Smith’s YouTube playlists, I came upon a video that supported my recent revelations about how I needed to shake my critical approach to reading and writing and return to doing both for pleasure. Smith asserts one should only read for pleasure. At least the first time through the book. Then, if you want to go back and note the author’s genius technique or dissect it for information about what not to do, you may. He advises one write the same way too, with the creative voice, NOT the critical eye.
My instincts agree wholeheartedly. I’m reading for pleasure again, and writing that way too. I’m not sure if it’s improving my technique, but it’s a hell of a lot more fun.