I just found out today that for fiction writers, reading is required.
Unfortunately, it isn’t reading for pleasure. What is it then?
Reading the Genre
Writers need to read the genre that they write. Doing this enables us to see how stories are effectively melded together. It also helps us see what doesn’t really work. Just because a book is published – and even if it sells a million copies – doesn’t mean it’s well-written.
Some people might be okay with having their name on the cover of drivel. Is that what you want? I don’t like to pick up a book and only a few pages in be ready to break out my red teacher’s pen. Seriously, writing short, simple sentences is fine if you’ve got incredible word choice that can pack a punch. Otherwise, it’s only good for early readers.
Reading to Improve the Craft
No, I don’t mean read fabulous books like Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell. I’m talking about reading books from the genre you write to see what works well.
If you’re like me and can hear the sarcasm in Rick Riordan’s character Percy Jackson, and want to emulate that, get a pen. Write down a few phrases from the book that seem to convey sarcasm.
Now analyze them. Is it the structure of the sentences? Are they short – maybe even fragments? Is it the specific word choice? What makes that sarcastic tone come through?
Keep writing them down and pondering them until you figure out what makes them work. Having a strong writing voice that’s specific to a character is an important writing ability, especially if you’re going to tell the story from more than one point of view.
Reading for Ideas
I’m not necessarily talking about plot ideas, although I think we readers get those when we’re reading. Perhaps, we’re thinking that Rowling didn’t really need to kill Sirius Black. We would have handled that scene a different way.
That’s fine, but you aren’t a writer to rewrite what someone else already made into a best seller. You’ve got a well of ideas in your own heart, mind and soul.
I like to use other writer’s stories as a “jumping off” point. One way to do this is to ask that most annoying of questions: “What if?” What if magic was in everything around us? What if an alien got lost in our solar system? What if dragons could talk and were friendly, instead of man eaters?
Sometimes, I’m reading along and I like an idea that’s in the story but I feel as if the author didn’t take it far enough. Fine, why don’t I explore that in my next plot? Other times, I’m sure that writer just took something too far. How would you do it differently to make it work?
Reading to Analyze Style
Write down what you like. Did I already mention something about this? Writers should have a reading journal. Write down passages that strike you as especially brilliant. We talked about voice earlier, but there are many things we could learn by copying other writers.
(You know I don’t mean we use their words in our works, right? I’m talking about writing this stuff in a spiral notebook where we can mull it over, pick it apart and rebuild it in a way that makes it uniquely our own.)
Perhaps their description is especially vivid. Why? Maybe they can make a character come to life on the page. How?
Write down those sections of the text that seem especially well-written. Later, come back and try to figure out why they appealed to you. Further, practice using these techniques in your own writing.
Notice that I’m saying “Write it down and come back later.” I’m a big fan of reading to enjoy the story. If I don’t enjoy the story, that might be something to think about. Why didn’t I enjoy it? Write it down.
However, if I’m enjoying the story, I don’t want to stop and be an analytical reader at that moment. I want to enjoy the story. Fine. Grab a stack of those little sticky notes and stick them all over the text. When you’ve savored every last scrumptious word, pull out a pen and your spiral notebook and write things down.
I think having your notebook sectioned off is the best way to organize these thoughts. Come back next week to find out more about creating the best critical reading journal under the sun.
Do you keep these sorts of notes already? I’d love to hear your comments before I divulge all my secrets on the matter. Thanks for posting your ideas here.