The Hazards of the Profession

by Rob Gregory Browne

I have a friend who has spent much of his adult life working as a production assistant, then as a producer of television commercials.

Now, this is a guy who loved movies.  Lived for them.  He and I would spend hours and hours talking about our favorite movies and writers and directors and actors.

But after several years of working behind the scenes, he told me, "I have a hard time watching movies anymore.  All I see is the hellish work that went into them.  I see the grips, the PAs, people shoving lights around, bad tempers, asshole directors, whiny actors — I see it all.  It can be the simplest scene in the world and I know exactly what's going on behind the camera, and it kills it for me."

And I felt sorry for him.  I've been on a few movie sets in my time, but those have mostly been magical experiences and haven't had any impact on my viewing pleasure at all.  In fact, in one experience I had been struck by how hammy the acting seemed while I was on set.  But later, when I viewed the actual movie, the acting was superb.  So any negative aspects of the experience were immediately washed away.

Unfortunately, I'm starting to understand where my friend was coming from.  But not with movies.

With fiction.  Novels, in particular.

Before I started writing novels, I carried one (or two or three) wherever I went.  If I had to walk to work, I'd read along the way.  If I was waiting in the doctor's office, I was reading the latest installment of my favorite series character.  If my wife was shopping at Ross or wherever, I was in the car reading a book.

I read good books and bad books.  And even though I'd spent many years on and off as a screenwriter (which oddly enough had never had an effect on my movie viewing), I'd always looked at books as an escape and read them, for the most part, uncritically.

But now that I spend a lot of my time in the trenches, pumping out thousands of words (if I'm lucky) a week, I find that it's almost impossible for me to read fiction.

See if this sounds familiar to you:

You've settled down with a new book by one of your favorite authors, or maybe by a new author that you've been hearing good things about.  You go to chapter one and you start to read.

Then BAM.  You get past the first paragraph, you're saying to the author, "Jeez, why did you choose to open it this way?  Wouldn't it have been better if you'd started with the last line of the paragraph?  That would have given the opening more urgency and really hooked the reader."

If it doesn't happen there, it might happen later.  You notice that a character is behaving a certain way and you say to the author, "Dude, that's so out of character.  The guy wouldn't react that way.  And the fix is so easy.  You could have had him say…. "

Maybe this doesn't happen to you, but it happens to me, ALL THE TIME.  I'm constantly trying to "improve" the writer's work.  And this isn't because I think I'm the God of all writers (although I'll happily accept any nominations), but simply because I WOULD HAVE DONE IT DIFFERENTLY.

In other words, I am incapable of blocking out my profession.  Because my job is stringing words and sentences together in order to entertain, it is impossible for me to read someone else's fiction (or even my own) without seeing all of its warts and wanting to fix them.

Which effectively kills the reading experience for me.

And the only time I'm able to get past this is when the book is just so damn good, so damn involving, so expertly crafted that I forget where I am and just disappear into the author's world.

But such books are sometimes hard to come by.  For me, at least.  Nowadays.  

It seems it was much easier to find great books when I wasn't a "pro" (and I use the term VERY loosely) at this game.  When I wasn't so concerned with craft and only wanted to be whisked away.

I guess such are the hazards of reading for those in the business.  Or am I alone here?

Tell me what you think.

26 thoughts on “The Hazards of the Profession

  1. Jim Winter

    For the longest time, this was true of me, too. But right now, I’m reviewing a book by someone I know and…

    I caught myself several times wanting to call the guy on the phone and say, “Hey, man, you know if you’d just phrase it this way…”

    Yikes! I hate when someone does that to me. God help me if I ever start doing it myself.

  2. Becky Hutchison

    I’m not even a published fiction writer and I do the same thing. I particularly hate finding lots of typos or bad grammar in books, because I want to correct what’s wrong. (It’s not that I’m perfect at English, but I think it’s easier to notice other people’s mistakes before my own.)

    About two or three times a year, I just have to stop reading books altogether and look at magazines or do crossword puzzles for a few weeks. Once I’m bored with those things, I’m ready to start reading again.

  3. billie

    I occasionally feel like editing a page or two in books I’m reading, but it’s a fleeting impulse.

