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One Way by S. J. Morden
 

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How Being a Better Reader Will Make You a Better Writer

My husband has taught college film for the last twenty-five years. He’s very passionate about film, and regardless if he’s in the classroom or not, he can’t help pointing out things like lighting, editing, camera angles and symbolism. His class is a favorite among the students, and while they come away entertained as well as enlightened, they also leave something behind: their ability to watch films purely as entertainment. Many have told my husband – mostly with good humor – that he has “ruined” films for them. They’re more aware of the music score behind the action. They notice if someone’s face is shadowed intentionally. Bad lines, as well as acting, are suddenly blatant and ubiquitous. Some of them can’t even watch movies they used to like, because they’ve now realized that they’re just, well, not very good. I don’t see this as a bad thing. Being more aware of films as art, rather than purely entertainment, has given me a much stronger appreciation of good films, even if it has “ruined” others for me. But I don’t miss them. In fact, I simply crave more of the good ones. And the same thing happened to me with books.

Several years ago I finally mustered up the courage to attend a writer’s conference, and after just two days of workshops, I came back a different person. Some of the things that were pounded in my head that weekend were the evils of adverbs, especially in dialogue tags, and showing versus telling. I applied the things I learned as best as I could to my own writing, and by extension, started noticing them when I was reading. I realized how blind I’d been to writing styles, and how many nuances, subtleties and beautifully crafted sentences had been lost on me. Books I once loved became “ruined,” and countless others would now be unread if, after the first few pages, I found fault with writing conventions or styles. While I’m sure Patrick Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind is a great book, I’ll never know, because I can’t get past the first several pages. Not only does he liberally use adverbs in dialogue tags, “Shep said darkly” appears three times in less than two pages. By the third one I was ready to throw the book out of the window, and didn’t know who I was more exasperated with, Rothfuss or his editor. To me, the occasional deviation from he said/she said is forgivable, but to have Shep say something darkly so many times in such close proximity is…well, you get the idea. I’ve turned into an anal, even high-strung, reader. But for every book that I toss aside unread, I find a jewel that I devour and appreciate on a level that had been heretofore unknown to me. I actually read books on occasion that are beautifully written where practically nothing happens! And if you give me a book that’s entertaining as well as beautifully crafted, I’m in heaven.

As a writer, this transformation was absolutely essential to my growth. I have trouble reading my earlier novels because of the same reasons mentioned above, and with every book I write, I manage to tighten my prose and hone my subtly a little more. My writing is influenced by whatever book I’m reading at the time; for example, after reading a couple of Updike novels, I added some passages to my WIP that brought my novel to a whole new level. And because I’m easily influenced and always looking for ways to be a better writer, I have a rule. As often as possible, I try to read books that are better than mine. If I read something that’s “entertaining” but kind of crappy, I won’t learn anything, and I’ll curtail my growth.

So fellow aspiring writers, I have a challenge for you. The next time you pick up a book, try to detach yourself a little from the plot, and start to notice the mechanics. Study the writing style, and pay attention to how much the writer is telling you. Are they letting you figure things out on your own, or spoon-feeding you? Yes, we know he gasped with horror; he’s covered in blood. And did we really need to be told Shep’s tone was dark even once, let alone three times? This should be implied by the conversation.

You can only retain information taught in writing classes and in writing books so much. But reading well-written novels is a continuous lesson. Not only will your writing improve, but reading will become a much more enjoyable experience. You’ll still fall in love with characters and get lost in adventures, while at the same time you’ll enjoy books as works of art, with attention and appreciation to the actual craft of writing.

Happy reading (and happy writing!).

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11 Comments

  1. Great article, and it mirrors my own experience. Especially over the last couple of years. I’ve decided to take a year off from writing novels and focus on the craft. This will be done via short stories where tight efficient prose is essential.

    I’ve always been a fan of Ray Bradbury, and reading his prose makes me realise how far I’ve got go to. On the theme of reading something better than your own work, I’ve recently bought a collection of stories by Hemmingway, and collected essay by George Orwell. It’s surprising just how informing and inspiring a well written essay can be as well as fiction.

    I also suffer from the same problem that when I read a book, sloppy prose trips me up and makes me want to put the book down. I now have two separate piles of books: those that are fun and sloppy, and those that are brilliant and worth more time to study.

  2. Avatar FB says:

    Every book has something to offer. I mean, Name of the Wind does so many things well and better than most books. Fantastic characters, relationships and dialogues. Not giving a chance because you have some snobbish stylistic allergy is a bad, bad thing. (I have it too, but still.) And while Updike’s prose is poetic, I wouldn’t study his books for plotting. And so on.

    It would be better if you could notice faults/tricks and not ruin your reading experience at the same time. Same goes for films.

    Don’t EVER miss anything because of your superior knowledge in the craft. Patience is a virtue. Think about the best novels of the 19th century… they aren’t very well edited as you would expect today. Yes, they have adverbs. So what?

