Monday, February 8, 2016

Learning to Read like a Writer

by Linda Rodriguez

A serious writer should be reading all the time. Buy books so you can reread and mark them up, figuring out how they do the incredible things they do and how they made the mistakes they made that you want to avoid. Read the first time the way any reader does—for enjoyment and delight, to find out what happens next. Then, read over and over—very slowly. Read and ponder. Read like a writer reads—for technique. These writers are your teachers—for the cheap cost of a book, $40 at the max for a big hardback. Learn everything you can from them. Learn from the best. Then go practice some of those good techniques in your own work. You can do this quietly in bits and pieces of time without having to go away anywhere. You’re a writer. Think on paper.

There are lots of areas in our life where we need to step out of our comfort zones in order to grow and achieve our goals. It can be difficult to do this because it feels so weird outside of the spaces where we’re accustomed to spending time, and that leads to discomfort. Most of us, however, have learned that we have to stretch ourselves at times. But we seldom do this in our reading. Teachers may have made us read things we didn’t care for, but on our own—if we read at all!—we read only what we’re comfortable with.

Writers must read. We must read for enjoyment and delight and relaxation. We must read to stay up with what’s going on in our field. Above all, we must read to learn—and that involves sometimes leaving the warm cocoon of blankets and stepping out onto the cold floor of books and authors we might never choose for enjoyment.

We tend to read people who write like we do, who believe what we believe, who have the same style. It’s natural and normal—like looking in the mirror. I write accessible poetry with a narrative behind it. When I turn to poetry, won’t I read the same thing? I did. I still do. Reading Mary Oliver is like looking in the mirror at myself—years younger, many pounds thinner, and much more beautiful, it’s true—but an idealized self. My favorite kind of crime novels tends to be novels that focus on character, complex plots, and fine writing. I could recognize the artistry of good comic, pulp hardboiled, and puzzle crime novels, but I tended not to read those except when I had to because they weren’t “my” crime novels. But there were things for me to learn from these writers who didn’t write “my” books—exactly because they wrote a different style of book that required different skills. I could learn things from them that I couldn’t learn from someone just like me.

This is not just applicable to novels, either. You may only want to write fiction or narrative nonfiction, so why would you read poetry? As a matter of fact, many acclaimed writers of fiction, including some bestselling authors of commercial fiction, start or end their days reading poetry because they want to learn the skills of precise word choice, compression, verbal musicality, and many others they can learn from poets who’ve worked for years to be masters of those skills. The prose writers believe they can use those skills profitably in their own novels, stories, and narrative nonfiction.

Will all writers offer examples of all of these skills? Of course not. You must search out the best in each style or school. You always want to learn from the best. Where else can you as a writer turn to learn from your reading? Well, what do you want to learn?

Is narrative structure and plot your weakness? Do you never have any conflict in your stories or books? Look to the best of mystery fiction. These are the masters of narrative structure and plot. A good mystery has to have the plot of what really happened and then the plot of the unraveling and discovery of what really happened. Good mysteries have to have dramatic structures that are tied into strong characterization, motivation, lots of conflict, and suspense. Good examples can be found in authors like Nancy Pickard, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Margaret Maron, and Louise Penny.

Are you unable to build a believable, engrossing background for your characters? Do your characters wander in a void? The best writers in science fiction and fantasy excel in world-building—making a fictional world so believable in its details that it will draw the reader in as if it were a real place. They must make worlds that never existed outside their heads into places that readers can see and believe in. Game of Thrones, anyone? Good places to start here are C.J. Cherryh, Ursula K. LeGuin, Kate Elliott, Octavia Butler, and N.K. Jemison.

Reading as a writer can help you with any writing problem you have (except the constants of procrastination and lack of confidence). If your current problem is transitions, find writers who write fabulous transitions, even if you don’t like the rest of their work. They may be literary writers or writers in some commercial genre, but they write transitions that really work. Learn from them. Take apart the way they write transitions. Identify their techniques. Then practice them. This kind of reading to identify and break down skill and technique is a valuable tool for any writer. Good writers have books that are underlined, highlighted, and have notes scribbled in them.

A second kind of reading as a writer is reading to learn other ways of thinking and seeing the world. If we keep to our circumscribed lives, how can we realistically create characters who are different from ourselves? I am a screening judge for several national literary contests and see way too many book manuscripts where everyone in the whole book is the same—a twenty-to-thirty-something graduate student (even if they’re not in school). A Native American grandmother is written from the perspective of a twenty-to-thirty-something graduate student and lies dead on the page.

Does this mean a twenty-to-thirty-something graduate student can’t/shouldn’t try to write a Native American grandmother? No, but she or he might try reading things written by Native Americans and grandmothers from the perspective of real Native Americans and real grandmothers first. Otherwise, this character will be built from his/her preconceived notions—stereotypes and prejudices—of what a Native American grandmother is and will never rise up alive on the page.

How can we learn if we only read people who think and write the same way we do? As writers, we need to use our reading to add breadth to our experiences. To do that, we must read people who are different from us—people who write differently and think differently, people who have had different experiences in life from ours. There is a whole world of books out there by people whose whole experience of life has been different from yours. At one time, the only books to be found were written by wealthy educated European white men. Now, we can read and learn from the experiences of working-class Irish plumbers, overachieving Chinese law professor mothers, Filipino cab drivers, and African American choreographers. Biographies and autobiographies and memoirs are a wonderful resource for this broadening of experience, as are poetry and fiction by these diverse authors. Your characters will thank you, as will your readers.

