Reading Like a Writer

I'm participating in the International Authors’ Day blog hop this week. Since the blog hop is for both readers and writers, it was suggested that we talk about reading, such as why we love reading, our favourite authors or how we got into reading.

In that vein, I have decided to talk about reading like a writer.

As a writer, it is critical to approach books for more than just enjoyment, although of course enjoyment is important too! Books represent possibly the greatest classroom for writers, and one that is inexpensive to explore at one’s own pace, focusing specifically on the techniques that one requires the most help with.

Photo by:   beggs  / flikr /  Creative Commons License

Photo by:  beggs / flikr / Creative Commons License

Non-writers can do this too to increase their awareness of literary techniques and the habits of good writers (although readers probably don’t need to do it to the same extent). I think that when the other members of my bookclubs comment that I bring a unique perspective to the club due to my technical understanding of the books that they are giving me a compliment… they haven’t kicked me out yet at least.

When I first started writing, I took a class at the local college and one of the texts for the class was Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. I was so very excited to get this book as the concept of learning my craft from other writers by simply reading had never occurred to me. Unfortunately Reading Like a Writer failed utterly in its execution, focusing entirely on impenetrable analysis of mostly inaccessible literary texts that taught me nothing of the practical approaches I needed to read like a writer. I read each chapter twice hoping to understand what I was missing, but still came up empty handed (and feeling like I would never be a writer).

However, the concept of reading like a writer is still sound. Every word, sentence, paragraph and chapter in a book represents a choice, or series of choices made by the author. By analyzing the choices of one’s favourite writers, or writers whose technique one admires, even if the book is not to one’s liking, a writer can learn a tremendous amount. Lacking a clear guide, I had to teach myself how read like a writer. So here is my abbreviated (and simple) guide to reading like a writer. Many of these things I have posted about in more detail in the past so I have included links to those posts.

When I read, I now automatically check:

  1. Tense and Point of View (POV). Is it written in past or present tense? How does this affect the pacing and feeling of movement associated with the words? Is it written from first person, second person (rare), third person limited, or omniscient point of view? Does this change from chapter to chapter or scene to scene i.e. is one character written in first person, while another is written in third person?
  2. Number of POVs. How many points of view is the novel written from? A single point of view, two or three points of view, or multiple points of view?
  3. POV Shifts. If the novel is written from more than one point of view, how does the writer shift from one point of view to the other? Does the point of view shift from chapter to chapter? Scene to scene? Does the narration slide from one person’s point of view to the other within scenes without being omniscient i.e. are we only in one person’s head at a time for a period of time? Or is the narration omniscient allowing the reader to see inside the heads of all characters at all times and providing information that none of the characters know? How does the writer demarcate shifts in POV?
  4. Passage in Time. How does the writer mark or handle passage in time? Does the story occur in a short period of time? Or does it summary narration of the passage of days, months or years that are not as relevant to the story, or do not need to be presented in scene form?
  5. Flashbacks. Does the writer use flashbacks? Are they presented as complete scenes? Or just fragments of memory in a character’s mind? How does this affect the flow of the story? Is it jarring, or does it flow naturally?
  6. Word Choices. Does the writer use lots of adjectives or adverbs, or a moderate number of them, or have they pared their writing down to a cleaner style. What impact does that have on the imagery? While adjective and adverb overuse is generally discouraged, stripping them entirely can result in very spare and dead prose. Count the number your favourite writers use per page and compare them to your adjective and adverb use.
  7. Tags. How does the writer tag their dialogue? Do they use dialogue tags such as said, or asked, and if so which ones? Do they use mostly said, or do they utilize a variety of tags? Do they use mostly action tags instead, or no tags at all?
  8. Details. Is the writing concrete and detailed, or more general and lacking specific details? In Can Lit we are taught to always include as many specific and unique details as possible. This is a technique that makes the writing come alive for the reader. It can also be overdone, bogging the reader down in unnecessary information. How has the writer handled this choice?
  9. Pacing and Plot. How is the novel paced and plotted? Does it follow the traditional three-act structure (set up, confrontation, resolution) with the climax at the end of Act Two (confrontation) or does it take a different approach? Does it throw you into the action immediately, or have an introduction that eases you in?
  10. Introduction of Characters. How are characters introduced and named? Do they simply turn up, and it is assumed that the reader will figure out who they are as they go along, or is their full name and some background information provided when they appear?

These are just some of the many things that I look for when I read. Ultimately there are no right or wrong choices regarding many of these things. There are just different choices and they result in different books that are appreciated by different readers. However there are some things that are considered good and bad technique. Random head hopping if you are not writing in the omniscient point of view is usually frowned upon. Using dialogue tags such as drawled, exclaimed, gaped and ejaculated is also a no-no.

But good technique is not the only thing that makes a book great. Sometimes books can become weighed down by the cleverness of their own technique. I’m currently reading a Can Lit book that is technically flawless. But I am not enjoying it. And yet I just finished an indie novel that had multiple technical problems, but it was a fresh fun read that did not seem to be laboring under its own pretensions. Reading like a writer will probably not change whether or not you like a book, but it can help you to appreciate why you like a book or not, and understand that just because you don’t like a book doesn’t mean that the writer is not a good writer (and vice versa).

Of course not to be outdone, Chuck Wendig has his own guide to reading like a writer. It’s a little different than mine, but definitely worth a read.

Ultimately reading like a writer is about paying attention, which you should be doing anyway when you are reading. What is the author trying to do? And are they doing a good job of it?

Many thanks to Debdatta for inviting me to participate in this blog hop.

I also promised a Giveaway as part of the blog hop, so will be providing a free mobi copy of In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation to three people who comment on my blog in the next week (it doesn't have to be on this post!).