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Author Topic: Do you read like a writer?  (Read 6853 times)

Offline Overlord

Do you read like a writer?
« on: March 31, 2015, 10:06:14 PM »
Great article on the main site today by Eric. It is about how reading can be approached as a writer:

Quote
In podcasts and interviews, I often hear authors lamenting the fact that due to deadlines and publicity efforts, they don’t get to read as much as they used to. Even worse, when they do get to have time to read, they often can’t simply read for pleasure. Oh, sure, they can enjoy a book immensely, but it’s some ancillary effect because they tend to read with different eyes than fans.

They’ve been behind the curtain. And they’ve seen how the sausage is made (if you’ll let me mix my metaphors—or maybe it’s just the world’s first meat-based magic show?). Instead of simply imagining a story of sword and sorcery, they are also analyzing for plot structure, examining character arcs, and dissecting word choice. But this isn’t simply a consequence of writing a book. No, this transformation was a vital skill that they acquired along the path from aspiring author to published author. Somewhere along the way, they learned to read like a writer.

For example, Michael J. Sullivan has said that when he began to take writing seriously, “I studied the classics and the Pulitzer Prize winners and learned from their style and started to teach myself techniques.” And the Internet is full of books and essays on this topic.

But why is this such a vital skill for aspiring writers to learn? Well, think about it this way. If you’re getting published, you’re doing something right. If you’re not, you’re probably doing something wrong. But rejection letters, even personalized ones, don’t often tell you what’s wrong with your story, let alone how to fix it. And beta readers might be able to identify problems, but how do you know if their advice is worth anything? The bottom line is that, to a large extent, you’re on your own. It’s up to you to identify where and how your story goes wrong, as well as how to fix it. If you can read your story critically, make the structure sound, and get rid of weaknesses, then your writing will level up. If you train yourself to read everything with this critical, authorial eye, then it will be easier to read your own work with that same eye.

Okay, so how do you actually do this? To begin with, slow down and read actively. Yes, I know. This sucks. I’m a slow reader to begin with, so reading even slower kills me. I hate doing anything slowly. But think of it this way. The first time you try a new exercise or a new sport, when you learn the fundamentals, you go through the movements slowly and carefully. You stay focused and don’t let your mind wander. Soon enough, the practice becomes automatic. Same here. Reading like this will become automatic, eventually.

Start with looking for the basics: 1) identify the protagonist and antagonist and 2) break up the story into the three-act structure. Who is your hero? Who or what is standing in the hero’s way? What is the moment when the hero’s life changes and he is sent off in a different path? That’s the end of Act One and the beginning of Act Two. At what point does the hero have all the knowledge he or she needs to undertake the big finale? That’s the end of Act Two and the beginning of Act Three.

Because screenplays (and teleplays) are even more rigidly structured than books, I’ll use Star Wars: A New Hope as an example (and this exercise can be applied every time you watch a movie or TV show. It’s a lot quicker than reading a book). So, who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist? Looking only at this movie, it’s the story of Luke Skywalker. Standing in his way is Darth Vader, the embodiment of the Empire and the dark side of the Force. Now, where are the act breaks? When Luke’s aunt and uncle are murdered, he has nothing holding him to Tatooine. He’s also in danger, so he has to run. His life will never be the same again. End of Act One. And skipping ahead, once the rebels identify the weakness of the Death Star and plan their attack, no new knowledge is needed. The finale can begin, and with it, Act Three.

Now, it’s common knowledge that Star Wars follows the hero’s journey structure pretty closely, so this kind of breakdown is easier than most. But that’s exactly what this kind of reading is about: identifying the patterns and underlying structures.

But that’s only the beginning of reading like a writer. Don’t be satisfied with the “what.” Seek to understand the “how” and “why” of a story. For this, you’ll have to look at the finer points. How did the writer create a compelling introduction that hooked you immediately (say with a giant ship and a space battle)? How did the writer introduce the protagonist? Did the author demonstrate the worldbuilding in a big infodump, or through careful drips of details? How did the protagonist grow and change (say, from moisture farmer to hero pilot and a Jedi in training), and at what cost? How did the writer handle physical description and exposition (say by introducing Greedo to show us several things about Han as a person and his past)? How did the writer distinguish between characters’ voices? Why did the author make the plot choices he or she did? How would different choices have affected the story? These are the sorts of questions that should be at the forefront of your mind while you read (or watch movies and TV shows).

