Sometimes I long to read the way I used to, back in the days before I became a writer. That was actually such a very long time ago I have trouble remembering it. But the point is that once you start writing, all of a sudden reading is different.
No longer do I just sit and read read, by which I mean reading for the sheer pleasure of it. Not that reading doesn’t bring me pleasure, it does, but now when I read I’m studying everything that the author does. Sometimes I get so excited by something I’ve discovered that I put the book down and run for the computer.
The days of being swept up in the different world of a book are gone, because I pay way too much attention to the way the world is being created. Given that I’m ruined for life when it comes to reading, we might as well get something from it. Here are a few tips on reading like a writer:
- Study the Opening. What techniques does the author use to pull you in? Does she present a conflict or a compelling first line? Is the main character introduced right away? Does the book start with a description? What pulls you in the fastest–description, action, or a focus on character?
- Look at how the main character is introduced. Years ago I read a screenwriting book by Michael Hauge, and what he said about introducing characters has always stuck with me. In his book, Writing Screenplays That Sell, he says one of the first things a writer needs to do is establish character identification. This is done in one of several ways, including:
- Creating sympathy for the character
- Putting the character in jeopardy
- Making the character likable
- Introducing the character as soon as possible. (This is a pet peeve. I HATE when some minor character is introduced first, it is so confusing and unnecessary.)
- Showing the character in touch with his own power (this can be power over other people or the power to do whatever needs to be done).
- Placing the character in a familiar setting.
- Giving the character familiar flaws and foibles.
- Playing the Superhero (ala Spidey or James Bond).
- Using the eyes of the audience. (Which means the hero stands in for the eyes of the audience and the audience only knows as much as he does.)
- Study how the author creates scenes. Are they mostly dialogue, such as Elmore Leonard? Or are the scenes more lush, and perhaps laden with description, as in many historical novels? Is the author’s use of scene appropriate to the genre? Terse, dialogue-rich scenes are perfect for mysteries, but most readers expect more in historicals.
- Along these same lines, how often does the author work in scene? I notice many British novels rely heavily on exposition, which I hate used elsewhere but seems to work just fine when Margaret Drabble does it.
- What viewpoint does the author use? Does she make good use of multiple viewpoints, or does she stick to first person? Does this viewpoint feel right? Can you imagine the book written in any other viewpoint?
- How does the author approach plot? Is the book a thriller, with all kinds of twists and turns? Or is it a more meandering literary type book? Can you learn anything from the way this writer handles viewpoint?
- What is the author’s style? Is it contemporary and snazzy, or languid, or clipped and precise?
- What is the overall arc of the story? How does the writer pimp you along through it?
- Does the author use symbols that are repeated throughout?
These are just a few questions for starters. I know, I know, I sound like your high-school English teacher. But the thing is, all of these considerations are vital to writing a novel, and in truth, there is no better way to learn to write than by reading a lot. Oops, I lied, there is a better way and that is just to sit down and write, damn it. But when your fingers are bleeding from banging so hard on the keyboard, then (and only then) you should go read a book.
And report back to me what you’ve learned from it.