How to Read Novels Like a Novelist (RNLN): How a Craft Book Can Influence Reading a Novel

RNLN by Maria L. Berg 2023

The concept of this series of posts is to stop reading craft books, learning from other writers’ chosen examples, and learn from novels, choosing my own examples. However, I had one craft book from the library that I hadn’t finished, Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, and Screen by Robert McKee. It’s very good, and I noticed examples of some of the things I read in the book while I read this week’s novel, Unspeakable Things by Jess Lourey, as a novelist.

Choosing the Novels

Though I have lists of books and somewhat of a plan for an order of what I would like to read and study, I am already learning the importance of being flexible. One of the main issues for my reading list is availability. My hold on Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng became available so A Widow for One Year by John Irving is getting pushed back another week.

I signed up for the second section of the Wesleyan University course “The Modern and The Post Modern” on The novel for the that section is To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. I don’t think I’ve read it, so I’m excited to get to that one after Irving.

Reading Novels Like a Novelist (RNLN)

So this week I’ll be focusing on what I’m learning from Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, and Screen by Robert McKee. It covers a lot more than spoken dialogue. He explores dialogue as three modes of talk: said to others, said to oneself, and said to the reader or audience. He says the three functions of dialogue are Exposition, Characterization, and Action. As you can see, his study of dialogue covers all the aspects of a novel.

Though the book covers more that just dialogue in the traditional sense of quoted speech between characters, I thought I would also focus in on the questions from my original list that have to do with dialogue:

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?
Do I like this first line of dialogue?
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?
How can I apply what I like to my own work?

Is the dialogue in conflict?
Does it further characterizations?
Does it further the story?
Is it fresh and colorful?

Through this exploration, I will hopefully have a whole new list of questions inspired by McKee’s book.

The way Dialogue influenced my RNLN got me wondering if other craft books will influence my reading as well. One of my main goals for this project is to learn how to evoke emotion in the reader, so I think I’ll re-read my copy of The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass while I read Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng to see if the craft book helps me focus on finding useful examples in the text that will help me improve my writing.

Learning to Evoke Emotion by Maria L. Berg 2023

It’s All Coming Together

I keep talking about enjoying the synergy of my studies, but this week’s serendipity was pretty funny. Last week I mentioned the fun fact that Henry Mancini wrote the theme song for Remington Steele which I’ve been enjoying on Amazon Prime Video. I didn’t realize when I chose Unspeakable Things for RNLN that it was set in the eighties and went a little nuts with the pop culture references mentioning Remington Steele many times. 😄

Reading Novels Like a Novelist Attempt 4: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

The Synthesis of Pretty and a Mania for Prawns by Maria L. Berg 2023

Procedural Tips

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert was available as a free e-book on Project Gutenberg, so it is the first book in this series that I read on Kindle on my laptop.

After years of reading on kindle, I finally looked at all of its great note-taking features and went through them on Monday’s focus post. While reading this novel as a novelist I used the bookmarks to mark plot points, and the four highlighting colors I assigned:

pink – POV
orange – contradictory abstractions
yellow – dialogue
blue – character introduction and description

Though stylistic expectations have changed in the time since Madame Bovary’s publication—people aren’t patient with pages of setting description for example—there is still a lot to be learned.

Things I Learned

One thing I learned is that I’ve reached a time in my life when re-reading a book I read in college is the same as reading it for the first time. Whatever memory I had of Madame Bovary was thrown in the trash long ago to make room for the new. It may be time to re-read other things that I read a long time ago.

First, a little overview: Madame Bovary was originally serialized in Revue de Paris in 1856. The French government charged both Flaubert and the publisher with immorality but they were acquitted. Though the novel was considered immoral and scandalous, it was also considered the first example of realism in literature.

The novel begins with Charles Bovary as the main character, a non-remarkable, even simple young man whose mother has designs for him to have a better life. But the real main character is Emma, his second wife after his first undesirable wife suddenly dies. Emma is a romantic who is never satisfied with her life. She wants everything to be exciting and passionate, and Charles’s love and adoration is never enough. She thus takes a lover and when that goes badly, she takes another. Needless to say, that goes poorly as well, and she brings ruin to her family.

Plotting: Though Madame Bovary was written in the mid-1800s, it follows the same patterns of rising action of a contemporary novel. I found it fascinating that just marking the midpoint and quarter and three-quarter points of the novel from the location numbers got me to the main plot points. So I divided them again to see what came up. At each of these locations I found another important plot point: Charles’s marriage to Emma, the birth of their daughter coinciding with mentions of her impropriety around other men, her illness after Rodolphe drops her leading to the beginning of their financial ruin, the moment the bills are called in and Emma has officially brought ruin on her family. All of these scenes come every 520 locations on my kindle. Though the text seems to ramble on, it has a concisely mapped plot.

Omniscient POV: Omniscient, god-like point of view, in which the author can get in and out of each character’s thoughts at will, was much more popular in Flaubert’s time. Unlike the annoying, and out of place head-hopping in Louise Penny’s The Madness of Crowds, the change of POV didn’t take me out of the story. And being able to know the different character’s thoughts let the reader in on important secrets that the main character is not in on. This was used in one of the best parts of the book in my opinion. At the very beginning of Emma’s first affair the reader is told her lover’s intentions to drop her:

Poor little woman! She is gaping after love like a carp after water on a kitchen-table. With three words of gallantry she’d adore one, I’m sure of it. She’d be tender, charming. Yes; but how to get rid of her afterwards?”

You would think that this would make the whole love affair pointless to the reader, the only conflict being Emma’s broken heart and whether or not Charles finds out and how he reacts, but somehow Flaubert convinces the reader that Rodolphe may have had a change of heart right up to the moment Emma is prepared to run away with him. The reader knows he’s a cad, that he doesn’t care for anyone but himself, and yet he draws out the affair for so long, that the reader has time to imagine that change of heart.

Fantasy vs. Reality: Another way that Flaubert uses this omniscient point of view is to jump into character’s fantasies and compare them with reality. He uses future tense to show the reader the character’s desires:

“Léon with solemn steps walked along by the walls. Life had never seemed so good to him. She would come directly, charming, agitated, looking back at the glances that followed her, and with her flounced dress, her gold eyeglass, her thin shoes, with all sorts of elegant trifles that he had never enjoyed, and with the ineffable seduction of yielding virtue. The church like a huge boudoir spread around her; the arches bent down to gather in the shade the confession of her love; the windows shone resplendent to illumine her face, and the censers would burn that she might appear like an angel amid the fumes of the sweet-smelling odours.

But she did not come.”

Flaubert uses “would” to slip into Leon’s imagination; to show the reader his hoped for future event. Then slips back into past tense to show reality again with the opening line of the next paragraph, “But she did not come.”

Description: Though Flaubert goes on about what people are wearing, and the description of the town where Charles Bovary sets up his medical practice goes on for about eight pages, there is plenty to be learned from his descriptions. One of my favorites is from inside Rodolphe’s head when thinking about his mistress:

Then the difficulties of love-making seen in the distance made him by contrast think of his mistress. She was an actress at Rouen, whom he kept; and when he had pondered over this image, with which, even in remembrance, he was satiated— “Ah! Madame Bovary,” he thought, “is much prettier, especially fresher. Virginie is decidedly beginning to grow fat. She is so finiky about her pleasures; and, besides, she has a mania for prawns.”