At this point, I think I might be losing some of you. I can hear you saying, “I just want to read a story. I don’t want to do homework.” Trust me, I know. I love getting swept away in a story. I love living vicariously through characters. I love staying up way past my bedtime, reading just one chapter more. I get it. This isn’t easy. At least not in the beginning. But neither is committing to a workout regimen or picking up a new sport. But like those activities, it’s worth the effort. I get so much more out of book when I read like this, even if I don’t always read like this. It’s a lot to keep in your head, and you have to stay focused. And the better the book, the harder this can be. If you find yourself not reading actively, just take a breath, re-focus, and keep reading.

But if it’s still too hard, here are a couple ways to cheat. Let’s say you’re writing a story. And you’ve done enough of these breakdowns to realize you’re having a problem with pacing or characterization. What do you do? Go small. Don’t try to break down an entire book. Zero in on the precise lesson you need to learn.

Go to your bookshelf. Focus on the books you’ve already read. Look for the book that you couldn’t put down or the one with your favorite characters. Now, re-read, or at least leaf through the book looking for the moments that will be most helpful. What was it about the word choice, sentence structure, or chapter length that made the story fly? What was it about the character’s skill, humor, voice, or heart that wouldn’t let you pull away? Be specific. Take notes. Don’t be satisfied with your first impression. Dig in and get detailed. Only then will you be able to apply those lessons to your own writing.

Alternatively, read “bad” books. You know the ones. They’re popular, but you look down on them for being dumb, cliché-ridden nonsense that you would only buy if someone put a gun to your head, and even then, you’d buy the electronic version so no one would know you’re reading it. It will be harder to get sucked into those books, harder to lose yourself. You’ll be able to stay more conscious of the mechanics behind the story, identify the weaknesses, and even think of ways to improve it. You’ll improve your reading ability, and as an extra bonus, instead of just saying that a book “looks dumb,” you’ll be able to lay out exactly why it’s dumb.

But remember this, no matter how dumb that book may be, it still got published. An editor saw something in it and was willing to devote time, effort, and money to get that book out in the market. The book may not have been perfect—far from it sometimes—but it passed some minimal threshold. Learning how to read like this is a great way to help your own writing get over that same threshold and get the attention of an agent, an editor, and readers everywhere.

So, do you guys 'read like writers'? Would you like to if you are not? Are you stuck doing it if you do?
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Offline JMack

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Re: Do you read like a writer?
« Reply #1 on: March 31, 2015, 10:29:31 PM »
I was just thinking along these lines with a post I did about 3rd person limited POV. I do find myself reading with an eye for learning. @sennydreadful is a wonderful "teacher" and Steven Erikson is fascinating for this. My whole experience on F-F has me reading more critically. Everybody seems to love Traitor's Blademand I had a good time reading it; but after reading F-F, I started to be more aware of how the both seems t think about women.

So, yes, read like a writer, and learn!
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Offline Elfy

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Re: Do you read like a writer?
« Reply #2 on: April 01, 2015, 12:57:44 AM »
Chuck Wendig is another one who preaches this. I think I've been doing it for a while. I really started to read more critically when I had a review blog and reviewed everything I wrote. I don't have that particular blog anymore, but I do still read critically and I often find myself applying the lessons I learned when reading to my own writing.
I will expand your TBR pile.

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Offline Skip

Re: Do you read like a writer?
« Reply #3 on: April 01, 2015, 04:20:14 AM »
I have a couple of thoughts on this, though they go in a different direction.

I'm a medievalist. I've spent my life reading and writing medieval history. Not once have I heard the advice that I should "study the masters" and learn to write history like they do. We do study historians (it's called historiography), but we study just about everything *except* their style. I suspect the same is true for writers in other academic disciplines, but I feel history is especially relevant, since it was long considered a form of literature. It seems odd that studying other writers is somehow useful in fiction but not in non-fiction. I'm not sure what to make of that, only that it seems odd.

I have indeed studied other authors--read them as a writer--but I have never been able to get anything from it. The writers I admire most don't write fantasy: Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Thomas Mann, Graham Greene, Joseph Conrad, Jack London, Raymond Chandler. Others, but not fantasy authors. The closest match would be someone like Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells.

