Friday, July 11, 2014

Read Like a Writer: The 100 Rule

More than one local prolific author has said she read hundreds of books in her genre before writing her own well. Hundreds. Good books, bad books, but all in the genre in which she intended to write.

I think this is possibly the best course one could take for writing. And you'd be surprised how many people I know want to write in a genre that they don't actually read: people with a picture book idea who think if they throw some rhyming words together it is publishable without ever cracking a published picture book, people who read nonfiction but want to write dystopian YA, people who only read romance but want to write memoir.

It's normal to be in love with our own ideas. They are our babies, after all. But if we are going to send them out into the world, we have to know what their place in the world could be. And to do that, we have to know something about their peers. (It also helps with writing the dreaded queries ... a topic I'll discuss on my next post.)

So I want to pass on this advice: read in your genre. Read a lot in your genre. Yes, hundreds of books. Okay, start with 20 and build. But make a serious goal.

But when you read, read like a writer.

Reading like a reader is passive, it is as simple as deciding if you "like" or "don't like" a book.

To read like a writer is to question and answer exactly what it is that is and isn't working. In fact, finding a book that you don't like can be of more value than digging into a book that you love. When we love a book, we are taken by it in a visceral, emotional way. It becomes "ours" in a way that our own writing is "ours." It is hard to be critical of your darlings.

On the other hand, good old favorites—the ones you've read over and over, the ones that you feel you already know—can be useful to look at closely because you aren't getting caught up in the plot. You know it well enough to lift the curtain and see what is underneath each page.

When you are reading hundreds, though, you are bound to find those that you don't like. Those can be easier to take apart. Because the undeniable fact is that this book made it. So you have to figure out what it is about the book—the language, the construction, the story, the setting, the dialogue, the characters—that managed to get it passed the gauntlet of queries, slush piles, agents, publishers, and book stores to find its place on this shelf (be it physical or digital).

So, break it down.

Really understand the construction of the book. Think of it as a scaffolding upon which the words hang. Even in a picture book—the most compact of stories—plot is carefully built like the frame of a building. It must be solid and balanced. Writers are engineers. Read like an engineer.

Carefully note dialogue that moves you and dialogue that seems unnecessary. Then figure out why that is. The "why" isn't always that easy to decipher. It may be the language, or it may be the setting in which the dialogue takes place. Also look at the balance of dialogue to exposition. When does the description of a movement from a character "say" more than dialogue? How is it done?

Are there single, carefully chosen words that tell more about the setting than a lengthy description?

Whatever it is you want to learn, you can learn a lot about it by the careful reading of many examples. The more, the better. Say, one hundred.

How long will you take to read one hundred ... like a writer?


Bruce Luck said...

For sure, read the good ones to model yourself after. You're right, reading the not-so-good ones can be instructional as well.

Liz Sorenson said...

I love this post! My only problem is I love imaginative fantasy, (Brandon Sanderson is my current idol), but when I sit down to write, that's not what comes out. I think I need to work on building imagination muscles.

Tabitha Thompson said...

Hey, Liz, nothing wrong with loving to read a genre you don't write! There are certain genres I read for relaxation, and those I read like a writer. In fact, my grad instructor once said, "be sure you always have ONE book that you are reading just for the pleasure of it."

But I guess the idea is that we all need to read more in the genre in which we DO write!

And you are right, writing is a muscle that has to be continually stretched and used to grow stronger. Sounds like you may have some fun exploring your whimsical side. But don't put away what comes natural. Just keep writing (and reading)!

Rosalyn said...

I think this is great advice. In fact, one of the reasons I've challenged myself to write reviews of all (well, most) of the books I read is precisely because it forces me to look more critically at the books I read (what's working, what isn't). It's also great practice in writing a succinct book summary, a skill I hope to use in writing queries!

Tabitha Thompson said...

Great idea, Rosalyn! A way out of procrastinating!