I’m not sure why I love that so much, but contrasting beauty with a mania for prawns makes me smile.

Another thing I noticed about Flaubert’s descriptions is he is very detailed about his physical descriptions, but also includes actions within those descriptions. Like when we first meet Charles as a boy:

“. . . standing in the corner behind the door so that he could hardly be seen, was a country lad of about fifteen, and taller than any of us. His hair was cut square on his forehead like a village chorister’s; he looked reliable, but very ill at ease. Although he was not broad-shouldered, his short school jacket of green cloth with black buttons must have been tight about the arm-holes, and showed at the opening of the cuffs red wrists accustomed to being bare. His legs, in blue stockings, looked out from beneath yellow trousers, drawn tight by braces, He wore stout, ill-cleaned, hob-nailed boots.”

In this example where and how he stands as well as his clothing is used to show that he doesn’t belong.

And when we are first introduced to Emma:

“Mademoiselle Emma tried to sew some pads. As she was a long time before she found her work-case, her father grew impatient; she did not answer, but as she sewed she pricked her fingers, which she then put to her mouth to suck them. Charles was surprised at the whiteness of her nails. They were shiny, delicate at the tips, more polished than the ivory of Dieppe, and almond-shaped. Yet her hand was not beautiful, perhaps not white enough, and a little hard at the knuckles; besides, it was too long, with no soft inflections in the outlines. Her real beauty was in her eyes. Although brown, they seemed black because of the lashes, and her look came at you frankly, with a candid boldness.”

She is introduced in a domestic activity that she’s not good at. The first physical descriptions are of her hands, and it is said they are not beautiful, but then are used in contrast with her eyes. These contrasts and comparisons are what make Flaubert’s descriptions so interesting. They are saying much more than what is physically on the page.

Romance and Sex:

I can’t talk about Madame Bovary without talking about romance and sex. Unlike last week’s very cliched romance that as part of the meta-novel was only reiterating the stated fact that all novels are a romance, Madame Bovary is an anti-romance. The premise of the novel is that romantic notions lead to disillusionment and ruin.

Emma is a despicable character from start to finish because nothing is never good enough, and she feels so put upon by everyone and everything because she can never  be satisfied. The novel expresses again and again how love wanes and romance is foolish. So lets take a look at the questions about romance and sex in Madame Bovary:

How did the author approach emotional love? Flaubert mocked emotional love throughout the book. Charles loved and trusted Emma. He adored her, thought they had the perfect marriage. He never imagined the truth. None of the relationships show actual love. There is doting, there are families, and marriages, but everyone is selfish and conniving.

How did the author approach physical love? Desperate, stolen moments. One of the best scenes, the carriage ride, doesn’t mention it at all:

“And the lumbering machine set out. It went down the Rue Grand-Pont, crossed the Place des Arts, the Quai Napoleon, the Pont Neuf, and stopped short before the statue of Pierre Corneille. “Go on,” cried a voice that came from within. The cab went on again, and as soon as it reached the Carrefour Lafayette, set off down-hill, and entered the station at a gallop. “No, straight on!” cried the same voice. . . .From time to time the coachman, on his box cast despairing eyes at the public-houses. He could not understand what furious desire for locomotion urged these individuals never to wish to stop. He tried to now and then, and at once exclamations of anger burst forth behind him. . . .And on the harbour, in the midst of the drays and casks, and in the streets, at the corners, the good folk opened large wonder-stricken eyes at this sight, so extraordinary in the provinces, a cab with blinds drawn, and which appeared thus constantly shut more closely than a tomb, and tossing about like a vessel. . . .a bared hand passed beneath the small blinds of yellow canvas, and threw out some scraps of paper that scattered in the wind, and farther off lighted like white butterflies on a field of red clover all in bloom. At about six o’clock the carriage stopped in a back street of the Beauvoisine Quarter, and a woman got out, who walked with her veil down, and without turning her head.”

And there you have it, the scandalous sex act as described by Flaubert. Talk about letting the reader imagine what isn’t said, what is purposefully left out and only hinted at. He was definitely a master of leading the reader to conclusions.

Did it develop the characters’ personalities? Yes. Emma couldn’t be satisfied with anyone, but her romantic notions continued, always believing there was something more out there. This made even the men who cared for her lose interest over time.

Did it further the plot? Absolutely. Emma’s appetites made her spend way beyond her means which eventually led to her complete ruin and that of her husband and child. Her inability to think of anything but her own excitement made everyone unhappy, especially herself.

The Said in the Not Said by Maria L. Berg 2023

Applying What I Learned

Using Kindle for Developmental Edits: I must admit I’m excited about the nuts and bolts aspects of what I learned this week more than anything else. I mean Flaubert did some amazing writing and is still influential for a reason, but I just put my novel draft into Kindle, and wow what a great tool for draft review.

When you open Kindle and click on File you’ll find the option “Import a local PDF.” So you don’t have to upload your manuscript to amazon or anything, you can just save it as a PDF. Once it’s imported into Kindle, you can use all of the different tools I talked about for reading novels like a novelist for your own draft.

The first thing I did was bookmark my midpoint and quarter and three-quarter points, then the half-way points between each of those. I can already see that my major plot points aren’t where they need to be, and I need to work on intensifying my conflict and action. I mean, just like that, using the go to page functions and bookmarks, I’ve already clued into issues with my draft.

I can use the highlight function for highlighting errors still in the draft that I can quickly change. And best of all I can use the search function to look at each of my characters in turn by typing their names into search one at a time. This really is exciting for this early stage of developmental editing.

POV: Though I won’t be using omniscient POV, my novel is in close third-person, I can still try to find a place in the story where the reader is aware of something the main character isn’t. How can I do that? Perhaps she observes something but interprets it incorrectly giving the reader the possibility to see the truth before she does. How else can I get information to the reader that my main character isn’t aware of? Sometimes chapters start with a more omniscient narration and then zoom back into close-third, my narrator could tell the reader something that my main-character doesn’t know during one of these more zoomed out moments. Or I could use blatant foreshadowing, though I liked the subtle foreshadowing used in The Manual of Detection. Maybe I can use that technique to direct the reader toward information my main character is unaware of.

Fantasy vs. Reality: I can use this technique to show what my main character hopes for and then make her face reality. This could work well to show how she keeps going when everything is going wrong. It could also show how obsessed she is with the unsolved case, that she harbors some fantasy of vindication that will happen when she solves it. Or maybe there’s a different more warped fantasy of her dead friend finally being at peace or something. I’ll use the technique as a writing exercise and see what comes up.

Description: One of my favorite bits of description in the whole novel was the “mania for prawns.” It’s just so good as the contradiction to “pretty.” How can I describe people in comparison to others in such a fun and graphic way? It says so much about the character making the comparison as well. Of course, since I’m not writing in omniscient POV or even multiple POVs, it would be my main character making the comparisons, so what does she find ugly? What to her is the equivalent of “a mania for prawns?” I’m excited to play with that idea for all of my characters. A couple of my characters would say those kinds of things out loud. Knowing what disgusts them about other people can make for good dialogue as well as character development.

