Reader’s Block

Posted by March 1st, 2011

Or, Stop and Read a Book Once In a While!

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An agent shares her perspective on a frustration that most agents & editors experience eventually…

Over the holiday break, I found myself with reader’s block. For all of you writers out there who just did a double-take, yes, I said readers block. I just made it up. Although I’m positive I’m not the first person in the industry to feel this way. Let me explain.

I was on the couch, reading a requested submission and I just couldn’t get past the first page. And the writing was good. After four failed attempts I put the manuscript aside and picked up another. Same thing happened.

The next few days passed with the same results. I was frustrated (for those of you who don’t know me, this is an understatement to say the least). At one point I’m pretty sure I injured my dog with an errant rubber band flick. I unbent every paperclip in sight. I even did—gulp—all of our laundry, including bed sheets! But still, the thought of attempting another manuscript made my eyes cross.

“I think I’ve burned out,” I announced to my husband, Joe. He didn’t even get a chance to step inside our apartment yet. “I just can’t read anymore.”

Joe peered over my shoulder at the mess of paperwork on the couch, the pile of metal sticks on the coffee table, and at PeeWee, who gingerly licked at his rubber band wounds. “Let’s talk about it.”

Ah, the benefits of being a newlywed.

Joe dropped his briefcase, carefully moved a pile of papers labeled “client edits,” and sat on the couch. “So what have you read lately?”

“What have I read?!” Did he really want to get me started? “Oh, I don’t know…about a hundred queries, a manuscript about a leprechaun with a Napoleonic complex, Client X’s latest revisions…” blah, blah, blah.

Joe’s a good sport. He let me rant for at least three minutes.

“That’s nice,” he finally said. “But what books have you read?”

I stopped pacing. Wait…what was the last book I read?

“Identical, Ellen Hopkins.”

“Great. When was that?”

“Thanksgiving…” I reluctantly admitted.

Joe was quiet for a minute. Then he stood up, walked over to our bookshelves and pulled out the newest Dennis L. McKiernan (I’m a closet Mithgar junkie and he knows it). I had bought the book as soon as it came out in October. I meant to read it…when I had the time….

“Come with me.”

I followed Joe down the hall and into our bedroom.

“Now lie down and read.”

Had he even been listening to me?!! “I can’t read!” At this point I was near tears. I mean, before this I could always read. No matter where I was, I could always get sucked into a new world. And now that magic was GONE.

“Joanna,” Joe said more sternly. “Lie down and read.”

Being the other newlywed, I relented. I swiped the book from his hand and made myself cozy.

It took a few minutes, and a few bouts of actually forcing myself to sloooooow down. But it worked. The words pulled me in, one by one. I connected with the characters (Aravan, my love!). It was just like old times.

I stopped—reluctantly—to eat dinner and to feed PeeWee, who forgave me for my earlier actions as soon as his kibble hit his bowl. By the time Joe climbed into bed, I was more than half way done. At 3:42 a.m., I closed the back cover over, fully satisfied.

Only I wasn’t satisfied. After I turned out the light, the story kept replaying in my mind. I wanted more. What happens to the characters now? Oh, I hope Dennis (isn’t it great how you’re on a first-name-basis with an author when you read their work?) writes another soon….

This is what I had been missing.

The next morning I had errands to run, we had plans that evening, and I needed to shower, but something kept pulling me to my pile of submissions. I wanted to meet new characters, to go on new adventures. Dennis’ book left me wanting more. And that’s really what good writing does.

That’s when I realized what Joe was trying to tell me. There was nothing wrong with the manuscripts or the writing or even the queries. I just needed something to remind me what all of those submitted pages could become. I needed a reminder of why I joined this industry, why I even became a reader in the first place.

Nothing beats a good book.

I once heard that Stephen King reads for four hours and day and writes for four hours a day. Now, it’s true that Stephen King could attribute his success to scrambled eggs and beer for breakfast and we would probably all take his advice, but I think he has something there on the reading part. It’s our way, as persons in the publishing industry, of smelling the roses.

Joe came home early from work that night for our evening plans. He found me on the couch, PeeWee curled up next to me, a manuscript on my lap and …unshowered. But he didn’t get mad. Ah, newlyweds!

[The above originally appeared in The Swivet and has been reprinted here by kind permission of the author. Photo courtesy Joanna Stampfel-Volpe.]

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Joanna Stampfel-Volpe

About Joanna Stampfel-Volpe

Joanna Stampfel-Volpe's career in publishing began with Barnes & Noble by day and publishing courses by night. After securing a position as an editorial assistant with an independent publisher, Blue Martin Publications, and working there for about a year, she joined FinePrint Literary as an unpaid intern. Three months later she was offered a paid assistant position, which quickly led to a position as a junior agent four months after that. Her first sale went to auction. In January of 2008, she joined Nancy Coffey Literary & Media Representation as a full-time agent. They are a full-service agency and active members of SCBWI, RWA, and AAR.

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