Un-learning from reading

Joe’s Post #131

way of shadows

Like most writers, I find it’s not always easy to read a book. We can get bogged down in critical mode (or learning mode), looking more at how a writer did something rather than losing ourselves in the story.

I’m bad at this these days. Really bad. Part of that stems from being in a critique group for so long, and part of it stems from me just being me. I love to see how things are done, good or bad. I do the same for movies, food and bar mitzvahs.

But here’s the funny thing. A good book will not let us get into critical or learning mode. It keeps us engaged.

So, after a good bit of reading, let me give you some thoughts on this book, think of it as counter-learning. Or unlearning. The book – The Way of Shadows, by Brent Weeks – is about an apprentice assassin.

  • It has no big stakes. It’s all small stuff, but stuff that’s important to the character. Protecting his friends. Finding his place in the world. Learning how to kill without remorse. Typical kid stuff.
  • It’s a story that’s been done before. Honestly, I don’t know how he pitched it, but I’ve read a ton of assassin apprentice books. Seems if you’re not an apprentice mage, you totally go the assassin route.
  • It has no central villain. Oh, there’s a big bad that gets what’s coming to him by the end of act 1, but there isn’t a dark lord, a dark king, a dark witch or anything all darkish.
  • There’s nothing really special about the world. It has taverns and whorehouses and streets clogged with poo, but nothing that would make you text a friend (god, I originally wrote ‘call a friend’, I mean, who does that any more?) and say, wow, you gotta check out this cool idea.
  • It isn’t particularly poetic, nuanced, or filled with beautiful descriptions that would make you weep.

So it could have been a book I put down and savaged in a very clever blog. But I’m still reading.

Those things, it turns out, don’t matter.

I kept reading because it has a character I like, the pacing is good and the poor bugger is constantly beset by all kinds of problems (that I want to see if he can overcome).

It’s writing at it’s most basic, really. He’s got a good voice, a good story and f*ck all the rest of it. Forget what you’ve read in books or heard in workshops. You don’t need it.

Maybe sometimes we unpublished writers get hung up on getting it ALL right. Maybe, despite a stack of rejection letters, my story isn’t that bad at all, it’s just not picked up because I can’t get the query right or the agent/editor/publisher has had a bad burrito.

Who knows?

All I know is I’m reading this book and enjoying it despite the fact it’s not likely to be taught at writer’s retreats as the perfect novel.

As someone once said to me, don’t let perfect get in the way of good.

Good can be enough to make a totally enjoyable book.


Best show last week – Not much TV watched due to being a chaperone for a grade 7 camp outing. I, of course, blogged about it.

Book that I’m reading at the moment – Probably obvious from the blog. Brent Weeks. The Way of Shadows.

Pages written on new book  Nothing new added. Oh, I know that’s not good, but that’s what happened. No sense in lying about it or finding an excuse.

Social media update – Despite not a single post last week, I continue to grow my readership on my site, justjoe, (justjoebc.com) and we continue to add readers here. Maybe I need to post less?

Health  A piece of advice. Never go camping sick.

Best thing last week  I survived being with 70 preteens. I didn’t kill one of them (yeah, that’s my story), and the whole adventure did not become a Bill Murray comedy.

Worst thing  Hiking for 3 hours with a cold. Luckily, the weather was amazing, but not being able to breathe made a hard thing even harder.

So, if you have some free time, check out these site from fellow authors…

meghanJM McDowell (and her Meghan Bode short stories)

hilaryHilary Custance Green

sofferJerry Soffer, author of the shadow of xeno’s eye.


4 thoughts on “Un-learning from reading

  1. I think so many of the courses and advice that’s offered are geared toward getting past the gatekeepers – the editors who work for companies who want all their books to be the top, mega-best sellers, and whose editors are so swamped with half baked almost good stories that they’re tired of seeing variations on a theme, so want the standouts. Every book I’ve ever read, whether it’s a new author, or someone like King, Gaimen, Straub, Rowling or anyone else has flaws. I get impatient with them, but I keep reading because no matter how small the stakes, no matter how minor the work, it’s got a story and characters I am convinced to care about, that the author obviously cared enough about to spend significant amounts of time working on and with. And that’s what is most important.

  2. I agree with you, and with Bev. The writing market is in many ways similar to the job market in general, where getting the job is often a lot harder than doing the job. Maybe the challenge of getting that first book published “traditionally” – which, as Bev says, means getting past the gatekeepers – is actually undermining our focus on what’s most important: just writing a great story.

  3. I have come to believe that there are a lot of very good books that the traditional publishing industry will not take on simply because of their own very competitive arena. It’s worse now than it ever was. How many self published books were there last year? Some crazy number like 400k. That does not mean there are not readers for those books, or that those readers aren’t going to get a perfectly satisfactory reading experience. I’m starting to feel rather good about this, and happier about the prospect of self publishing my work and letting it find its audience. They are they ultimate gatekeepers. Read Hugh Howey’s Tips for Writers on Wattpad for more on this topic.

  4. In the earlier stages of getting my head round the craft of writing, I really resented what it did to my enjoyment of reading. I became hyper vigilant about a ton of things that would normally flow beneath my conscious awareness. I have to say that although I am still very much learning to write, the reader and writer mode seem to flow together quite comfortably now and I enjoy having the double perspective.

    Thanks so much for mentioning my blog!

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