Romance: The thing I learned from Flaubert that I can apply to my novel is to let the reader read between the lines. The carriage ride is a great example of describing one part of the action while letting the reader imagine what else is going on that they aren’t seeing. What is going on behind closed doors? A character could overhear something and jump to the wrong conclusions; or overhear something and jump to the right conclusions; a character could see something like the hand coming out from behind the curtains and think the person is someone other than it is. There are so many things that can be happening behind a curtain.

Next Steps

I’m excited to say this is working. I never expected that reading an e-book as a novelist, Madame Bovary of all things, would open up such a world of discovery for both my physical process and writing techniques. I’m excited to see what my new Kindle note-taking skills will uncover in a contemporary thriller. The next novel I’ll be discussing is Unspeakable Things by Jess Lourey. I’m excited to study it because its description says it was inspired by true events from the author’s hometown. And though my novel is very loosely inspired by actual events, I’m hoping that Lourey’s novel might be a good comparison (comp) for my own.

How to Read Novels Like a Novelist (RNLN): Kindle Edition

Reading a Novel in Kindle

Last week I “won” my first physical book (other than a coloring book) from Library Thing. Won is in quotes because it is actually an exchange for my volunteer labor of reviewing the book, but they call it winning. The coming book that will arrive in my mailbox is a poetry collection which I’ll need to read carefully for review, so I thought it would be the perfect specimen for a new segment of this experiment: Reading Poetry Like a Poet. Then I thought what I’ve been doing is more specific than Reading Like a Writer. In Bunn’s essay “How to Read Like a Writer”, he was talking about reading non-fiction more than fiction. No, what I’m doing is Reading Novels like a Novelist. So for the sake of specificity, I’ve decided to change the names of these posts going forward, and thus the new acronym will be RNLN which I found out stands for the Dutch Royal Navy, but I don’t think that will cause confusion.

Choosing the Novels

After playing with all the great note-taking features in Kindle, I thought of all the Thrillers I’ve collected through the Amazon Prime First Readers program that I haven’t read because I have trouble staying engaged with e-books.  I thought that reading like a novelist might change that, so instead of moving on to taking notes in an old paperback, I’m going to stick with Kindle for another week.

To pick which one to read, I decided to take my own advice and choose one that may help me in the future by looking at each one for hints that it could be a possible comp (comparison to my novel) and for possible agents that I might want to query.

I chose Unspeakable Things by Jess Lourey because it’s description says it was inspired by a true story from the author’s home town, and takes place in a small community. So it could be a comp. Her agent is Jill Marsal who is the founding partner of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency and represents many bestselling authors. Her webpage says she is actively looking for new projects.

Reading Novels Like a Novelist with Kindle

For some reason I couldn’t get the Project Gutenberg .mobi file to load onto my tablet, so I used Kindle on my laptop to read it. It turned out to be a good thing because using the horizontal format, I could have the notebook feature open at the same time as the text, and search, and also see the function of the flashcards. All fun, simple, and useful tools.

You may already know all of this, but it is new to me, and part of my new processes of reading novels like a novelist, so I thought I would share. Skip ahead, or skim if you already take notes with Kindle.

Above the Library button, if you click on “View,” there are some options. The first thing I tried, near the bottom of the list, was  Color Mode. There you have the option changing the regular reading mode from a white page to a Sepia, or more aged, pinkish hue, or to a black page with white lettering. I stuck with black type on the white page.

Let’s go through the note-taking options I found reading in kindle:

  • bookmarks
  • Go: location ctrl+g
  • search
  • highlighting
  • color-coding
  • notes
  • notebook
  • flashcards

bookmarks: the bookmark  is the small ribbon with a plus-sign in the right corner. To bookmark a page, click on it. I always thought this was just to hold my place when I closed the application, but reading as a novelist it proves to have other useful functions. Under “View” above Color Mode you’ll see “Bookmarks.” When you click on it, it opens the notebook and shows you all of the pages you’ve bookmarked with their location. This gave me an idea: use the bookmarks to mark the expected locations of main plot-points. Madame Bovary has 6161 locations (it’s one of those files that doesn’t show page numbers, but I checked with a different book, and this works for pages as well), so I cut that in half and book-marked it, then cut it in half again to get my quarter, and three-quarter points, and book-marked those. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but they lined up with major plot points of the novel: The big party, the clubbed-foot surgery, and leaving the church for the carriage ride.

Go: location ctrl+g: Next to “View” at the top left of the page is “Go.” And the last thing in that menu is Location. You can quickly open the location window by pressing control and the letter g at the same time. Once there, you can quickly get to any location in the book which comes in handy when you want to review your notes, or go to the different locations that you find when using search.

search: This wonderful function that is accessed by clicking the magnifying glass on the left of the page. You can type in any word or phrase and every instance in the text is listed with its location. Since the abstractions I’m looking at are beauty and ugliness, I searched for them. Searching for beauty in the novel Madame Bovary got me thirty-eight matches to beauty and beautiful. Typing in ugly came back with four matches to ugly and ugliness.

highlighting: highlighting in Kindle is simple, hold the button on the mouse and scroll over the text. Once you have selected the text, a menu appears, giving you four colors to choose from, an option to Add a Note, Copy, look it up in the Dictionary, or Search. If you decide you don’t want to highlight the text after all, click on the white part of the page. If you have highlighted text and want to remove the highlight, click anywhere in the highlighted text and click on the colored circle with the X in it.

color coding: as I mentioned, there are only four colors to choose from: pink, orange, yellow, and blue. Before starting, it’s a good idea to have a plan, because an organized color-code can help with other features. Remember, you can use bookmarks for plot points, so that offers a fifth option.

notes: It’s a good idea to leave yourself a quick note as you go. Click anywhere in your highlighted text and click Add Note. Then type in the box and click save. If the notebook is open, you can type a note under the text in the notebook.

notebook: In the right top corner of the page next to the bookmark symbol is a rectangle that says “Show Notebook.” On the right hand side will now be a list of everything you’ve highlighted organized by chapter and location. At the top of the notebook under the words “Notes and Highlights” it says “Filter by,” if you click on the arrow after All Items, there are options to look at your Bookmarks, your notes, and sort your highlights by color. There are little stars on each highlight, so you can choose certain ones and then sort by Starred. And if you’re connected to the internet, you can look at what most people have highlighted and compare that with your own. You can add notes to each of your highlighted texts if you haven’t already.

flashcards: Next to the words “Notes and Highlights” in the Notebook there’s a rectangle that says “+Flashcards.” This is a fun feature that will take anything you have filtered in your notebook into flashcards: a really great tool for studying for an exam. There’s a symbol of overlapping rectangles under the magnifying glass on the left hand side of the page that brings up your flashcards and will show them to you so you can quiz yourself and mark what you got right and wrong. I’m not quite sure how I want to use this function for reading novels like a novelist, but it’s something to think about. Do you have any ideas for how to use the flashcard function to be a better novelist?

I think you can probably see why I want to read and study another novel on my kindle next week to explore all of the interesting tools and how best to use them.

Reading Like a Novelist in Kindle

It’s All Coming Together

The draft for my novel that I wrote during NaNoWriMo last November came from the idea of incorporating my study of contradictory abstract nouns into my characters. I really like the idea that the big conflicts in life come from the fact that abstractions that all of us think we understand like love, beauty, happiness, wisdom, and truth, are actually undefinable, and defined differently by everyone, and always changing.

