Want to up your reading game? Want to know what it means to read like a writer first hand? I sure do. And I think I’m ready. I have read hundreds of books on writing, and they all have something in common: they use examples from a variety of novels as examples of writing techniques. This year, I want to train myself to find these examples as I read novels, learn from them, and apply what I learn to my novel draft. I hope you’ll join me in the experience.
Choosing the Novels
Like me, you may be thinking, No problem. I have a To Be Read (TBR) pile a mile high. I’ll never run out of books to read, but are those the books to start reading as a writer?
There are so many novels in the world, how will I find the ones that are going to help me grow as a writer?
I started my quest by looking at lists of 100 books you should read before you die. Most of those lists consist of the same great books I have read, but I found some interesting books I hadn’t even heard of. Then I looked at the Nobel prize winners for literature, and the Pulitzer prize winners for fiction. I now had a huge list, but I doubted any of them would work as comps for my novel (Comps are books with similar premises, themes, or style to my work that I will use when pitching my finished novel). I definitely want to be reading as many possible comps as I can as I work.
So a new approach to my reading list was to list all the authors I have really enjoyed over the years, and think about where some possible comps might come from in that list. I went through stages in my life when I would read everything I could find by one author. Who were those authors? Charles Dickens, Isabel Allende, Salman Rushdie, John Irving, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, Mary Higgins Clark, Carl Hiaassen, Toni Morisson, Tony Hillerman, and many others.
Half of those authors already have novels on my lists, and I’ll pick one by each of the others to add. The other thing to do is to look over the best sellers in Mystery and Thriller for the last ten years and pick some of them that sound promising. The order of reading will have to do with procurement, but having a prepared list gives me hope that I won’t stray too far from my ideal.
Reading Like a Writer
Once I’ve chosen my fifty-two novels I plan to study this year, how will I approach reading and learning from each of them? What is it I’m looking for as I read each novel that will be different as a writer? How will I learn from them? I’ll have to come up with a system of questions to ask myself while I read.
The best place to start is why am I doing this? What am I searching for? Why do I want to read like a writer? What do I hope to gain by it? What am I hoping to find in these novels?
What am I really trying to learn? I think I’m trying to learn the specifics of the writing I think is good and bad. What makes me keep reading, and what makes me put a novel down? What makes a passage or character memorable, and why do I forget so many books the moment I’ve put them down? I want to find the tricks to creating emotion in the reader, and keeping the reader turning pages. I want to discover how to make my characters relatable, making the reader care for my protagonist. I want to learn how to create interesting twists and surprises. I want to learn how to give my characters unique voices so that the reader can tell who’s talking without dialogue tags.
Now that I have a more specific idea of what I want to learn from the novels I read, what specific questions will I keep in mind while I read to get to the answers I’m looking for?
I recently read some really good craft books: The Linchpin Writer by John Matthew Fox (which I reviewed here), How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey, and Plot versus Character by Jeff Gerke. I used these three books to inspire some questions to think about as I read.(The links to these books are amazon associate links, if you click on these links to buy the book, I receive some thank you pennies that are greatly appreciated).
Questions for Reading as a Writer
Do I like the title?
Do I like the cover?
How many pages, chapters?
What format did I read?
When was the book published?
Have I read anything else by the author?
Look up the author, learn something about the author
Did I like the book?
What did I like most about it?
What did I like least about it?
What was the book about (brief summary)?
What book or movie would I compare it to?
What viewpoint was it written in?
What tense was it written in?
The Linchpin Writer points out linchpin moments to look for in every novel. It inspired these questions:
What about the first paragraph drew me in?
What do I think the book is about from the first paragraph?
Does the first paragraph present characterization, energy/tone.
mystery, and emotional bedrock?
How would I rewrite it/improve it?
What did this novel teach me about beginnings?
How can I apply it to my own novel?
How is the main character introduced?
How is the main character first described?
Is it just eyes and hair?
What’s the most interesting/memorable detail?
What is a single word to describe the main character?
How would I rewrite the description?
What did this novel teach me about character introductions and
How can I apply it to my own novel?
What is the first line of dialogue?
What is the main character’s first line of dialogue?
Did it reveal the main character’s main concern?
Did it foreshadow what was to come?
Does it showcase the character’s personality?
How many words is it?
Does it have a surface meaning and a deeper one?
Does the dialogue reveal character, support the plot, hit the emotional theme, escalate the tension?
Does the main character have a unique voice/way of speaking?
Do I like this first line of dialogue?
How can I apply what I like to my own work?
Where did I feel an emotion while I read?
What in the writing made me feel an emotion?
Which technique did the author use to make me feel that emotion?
Did I like feeling that emotion, or did I feel manipulated?
Did I learn something about eliciting emotion in a reader?
How can I apply that to my novel?
Did the book elicit wonder?
Was there something that made me marvel?
What metaphors did the author use?
Is there romance, sex scenes?
How did the author approach emotional love?
How did the author approach physical love?
Did it develop the characters’ personalities?
Did it further the plot?
How did the chapters end?
Were there cliffhangers?
Was there a variety of chapter endings?
Are there examples of the “already, but not-yet” technique?
Do any chapters end on character change?
How does the book end?
Is the ending satisfying?
Was there a surprise or twist?
Was there a second ending?
Do any characters die?
How did they die?
Was it foreshadowed?
Did I care?
How was the pacing?
What moments did the author speed up to good effect?
What moments did the author slow down to good effect?
How to Write a Damn Good Novel says every good novel needs a clear premise. It inspired these questions:
What is the novels premise?
Has the author proved the premise?
How is the premise made clear to the reader?
What is the main character’s premise?
Do I relate to the character? How?
Was the character likeable? Why?
How do the main characters grow from pole to pole?
Is there rising conflict? Is it ever static, or does it jump?
Does the story begin at the correct place?
Do the events of the story grow out of one another?
Is there poetic justice or irony?
What is the narrative voice?
Would it have been better if told from another viewpoint?
Does each scene have a rising conflict?
Were flashbacks used? Were they absolutely necessary?
Is there foreshadowing? How is it used?
Is the dialogue in conflict? Does it further characterizations? Does it further the story? Is it fresh and colorful?
Is the writing sensual? What are my favorite sensory descriptions? Is there a good balance of all the senses?
Is there humor? Did the author ever make me laugh?
What types of specific, concrete details stood out (or didn’t) to make the story more realistic?
Plot versus Character says characters are layered like an onion. It inspired these questions:
What is the main character’s core temperament?
How does the reader know that?
What is the main character’s character arc?
What is important in the character’s backstory? How does the reader know that?
How do others perceive the main character? How is that presented to the reader?
How does the main character speak and move that is unique?
What are the main character’s assets?
What are the main character’s faults/flaws?
What is the ordinary world? How is it presented?
What is the inciting incident? When, where in the book does it occur?
I’m sure there are many more questions this book can inspire, but I want to get started, and my list is getting very long.
Time to Experiment
Now that I have gathered an overwhelming amount of questions and read a novel, I’ll dive back into the novel and see if these questions help me learn from what I read. It may be that only a few of these questions are useful to me, but I won’t know until I try. I’ll attempt to organize the questions for useful study, and create an efficient method as I learn. Expect a post later this week (Thursday) with my first results.
Do you have a technique for reading as a writer? I would love to hear about it in the comments.