Writing Wednesday — “Read What You Like”

In mid July, I participated in the “More Than Malice” online literary festival, created by the organizers of the annual Malice Domestic convention celebrating the traditional mystery as a way to bring readers together with authors for a conversation. Some of the authors usually attend “Malice,” as I do, while others don’t, because they write other types of mystery or crime fiction. My panel was moderated by BOLO blogger and reviewer Kristopher Zgorski and featured Carol Goodman, Rachel Howzell Hall, Wm. Kent Krueger, PJ Vernon, and me. What we have in common is that each of us writes in multiple subgenres — the list Kris read off was amazing, and amusing!

The conversation kicked off with a question about what we read — and alphabetical order put me first! Writers, I pointed out, don’t read like readers who don’t write. We’re always studying, noticing what an author does, how well it works, whether it fails and why and how could the problem have been solved or avoided. “Reading forensically,” Rachel called it. When we first start writing, this can take some of the joy out of reading. “Ruined for reading,” as Carol said.

But now, after thirteen published books, I realize that for me, the noticing has become part of the joy. I can both relish what I read and notice what insights it prompts for me, for my own work.

My co-panelists all agreed. There can be moments of jealousy — “premise envy,” as its sometimes called. (I felt that when I read Kent’s This Tender Land — oh, what a terrific story and lead character!) Envy of a fluidity with language, a comfort with metaphor and description, an ability to make a setting pop or set a mood that keeps us glued to the page long after we should turn out the light. Rachel glowed when she described a rare afternoon home alone, her day job work done, when she simply sat and read. And PJ talked about the importance of “cross-pollenization,” when you read, for example, a literary mystery like Kent’s and see a few things you can borrow for your suspense novel, or how an approach to portraying one underrepresented community can influence writing about another.

I also quoted a piece of advice from Elizabeth George, who is as great a teacher as she is a writer. She says “read up.” That is, read writers who are working at a level or in a style or genre you aspire to. While I try to follow that bit of wisdom, I’ve also discovered I can learn something from almost anything I read. And learning is part of the joy.

(The More Than Malice panel discussions were recorded and are available at the Malice website to conference registrants.)

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