My study into contradictory abstractions is helping me see the big picture in a new way. I can see how my interests in music, art, science, history, and philosophy overlap.

By reading Madame Bovary for my modernist class, and as a novelist, I can see that overlap plainly. Like meeting someone you’ve never seen before, then seeing them all over town, the moment I finished the class lectures on Madame Bovary, the novel started coming up all over my other reading.

In ABC of Reading by Ezra Pound he says, “An attempt to set down things as they are, to find the word that corresponds to the thing, the statement that portrays, and presents, instead of making a comment, however brilliant, or an epigram.
Flaubert is the archetype.”

Later he says, “If you want to study the novel, go, READ the best you can find. All that I know about it, I have learned by reading:” and in his short list he includes Madame Bovary, though I believe he intends for us to read it in French.

I was excited to find a book called Painterly Abstraction In Modernist American Poetry by Charles Altieri in my library system, but was having trouble getting into it. But after reading Madame Bovary I found it referenced in the fourth chapter called “Modernist Irony and the Kantian Heritage. The second section of the chapter is all about Flaubert and Madame Bovary. He states,”No work surpasses Madame Bovary at defining the demands that eventually led European art to Modernism. Dramatically, Flaubert’s novel affords a keen critical analysis of the conditions that trap desire in the law of heteronomy.” (heteronomy: noun 1. the condition of being under the domination of an outside authority, either human or divine.) Altieri later writes, “An adequate account of the text must indicate the lines of force established by at least three fundamental factors of the writing: its complex rendering of persons, of scenes, and of the emotions they elicit in the audience; its foregrounding of the authorial act as itself a mode of eliciting and playing out desires; and its constant reminders of the artificiality or constructedness of what nonetheless capable of shaping emotions that carry over into the world beyond the specific text.

It’s this idea of art for art’s sake that was discussed in class, and also connects Modernism to Abstract Art. So I’ll talk more about that tomorrow.

Reading Like a Writer Attempt 3: The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill

RLW VI by Maria L. Berg 2023

Procedural Tips

Since The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill was so different than the others I’ve looked at so far, I had to come up with another color code for my post-its and notes. I marked the beginning of each of the letters with orange, thinking that on second read it would be useful to read through all the letters together.

I used yellow for plot points, and based on page count, I marked the midpoint, quarter, and three-quarters, and the midpoints of those, to mark the possible places for important plot points.

This meta-novel had authors talking shop, so I chose neon-pink for craft talk.
I used blue for character, and green for setting.
And I marked the romance scenes in light pink.

Things I Learned

With this book, what started out as a fun and unique format for a mystery novel turned out to take away from what was a fine mystery with fun characters and good twists. I learned that a clever idea with great potential can end up taking away from the story instead of adding.

First, a little overview:

The novel starts with a letter from an author named Leo who lives in Boston to an author named Hannah who lives in Australia. The reader only sees the letters Leo writes to Hannah, but it appears that it is a correspondence relationship that has been going on for years. After the letter, is the first chapter of Hannah’s novel. The novel is about a writer from Australia who gets a writing fellowship to Boston and is just starting a crime thriller / mystery when she, and the people sitting near her in the library hear a scream. Curiosity over the scream binds them together and inspires her novel.  The format of the book continues with a letter at the end of each chapter commenting on the one just read.

I really liked the concept and was really enjoying it until the letters started talking about the pandemic. I wasn’t expecting to read a second pandemic novel in a row. I though it was handled well in The Madness of Crowds, but I did not think it was approached well in this novel. The choices made after the pandemic came up in the letters were more and more disappointing, and I ended up feeling like an idea with great potential was squandered.

Shop Talk: Because this was a novel about a novelist writing a novel, among other writers, there was a lot of interesting shop talk and some of it felt like a writer’s workshop. Here are five moments I found interesting:

1. “True. The scream might have been what the crime writers call”—he paused for effect—”a red herring.”
I smile. “Still a heck of a coincidence.”
“They do happen in reality, even if they are a bad plot device.” Cain rises and excuses himself . . .

The first two times I read that, and even as I wrote it down, I thought the author was having a character say that red herrings were a bad plot device. That rubbed me the wrong way. Especially in mysteries and thrillers, red herrings are necessary. However, I now think the comment is meant to say that coincidence is a bad plot device. Clarity of meaning is the lesson here, as much as a discussion of red herrings vs. coincidence.

2. Words are put down in solitude; there is a strange privacy to those disclosures. Time to get used to the revelation before readers are necessarily taken into your confidence.
. . . “It’s part him, part me, part stuff I just made up.”
“The magic formula,” I say.

If there is a magic formula for writing, is that it? Using some truth about another person, some truth about oneself, and making the rest up? Something to think about.

3. ” . . . allowing what is unsaid to carry the narrative, aware that overt emotion could well move the story into melodrama.”

There’s a lot packed in that partial sentence. What does it mean to allow the unsaid to carry the narrative? Is the real story read between the lines? It’s been drummed into me to show the character’s emotions, to never name the emotion and let the reader define how the character is feeling, and yet does it turn the scene into a melodrama if my character is always emoting?

4. “Have you . . . have you always written romance?”
“Yes, and what’s more, so have you . . .everybody but the people who write instruction manuals is writing romance. We dress our stories up with murders, and discussions about morality and society, but really we just care about relationships.”

I love this point. And the romance in this book is so cliché and formulaic, and yet works so well with the plot that it’s inseparable. The attempt at a love triangle or at least a second love interest is poorly timed and doesn’t work (in my opinion) and turns the nice other option into a bit of a stalker figure, I guess, but a nice stalker? Anyway, The shop talk about every story being a romance is one of the highlights of this novel.

5. “Would my book, my words be different if I was a murderer, for example?” Cain asks carefully.
I think about it for a moment, “Words have meaning. I suppose who he author is, what he’s done might change that meaning.”
“Isn’t meaning more to do with the reader?”
“No . . . a story is about leading a reader to meaning. The revelation is theirs but we show them the way. I suppose the morality of the writer influences whether you can trust what they are showing you.”

Leading a reader to meaning to me is more about the premise of the story than the author’s connection, but it makes sense that if a novel has led the reader to a realization through the proof of its premise and then the reader finds out something horrible about that author, the premise and journey could lose merit, and the reader could feel betrayed, especially if the author’s actions in real life are hypocritical/antithetical to the premise. In other words, the premise of the novel should be something I can live up to. Not some idealistic impossibility that my own actions prove false.

That’s really helpful at this stage in my writing. I need to pinpoint the novel’s premise and make sure I prove it by the end. I’ll brainstorm every premise I can imagine until I find the one this novel is truly about. Then I’ll do the same for each of my five contradictory abstraction characters. And while I do that, I’ll make sure that I’m not telling people to be something I’m not, or change in some way that I wouldn’t, or do something hypocritical to how I am. And yet, isn’t that what readers buy? Complete hypocrisy? Scandal, lies, extreme behaviors? Wasn’t Poetry selling magazines? Like magazines do? Also something to think about.