    Maybe my years as an undergraduate in literature and all those critical papers I had to write cured me of the desire? I don’t know.

    I love to read novels and get lost in someone else’s voice and style and world. I hope my ability to do so never changes – it would be like losing a limb if I couldn’t read for pleasure.

  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I may be the exception here but for me, knowing the mechanics of storytelling increases my pleasure in a good film or novel. I never had much tolerance for bad stories to begin with and have never had any problem bailing on something not done well.

    But as a writer I can get more out of the experience of a bad film or novel if I happen to get stuck in or with one, because at the very least I can be figuring out WHAT went wrong and keep myself halfway occupied.

  5. Stephen D. Rogers

    Nothing excites me as much as a bad film that should have been excellent. I spend the entire show recasting, rewriting, and recutting.

    With reading, I don’t do that as much. I love what I love and slog through the rest without much “dialogue” with the writer.

  6. Kathryn Lilley

    I’m so used to scrutinizing my own manuscrips for flaws, that it’s very hard not to do that with other authors. I start becoming aware of how often they overuse adverbs, drag down their pacing with description, or lose track of characters. I start getting annoyed. But there are still some books that simply transport me away. Those are the great ones.

  7. pari

    During the last few years, I’ve changed HOW I read. If a book doesn’t capture me with its writing or the story early, I’m unlikely to finish it.

    Those books I read cover to cover are the ones that pass this initial test.

    Sure, I sometimes want to edit but, like Billie, the impulse is usually fleeting. If it isn’t, I don’t continue with the book.

    There are still many, many wonderful works out there though and I’m grateful to be able to let go my criticism long enough to enjoy most of them.

  8. Brett Battles

    Pari pretty much sums up my current experience/attitude. It used to be that no matter what, I’d finish every book I picked up to read. It was almost a point of pride with me. Not so now. I’ve stopped books on the first page, the tenth, even have stopped them when I’m one hundred pages in. The good ones, I don’t even think of stopping.

    Good thing I didn’t have this policy when I was younger or I would have never finished DUNE.

  9. Dana King

    I do the same thing, though not to the level Rob seems to. It’s unavoidable if one wants to improve his writing.

    My formal education is as a classical musician. I was sitting in my graduate chamber music class when the teacher hit us with what I now realize is a profound principle: Having chosen to become professional musicians, we have sacrificed the right ever to listen to music again purely for pleasure. We can enjoy it, but we must always be listening critically to see what we might learn that would improve our musicianship, even if we’re in an elevator.

    I read like that. Not so much thinking of ways to improve what’s already on the page (though sometimes it just screams out at me), but to see what I can take away to improve my writing. Or to remind myself why you shouldnever do what this author just did. It hasn’t ruined reading fiction for me. Though I have much less tolerance for badly crafted writing, I get much more satisfaction out of a book that was dome well, even if the story or style might not have been my favorite. Helps me in writing reviews, too.

  10. Karen Olson

    After 20 years as a copy editor, I’ve learned when I can edit and when I cannot. So I take off my editing hat when I read, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to read anything at all.

    We have to be able to read someone else’s work and appreciate that writer’s skill and decisions to write it in a way that’s perhaps different than the way we would. If we all wrote the same way, it would be pretty boring.

  11. Fran

    Since part of my job is to read books critically, I have a similar problem in a slightly different way.

    When I find myself becoming jaded about mysteries, find myself itemizing plot devices or being unjustly harsh or simply being bored by yet another dead body, I switch genres. Generally I go to science fiction. It’s like a mini-vacation for me, because I don’t have have to review those. I can read just for the joy of reading, and come back to mysteries with a rested point of view.

    I can’t imagine that works for you, since story structure is story structure, but I do sympathize.

  12. Louise Ure

    I was not a critical reader before I started writing myself. In fact, I probably couldn’t have told you if the book I just read was written in the first person or third. Present tense or past.

    Now, of course, I’m much more critical and aware of the writing, and that does feel like a bit of a loss.

    But when I find that extraordinary work that makes me rise above any analytical reading, I’m tempted to read it a second time, just to find out how they did that!