And here's the thing. None of those people write in three acts. None of them open with a bang. They don't follow the Hero's Journey. Moreover, how they write doesn't seem to fit with how *I* want to write.

So many people talk about doing this. People I respect. I was quite young when I read Salvador Dali's advice to study the masters first, and when I saw his crucified Christ, a purely Mannerist painting. All these people, wiser than I, must be seeing something I am not. Once again, I don't know what to do with this, other than to make the observation.

I do know this much. Writing has soured my reading.

I'm also a musician. I took a workshop once on music production. In the very first class, the teacher told us that once we learn how to produce music, we'll never listen to music the same way again. He was right. I don't just hear the song, I hear the mix. It's the same with writing. I do now see the writer writing, and there are times when I wish I didn't. It has made me even less tolerant of poor writing, and even more in awe of great writing. That vivid line of description, that crackling dialog, the deft characterization, seems even more the work of inspiration than of methodology. There's nothing to study, only to admire.

So, I keep reading. I keep writing. I try to keep them in separate rooms. Sometimes they bang on the wall and I have to tell them both to shut up because I'm playing my guitar.


Offline ultamentkiller

Re: Do you read like a writer?
« Reply #4 on: April 01, 2015, 05:28:20 AM »
I would like to say I do. I'm very critical of a book. While I read, I'm thinking, why does he keep repeating himself? This word choice is distracting. That was a pointless action scene. Too much inner monologue. Things like that.
So, if that's how most writers read books, then yes. I read like a writer.

Offline sennydreadful

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Re: Do you read like a writer?
« Reply #5 on: April 01, 2015, 09:13:55 AM »
I was just thinking along these lines with a post I did about 3rd person limited POV. I do find myself reading with an eye for learning. @sennydreadful is a wonderful "teacher" and Steven Erikson is fascinating for this. My whole experience on F-F has me reading more critically. Everybody seems to love Traitor's Blademand I had a good time reading it; but after reading F-F, I started to be more aware of how the both seems t think about women.

So, yes, read like a writer, and learn!

Oh thank you! Most of the time I feel like I barely know what I'm doing, so it's very cool you feel like there's something to take away from my books ;D
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Offline Raptori

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Re: Do you read like a writer?
« Reply #6 on: April 01, 2015, 11:21:59 AM »
Yeah I do it all the time. It's very rare these days for a book to truly immerse me, which I guess is why I treasure it so much when it happens.

I'm also a musician. I took a workshop once on music production. In the very first class, the teacher told us that once we learn how to produce music, we'll never listen to music the same way again. He was right. I don't just hear the song, I hear the mix. It's the same with writing. I do now see the writer writing, and there are times when I wish I didn't. It has made me even less tolerant of poor writing, and even more in awe of great writing. That vivid line of description, that crackling dialog, the deft characterization, seems even more the work of inspiration than of methodology. There's nothing to study, only to admire.

This, so much! I grew up in a family full of musicians, and have never really found it easy to really enjoy music. Instead I notice the relationships between the notes and rhythms, and how the song/piece is constructed. I find it easier to turn that off than I do turning off critical reading though...  :-\
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Offline ScarletBea

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Re: Do you read like a writer?
« Reply #7 on: April 01, 2015, 12:18:21 PM »
Gosh, it seems that 'reading like a writer' will definitely destroy your reading experience :-\ I'm so glad I'm not a writer!
Do you manage to turn on/off this point of view when reading? Are you still able to enjoy books?

I still remember with dread my literature classes at school, where I had to analyse books (basically do what Eric describes in the article): those books are amongst my most hated ones ever!
(despite the very good grades... ::))


By the way: are you guys (i.e. writers) ok with me replying on these threads, or sometimes on the Writer's Forum section, giving my opinion as a pure reader? Or do you think I'm meddling where I shouldn't be?
Please be honest!
« Last Edit: April 01, 2015, 12:22:30 PM by ScarletBea »
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Offline sennydreadful

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Re: Do you read like a writer?
« Reply #8 on: April 01, 2015, 12:37:53 PM »
For what it's worth, I do think that reading as a writer can also bring you a lot of joy - appreciating the skill of a particular sentence, or the sudden turn of a plot, because you know how much work has gone into it. I'm re-reading Lords and Ladies at the moment and I frequently have to put the book down just to sit and appreciate what a truly incredibly writer Terry Pratchett was (not that you can't feel that if you're not a writer, obviously, but when you're looking specifically at the craft it can be quite staggering).

