Reading to Myself

by Rob Gregory Browne


There's nothing like a good book is there?

I mean, I love movies.  I love great television shows.  Going to Broadway plays is one of the highlights of my trips to New York…

But there's nothing, nothing like a good book.

Years ago, when I was in my twenties, I went to Las Vegas with my wife and her family. I like to play craps — which, once you know the rules is a lot of fun — but I tend to get bored with gambling quickly, so I usually have a book along with me to read while everyone else is rolling the bones.

This time, however, I had neglected to bring one, so I strolled on down to the Union Plaza casino gift shop and started browsing through the racks until I found a book called RED DRAGON.

As most of you know, RED DRAGON is the first (and best) book by Thomas Harris to feature the world of Hannibal Lecter, although Lecter only makes a brief appearance in the story.

Anyway, once I started reading RED DRAGON, I couldn't stop.  Harris hooked me and hooked me bad, and I spent most of the trip sprawled across the hotel room bed, my nose buried in the pages.  Between that and cheap buffets twice a day, I must've gained ten pounds over the weekend.  

But I didn't care.  I just wanted to read.  To completely immerse myself in the story Harris was building. And I got in so deep that nearly everything else around me ceased to exist.

It's like that with every good book I read.  Once I'm hooked, all I can think about is getting back to the author's world to find out what his or her characters will do next.  And when it ends, I'm both satisfied and sorry.  A good book makes me want to stay with those characters forever.

And so it is with writing.

I'm coming to this realization late in the game.  I'm sure most of the writers here (and just about everywhere else in the world) have already figured this out a long, long time ago, but it just recently occurred to me that when I sit down to WRITE a book, I'm essentially doing what comes naturally:

I'm reading to myself.

After so many years of reading other people's books and getting an almost orgasmic enjoyment out of it (yes, I said it.  Orgasmic), I — like most writers — have taken the reading experience to the next level and have begun reading to myself and writing it down.

Some unconscious part of my brain is dictating the story to me, immersing me in its world and pushing it out through my fingers and onto the computer screen.   

I like to pretend I have control over it, but I really don't.  That's why characters like Solomon from WHISPER IN THE DARK started out as a walk-on only to insist on becoming a major force in the story. That's why when Blackburn got hit with a particularly emotional blow, I started to cry.

When I'm "writing," I'm in so deep that I'm merely a spectator, a passenger on the train, no more in control of where it's headed than I am when I'm reading someone else's book.  The only thing I DO control, in fact, is the language.   I'm constantly refining the language — but again, that comes from a place so deep that I sometimes wonder if I control even that.

When I've finished writing a book I'm drained.  Emotionally and physically.  And just as I do when I read a good book, I feel satisfied and sorry.  Even when the experience is nerve-wracking and scary and utter hell, I'm sorry to be leaving that world — which is never the same again once you re-enter it.

All the control returns during the polishing phase.  I say polishing because that's all I really do once the book is done.  I take my editors' suggestions and buff the thing up, because most of the grunt rewriting work has been done during the first draft (I "rewrite" as I go).

So, in the polishing phase, after the majority of the work is done, I feel relaxed and confident and completely in control.  And not nearly as deep into the thing as I was the first time around.  It's much like rereading an old favorite that I'll always have a fondness for.  An almost melancholy return to an old haunt.

But that first time around, it's all about reading to myself.

So it makes perfect sense to me that many readers go on to be writers.  I've met quite a few people who haven't read more than one or two books in their lifetime and say they want to write a novel.

Uh-huh.  Good luck to you.

Because unless you love reading as much as we do, I doubt you'll ever reach that particular goal.

Because, let's face it.  If you don't like reading other people's work, the chances are fairly slim that you'll ever start reading your own mental dictation.

And that, as they say in Hokey Pokey-land, is what it's all about.

14 thoughts on “Reading to Myself

  1. Jake Nantz

    I like the way you put that. And it’s so nice to consistently be reinforced that I’m not the *only* one who ‘rewrites’ as I go. For the longest time I thought something was really wrong with me when I felt reasonably good about my drafts when I finished them, because I’d revamped, scrapped, and rewritten them 20 times along the way.

    Okay, I know, something IS wrong with me…a lot of somethings…but at least I now feel more confident that THAT isn’t one of them.

  2. Rob Gregory Browne

    Glad to be of assistance, Dusty. And Jake, here’s the wonderful thing about the writing process: there is no wrong way.

    It doesn’t matter how you get there. All that matters is what winds up on the page.

  3. Cornelia Read

    This is such a magnificent description of the process, Rob, and thank you. There’s one person I killed off in my first novel whom I really loved, as a character, and I sobbed the whole time I wrote that chapter. My agent and editor kept saying “this doesn’t feel real to us” and made me rewrite it five times, and I kept crying every time I worked on it. Weird!

  4. Scott

    I experienced the same thing as I wrote my first novel. The bittersweet scenes really did make me tear up. I had a characaater that said “excuse me, I can do more here.” During the exciting chapters, I couldn’t wait to sit down and write what was in my head. At one crucial part, I had butterflies in my stomach *as I wrote*. Later, during the editing phase, I still had those same butterflies in my stomach. I really was an orgasmic experience, one I blatantly admit to having. That feeling, along with the discipline it took to complete that book, made me realize I could write more and, perhaps, if all the stars aligned, do it for a living.

  5. Dana King

    You’ve summed it up nicely. As someone much wiser than me once said, “Write the book you’d want to read.” That’s great advice, and exactly what you describe.

    (I know that’s not much of a comment, but I’m trying to keep Rob’s comments roughly equal to Brett’s.)

  6. Pepper Smith

    Makes sense to me. I’ve heard it said that writers write because there are stories they want to read that no one has written yet.

    It is interesting how stories and characters sometimes seem to have a mind of their own, isn’t it?

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hmm. I don’t think I’ll ever believe this “revising as I write” thing. Maybe if you provided actual film documentation I would be less skeptical.

    I’m not sure I’m taking notes on what I’m “reading” when I write, either.

    My process is more like what it was when I was directing plays. You do a rough set design first, block the play in that space, just moving the actors through the set (although sometimes the riffs they come up with in a blocking rehearsal are unparalleled and you just take notes and hope they can do it again), and then you go over and over and over the thing, adding texture and nuance and pacing and suspense and laughs and sex, until opening night (your deadline).

    But isn’t it interesting how we all have to have our own analogies for the creative process? I’ve heard dozens, and they’re all different. I love it.

    It’s so cute that we can convince ourselves that we have any idea what we’re doing.

  8. Jake Nantz

    “It’s so cute that we can convince ourselves that we have any idea what we’re doing.”

    Okay Alex, you need to warn me with “put down your drink before reading this” or something. Spontaneous laughter and drinking Coke at the same time are not good bedfellows!

  9. joylene

    I loved Red Dragon. I bought it right after finishing Black Sunday. Michael Mann made a movie based on it called Manhunter. Awesome music. Will Petersen starred at Will. Mr. Mann did take liberties with the ending.


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