Romance and Sex:

How did the author approach emotional love? A connection through a shocking or memorable (traumatic: though in this case only curious at first) event.  In relation to herself: he is also a published author. Then through play: a game of looking at places and imagining what happened there. Talking shop, then confession which leads to trust, belief in an undeniable truth.
How did the author approach physical love? First, visual and cliché: She sees him and tags him as “Handsome Man.” Holding hands, dates, kissing, the act of  “making love.”
Did it develop the characters’ personalities? The main character is annoyingly three characters: the author, the author in the novel, and the main character of the novel, so whose to say? She appears very manipulated into believing everyone’s the good guy even when they are confessed murderers.
Did it further the plot? Absolutely. The main character was already all mushy-gushy by the time she had to make the hard choices. And when some major truth-bombs explode in her lap, she’s helpless because she’s hooked.

I like how the questions made me look at the emotional and physical aspects separately. That was a good exercise.

RLW VII by Maria L. Berg 2023

Applying What I Learned

This week I did what I said I would, and formatted my novel draft and started reading it and . . . found a bunch of pages missing, and freaked out. Then I convinced myself that was okay, that I could keep reading and fill in the blanks better than before. Then I found the missing pages (whew), and I’m enjoying my draft. I mean, I actually enjoyed reading the opening scene, and can see how to improve it. So this week the things I’ve learned from RLW will be about brainstorming for my big picture edits and not specific examples of changes to the writing.

Format Brainstorm:

My MC is a jogger: I could use her running route, her fit-bit-type tracker, her running soundtrack, or zombie-run-type motivator
She was a detective: I could use her old cases and how she solved each one uniquely and have each unique connection have something to do with each chapter
She is obsessed with random killings: I could use examples from historic apparently random killings
She’s obsessed with an unsolved murder: I could use old local unsolved cases

The original unsolved case has to do with Magic the Gathering, so I made up my own card game. I could have each chapter start with one of the cards. I could tell the story on cards like the author of The Manual of Detection, Jedediah Berry, did with The Family Arcana, I could have each chapter start with the rules of gameplay. I could have each chapter start with emails between the game company and Celia about her Master Deck art, or it could be fans sending email to Celia about her cards.

Like The Manual of Detection and The Madness of Crowds, I could find or create a non-fiction book that is part of the novel.

red herring vs. coincidence: One thing I thought the author did well was surprise the reader by having a person who was asked about one character dish out some dirt on another character. My novel takes place in a small town, so this might be a useful tool for disseminating information without relying on coincidences.

The magic formula: While writing my draft, I was inspired by an old unsolved double homicide, but I didn’t look very closely at the actual facts of the case and after the initial spark of inspiration, made up all the details. I don’t think I want to use any of the real details from that case, but during my format brainstorm, I thought doing some local historical research might add to my story. Research into old-west bank robberies might turn up some interesting characters for the “part him” part of the formula.

leading readers to meaning, showing them the way: As I read through my draft, I need to make sure I’ve defined my premise and proved it by the end of the book. At the moment, I think it’s We only See What We Want to See, or We Can Never Really Know Another Person, but before I start my re-write, I want to know exactly what my premise is and have a clear map to prove it step by step through the story.

romance: If Leo (in The Woman in the Library) is right, and every novel is a romance, then my MC might need a love interest. At the moment, she doesn’t seem open to the possibility, but that’s how love is, isn’t it? Shows up when you least expect it.

I Hope You’ll Join Me

This week I’m reading Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert and will be sharing what I learn next week. What are you reading? How do you approach reading like a writer? What are you trying to learn as you read? I look forward to hearing about it in the comments.

How to Read Like a Writer (RLW): A Novel Can Take Many Forms

Reading Like a Writer IV by Maria L. Berg 2023

I did it! I put together all my 4theWords files from NaNoWriMo into one file, formatted it into one double-spaced draft and did a preliminary spell-check to make my novel draft readable. Then I saved it as a PDF so I’m ready for my first read through on my tablet. So, my focus this week is the big picture, the large developmental edits. As I read as a writer this week, I’ll be thinking about all the possibilities for the best way to tell my story, and The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill turned out to be a great book to study as an example.

Choosing the Novels

Now that I’ve read the three novels I had from the library, I had to decide what’s next. One part of learning to read like a writer, is to learn how I want to process different formats. This week for my course, “The Modern and Postmodern,” we’re reading Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert. I’ve downloaded it from Project Gutenberg for kindle, so this will be my first experiment taking notes with kindle. If that doesn’t work for me, I can download it as a PDF and try it with a PDF editing program.

Next week I’m going to read A Widow for One Year by John Irving. I’ve had the paperback for a long time but never gotten past the first chapter or two. The paperback isn’t in any condition to pass along to another reader, so I’m going to see how highlighting and writing notes in the book itself compares to using the post-its.

While looking at my book lists I saw that The Hours by Michael Cunningham is about another book on my lists Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, so it’ll be fun to read them in tandem.

There are so many things to think about while considering a book list for RLW. (I’m trying to get used to using the abbreviation. It’s going to take a while).

Reading Like a Writer

The novel I read, and will be studying this week, is the The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill. It is a meta-novel about writers discussing writing their novels within a novel. It is also partly an epistolary novel using the letters from a correspondence with another author reading and responding to the chapters as they are written.

It reminded me a bit of The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood which has a novel within the novel as well as newspaper reports.

This got me thinking about different elements that can be used in a novel. Last week’s novel, The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny, used lines from a poem written by one of the characters in different ways throughout the novel.

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski tells a second story using footnotes and adds to the story with the graphic presentation of the text. Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix is a novel made to look like an IKEA furniture catalogue.

I did a quick search for “unique novel formats” and found S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. S. It’s a book about two readers checking out a book called Ship of Theseus from the library. The description says it comes with 22 inserts. I just requested it from the library. I wonder how they deal with all the parts. Should be interesting.

Illuminae files by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff is is a teen sci-fi trilogy told through “hacked documents”: emails, maps, medical reports, interviews.

Can you think of any other novels in unique forms that really added to the telling of the story?

Reading Like a Writer V by Maria L. Berg 2023

The Questions for this week:

My main focus is structure, so I think I’ll focus on the questions inspired by How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey:

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?

And some inspired by Plot versus Character by Jeff Gerke:

What is the ordinary world? How is it presented?
What is the inciting incident? When, where in the book does it occur?
What is the MC’s knot (problem)?
What will force her to face it, finally take action to unravel it?
What is her old way? What is her new way?
What decision does the MC have to make at the moment of truth?
What is the cost? What is the gain?
What are the steps of the escalation: the ever larger bombs?
When is the villain introduced?
What is the first conflict/barrier the villain causes for the MC?
What is the main conflict? Man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. self, man vs. tech, man vs. society, or man vs. the supernatural / fate?
What are the essential scenes for the genre?
What is the plot structure?
Map the main scenes

This is the first novel since I started this study that had any romance and sex in it, so I can look at those questions from the original list:

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?

Time to Experiment

I’ve narrowed my questions to plot and structure. That doesn’t mean I won’t also learn about characterization, pacing, and emotion, but I want my reading to help me learn the things I need for my novel revision as I do the work.

Do you have a technique for reading like a writer? I would love to hear about it in the comments.

