Thursday, March 14, 2013

Reading Like a Writer

     I have a thing for openings. And endings. Well, and transitions from time to time, and...
     Before I began writing fiction, seriously writing, I paid little attention to technique as I read. Every book I read, I read for pleasure.
     But when I started going to workshops, conferences, and classes and reading Writer's Digest, the SCBWI Bulletin, and blogs, blogs, blogs, the craft behind the stories became a little more interesting. While wondering what would happen next, I started paying attention to how the author kept me turning pages.
     Several years ago while on vacation, I took a paperback book that I love immensely, 13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson, and marked the hell out of it with a highlighter. I underlined transitions between scenes, favorite end-of-chapter paragraphs, and how she described settings. Then I went through it again and noted how she introduced her characters, handled emotional conflict, and built suspense. There were other details I looked for, but I zeroed in on those examples in that particular book. It was a tedious exercise, but pretty enlightening.
     When I love a particular book, there are certain broad elements that always stand out to me. In the books I've read most recently, it was voice in The One and Only Ivan and Our Own May Amelia; the vivid settings in The Forest of Hands and Teeth and Divergent; and I loved the characterization and dialogue in The Fault in Our Stars and Wonder. 
     Each of those books would be at the mercy of my highlighter if I had the time to study each author's skill at writing those books. Too many other books to read and stories of my own to write keep me from repeating the 13 Little Blue Envelopes exercise, but I encourage you to try it. Being a writer means there's no end to learning how to be a better one, and what better teacher is there than a well-written book.

   


8 comments:

  1. What an interesting exercise! The highlighter idea is great. I'm going to try it. Probably could use post-its too for books you don't want to mark up. (Writer workshops/books do have that residual efect; we never read the same again:)

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    1. It's probably not something I'd do again, at least not to that extent, just because it was so time-consuming. But it was definitely a great learning experience.

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  2. Sounds like a great exercise! This is something I'll have to try.

    (Loved 13 Little Blue Envelopes!)

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  3. I loved Our Own May Amelia. I think your highlighter idea would really push us to think out of the reading for pleasure box and into the reading for writing box.

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    1. That book would be a good one to use!

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  4. Yes. It's so different simply reading for pleasure. Now that I write, I find it difficult to ever read a book without paying attention to a writerr's technique. It can be frustrating if I come across a book not written as well as I would have hoped. On the other hand, I'm simply amazed when I come across a well-written piece. It gives me so much more respect for those authors. I often wonder how they were able to pull it off.

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    1. I agree, David. Sometimes I read a passage 2-3 times because I love the rhythm of the words. And I wonder why I'm such a slow reader!

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