Writing Wednesday — Learning by Reading

leslie reading
The author as a bookish child

Writers must be readers first.

We come to the page first as readers. If you had older siblings, like I did, you probably ached to read as a small child—to decipher those black marks on the white page, or to know what your parents were talking about when they discussed the day’s mail or something one had seen in the newspaper. Then you learned, and a world opened up, and eventually, you knew you had to be part of it.

I’m a big fan of books on writing, on classes and workshops and critique groups. But the best tool you have in improving your craft is to read like a writer. I highly recommend Francine Prose’s 2006 book, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them.

My tip: Write your own book reviews. Keep track of what you read and what you thought. I started doing this ages ago when I first started writing, and it’s been hugely important. Use a small spiral notebook, no bigger than 5X9. In the front, reserve two pages for that year’s chronological list. List each title, author, and year of publication. I don’t number my list, but do note every 5th book in the margin, along with the month. I use highlighters to distinguish mysteries and general fiction; you might highlight other genres. If you’re trying to read more books by authors or about main characters vastly different from you, use another color for diversity.

Then write a review of every book. I often make notes as I read on something that delights or annoys me. When I finish the book, I note the date, then write a page or two or three. Summarizing the plot is a good exercise, revealing whether it held together, was memorable, or gaped with holes you didn’t notice as you read. (Why not? Too spell-bound by the language or the main character? Too caught up in the mystery, the what-ifs and whys? Note that, too.) Did the setting stand out? The main character and her motivations? The language? The structure? What other elements worked or didn’t?

Be positive as well as negative. Identify at least one thing you want to emulate—the author’s use of POV or how she weaves physical descriptions in through action. Note the failures, the imagery the author clearly thought important that escaped you, the sentences you never understood despite re-reading them two or three times, the failure to evoke a visceral or emotional response. Why did the story work or not work for you? If you’ve read other books by this author, how does this one compare?

At year end, you might want to see how many mysteries you’ve read, whether any are eligible for awards you’re eligible to vote for, or just look back fondly.

I’ll warn you that when you first start reading as a writer, reading isn’t as much fun as when you were six and enraptured by everything on the page. That will pass; you’ll learn to critique and enjoy.

And you’ll be a better writer for it, I promise.

The Saturday Writing Quote — Francine Prose

“You have to fight against meaningless gestures. Like an cliche, they flood into your brain and you have to get them out of there. “She sipped her wine glass. “He smoked his cigarette.” They’re markers. Every beginning writer winds up larding a ms. with those things, and they have to get rid of them, because they don’t tell you anything. They slow you down for no reason.”

— Francine Prose, in The Writer, April 2012

Guilty, guilty. Going back to revise …

Books for the writers on your list

Hannukah, Christmas, birthdays, Fourth of July–any chance to give a writer a book! Some of my favs:

Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (Harper Perennial, 2006) A lovely book.

Bryan Garner, Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3d Edition (Oxford, 2009) Garner takes on usage fearlessly, analyzing what changes are acceptable and what aren’t. He tackles common words and errors as well as more technical distinctions. Essays are interspersed with word entries, all highly readable. Word wonk heaven.

Donald Maass, The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great (Writers Digest, 2009) The title says it all.

Elizabeth Lyon Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore (Perigee, 2008) Lyon shows fiction writers how to think differently about their work. Terrific discussion of “inside-out” and “outside-in” revision, revising for genre, use of structure, and characterization.

Ted Kooser, The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets (Univ. Of Nebraska Press, 2005) I read this on a 60 mile backpacking trip through the Bob Marshall Wilderness, but it’s great for the couch, too.

Mark Doty, The Art of Description: World into Word (Graywolf Press, 2010) A poet’s POV, from the Art of … series

Christina Katz, The Writer’s Workout: 366 Tips, Tasks & Techniques From Your Writing Career Coach (Writers Digest, 2011) What I’m asking for!

And don’t forget, Books, Crooks and Counselors!

What’s on your list?