Reading Like a Writer

At most of the conferences I’ve ever gone to one of the big “nuggets” of information you hear is to read. Read, read, read, read, READ! This seems like a no-brainer. Of course you need to read. You can’t compete in a market that you know nothing about.

At one conference I even heard the statistic that you need to read 1000 books in your genre/market before you can really write one. That’s a LOT! But okay, I’m up for it. So, I geared up and started reading, hoping that through some magical process of quantity and osmosis I would soak in the necessary tools to write great books.

But there’s a disconnect here (for me) with the advice “Go Read.”

Sure, you’ll pick up some of the rhythms of storytelling, and you’ll get a sense of what you like and don’t like. And by NO MEANS do I want to make the impression that I think one shouldn’t read. I just didn’t understand that the advice “go read” really means:

Go read like a writer.

So, how is that any different than normal reading?  And how do you learn to read like a writer?

First, I highly suggest Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writer. She goes through the methodical process of reading a book from the level of word, sentence, paragraph, chapter, character, and beyond! It’s a fascinating book that will help you to unveil the “mysteries” and “magic” of how a storyteller brings you to tears, or has a stunning reversal that was somehow in your face the whole time, or uses language to deepen a theme, etc. Yes, you should absolutely check out this book.

But what can you do now?

Three Quick Tips On How To Read Like a Writer:

1)  Listen to your Reactions: The simplest way to read like a writer is to “listen” to your reactions as you read. Did you get bored? Could you not stop turning pages? Did you laugh out loud? First identify what the reaction is. It could be the reaction the author wants (you cried) or it could be the opposite (you got bored and decided to eat a cheese sandwich).  Once you’ve identified your reaction, ask yourself: How did they get me to feel that? Go back and analyze the writing. What set you up for the joke? What about the sentence structure made your heart race? Why did the protagonist’s actions feel fake? Be a book detective!

2)  Pick a Craft Issue You’re Struggling With and Study It:  If you’re finding yourself struggling in a certain area, use your reading as a way to learn more about it. For example, if you suck at imagery and language, find books that use imagery effectively and analyze how they use it. When do they use it? What does it reveal about character, setting, mood, plot? Then go read books that have bad imagery and ask yourself why it’s bad. Does it distract? Is it out of the voice of the character? What’s the balance?

3)  Try the Post-it’s Exercise: This is an exercise that I’ve found really helpful in getting me to slow down and see why a book isn’t working for me. Pick any book to read and start reading it for pure enjoyment. Any time you find yourself pulled out of the narrative put a post-it note on that page. This could be anything: you started daydreaming, got bored, hand to re-read a paragraph, were confused, didn’t believe a character motivation, etc. Feel free to jot a quick note on the post-it as to your initial reaction or reason for putting a post-it on that page. Then keep reading and finish the book. When you’re done, go back to each post-it and ask yourself WHY did I get pulled out of the book in this moment? The answer might be in the very sentence that pulled you out, or it might have its roots in something set up in the paragraph before, or a page before, sometimes even PAGES before.  It’s fascinating!

There’s a ton of ways to slow down and start to analyze books with your “writer’s cap” on. These are only a couple. But I’ve started to find that the answers to most of my writing issues can be found in the works of other authors. I only need to sit down and study exactly what they’re doing with their words. There are a lot of great craft books out there with theories as to why a book should work and how you should write your book. But sometimes the best teachers are the books themselves. Because this is craft IN ACTION!

I’d love to hear your “reading like a writer” exercises as well. So feel free to share. Happy reading everyone!

Highlights from July 2012 VCFA Residency!

I just got back from my 4th VCFA residency. Woot! Woot! I can’t believe I only have one semester left and then I will have an MFA in writing for kidz! (How time flies!) As always, I’m super inspired from residency and have lots of great tid-bits to share. So without further adieu…

Tid-bits and Sassy Snippets from July 2012 VCFA Residencyin Writing for Children and Young Adults:

  • Try revising your manuscript from back to front. We spend so much time on the opening that the ending can get lost when we lose steam.
  • Structure is the overall form, and plot is a series of actions.
  • Ask your protagonist: “What is the incident (or incidents) in your past that got you believing in a lie? And what is that lie?” The presumption here is that your character has been hurt in the past and because of that event the character has created a “front” which they present to the world. Additionally, they act a certain way, or believe the world is a certain way, because of that lie.
  • Load your story events with stakes and symbolism.
  • Good vs. evil can be good. But, good vs. good is even better!
  • 99% of all art you make will fall short. You only make good work from lots of not-so-good work.
  • What’s “not” on the page is just as important as what “is” on the page. Don’t explain things too quickly. Tension is gained in what is held in the gaps.
  • Write in service of your characters! Get deep in your character and be with them second by second. A true “moment” is not a feeling you dictate to your character, but something that arises from what they would honestly think, say, or do.
  • “A kid will forget a book that reinforces their security, but they’ll never forget a book that introduces them to a truth for the first time.”
  • Consider revising like a poet. Take every sentence and analyze it like it’s a line in a poem. Add line breaks, edit, revise, and delete. It will help you to see what is necessary and what is excess.
  • Dead parents are not your plot bitch!
  • Characterization is the sum of all observable qualities of a human. Character is revealed in the choices (and actions) a human being makes under pressure.
  • The protagonist doesn’t have to change in a short story (there may not be time due to length), but the reader must be changed.
  • If you lose your way in your novel, go back to the place where you fell in LOVE with your character and begin again there.
  • Surprise readers by crafting villains who do not easily fall into the label of “evil”!
  • When writing in dual point of view you are doubling the fun, but you are also doubling the trouble.
  • Don’t for get that the medium we work in is the reader’s imagination!

What You Don’t Know

In a recent post about my first VCFA residency I mentioned how it was an eye opening experience. I thought I’d take a moment to elaborate on what exactly I meant.

While at residency I realized I’ve been sitting in a room with my writing. When I write I’m facing the corner of “what I know.” That doesn’t seem unnatural, obviously we are all writing with the tools we have, but what I didn’t realize is that there was a whole room behind me.  Prior to attending The Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) I’d reached a plateau in my work. I’d pushed my novel as far as I knew how and it still wasn’t ready. I was frustrated! Of course I was, I was trying to pound a square peg into a round hole.  I thought the round hole was the only option, who knew a square hole might exist?

Let me get specific for a moment. My particular corner is screenwriting. I have a degree in screenwriting and it’s how I first learned to construct character and

Screenwriting Structure

story. As a screenwriter there’s a very specific formula (round hole) with which you tell a story. There are rigid rules that include specific page numbers in which events must happen. It’s true I can take any movie and tell you within five minutes where the inciting incident will be, the first plot point, the climax, etc.  (Don’t believe me? Check out this site: Screenplay Mastery) This formula has been helpful in understanding structure, and as a screenwriter its essential. But as a novelist,

Freytag's Pyramid

I didn’t realize I’d trained myself to see only one type of structure. I didn’t realize how desperately I was trying to force my story into one line of thought.  Who knew there were other structures past Aristotle’s Dramatic Structure? Who knew we could push past the classic “climbing the mountain and overcoming of obstacles” plot line we see over and over (which actually has official names like Fichtean Curve and Freytag’s Pyramid)? There are in fact other ways to construct structure and plot including: vignettes, picaresque plots, argumentative plot, allegory, intellectual structures, expressionism, surreal fiction, and metafiction.  And who knew that the traditional (and celebrated) Hero’s Journey is a primarily patriarchal concept of story structure. Could it be true that women can enjoy a different plot structure and have different goals when reading than the overcoming of obstacles?

I didn’t know any of this.

Yes, it’s true that in terms of structure the use of a sequence of causally related events is the most common. Myths and Hollywood have been using them for years! I’m not saying it isn’t useful or we can’t use it. But my personal revelation is that not every story must fall into that structure. In fact, maybe a story needs to be told with a different structure. Just because something is popular, doesn’t mean it’s the only way to get it done. Personally, I’ve been struggling with structure for awhile because I thought there was only one way to skin a cat.

Turns out I’m wrong!

At every conference, agents and editors tell aspiring writers to work on craft. For a long time hearing this felt like a dead end. Craft, was such an ambiguous word to me that I didn’t even know where to being. But in truth, now that I’ve begun to see what areas of craft I can (and should) work on, I’m starting to agree.  Craft may be the only thing I can affect. I can’t control the market, after all, but I can control my own ability to tell story.

Story structure was just the tip of the iceberg for me, a humbling and inspiring iceberg! As I hack away at that iceberg, I’m going to post tidbits of what I’m learning here on the blog, and hopefully it will spark something for you as well. I know it’s already February and we’ve all forgotten our new year’s resolutions, but maybe a good one to think about is pushing ourselves to look at the rest of the room, at what’s behind us, at what we don’t know.

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” – Mark Twain