But what if you don’t know where to look to find the books that will help you learn new techniques and new worlds? Ask your librarian. Most of them have their jobs because they love books. All of them are knowledgeable about books.

Don’t always read only the people who look like you, sound like you, and write like you, whose skills, backgrounds and experiences are just like your own. You won’t find anything to stretch your understanding or increase your skills there. Do everything you can to widen your perspective on the world. It will all make you a better writer. You’ll know you’re a real writer when all your mirrors turn into windows. 


  1. Thanks Linda for this excellent advce.

  2. I read eclectically, but I do not read as much as I should looking specifically at how authors accomplish certain tasks. Recently, however I was in conversation with one of my students in my online self-editing/revision course. We were doing an exercise on increasing the number of senses used in each scene. She mentioned she was reading Robert Galbraith and was stunned by how well she (JK Rowling is her real name) weaves in senses other than sight. I have wanted to read her mysteries and have not gotten around to it. Now I know I have to do so soon.

    ~ Jim

  3. I read Ann Cleeves' Thin Air with amazed delight, and immediately started reading it again, taking notes on her language, place as a major character, and multiple points of view. Genius!

  4. Great advice, Linda. I don't do this as much as I should, but in recent years, I've been much more attentive to how a writer accomplishes certain things.

  5. Excellent advice, Linda. It can be very difficult to do from time to time, but it is necessary. The difficulty in ready annotation is one of the difficulties I have with Kindle. For that reason, my "similar" reading takes place on Kindle, but my learning reading is usually on Kindle and by paperback. I still cannot bring myself to annotate a hard bound book!

  6. When I started interviewing authors on WWK, I soon realized that an interview was an endorsement. I now read the beginning of every book, decide if I like the book enough to continue reading, and if so, read the entire book, then decide if I want to interview the author. I read a lot, and now that we've been running for nearly six years, I am being approached by many authors of different subgenres to read their books. One author of an International spy genre, I just declined immediately--not my cuppa.

    But Linda's blog makes me think that perhaps I am being too egocentric. I read a variety of books, but I have my biases. Although espionage has its mystery elements, I don't enjoy them. I don't favor desert venues, although I can appreciate (ie, Kristina Stanley.) a mountain venue. The last three books that I've been asked to read don't appeal to me, but now I wonder if I should read them anyway to stretch myself. If they were written by esteemed authors, who others have praised for their writing and techniques, I'd lean in favor of reading them. But, as is often the case here at WWK, these are new writers. Not that I won't find a gem, but if I have to stretch my reading, perhaps I need to find more classics to learn from.

    That said, Will North, (upcoming 3/16 interview) asked me to read his books. Turns out he's only a new writer to the mystery genre. He had much to teach me. When I see a unique technique or outstanding writing, it stands out to me. It's automatic that I turn on the writer. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, I don't miss the opportunity to learn.

  7. Linda, I think you gave excellent advise. Although Mysteries are my books of choice for the most part, I do read other books, too.

    One of the best things I've done was to join two book clubs where the members choose the books. In one club, we meet in December with each of us
    bringing a suggestion for two or three books to choose from. Then we decide which book we'll read in each of the following months. We always choose at least one non-fiction, one classic from the past, and from there we choose books that had good reviews or that a member thought was great. Usually only one mystery a year is chosen. In the other much larger book club, the hostess of the month chooses the book and lets us know what book we'll be reading for her month.

    And I also have sisters and a brother-in-law who recommend books they've read and enjoyed.
    People who visit me for the first time are totally amazed not only at all the books in my
    library, but in every room downstairs - except for the kitchen - and most don't even go
    upstairs to see all the bookcases up there, either. Yeah, I'm a hoarder when it comes to
    books. The only ones I send to Goodwill, are books I didn't like mostly because they weren't well written.

  8. Linda, as usual you give great advice. Turning mirrors into windows - yes! That's an old librarian's saying about books for children. Children need mirrors and children need windows. Writers do, too!
    I do have a problem writing in books - but I think I'm going to start getting some paperbacks and some markers….

  9. Jim, this is common among fantasy writers. It's part of that world-building that they do so well. They have a lot to teach us with their books.

    Margaret, this is why you're one of my favorite students. You put what you learn into action and start using it.

    Julie, I think that the more we write, the more we tend to read like writers. It spoils the joy of reading, according to some, but I've never found that to be true--and I've been writing and reading for too many years to count.

    Kait, I, too, prefer to mark up a paperback version, but I had a wonderful professor once who told me that she saw reading as a process of thinking and communication with the writers and thinkers who went before her. Since that conversation and seeing how great writers of the past marked up their hardcover books, I have less problem writing marginalia in hardcover books.

  10. Elaine, for this process I suggest using books by authors who are really good at some aspect of writing, not new writers looking for promotion. Learn from the best.

    Gloria, I, too, am overrun with books. I'm getting ready for a big purge, which will be traumatic.

    Shari, I adore and respect books, but throughout history great writers and great thinkers have written in their books. Research it and you'll see. Perhaps it will help you to see it in a less destructive way.

  11. I know I should do more of this deliberate reading, but when I read a great book, I get so engrossed I forget to pay attention to how the author creates the feel. And then when I go back to reread it, I find myself totally engrossed again. I guess I have to be stricter with myself.

    I love to read books where, when I am interrupted, I look up in amazement when I find I am not actually in 12th century England, for instance, and it takes a few minutes to reorient myself.

  12. Yes,, KM, I get really immersed in a beautifully written book, but I've trained myself to pull out of it 2nd time around and pay attention to craft when I want to. It's like any other habit--takes consisten effort for at least 21 days.