Reading as a writer and writing as a reader

What’s this episode about?

Welcome to the second episode of the fifth season of The Pen Garden Podcast. Listen to the full first episode and/or scan the blog post below for the main takeaways.

The topic last week – money and writing – was a bit heavy so I thought I would switch gears for this one and talk about something lighter – reading. This whole season is learning to love your journey and I can 100% say that the way I read changed dramatically since I became an author.

As most writers, I’m an avid reader and have been since I could read at the age of five. I still remember the first children’s book I could read aloud without stumbling, it was a cute story about a little horse chestnut who didn’t have any friends because of his spiky case. When he shed it though, and saw he was a gleaming conker all along, he learned to love what’s inside. As you can see the topic of self-love has been a thing in my life for many, many years and yet I still struggle.

Part I: Reading as a writer

One unexpected avenue to this writing journey and love struggle was how my relationship with reading changed. It was prompted by that Stephen King quote, you might have heard it: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write”. So naturally, I thought, that’s true. I should read and I should learn. Reading for pleasure gradually became reading to learn. When I had a riveting fiction book in my hands, I was looking at it no longer as entertainment and relaxation but as an opportunity to gleam insight into the success of others. So, to fortify the impression you have of me from the last episode, I wasn’t only trying to do all the marketing stuff other writers did, I was trying to read between the lines of their works, put myself in their shoes and then have that knowledge inform my own writing journey. In itself, this isn’t a bad thing, because I did learn a lot about the craft of writing from reading books analytically. But the main reason I held a book in my hands shifted from relaxation to learning.

Some of you will say that you find studying relaxing but for most people, those two things won’t be on the same level. That was the case for me too. Instead of getting sucked in a story, escaping the tough reality of lockdown, I was using active brainpower to keep track of how the author had approached their writing. Where there should have been adventure, intrigue and excitement, there was an active search of character arcs and novel structure used, an almost painful awareness of adverbs, repetitions and grammar mistakes and an always simmering need to know how this book was marketed and where it falls in our current publishing reality. Now, these things by themselves are really useful. There is a lot to be learned from this practice and I’m in no way suggesting it’s a thing you should avoid.

Observational learning, as defined, is people’s ability to learn behaviors from others by observing and reproducing the action. I think as I engaged with books from a certain point in my writing journey, I approached them as real-life case studies to be observed, dissected, and evaluated, eventually serving to better my own craft and knowledge. For me, this was invigorating in many ways but after time passed, I started missing the simple pleasure of reading a book with a cup of tea, tucked under a blanket, my mind wandering in amazing made-up worlds. So I really wanted to know, why wasn’t this accessible to my mind anymore? Why was I looking so deeply into the words, unable to truly enjoy the story? After a bit of research on observational learning, I found that it has 4 distinct steps: attention, retention, reproduction and motivation. I will drop an article which looks into what each of these steps entails in the blog post for this episode but I want to focus on the first and last steps of the process. For me, those two hold the secret as to why I wasn’t enjoying reading in the same way anymore.

Part II: Attention and motivation

According to psychology, observational learning begins with giving the object or model your attention. “For an observer to learn, they must be in the right mindset to do so. This means having the energy to learn, remaining focused on what the model is engaging in, and being able to observe the model for enough time to grasp what they are doing.” This is significant for me, because the way I focus when I learn is different from when I’m enjoying myself. The next few bits are my own thoughts and are not scientifically proven, but I split my focused time in two categories: analytical focus and flow focus. When one occurs for me, the other remains dormant unless something triggers it. Generally, I can’t be in both states at once. Analytical focus allows me to pick up small details, make logical connections, connect writing knowledge to its application and recognize flaws and strengths in a book. Flow focus is when I’m completely immersed, letting my imagination dictate how I perceive the words and characters instead of my logical author mind. In this state, I can often lose myself for hours in a book, ignoring any technical parts of the writing and simply riding the high of a story well-told. I did mention that something might trigger a switch in states for me, but that’s very rare. It has to be something like a very emotional scene that pulls me in or the opposite, a page full of repetitions that my writer brain can’t ignore.

So you might wonder at this point, if I’m so aware of this, why can’t I just choose the mindset I need for a particular book when I start it, instead of agonizing I now struggle to read for pleasure? This is where the last step of observational learning comes in – motivation. How do we decide if what we’ve gleamed from someone else’s work should be applied to our own writing? Psychology says that “in order for the observer to engage in this new behavior, they will need some sort of motivation. Even if the observer is able to imitate the model, if they lack the drive to do so, they will likely not follow through with this new learned behavior.” And this is where for me things started to go downhill with reading for pleasure. I estimated the benefits of simply enjoying a book in a flow state versus analytically approaching all elements used by the author and decided that in order for me to grow, I need to be constantly learning. If anything, I was too motivated to learn and adopt new practices in my journey. So reading stopped being a relaxation activity, instead each became a case study of what to do, what not to do or a bit of both. This, to many of you, might still sound reasonable. To me it did too. But the thing is, the mind needs rest. I didn’t have any downtime to actually reflect on what I’ve learned, if it’s applicable to what I write or to check in with my mental health. This led to me dreading turning on my Kindle or opening a book. It reminded me of my time in school when I would sit down to do my homework some days and release a massive sigh because I wanted to do something else. Play computer games, read some elaborate high fantasy novel, see friends. Back then however, I had an obligation to study the way I was told to. The beauty of being an adult is that you have more freedom with how you spend your time. When I realized the familiar feeling, I asked myself why I was essentially making myself hate something that used to give me so much joy. Unable to find an appropriate answer, I decided I had to reclaim reading for pleasure no matter what.

