book in the woods

Reading to Write

A group of us were prompted to offer some advice to a group of young writers who were considering NaNo this year. You can find Brad Torgerson’s excellent post on the topic here, and if you follow the Mad Genius Club I suspect you will see more along that line – I did mine more generally on Saturday.

I was thinking about it again when I was talking with other writers about what helps to develop a weak writing point – like, say, romance scenes, or bridges between action scenes – and we were all unanimous in the need to read more. In order to learn how to be a better writer, you must study other writers.

Sarah Hoyt talks about doing this in a formal way by diagramming a novel. You can read it all, but in a nutshell:

Diagramming a novel, like diagramming a sentence could be considered back-engineering.  You take something that’s already there and already works, and you figure out how the component parts interact, and how each of them contributes to the sentence – or novel – working.

It is a useful skill to the beginning novelist, the pure pantser, or a multipublished novelist who knows that plot her is weak point.

I would recommend to a writer of any age that they do this with their favorite stories. Especially the ones that stick with you for years. Furthermore, as you are reading, keep notes of what things make you happy, and why. Learn to analyze just why you put that book down and never finished it. Was it boring? The characters whiny? Did it seem like no matter what happened, it was going to be futile and you just wanted them all to die in a fire?

Knowing why you don’t enjoy reading a story can be as important as knowing why you enjoy it is. But in order to be able to dig deeper and analyze stories like this, you need to read. A lot.

If you don’t enjoy reading, why are you trying to write? If you talk to writers much, you will find a recurrent theme. Most of them became writers because they wanted to read a story, and they couldn’t find it… so they wrote it. Some of them will tell you they read a book and hated the ending, so they wrote it better for their own pleasure. One of my daughters reads a lot of fanfiction, and I think that’s what the writers of that are doing. They fall in love with a character, and they are compelled to tell a better story than the original gave them. But in time, a writer will outgrow telling the stories in someone else’s world and take off the training wheels.

In a more studied look at the same need to read, a writer who wants to produce original work first needs to know what is being written (and read). This means reading, so you don’t write the same things someone else has done already. Also, there is a reason to know the tropes and cliches of your genre. They can be crutches, and get in the way, but they can also be stepping-stones that allow a writer to give the reader a sense of place, time, and character in a few deft strokes without taking pages of details.

The reader approaches every book with a whole ream of expectations in their head, and the writer needs to keep that in mind. If you are writing, say, paranormal romance, the reader will expect some tender scenes, perhaps even sexytimes. They are definitely going to be looking for action, and a more physical conflict than a cerebral comedy of manners. If the writer attempts to stray too far from the expectations (without warning the reader, or developing good reasons in the story slowly to allow the reader to warm to them) then the reader will put the book down in disgust and walk away.

Read, read a lot, and read the old with the new. Classics – not the stuff schools require kids to read, but the books people keep buying and reading year in and year out – will offer brilliance just as much as today’s bestseller (arguably more). And yet you cannot only read the old stuff, or your writing will cling stylistically to the pattern in your mind, and seem alien to the modern reader. Blend it with some of those bestsellers to keep current with what’s in, now.

I’m not advocating copying another writer. I’m suggesting that it’s like making sausage. All those herbs and seasonings you put into your mind come out again very different, but still flavored by what you put in.

So what was the last book you loved, and why?

What was the last book you hated, and why?

Go, read, and make notes! (just don’t write in library books. Librarians hate that.)