Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Reading as a Writer

Tip of the Day: don't forget to make time for reading in your writing life. Sometimes snuggling up to a good book is a nice break and sometimes it's needed to get new ideas or work out an issue in your own writing.

To me one of the most important things I've done to improve my writing is to look at books with a critical eye. Trying to figure out what makes a character likable, how a plot fits together, and even what gives the book that something extra special for fans to plaster the names of their favorite characters on homemade or store-bought t-shirts.

Sometimes I can't help but look at a book from the view of a writer, especially if I'm not loving it. My inner critic comes out and wants to judge every aspect of it as if it were an American Idol contestant: "where was your own take on it?" or "it was just okay for me, Dawg."

While it's easy to judge those books we don't like, sometimes it's harder to look at books that suck us in instantly. But it's just as important. It's important to figure out how writers make books with conflict, but don't overwhelm the reader with too much information. It's important to learn how most books have a similar structure, but still remain unique, original, and fresh. And it's important to look at how secondary characters are handled, given their own personalities, but never overshadow the main character.

Here's where a second read for a book you love comes in handy.

When I first started writing, I took the time to analyze one of my favorite books chapter by chapter. I made an outline and basically wrote down all the main points of the chapter. Not only what happened plot-wise, but what the character learned, how she/he learned it, how the conflict got resolved, and any other pertinent info.

Going chapter by chapter helped to learn how a book was structured. It took a long time, but I think it was well worth it to look at a book in a smaller way, instead of the big-gigantic way most people normally see a book--with looking at what they liked, didn't like, and if they would recommend it to a friend. And then trying to figure out how that small aspect fits into the larger picture to make it good to the average reader.

And I continue to do this analysis when a critique partner points out a weakness. I try to find a book where the author is good at that particular aspect (say a really likable character), and try to determine what text they use to make that happen. A handy highlighter comes in great for this if you own the book!

I've been watching a lot of decorating shows lately and I heard a good quote yesterday that basically summed all this up, "the difference between good design and great design is in the details."

--Emily, Miss Querylicious


Elana Johnson said...

I love this post. It's so, so true. Thanks!

DeenaML said...

Oh yes, so true that the great books you fly through and don't usually take the time to analyze -- yet those are great ones TO analyze! Why did we love it? Hmmmm....

amuse me said...

I love your suggestion about outlining a book chapter by chapter. I'm a visual person and this may help me a bunch -- now I just have to find the right book to do that with. :) Marion

Kate Fall said...

Em, I keep meaning to analyze a book chapter by chapter. Instead of sticking paper clips on pages with brilliant bits and never opening the book again. Then months later, I can't figure out what the paper clip meant.

Alright, the next time I rate a book five out of five stars, I'm outlining it!

Lisa Schroeder said...

Wow, that is amazing you outlined a whole book. But what a great exercise!!

Anonymous said...

Good idea!

Christina Farley said...

I love your idea of outlining a book. I don't know if I could do that but I do think it through while I read a book.

I also love your tip to remember to read AND write. Sometimes reading can inspire or push me as a writer.