Part III: Reading for pleasure

Why do people read? If we take the learning element out of it, meaning we don’t look at textbooks and academic literature, manuals and various practical books, why do people read fiction and creative non-fiction? To put it simply, it’s an action you engage out of your own free will, knowing that the act of reading will bring you satisfaction. You choose when, where, how and what. It’s an activity that can help you escape reality for a bit, or assist you in partaking in play scenarios that may never happen in your real life by feeding your imagination. Seemingly, by these definitions, I was reading for pleasure, even when doing beta reading or highly analytical reading. It was my own choice how and when to read after all. Well, it’s not that simple. Knowing the extent of the pleasure I can derive from reading, when I  finished book after book and it was missing from my experience, this limited the benefits of this whole reading undertaking to just improving writing craft and knowledge. And I know what you might say. Just? Isn’t that a lot. Yes, it is, especially for a new author, but the benefits of reading for pleasure are far broader and dare I say, sometimes more important.

Evidence suggests that in adults, reading for pleasure can contribute to better self-esteem, improved ability to cope with difficult situations and to problem-solve, a higher life satisfaction and reduced risk of depression. If those aren’t enough, reading for enjoyment also impacts on our abilities to connect with others, helping us understand others’ feelings, giving us awareness of cultures and experiences that might be unfamiliar to us and aiding us in our social life overall by making it more pleasurable, accessible and easier to maintain. While the social benefits are a little bit difficult to gauge at the moment, I was also missing out on all the other benefits, particularly all the mental health improvements that I was so used to getting before I turned fiction books into writing school textbooks. So as with the budgeting in the previous episode, at some point the balance shifted. Educated and empowered by dreams of finding that amazing flow focus when reading, I set out to find a way to even out the scales.

Part IV: Two ways, one reader

When I finished the books I had committed to for The Pen Garden Beta reading program round 1, I knew I had to try reading something that I wasn’t obliged to do anything with. Not provide feedback and reviews, not even study for its popularity or because someone recommended it for a certain writing approach I should take notice of. It was just an interesting book picked out a haystack of other books. I can also call it trashy maybe because it’s nowhere close to a literary read and I picked it because I found a cluster of my favorite tropes in it. I’m not ashamed and I couldn’t be happier with my choice. I read a chapter, then two, then three. I was immersed. From time to time, my logical brain would pick up a repetition or a pesky adverb that I hate but I would just let it go and turn the page. As the action progressed and I got to know the characters, the little typos and issues became easier to ignore. I knew the author didn’t want or need my input, no one did. My only purpose to read was chasing my enjoyment. Luckily for me, I found plenty. On a roll, I picked up the second book in the series and I’m still going strong on the pleasure front. As I started to relax around reading again and finding my flow state with it, it became clear to me that I need to establish a balance which protects my reading-for-pleasure time. The benefits are too good to pass up.

But analytical reading and learning from others’ writing is here to stay also. It has greatly improved my writing craft and helped me meet many new fellow authors. It’s been rewarding in another way. For myself, I will try to establish reading goals in the beginning of each book I pick up. Some might be easy – for example, if I’m beta reading, I will be engaging my beta reading brain. I tend to slide into that when I’m reading extremely popular books too, either traditionally published or self-published, because I want to understand the elements of their success. But beyond that, I will try to shed my author skin and embrace the reader me which has been around for much longer. It will be a real shame if I lose her so I will do my best to remind myself often of the mental health benefits of reading for pleasure.

Conclusion – Writing as a reader:

Finally, knowing how I read, how I swing back and forth, I want to incorporate that in my writing too. I want to write books which are enjoyable and let readers get completely immersed in the story. That of course means looking out for what triggers me away from my flow state and avoiding that. It means keeping my mind open at all times. But an open mind is different from a constantly turned-on critical state. So as I navigate these subtle differences in my inner world, I hope that you too have found something useful to think about in this episode.

And thats all I wanted to say today. Do you read a lot? Are you using it to learn the writing craft or simply to enjoy a relaxing moment in time? Maybe both? Let me know. Let me know. I’m on Facebook and Twitter or simply send me an email at laineydelaroque@gmail.com.

A bonus episode is coming next Tuesday. I had a short chat with my friend and fellow author and beta reader Flora Kittle who some of you might know is a reader for The Pen Garden Beta Reading Program. Round 2 of the Program opens at the end of this week so we discussed what we wished writers considered before submitting their work to beta readers. Even if you’re not participating in the Program, I think it’s worth listening as what we discuss is broad advice that can help you with any beta reader you invite to give feedback on your books.

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If you want to continue the conversation, you can poke me on The Pen Garden Facebook page or tweet me @laineydelaroque. Thanks very much for listening/reading everyone. Hope you have an awesome week and speak to you soon.

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