And ScarletBea I think you should comment as much as you like! We'd be nothing without readers, after all ;)
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Offline JMack

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Re: Do you read like a writer?
« Reply #9 on: April 01, 2015, 12:44:53 PM »
Gosh, it seems that 'reading like a writer' will definitely destroy your reading experience :-\ I'm so glad I'm not a writer!
Do you manage to turn on/off this point of view when reading? Are you still able to enjoy books?

I still remember with dread my literature classes at school, where I had to analyse books (basically do what Eric describes in the article): those books are amongst my most hated ones ever!
(despite the very good grades... ::))


By the way: are you guys (i.e. writers) ok with me replying on these threads, or sometimes on the Writer's Forum section, giving my opinion as a pure reader? Or do you think I'm meddling where I shouldn't be?
Please be honest!
Speaking as one of the guys, I love having you comment in the Writer sections. You're smart , insightful and can take a tease. What more could we ask for?  ;)
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Offline Justan Henner

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Re: Do you read like a writer?
« Reply #10 on: April 01, 2015, 02:10:07 PM »
By the way: are you guys (i.e. writers) ok with me replying on these threads, or sometimes on the Writer's Forum section, giving my opinion as a pure reader? Or do you think I'm meddling where I shouldn't be?
Please be honest!

Please keep commenting. Personally, I always enjoy your input.

Offline Raptori

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Re: Do you read like a writer?
« Reply #11 on: April 01, 2015, 02:48:49 PM »
By the way: are you guys (i.e. writers) ok with me replying on these threads, or sometimes on the Writer's Forum section, giving my opinion as a pure reader? Or do you think I'm meddling where I shouldn't be?
Please be honest!
Your opinion is just as valid as any other - anyone can have something to say about music even if they don't want to learn how to play, don't see why writing should be any different. I'd actually say it's always helpful to hear the perspective of someone who doesn't write, for one thing readers are the target audience, and for another I really don't think there's a big difference between the two.  :)
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Offline Elfy

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Re: Do you read like a writer?
« Reply #12 on: April 01, 2015, 11:11:59 PM »
In some ways, because Bea is divorced from the process, her input is even more valuable. We also have to remember that she's going to be part of our audience if we aspire to being published. You can get a lot out of reading critically. Not just things like word use, grammar, etc... Structure and pacing are also evident.
I will expand your TBR pile.

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Offline madfox11

Re: Do you read like a writer?
« Reply #13 on: April 02, 2015, 02:37:09 PM »
No, and I am actually a bit afraid of developing it. I have done quite some semi-profesional design and development work for roleplaying adventures and it has made it much harder to please me as a player. Flaws jump out much more then pieces of brilliance and ignoring them has become harder. Sure, it adds another layer when I am reading such works which in a way enrichens the experience, but more often than not it doesn't. I want to keep enjoying my books ;)

Offline Rostum

Re: Do you read like a writer?
« Reply #14 on: April 03, 2015, 06:11:42 PM »
Quote
I'm a medievalist. I've spent my life reading and writing medieval history. Not once have I heard the advice that I should "study the masters" and learn to write history like they do. We do study historians (it's called historiography), but we study just about everything *except* their style. I suspect the same is true for writers in other academic disciplines, but I feel history is especially relevant, since it was long considered a form of literature. It seems odd that studying other writers is somehow useful in fiction but not in non-fiction. I'm not sure what to make of that, only that it seems odd.

I think if you write reference works in the style of.... you open yourself to attack along the lines of you are plagiarizing their style. All you can bring to surviving evidence is your own insight. For example if professor Zyx who wrote about two Swiss medieval artillery pieces in 1965 and you write about the same guns in his style what is the benefit of reading your work over his?
However fiction in the style of... can be great fun and there are some really good parodies of early historians that follow the style of writing they used as well as fiction in the style of, or from the perspective of a real person to aid with the suspension of disbelief.