  13. Allison Brennan

    Pari and I read the same way. The only difference is that before I was published, I finished EVERY book I started. I couldn’t stand not to finish the book. I may not have liked it much, but I had to finish. Now, if I’m not grabbed in the first two or three chapters, I put it down.

    I forgive a lot in books if I love the story and the characters. I never mentally “edit” a book. My least favorite part of publishing is copyediting. I love creating the story, I love revising the story, and I love the final page proofs where I get to see everything together and “tweak”–but the copyedits that come before? That’s WORK. That’s grammar and style and fact checking and questioning every decision I made or the characters made. I sure wouldn’t want to do it more than I have to.

  14. joylene

    I’ve had this problem for a few years. It’s so depressing when the author is a best seller. And you wonder, is he so spoiled that his editors are afraid to speak up?

    I suppose all we can do is make certain we publish a clear copy, so nobody ends up feeling the same way about us.

  15. Rob Gregory Browne

    I think there’s always a kind of analysis that goes on when I’m reading or viewing a movie, no matter what. That can often help with our own writing. There’s nothing better than reading or watching a truly bad book/movie to see what NOT to do.

    But when I’m reading for pleasure, I’d just like to be able to shut off the editor for awhile, and it’s getting harder and harder to do that.

  16. Kait Nolan

    Oh you’re DEFINITELY not alone. I’ve had a serious case of ennui about my reading the last year or so. With a few notable exceptions, everything I’ve picked up I’ve automatically analyzed to death. I will rarely write book reviews because I can no longer look at books as a reader who enjoyed or didn’t enjoy it. Instead I’m in the same boat as you, analyzing and trying to “improve” what I’m reading.

  17. J.D. Rhoades

    Definitely not alone, Rob. And after plowing through book after book as a contest judge, I don’t even think I like reading at all any more.

    But that’ll pass. I hope.

  18. Kathleen

    For myself, it’s not as much a question of mental editing (though I do do that)as it is simply being burned out on words.

    The same thing happens with art and design. By paid trade, I’m a graphic designer. When I’m working regularly, the last thing I feel like doing to relax is picking up a sketchbook.

  19. Jen

    Not only do I no longer enjoy books the way I once did, but now, because I’ve dabbled in screenwriting, I don’t enjoy movies either. I don’t dare make an attempt to learn about music for fear I’d judge that too!

  20. Lee Goldberg

    I feel your pain.

    That said, I know I am reading a great book when I don’t notice the “construction” work, when I am totally caught up in the characters and the plot and forget that I am reading at all.

    Unfortunately, that isn’t the case with the book I am reading now. All I can see is the writer’s laziness. It’s clear he was making the plot up as he went along and didn’t bother to go back and cut the aimless writing he did before he figured out where he wanted to go. It’s a struggle to keep reading…and I may just stop.


  21. Rob Gregory Browne

    Well, Lee, I can only hope that’s not one of my books you’re reading… 🙂

    What’s really annoying is when it bleeds over into authors I admire. I just read a book by a favorite author that didn’t have me reconstructing sentences, etc., but it was ultimately unsatisfying because nothing really happened in the damn thing until the last fifty or so pages.

    While the writing was always entertaining, the structure and plot were possibly the weakest this writer has ever produced. But I have a feeling I probably would have felt this way even if I weren’t a writer.

  22. Josephine Damian

    It’s the same for me. As a reviewer and writer, I’ve gotten so critical that I rarely read past the first few pages before I stop. And with the book biz putting author platform and branding above quality prose, this makes it worse.

    I no longer buy books for these reasons. Too much money wasted on fraudulently reviewed clunkers hasn’t totally turned me off to trying to read fiction, but it has turned me off to buying books.

  23. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Rob

    I know the feeling exactly – it’s why I don’t take holiday pictures. Ever since I first picked up a camera on a professional basis, I no longer use one just for fun.

    My biggest disappointment over recent years, I have to admit, is how many bestsellers I’ve picked up and read – some I’ve finished and some I haven’t managed to – and thought, ‘that was … OK, I guess.’

    Depressingly few of them have blown me away with the writing voice.

    Maybe it’s just because I’m so spoilt for choice. After all, if you work full time in the chocolate industry, even the finest Belgian chocolates must become a bit ho-hum after a while ;-]


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