Reading Like a Writer

It’s a truism, especially among fiction writers, that you should read what you want to write.  A lot of it.  That’s the only way to understand the tropes common to that particular field of writing.  But I think it’s really not that common for people to start writing a book in a genre, or sub-genre they don’t already love.  Most of the time, I think folks have been reading a particular kind of book for quite some time before they get their courage up to give it a go themselves.

So you love romance, or science-fiction, or westerns, or mysteries and you decide to write your own.  Sometimes it’s because you read a book that wasn’t so great and you said to yourself, “I can do better than that.”  Sometimes it’s just because you have stories of your own that you want to share.  You write regularly, you read how-to articles in magazines, and you join a critique group so you can learn your craft.  And you do.  You learn what works and what doesn’t.  You learn the rules and when to break them.  And you keep reading because you love the genre.

And you find that far fewer of the books you used to devour are as satisfying as they used to be.  Now there’s an editor in your head reading over your shoulder, whispering, “I would have done that differently.”  “I would have written that scene from the other character’s point-of-view.”  “The author should have expanded that scene (or made it shorter).”  “Too many flashbacks.”  “Info-dump.” That voice, that awareness, seldom remains silent.  It will never let you read the same way again.

But that’s not a bad thing.  Because you’re now reading like a writer, you’ll become more selective, and you’ll be learning from the best.  The voice will also be saying, “Wow, that’s cool!  How did the author do that? Can I apply that to my book?” And when you stumble upon a book that is so good that your internal editor forgets to comment, savor the experience.

Then buy another copy and read that book over and over until the covers fall off and you understand what worked.


Filed under writing

5 responses to “Reading Like a Writer

  1. Some of what you say I can agree with. I just finished writing my first mystery – in my younger years, I read a lot of them, and when I finally decided I wanted to write one, I read a few more. I plan to write another . . . but . . . I am not reaching for more mystery books. I am now reading westerns. Every few years I go back to a series of westerns that I have enjoyed, and read them all again. Two authors that I am entralled with are Luke Short and Louis Lamour. I read them for the characterizations and the landscapes and the history, and to some degree, for the action. But my main reason is the writing style. I love their crisp, punchy prose. I learn a lot from their style. I will never write a western.

  2. Some thoughts on this as I wavered back and forth on this issue a lot and I’m probably one of those Frankie is talking about… I no longer believe this is as necessary as it once might have been, and in fact I find it’s sometimes detrimental — at least for me.

    Readers no longer expect the tropes to be the same from one author to the next. Video games alone have changed the expectations of our audience. World of Warcraft, a game I play regularly, which is full of lore more complicated than anything Tolkien ever dreamed up, has 12 million players and growing monthly. Many of those folks also read fantasy and manga, etc. And, if someone says to me “a fantasy with elves,” do they mean Laurell K. Hamilton’s type of elves? or Tolkien’s? or World of Warcraft’s? The stature is the same but they are nothing alike. The person might mean something totally different too, and be talking about little people, or what some think of as fairies or sprites, or even dryads. Or something else entirely. A large percentage of younger readers (20s, 30s, tweens even) don’t have the same definition of certain elements that everyone expected from a fantasy when Tolkien was the main trope on the block… or at least one of a handful inspired by his wonderful work. When I say I’m writing a romance novella about a green man as the hero, ten people are probably going to have at least nine different opinions on exactly what that will look and feel like. It will depend on their background, age, education and experiences. Hopefully, some of them will be partly right and there will still be siginificant new elements and twists on a very ancient theme to surprise and delight at least a good number of readers. As authors wanting to sell, this is what we are aiming for.

    I am all over the place when it comes to reading, and also gaming and movies. I like almost everything! I like the input, the possibility of what my muse might create in my subconscious out of a that soup of noise. Likeing everything presents a conundrum to a 24-hour day, I will admit. But as for reading, it’s mostly romance right now. Yet my first sale was erotica, which although has similarities to romance, is not at all the same trope. It has different intentions, often a very different goal. It is also much more often disturbing, where romance is not with it’s frequent, happy-ever-after ending. I don’t actually read a whole lot of erotica. Certainly I’ve read less of it than I have read of romance. And I read about as much of romance as I read of other types of fiction and non fiction… which is to say precious little at the moment due to time constraints. Something I need to remedy because I know reading stimulates my writer-brain. But my point is that I know how to write erotica well, with or without romantic elements in it, despite not having read everything out there, and very little of it, in fact.

    I have noticed that if I read too much of what I’m writing, my muse often feels boxed in by the implied rules. I actually don’t like to read anything closely related to the genre I’m working on as I think it stifles my unique ideas for the story. In the case of fantasy… the elements, magic or even for a species no one has invented yet. Ideas that are mine alone even if they might be based on a combination of mythological archetypes or other storyteller inventions. It also kills my emotional content and creativity in a hurry as I start to wonder if I should write it more like this or that author is doing…will it sell better?, or if my definition of something in my own world-building is too different from what has gone before, or if perhaps… Bah!! It drives me crazy. Trusting myself to be a good storyteller, I believe, is a lot more important than the nuances of a trope I might or might not want to deviate intentionally from. Deviating from trope guidelines and expectations have made authors famous. Likewise following rules too closely can kill your writing.

    Now, what if I, or a publisher, choose to place something I write for sale in a different genre/niche than for which it was originally written? Really, it also might not matter what niche I personally think it’s in …but in which genre or niche does the “dear reader” think it belongs? These days, I think to have a successful career, at least financially, authors are more about the content and about the reader’s wants or imagination than about how a publisher might treat the genre or its advertising. My favorite author, Catherine Asaro, is a good example of this, and of someone who ignored genre divisions (hard science fiction mixed expertly with spicy romance in a way that appeals to readers of both genres). Few authors do this as well as Asaro… IMNSHO. She has also been shelved in both sections of the bookstore, and depending on the store itself, she still is. However, with bookstores rapidly shrinking, I believe the genre lines will blur even further now than they have done. Many writers will break new ground across genres, finding readers in niches where they never would have before, due to the fast shift in technological- and content-driven changes. Just my .02… I think it’s more important to read (anything at all) than whether you read within your genre. Tolkien was a psuedo-deity when it came to elves and has my undying admiration, always. But I don’t want my elves to be anything like his. I want them to be just as they are.

    • I think studying writers who do it well can help strengthen skills, and all writers probably have room to improve. I know what you mean though, about not wanting to saturate your mind with the forms used by others. As they say, there are no new ideas, just new ways of presenting them. I want my elves to be different from yours and Tolkien’s, but still recognizable as elves.

      That’s one of the nice things about digital and online sales: marketing niches are becoming less restrictive. My Talents books can sell equally well to fantasy and romance readers because they won’t be stuck in a section of the store where half the readers won’t go.

      I hadn’t thought about how MMORPG’s are changing the reading public’s perception of the tropes. I’d try one, but like you I have limited time. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Review: Drink of Me and Jacob by Jacquelyn Frank « Frankie's Soapbox

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