Reading Like a Writer Attempt 2: The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny

A Madness of Pines by Maria L. Berg 2023

Procedural Tips

This week I focused on marking while reading the first time. This focused my intention on reading like a writer, and I could tell I read differently. One quick and easy thing I can do is look at the page count divide that by two and mark the mid-point. Then divide that in half and mark the quarter point and the three-quarter point. I’ve now roughly marked where to look for the Act changes. I can divide in half again to find the “pinch points” or other expected points of rising action.

This quick exercise before I even start reading reminds me to pay attention to plot and structure, and to note what the author did at these key moments in the story.

Things I Learned

Sarah David from Words and Coffee Writing left a nice comment on this week’s RLW (Read Like a Writer) focus post, saying she’s especially interested in beginnings.

For me, the sections about beginnings in The Linchpin Writer by John Matthew Fox, really opened up the importance of the firsts at the beginning: The first paragraph; the first time the reader meets the main character (how the main character is introduced), and the main character’s first line of dialogue. Other firsts to think about are the first setting description, and the first conflict.

While studying the opening pages of The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny, I realized there’s as much to learn from what I don’t like as what I do like.

First, a little overview:

As I mentioned in the focus post, this novel is the seventeenth in a Canadian police procedural series about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache who lives in a small town called Three Pines in Quebec. It was published in 2021. Amazon has recently put out a series called Three Pines starring Alfred Molina as Gamache. The series appears to cover one of Penny’s mysteries every two episodes. Watching the series gave me some perspective on this book.

Quick summary: In the aftermath of the pandemic, a woman who uses statistics to create evidence for a form of euthanasia gives a speech, and due to violence at previous speeches Gamache is asked to provide security for the event to keep the peace. Someone shoots at the speaker during her presentation, and tensions are mounting in Three Pines. (I don’t want to give away any more).

This is the first novel I’ve read that talks about the pandemic. It was interesting to see it from an Eastern Canadian point of view, since I’m here near the west coast and the Canadian border. It’s odd to think about how the whole world had similar experiences and yet every community reacted differently as well.

From watching the Amazon series, I could see that tackling difficult social themes and historical events are part of all of Penny’s books. This novel not only talked about the pandemic, it talked about statistical data manipulation, dangerous and brutal scientific human trials, the difficulties of dealing with a loved one’s things after they die, the horrors of human trafficking, and even the Nobel Peace prize, among other things. That’s one busy little Canadian village.

The Beginning:

This novel starts with a line of dialogue: “”This doesn’t feel right, patron.” Isabelle Lacoste’s voice in his earpiece was anxious, verging on urgent.”

This opening line creates a question for the reader right away. “What doesn’t feel right, and why? It must be something bad if a police woman is “verging on urgent” to her boss.

Together with the title, this opening would make me think the book is about people getting trampled in a crowd at an event. It states the energy/tone as anxious, verging on urgent, and presents mystery: What doesn’t feel right? Why doesn’t it feel right? The characterization is that of a boss and a subordinate by using the word “patron.” It’s a professional relationship but also one in which feelings are shared. The emotional bedrock is trust and safety. Of control and chaos.

How would I rewrite it/improve it? I think I would switch the first two lines, so it starts with the main character instead of the secondary character to orient the reader more clearly: “Chief Inspector Gamache looked out over the roiling crowd, as the noise in the auditorium rose to a din.
“This doesn’t feel right, patron.”Isabelle Lacoste’s voice in his earpiece was anxious, verging on urgent.”

Learning from What I Didn’t Like:

After those first two lines, the author leaves the present moment to talk about how this event couldn’t have happened during the pandemic. I feel like the first two lines were cut and pasted there for in medias res (to start in the middle of things) and then left there dangling. The author’s blatant pacing become more and more apparent even after the three chapters of not letting the reader know why people are so upset by a speech at the beginning. Flashback upon flashback upon flashback. Bad edits like a choppy movie happened more and more throughout the book. It’s a pacing technique meant to keep the reader enthralled, but in this book, I found annoying. The lesson I learned from not liking those scene chops, is don’t put one paragraph from my B story in the middle of a scene from my A story like snipping up film and taping it back together. It annoys the reader to be interrupted for no reason.

Another thing that I didn’t like was the head hopping. For most of the book it feels its written in close third POV from Gamache’s point of view, but then you’ll get different peoples thoughts, feelings, and observations in the same paragraph. “Armand felt the trickle as snow melted down his burning cheeks and the back of his neck. Beside him, Dr. Harris took in the crowd, noting the children, many in animal costumes, asleep on sofas, chairs, and the carpet in front of the fire. It looked like a tableau vivant. Until one woman moved.
Abigail Robinson stepped forward, turning for a brief moment toward the door. Expecting one more person to walk through it. Hoping . . .”

If we weren’t head hopping all over the place, we wouldn’t know what Dr. Harris was “taking in” and we wouldn’t know what Abigail was expecting or hoping. These moments of head hopping took me out of the story, and could easily be remedied by sticking with Armand in the first paragraph, having him take in the scene instead of Dr. Harris. And having Abigail ask about Debbie, or walk outside and yell her name. Of course, that whole sentence doesn’t make sense unless it’s from Gamache’s POV, so it should be re-worded as “Abigail Robinson stepped forward, turning for a brief moment toward the door. Gamache imagined she was expecting one more person to walk through it.” Or something like that. These moments of head-hopping in this novel remind me to be very careful when writing in close third person, to only share the inner thoughts, feeling, and observations from the perspective of the point of view character.

Main Character Introduction:

How is the main character introduced? He is introduced working, connected to his fellow officers through an earpiece communication device, and in the act of observation. But the job he is doing is unusual for him. He has been asked to work the security detail for a speech at a seldom used hall at the university.
How is the main character first described? He is introduced with his title “Chief Inspector” showing that his job is part of his identity. And he is described through action, “looked out over the roiling crowd.”
Is it just eyes and hair? No. This being the seventeenth book, it makes sense that the author has already physically described him plenty of times, so instead of repeating herself, she uses his unusual circumstances to introduce him, but then goes straight into backstory to explain how the event was unusual because in the past couple of years it couldn’t have happened due to the pandemic, and now it is also unusual because it’s almost Christmas and the University is on winter holiday.
What is a single word to describe the main character? Observant
How would I rewrite the description? Maybe his height has something to do with his view. Does he strategize his location based on his body-type? Comfort due to an injury? Or is something he’s wearing important to the job.

First Line of Dialogue:

What is the first line of dialogue? The very first sentence is dialogue of his subordinate heard in his earpiece: “This doesn’t feel right, patron.” But he doesn’t respond right away. His first line is on the next page.
What is the main character’s first line of dialogue? “Is everything under control?”
Did it reveal the main character’s main concern? Yes. It does double duty, talking to their job of keeping the event safe for everyone there. They are hoping to avoid violence that had happened at the last speech this woman gave that they saw online, but it also speaks to the main conflict of the book which is can we keep “everything” under control? Does anyone have the right to control population to “save people from suffering” by killing off the weak before they get sick—Make “necessary” sacrifices to save resources for the “greater good?”
Did it foreshadow what was to come? Yes. It speaks to the general chaos of life, and the problems that arise when people try to control it.
Does it showcase the character’s personality? In a way: he wants order and peace and knows it can change to disorder and chaos in an instance from so many angles, and not where one expects it.
How many words is it? four
Does it have a surface meaning and a deeper one? Yes. The surface meaning is talking to his co-worker about the task at hand. But the deeper meaning is about whether there is ever control, if people are really ever in control.
Does the dialogue reveal character, support the plot, hit the emotional theme, escalate the tension? Yes. It makes the reader aware that the control can and most likely will be lost escalating the tension and supporting the plot, and bringing the meaning of the title into focus as well.
Does the main character have a unique voice/way of speaking? Not in this statement. A bit of a cliche actually. Because the book is set in Quebec the French phrases thrown in made for a unique way of speaking but all of the characters do it, so Gamache’s way of speaking is different than characters outside of East Canada, but I haven’t noticed his unique way of speaking that’s different than the other characters in the book.
Do I like this first line of dialogue? Yes, but I think it should have come before the author left the present situation to flashback and talk about the pandemic.

