I just finished re-reading The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy this evening and, as with any book, the second read made me think about a lot of things. I always catch more of the little tricks, naturally. More importantly, my standards for authors are higher now, by virtue of my exposure to publishing and the "what it takes" of writing, than they were six or seven years ago when I first read it.
The important thing is how much it still worked. I still fundamentally enjoyed the book, I still nearly cried at the end and I still loved the writing and the slow build and release of tension, the battle construction, and so many other parts of the story and the style of its telling.
The difference being that this time I was able to read it with at least half a beady eye. While I was busy getting lost in the beautiful prose I was also noticing some things that would make me kick my own work with substantial force. Just little things: the fact that the while the opening scene is good it takes me a little longer than I'd like to actually believe the characters and the situation; some of the myths are kind of obviously dropped in the first book and are paced oddly so that it feels like they're set-ups, although they pay off very well later; the Arthurian stuff is cool once it gets going and gets more original but the first few scenes with it are taxing and overly weighty; parts of the book probably jump around a bit too much; little POV wonks jarred me; and on and on. Not big things. By all means, very little things, and almost always the sort of fault I forgave nearly immediately when reading. It didn't affect my enjoyment because I just kept going.
But although I was writing when I first read Fionavar, I was doing it mostly on instinct (it would have been my grade 12 year of high school) and so didn't always self-evaluate my own work quite as critically or, indeed, ruthlessly as I do now. The things that cause me to lose sleep in my writing now are similar to these wonks I found in Fionavar. They bother me a bit, because I want to do better, and always demand that of myself. It's a kind of self-loathing that leads to debilitating perfectionism, and if this re-read was anything to go by, it's a false standard, at least to an extent.
This is important in my current context specifically because I've always looked up to Kay as a writer ever since I attended a talk he was giving at Saint Mary's in Halifax, and Fionavar was a very seminal work in shaping my enjoyment of adult fantasy--it was one of the first genuinely adult fantasy books I got into, and perhaps as a result my current fantasy project owes some inspiration to it in tone and scale.
Obviously I strive for originality in everything I do, and by no means is this meant to imply that I'm somehow writing better than Kay did. In fact, I make all the above mistakes and then some, and they are problems. But although I'm candid about the need--and even pleasure--of revising thoroughly, being able to critically evaluate a work I love helps show me that these micro-level, highly-subjective debates over things like POV shifts, character development, pacing--they're important but they're not the end of the world, either. Any story is going to have its wonks, including mine.
To be able to read, to see the little wobbles that no doubt gave Kay fits as he wrote and revised, and then feel how much I can enjoy the story without worrying, is a learning experience about how I read as a reader versus how I now think as a writer who has at least some degree of experience. While reading for technique is important, I've always thought it crucial to re-read books I love to remember that feeling that a story should generate, and to learn that, for a reader, enjoyment comes in many forms, not all of the them technical. As writers--and most friends who do critique are also writers in one way or another--it's easy to focus on the minutiae, when the minutiae are only a part of the experience. Even favourite books can be dissected.
My takeaway is mostly that, say, when I'm worrying horribly over the exact tone of the lines in one of my sample chapters, maybe I need to just trust the characters a bit more. Trust myself to write what needs to be written. Trust the story to tell itself the best way. This is the sort of thing writers say all the time and it infuriates my friends in digital media because it's vague, but this conundrum is what it's for. Stories can go their own ways; the mechanics that make them work can be unpredictable. This sort of thinking is, I think, at the heart of my favourite (and only) rule: "Do what works."
Of course, a story that wants to really engross me in its pages must do a lot right. World has to be good. The writing needs to be consistent in style and voice. I've always tried to learn from Kay that way, and on re-reading I did pay close attention to the exact nature of his style, when he used more anachronistic constructions and when he used more contemporary idiom. The way he structured key story beats was interesting and useful in a long saga, and I've always envied the exact way he flips between POVs without anyone actually really caring. Truth be told, I'd probably do some of these things a little different, and be more lax on certain other quirks. That's where personal preference and situational context comes in, and is what (I like to think) makes me my own writer.
Doesn't mean I can't learn a lot from a good re-read, and the biggest learning might just be it's OK to let a story ebb and flow--it will still work, because after all, I couldn't stop reading in the end.