    • Avatar Shadowj says:

      Here, here. If you threw away every novel that had a few quirks in the style, then enjoy reading nothing. Because you’ll find faults in every novel. Stop being so elitist and just enjoy the book. Their books are published… are yours?

  3. Avatar Khaldun says:

    Gotta say it: you really need to read The Name of the Wind. Get through those first few pages.
    Also, I took a literature and film course and university and it made it much harder for me to enjoy movies (and much harder for those around me to enjoy movies that I am not currently enjoying, because I’ll be pointing out this detail or complaining about a bad bit of dialogue or plotting). I understand what his students are saying.

  4. Avatar cilvercat says:

    I am intrigued by what you had to say. Can you explain why we shouldn’t use adverbs in dialogue tags, and what’s the importance of showing and not telling? I understand it loses it dramatic quality or something, but a better explanation would be immense.

  5. Avatar Jess says:

    Having studied English at uni, and having concentrated a lot on honing my own writing style over the past few years, I feel the same when it comes to reading. I still very much admire good characterisation and good plotting, but I’m now hyper-aware of the stylistic things I try to avoid in my own writing. And yes, I suppose this has lessened my ability to enjoy books purely on he levels of character/plot. However, I agree that that isn’t a bad thing; novels depend upon the writing, and if the writing is clumsy then it’s not a well-crafted novel. Great characters and plot can go a long way to make up for it, but in the end there’s no getting away from clumsy writing – that’s what the characters and plot consist of, after all! I find myself mumbling ‘Well, duh’, when confronted with particularly bad examples of telling not showing…

    I can’t comment on ‘The Name of the Wind’ as I haven’t read it yet…

    @clivercat — I’d recommend reading Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’; he explains those points extremely well (not that Ashley wouldn’t, I’m sure)!

  6. Avatar David Jace says:

    I certainly echo this article. I was trained as an Army photographer/videographer, and quickly gained a different, more critical eye for pictures and video/tv/movies. Later, I got extra work on television, and further sharpened my appreciation for such entertainments. Only just this morning, my wife mentioned noticing something critically in a piece of writing that she never noticed before she knew me.

    While I do agree with your critics that it is good to be able to appreciate something despite the stylistic differences, or outright errors, I also recognize that appreciate for what is good in a work allows one to better appreciate the work. Imagine if football or hockey fans knew nothing of the sport, how would they know if a play was a good one or not? Well, those two guys hit that other guy and he went flying, so I guess it’s good! Is it a good boxing match if one gets beaten to a pulp? Perhaps only if they are well matched initially, but how would you know if you do not have a deeper understanding of the sport?

    And the adverb thing? I see the point, but I wouldn’t launch a campaign against adverbs. Like sugar in a diet, adverbs (and all other parts of speech) have their place, and should be managed, but not eliminated.

  7. Thanks, everyone, for all the great comments. Sorry I’m late jumping back in here; my daughter held me captive playing videogames she got for Christmas. I will try, very hard, to give Name of the Wind another chance. Every book is going to have some errors (certainly mine are included in this), and it’s a shame to miss out on something good because of a pet peeve. It’s just that it’s a big pet peeve for me. : ) I loved On Writing and think it helps explain a number of things, including why adverbs in dialogue tags are annoying. Cilvercat, in answer to your question, adverbs and telling instead of showing take away from a book’s subtlety. I don’t like it when a writer assumes I can’t figure something out, and feels the need to spell it out for me. And the better a writer is at subtlety, the better he or she is as a writer. It’s something I need to work on, and something I notice (or certainly the lack of it!) more and more in books that I read.

  8. Avatar Philip Armstrong says:

    Don’t listen to the haters Ashley, you’re not being snobbish. Reading carefully and appreciating craft shouldn’t be seen the same as one-percenters clinking champagne while the occupying masses writhe below. Yes, “Name of the Wind” has some good bits: mostly its pace (those hundreds of pages just fly by), and it’s “fun.” But it’s exactly the sort of entertaining crappy book you describe. It’s clumsy and crude and as subtle as an ostrich at a funeral. By the end you will feel like the most spoon-fed baby who ever had pre-chewed mush crammed in its gob.

  9. Avatar Dave Tangram says:

    I had a good laugh about the “Shep said darkly”. It reminds me of the horrific repetitions of “said flatly” in 50 Shades of Grey, which is probably one of the best examples of bad writing which got onto the Bestseller lists. Even so I did actually read it if only to see how NOT to write. (and no it wasn’t because of the smut content which was also so badly written it had no erotic effect for me)

    I am a great proponent of reading your writing out loud while editing. I do about 80% of my reading via Audiobook format and by listening it becomes much more obvious when you come across weak writing. Some books just flow and pull you in will others regularly jarr you out. When you analyze why the book just felt bad, you will tend to come across things like overuse of adverbs and not ‘showing’ enough.

    For anyone wanting a fantastic book that describes this in detail, read Stein on Writing by Sol Stein. Stephen King’s book is also good (and much more entertaining) but doesn’t go into much detail.

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