Gamache’s longevity:

So what is it about Armand Gamache that keeps people coming back for seventeen novels?

He is a family man: He has a loving relationship with his wife. He is a grandfather. He has a lively home life.
He forgives his son-in-law who also works for him when he leaves his post and brings a gun into the auditorium.
And he is wise: can see the problem from both sides. “But before Jean-Guy could speak, Armand said, “I’m sorry. You’re right. Everything in your life now is about Idola and Honoré. I should have known that. Forgive me. I should never have put you in that position. It was wrong of me.”
He listens to people’s concerns in the community.
He takes his responsibilities seriously, and works hard.
He puts himself in harms way to save others, even someone he dislikes.
He supports others in need.
He’s human: gets mad, makes mistakes, is vulnerable.”About to yell at him again, to scream at Gamache to let him go, Jean-Guy looked directly at the Chief. And saw tears in his father-in-law’s eyes.”

Not Three Pines by Maria L. Berg 2023

Applying What I Learned


What did this novel teach me about beginnings? It starts in the action, and raises the dramatic questions right away, but then it holds the answer back for too long. I found it irritating that it goes into backstory right away.
How can I apply it to my own story? I want to start with action and a dramatic question. The story starts with the action of stopping her truck and listening to the end of a song while sitting in the cab. The dramatic question raised is why did she stop? And why does blatant sexism in old trucker songs make her laugh. By adding the objects that she has in her cab, I hope I’ve added enough intrigue into her character and her story to keep the reader going.

What did this novel teach me about character introductions and descriptions? Introduced by their job, something unusual about it, and introduce the character using their strength to do their job.
How can I apply it to my own story? What is Johnell’s strength when it comes to long-haul trucking? Stamina, aware of things in her periphery, spacial awareness, concentration. How can I show these traits in her introduction? In the next paragraph, Johnell gets out of the truck. I wrote “She enjoyed the stretch of it, though it was a bit of a free-fall every time.” I can change that to something like: Because of her above average stamina and concentration, she really stuck to her seat. When she did stop—like now, because her stomach was growling and her mind was on a chocolate loop—she enjoyed the stretch of the extension to the step, though it was a bit of a free-fall every time.

How can I apply what I like about the first line of dialogue to my own work? I can look for the first line of dialogue and see if  it’s short, concise, and has a surface and deeper meaning that speaks to the overall theme. In this story my main character doesn’t have any dialogue until the second page. The first thing she says is, “I was trying to get a candy bar out of the vending machine at Safety rest stop last night—” and her friend interrupts her. I like that she has one thing on her mind, no pleasantries, straight to the problem, but it’s not concise and doesn’t have a deeper meaning or get to the theme of the story. Maybe she comes in hot with “I found something.”Or “I found something hidden.” Ooo, I like that. That gets to the main point of the story, that things don’t stay hidden, and is much more inviting and exciting.

Character Longevity and Likability:

Though I am revising a short story in these examples, and not working on a long-lasting series, I might be able to make my characters more likable using Gamache as an example. I can mention a little more about how hard Johnelle works and how seriously she takes her job. I can emphasize the familial relationship she has with her friend Stookey, and that he’s the only family she has. I already mention that she used to have a problem with cleptomania, but she has gotten help and recovered with Stookey’s help, perhaps at a stressful moment she feels vulnerable and has to stop herself from back-sliding.

What could she do right at the beginning that shows she’s generous and caring? I could have the person in front of her at the vending machine need more money for their snack and she gives it to them. She could take time to help someone who is lost and needs directions. She could ask if she could pet someone’s dog being walked at the rest stop. She could re-unite a crying kid she finds in the bathroom with a mother yelling a girl’s name out by a car. She could stop a pet that has gotten away from an owner and return it. She could see someone leave a ring or a watch by the sink and get it back to them just in time before they drive off. She could just pick up someone’s ball or frisbie and throw it back to them. So many things can go wrong at a rest stop. I just need to choose one thing that shows she’s nice, thoughful, and does the right thing. For this story, I think the idea of giving someone back their watch or ring left at the sink will not only make my character likable, but add to the decision she has to make at the climax of the story.

I Hope You’ll Join Me

This week I’m reading The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill and will be sharing what I learn next week. What are you reading? How do you approach reading like a writer? What are you trying to learn as you read? I look forward to hearing about it in the comments. Next week I will start revising the novel I wrote in November. I hope you’ll join me on the adventure.

How to Read Like a Writer: Narrowing Focus to the Specific Book

Reading Like a Writer II by Maria L. Berg 2023

How was your week? Did you try reading like a writer? I noticed I’m already reading differently.

Choosing the Novels

I thought of another way to choose novels to read and study. When my novel is finished, edited, and polished, I’ll be looking for an agent. Once I find some agents that are looking for manuscripts like mine, it’s a good idea to read the books by authors they represent. Why not start now? My first draft done, I know my genre, and what my book’s about, so I have all the information I need to begin imagining who my dream agent might be. So the next step is to look at their website and see what books they represent.

Not sure how to get started? There are lots of great resources online:

Poets & Writers has a searchable database
Agent Query has a quick search and also has a great online community for authors
Publishers Marketplace tells you which agents have recently made publishing deals
Manuscript Wish List on Twitter is a great place to read from agents what they are looking for.
Writer’s Digest does a series called New Agent Alert

So instead of feeling overwhelmed by a mountain of books to read when my novel is ready, I’ll find books represented by agents who interest me now, while I’m revising, and also make a habit of looking at these great resources for writers.

Reading Like a Writer

Last week, right after I published my post, I found a blog, Professor Nicolosi, teaching Mike Bunn’s essay “How to Read Like a Writer.” There’s a free download of the essay if you’re interested.In the essay, Bunn says “When you Read Like a Writer (RLW) you work to identify some of the choices the author made so that you can better understand how such choices might arise in your own writing.” Something to think about. For every word, or line, or scene in the novel, the author made a final choice from many, many choices. Would I have chosen something else? What might some of the other choices been?

The novel I read, and will be studying this week, is the Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny. It is the seventeenth book in the Inspector Gamache series. The books take place in a small town in Quebec, Canada called three pines. It’s the first book I’ve read that talks about the pandemic and how it effected daily life. Amazon has recently made a series of Louise Penny’s earlier books in the series. Every two episodes is one story. Each of the novels appears to weave tragic historical events into the fictional murder, showing how evils of the past seep into the present. Because the characters and setting have had such longevity as to keep people reading through seventeen novels and make it to the screen, I though I would focus on character and setting as character while studying the novel. My goal is to find how the author makes her characters so compelling that the reader wants to continue to read about them again and again. I’m going to take a look at last week’s questions and see which ones will help me focus my study.

