Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Reading to Write: Mining the best for ideas and approaches

Stephen King wrote, "If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that." Many of us write because reading opened up a vital dimension in our lives. Some of us took up storytelling after reading less than successful efforts and deciding we could do better.

I enjoy being sucked into a new tale, just one more fan. But, as a writer, there's more. Reading regularly keeps me tuned in to the form, inspires me, and challenges me. It provides different perspectives on content, style, and language. My normal practice is to alternate between classic and contemporary works and to sample unfamiliar genres and new writers, which allows me to explore my own limits.

A lot of what I learn seeps in automatically. My brain seems to grab nuggets and classify them without my being conscious of them. Later (and it can be decades later), I'll hit a problem in my writing, a light will go on, and I'll wander over to a bookshelf. Barely knowing why, I'll snatch a book off, open it to a specific page and find a terrific example of a writer solving my problem. I don't have definitive advice on how to make this happen for you if it's not, but I suspect reading a lot and reading attentively are part of the process.

I also have deliberate approaches to reading for better writing. Here are five suggestions:

Analyze your genre - Find several books (preferably brief) you've already read and enjoyed in your chosen genre. Reread them one after another, and take notes. As you find interesting elements record them and note the page numbers. What are the turning points? What are the payoffs? Describe key characters. And, as you go along, keep looking for commonalities. What you want to do is distill out guidance on what readers of the genre (you audience) will expect in terms of elements, characters, and pacing.

Learn how emotion is evoked - Whenever you read to learn about writing, it is critical to keep track of your emotions. It can be valuable to note what you are feeling page by page, but, as a minimum, mark down surprises and big emotional turns. And go back again and see if you can determine how the writer did that. Write down what you learned, along with a specific reference.

Explore pacing - One of the best compliments you can get as a writer is for a reader to say it's a page-turner. Take a novel that carries you along and mark it up. Look for hooks and changing stakes (which tug you along) and backstory and narrative (which slow things down). It is helpful to actually highlight these in different colors so you get a visual sense of the structure.  Look at them in detail to see what lessons the author is offering. It's also useful just to note how the lengths of scenes and chapters change as the book progresses.

Learn from mistakes - Many works I read (yes, classics, too) include failures. Why does a good writer go bad? How would you redo it? Do you make the same mistake?

Write like your favorite author - Here's a useful exercise that will take some time. In longhand, copy out an especially effective part of a book, preferably a whole scene you wish you'd written. Take the gist of that scene and, without referring back to it, rewrite it using the same voice and pacing, but different words. Compare the two. Finally, take a comparable scene in your own work and rewrite it using your favorite author's voice and pacing.

For all the analysis I do, I still get lost in wonderful works. It would break my heart if I couldn't disappear into novels, and I think I'd lose something as a writer. Don't spend all your reading time looking for the man behind the curtain. Experience the joy and wonder. But, as a writer, dedicate part of your reading to learning from master storytellers.

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