How often have you started a book, only to set it aside if it doesn't grab your interest in the first chapter, or even on the first page? Have you ever continued to read it in order to analyze what it is in the style or technique that you didn't like?
I would venture to say that the best writers are also avid readers and were readers before they became writers. Below are some of my suggestions for learning how to read as a writer in order to improve your own writing. I'm not recommending copying or imitating other writers, but, rather, studying the techniques used and then applying those techniques to your own voice as a writer.
What should you choose to read?
- Classics that have held up through the years
- Current award winners
- Best sellers within your chosen genre
- Those that receive notable reviews
- Books with themes, setting, styles, etc. similar to your own interests
- The most recent titles in libraries and bookstores in order to stay current with trends
- Books recently published or promoted by editors or agents to whom you wish to submit your own work
- Books that excel in your own weakest areas (If you know plotting is your weakness, then read books that are plot-driven.)
Specific Elements to Analyze
- Emotional attachment--Do you care about the character/s?
- Characterization--believable, dimensional, understandable, true to age, gender, and times?
- Plot and structure--Does the story make sense? Is it straightforward or complicated? Are there subplots? Is there a clear beginning, middle, and ending with a climax and resolution? Does it unfold in a linear or layered structure?
- Setting--What makes it come alive on the pages? Visual, concrete, sensory images and details? Is there a download of description, or is it interwoven throughout?
- Point of View--Is the right character telling the story? Is there more than one POV character and, if so, is the change delineated clearly? What is the psychic distance? 1st person, 3rd person?
- Dialogue--Does it flow, or is it stilted? Does it convey the diction of the place and times? Is each character's voice/speech unique and consistent? Does it drive the plot forward?
- Theme--Is it clear or hidden? Does the author trust the reader to figure it out on his/her own or is it pounded in? Does the author use symbolism, metaphors, references, and/or imagery?
- Opening pages--Does the story begin with action or mood? Does it grab your attention and elicit emotion?
- Sentence-level polishing--Does the writing appear effortless and seamless, or does it draw your attention and make you stumble over words? Does the language flow? Is there repetition of certain overused words or phrases? Is the sentence structure varied?
- Does the author "show" or "tell?"
- Transitions--How does the author move from one scene to the next? How does the author show passage of time and growth in character?
You may not have time to look for all that I've listed, but do focus on specific elements that you know you struggle with. Look for examples of how they were done well in a book you've chosen. How can you then apply those techniques to your own work-in-progress? And if you don't like a book, approach this exercise in the opposite way. What should you try to avoid in your own writing?
The more I read, the more I realize I need to learn about writing. Here are some books I've read recently and highly recommend: The Art & Craft of the Short Story, by Rick DeMarinis; A Thousand Never Evers, by Shana Burg; The Miner's Daughter, by Gretchen Moran Laskas, and When the Whistle Blows, by Fran Cannon Slayton (to be released in June 2009).