How to Read like a Writer
By Emily Horner
Aspiring writers are told -- with good
reason -- to read everything they can get their hands on. Reading
familiarizes you with the shape of the genre you want to write in and its
conventions and clichés; it gives you ideas for new stories; it sharpens
your sense of what is good writing and what isn't. It's true that if you
read enough, you'll naturally absorb a great deal of what you need to know.
But there may come times when you despair of your ability to ever do a
certain thing right, whether it's characterization or combat, and in times
like those, it can be useful to study what you read more intensively.
The beauty of text is that there's nothing
hidden. Every emotion and image that the author evokes is set down in black
and white; there's nothing more to it than the text. Because of that, the
text itself will tell you more about how to write than most of the writing
books you'll pick up. Here are three ways to use your reading to improve
I'm not one of those writers who's
constantly brimming with ideas, and when I need to seek them out, I go to
books. Sometimes it's as simple as a trip to the bookstore that leaves me
sighing that they don't have anything I want to read; that challenges me to
define what I want to read. Other times I squeal with dismay when a book
takes a perfectly fascinating loose end, one that I start spinning a plot
line around, and then abandons it; or a book makes me so angry that I want
to write another just to argue with it. You could go so far as to say that
books make up a discourse: a writer writes a book that volleys an idea,
another writer writes a book that argues with the previous one, and it goes
on through the ages. There was The Lord of the Rings, and in its wake
came books that said "The Lord of the Rings was so great, let's do
that again," books that said "The Lord of the Rings is utterly racist
and reactionary," books that said "Really, isn't it all kind of silly?" and
more. There is a long, slow conversation going on, and it's fascinating to
participate in it.
Finally, there's one more thing I do: I
inventory my absolute favorite books, the ones that caught my imagination
and never let go. When I define the stories that I'm passionate about, then
it's easier to think up stories that I'll be passionate about when I try to
write them. What do you read and adore? Secrets from the past? Women
disguised as men? Wounded men in search of redemption? The trick is
identifying the spark you love without carbon-copying your favorite book.
Plot, Character, Scene
Sometimes you can learn serendipitously
about things like plot and character. I was reading Dorothy Sayers mysteries
for fun when I realized that her characters, unlike mine, had reason to
exist outside the plot. I read the material and thought about it, and in the
end managed to figure out a few things about how she worked that much vivid
characterization into a very short book.
You can approach this in a number of
different ways: you can read for fun and pull out the elements that are done
particularly well to analyze, or you can stop while writing a scene and go
back to the books you've already read for some hints on how to do it. If you
need help to write a love scene or a battle scene, you can look at the
examples of other writers.
For a long time my dialogue sounded like it
was between two immobile characters firing off lines at each other in a
white room. I picked up some novels and looked at the balance between
dialogue and action, thought, setting, and exposition, and the next time I
tried to write dialogue, I modeled it after what I had read. If a novel has
a particularly intriguing plot, outline it; if the characterization is
particularly good, try to figure out just what makes you think so. If
there's a scene that utterly tears at your heartstrings, think about why;
the answer might not be within the scene at all. Fantasy author Jo Walton
has talked about certain scenes as "spear points." The scene itself is a
small sharp thing, not particularly distinguished, and everything leading up
to the scene is the spear shaft that drives it into your heart. For that to
work, the spear point still has to be sharp -- which brings us to prose.
At the level of finest detail, you can
sharpen your prose by copying a favorite paragraph or two and examining them
closely. It can be great fun, as well as good practice, to write a pastiche
or parody of, or homage to, Hemingway, Lovecraft, or any author with a
distinctive style. Read short fiction; it's incredibly hard to write an
entire novel of perfectly crafted sentences, and short stories can afford to
be more stylistically experimental. Here are a few ways to analyze what the
author is doing:
Underline or highlight all
the parts of speech in different colors. Of course, one balance isn't always
better than another, but this will let you see why a particular choice of
words might work in a certain context.
Mark stressed and unstressed
syllables. See if the author's making use of the rhythms of poetry.
Look for alliteration,
assonance, rhyme, and other sound devices; you may want to get a book on
poetry writing or criticism to help with this.
Look at the choice of words
and images, and what effect they have.
Look at the sentence
structure: what's the most important part of each sentence, and where does
It may help to look at the work with an eye
for critique, wondering how you would make it better, but for me --
especially if I really love the prose -- it's better to look at it with a
more detached view. Before identifying something as a "mistake," just
because you've been told never to use the passive voice or to be very stingy
with adverbs, consider what effect it has. Consider whether the author might
have had a good reason for the choice. Even the greatest authors make
missteps, but great art has rarely been made by sticking dogmatically to
If you want a deeper overview of the things
I noted above, I highly recommend The Art of Fiction by John Gardner;
no other book I've read pays as much attention to the small details of good
writing. If you have the patience to put up with it, you might also want to
look into a book that explains how to do literary criticism; How to Read
Literature Like a Professor, by Thomas C. Foster, is actually
surprisingly fun. Unfortunately, I need to stay away from these books more
often than not, or I have nightmares about unwittingly promoting fascist and
patriarchal ideals in my fiction.
Art students don't spend all of their time
creating original works; they also spend countless hours studying and
copying the masters. There's no need for you to spend all your free time
typing out your favorite book -- but if you're stuck, you may find that
there's something to be gained from studying other people's work.
The Lord of the Rings.
J.R.R. Tolkien. Del
Rey. 0345340426 (boxed edition)
The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for
Young Writers. John Gardner.
Vintage. 0679734031 (reissue edition)
How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A
Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines.
Thomas C. Foster. Perennial Currents. 006000942X