Reading Like a Writer

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The Taking, by Dean Koontz, 2004, Bantam Books, 448 pages in original release.

When I think of books by Dean Koontz several titles float to the surface of my mind: Strangers, Sole Survivor, Odd Thomas, One Door Away from Heaven, and Lightning. One that keeps resurfacing is The Taking. I began my career writing supernatural suspense, and Koontz is one of the best in genre. Unbeknownst to him, he became my mentor. I’ve learned a great deal from him, especially from books from the middle of this career on, and I believe is one of the finest literary tacticians writing today.

In The Taking, he took all my favorites parts of supernatural/SF suspense and blended a riveting cocktail of weirdness and the power of the human spirit.

One of the popular devices in suspense is the isolated community facing great danger. I’ve done similar things. Koontz builds great characters like novelist Molly Sloan as the protagonist and her ex-priest husband, as well as host small town actors to fill out the story. Filled with glowing rain that terrifies animals in the mountain community, eerie fog, and unexpected dangers, the book gripped me from the beginning. It was a great premise told with an expert’s skill.

Reading Like a Writer

Quite some time ago, back in the good ol’ days of Steve and Heather, Firsts in Fiction did a podcast on this issue. In the interest of time, I’ve used the show notes from that show that Heather Luby put together. But I’m sure Pops and Molly will have plenty to say on the issue. 🙂

So what does it mean to read like a writer?

  • Instead of reading for content or to better understand the ideas in the writing, you are trying to understand how the piece of writing was put together by the author and what you can learn about writing by reading a particular text.
  • The goal as you read like a writer is to locate what you believe are the most important writerly choices represented in the text — choices as large as the overall structure or as small as a single word used only once–to consider the effect of those choices on potential readers.
  • Then you go one step further and imagine what different choices the author might have made instead and what effect those different choices would have on readers.

Al: When I teach writing to individuals or classes, one of the first pieces of advice I give is: “Ruin your reading.” This is hard for writers to hear, because writers love the written word. It’s one reason they’re drawn to writing in the first place. Like it or not, professionals analyze what other professionals do. New surgeons learn from experienced surgeons; songwriters learn from doing more than listening to a song, but from studying the songs of other musicians; performs study other performers.

How is it different than “normal” reading?

  • Most of the time we read for information or pleasure – but when you read like a writer, you are reading to see how something was constructed so that you can construct something similar yourself. Maybe you could call it “reading like an architect” or “reading like a carpenter.”

Al: Writer are always looking for two things: 1) a way to do things better, and 2) a way to avoid mistakes.

Every bit of fiction you read is a lecture on technique.

Why is it important to learn to read like a writer?

  • As a writer, and having written things ourselves, we are better able to “see” the choices that the author is making in the texts that we read. This helps us think about whether we want to make some of those same choices in our own writing, and what the consequences might be for our readers if we do.

Al: We look for brilliance (the things that make us stop reading and savor a word choice, a sentence, a choice of plot point, the use of twists, etc.), but we also look for faults. Not to feel superior, but to be warned from making the same mistakes. I once noticed a recurring fault in a writer’s work and realized I was doing the same thing in my work-in-progress. This allowed me to fix the bad choices before sending the manuscript off to my publisher.

Here are some questions to ask.

  • What is the writer’s purpose?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • In what genre is this writing?

If the text you’re reading is a model of a particular style of writing–for example literary or thriller–reading like a writer is particularly helpful because you can look at a piece you’re reading and think about whether you want to adopt a similar style or other techniques.

Al: Before starting a project, I would (still do sometimes) gather a bunch of novels, lay them out so I could switch from one ot the other (sometimes I sat on the floor with the books around me). I would then look at each one and ask these questions:

  • How many pages are in the book?
  • How many chapters?
  • What is the average length of the chapters?
  • Is the author using first or third person?
  • Who is the protagonist?
  • Is there a prologue? Is there an epilogue?
  • What kind of balance is there between narration and dialogue?
  • How did the author start the first chapter?

You get the idea. Sometimes I would make a chart. This put my brain in the correct gear. I never patterned my book after someone else’s, but the process taught me a great deal.

Then ask:

  • Where would I go with this story?
  • Why did the author do this? What are they telling me?

When an author makes a move that we didn’t see coming or didn’t anticipate – pay attention!

Also ask:

  • How effective is the language the author uses? Why?

Beyond this I always recommend – Reading to INFORM what you are writing. This means reading things that may not be in the same genre, but are important to build research and background. Imagine reading non-fiction books about the subject you’re writing on–be it grief or suffering, hope or perseverance, bike riding or snorkeling. But don’t forget to read books within your genre. Understanding genre tropes and reader expectations is of vital importance. By understanding these tropes, you’ll know which to embrace and which to twist for maximum effects. Reading a wide range within your genre will give you a good sample of different novels and how they handle the tropes, and what the reader response is to those choices before you decide to do something similar or different.

Al: Contrary to this is the belief that a writer shouldn’t read in his/her genre while working on a project. I avoid doing that for fear I might unknowingly lift someone else’s idea and pretend it’s my own. I want my stories to develop naturally, without outside influence. That being said, I read in my genre when not working on a project. It keeps the pump primed.

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