Reading Like a Writer III by Maria L. Berg 2023

The Questions for this week:

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?

*I’m curious to see if the opening of the book makes me care about the characters right away.

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?

*This group of questions is interesting this week. How does the author introduce that main character for the seventeenth time? How does the author present a character already so well known to the reader.

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?

*It looks like all of the questions that were inspired by The Linchpin Writer by John Matthew Fox are just as relevant when focusing on characters in a series. But now I’m going to skip ahead a bit.

Do any characters die?
How did they die?
Was it foreshadowed?
Did I care?

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 the dialogue in conflict? Does it further characterizations? Does it further the story? Is it fresh and colorful?

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?

Time to Experiment

I’ve narrowed my questions to character. That doesn’t mean I won’t also learn about plot, pacing, and emotion, but I want to see if having a specific focus helps me read like a writer.

Do you have a technique for reading like a writer? I would love to hear about it in the comments.

Reading Like a Writer Attempt 1: The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry

Jedediah Berry reading two of his short stories of surreal detectives

Procedural Tips

After reading The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry to the end, I filled out the questions I could by memory.

The first exercise where I hunted for examples from the book was looking at how each chapter ended. I found this a useful exercise and a good way to start reviewing the novel. Then I started at the beginning and read the first chapter aloud. I found reading aloud really helped me get into the writing and see how Mr. Berry was setting up the character and the plot.

I jotted notes on small post-its as I read and after tearing strips from the small yellow squares, I decided I wanted to use different colors, and I didn’t want to waste time tearing anymore. I thought about buying new post-its, but instead I cut small stacks into four strips up to the sticky part. Now when I want to mark a place in the book, I can quickly tear off a strip of the size I want.

My color code at the moment is:
yellow – plot points and general comments
pink – emotion
orange – humor
green – sensory and setting description 
blue – character description and development

The process of deciding which color to use, and making a note, helped me see why I picked that example from the book.

Now that I have a system for noting the techniques that interest me, I will start marking with post-its as I read the first time, so when I review, I can start with the places I noted and hopefully save time. However, I think reading the first few chapters aloud during review will continue to be part of my process. Reading aloud made a huge difference. It slowed me down, and made me see/hear the sentences differently.

Learning As I Go

Things I Learned

Instead of taking you through all of my answers to the four pages of questions I wrote up on Monday, I chose four things I learned from reading The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry that I think I can use in my writing right away.

First, a little overview:

The book is a magical realism mystery that came out in 2009. I learned about it on Twitter when someone posted that it is the book they read for pleasure when they’re feeling down. The premise sounded like something I would enjoy as well, so I got it from the library.

Quick summary: A clerk for The Agency who enjoys typing correct reports, is suddenly promoted to detective but believes it is a mistake, when he tries to get his clerk job back, he finds his superior dead in his office, and the detective he clerks for missing. He then has to take on his new job as detective to find his detective to get his job back as clerk.

These are the writing techniques used in this novel that stood out to me:

1. Using objects as description – When I started looking for the linchpin moment of the first time the main character was introduced, I noticed that he was described not through his appearance but through the objects he interacted with: his bicycle, his umbrella, his briefcase, his wristwatch. Later, I noticed that rooms were also described through objects:

“Unwin saw a broad maroon rug, shelves of thick books with blue and brown spines, a pair of cushioned chairs angled toward a desk at the back. To one side was a great dark globe, and before the window loomed a bald massive globelike head. On the desk a telephone, a typewriter, and a lamp, unlit.”

Did you notice how there’s a character description in there in relation to the objects in the room?

2. Using dialogue to show what others think of the main character – Another thing I noticed while looking for the main character’s description was that other characters said what they thought of him out loud. Here are some examples:

“Listen carefully, now,” said Detective Pith. He emphasized the words by tapping his hat brim against Unwin’s chest.”You’re an odd little fellow. You’ve got peculiar habits.Every morning this week, same time, there’s Charles Unwin, back at Central Terminal.”

Even Mr. Duden alluded to them, most often when scolding someone for sloppy work.”You like to think your files stand up to Unwin’s,” he would proclaim, “and you don’t even know the difference between a dagger and a stiletto?” Often he simply asked, “What if Unwin had handled The Oldest Murdered Man that way?”

These kinds of statements tell the reader much more about the character than the narrator just stating that Unwin is respected by other clerks and his director, but thought odd and peculiar by detectives. And it also shows that the two identities of Unwin’s internal struggle see the world very differently.

3. Using sensory perceptions to create intrigue – While attempting to pay attention to the author’s use of sensory detail, and show and induce emotion, I noticed an overlap.

“She was about to speak but was interrupted by a creaking sound that came out of the wall beside the bookshelf. She and Unwin both followed it with their eyes. He imagined a monstrous rat crawling up behind the wainscoting, led by its infallible nose toward the enormous cadaver that Unwin had hidden under the desk. The creaking sound rose nearly to the ceiling, then stopped, and a little bell on Lamech’s desk chimed twice. “

Mr. Berry uses an unexpected sound to create an image in the main character’s mind, an image of something that would induce fear in the character, and creates intrigue in the reader. What made that noise? He makes the reader wait because Unwin needs to be alone to figure it out. When he gets rid of his visitor, the author then uses another sense, touch.

“The bell rang again.
“He went to the wall and felt it with the palm of his hand. The surface was cool to the touch. He put an ear against it and held his breath.From the building’s unseen recesses came a low keening sound, as of wind trapped in a tunnel or air shaft. What could be hidden there?”

I enjoyed this use of sensing the unseen to intrigue the reader and bring the reader along while Unwin faces his fear.

4. Subtle foreshadowing – Re-reading the beginning of the book after reading to the end, made it clear that the author used a lot of subtle foreshadowing, giving the reader clues to what will happen later in the novel. These hints also help the reader suspend belief when things get further and further into the surreal. This subtle foreshadowing is found in descriptions and dialogue. For example:

“Droves of morning commuters sleepwalked to a murmur of station announcements and newspaper rustle.”

Upon first read, the word “sleepwalked” seems like a normal way to describe people going through the motions of commuting, but in this book, these people could literally be sleepwalking.

“The floor was covered with red and orange oak leaves, tracked in, probably, by a passenger who had arrived on one of the earlier trains from the country.”

This basic description of the floor of the train station also foreshadows an important location later in the book.

“For better or worse, somebody has noticed you. And there’s no way now to get yourself unnoticed.”

This bit of dialogue doesn’t mean much to Unwin when it’s said. Unwin believes his promotion is a mistake and that he will be able to point out the mistake and go back to his job, but that line of dialogue foreshadows Unwin’s fate.

 I always thought foreshadowing was that blatant statement of upcoming events: little did she know she would soon be a master of reading as a writer. But I liked noticing this much more subtle form of foreshadowing, and look forward to using it in my work.

So Much to Look At

Applying What I Learned

Since I’m still letting my new novel draft rest, I decided to practice on a short story I’m ready to revise.

1. Using objects as description –

For this exercise I read the beginning of my story, looking for where my main character is introduced. In the story I’m revising, my main character is a long-haul trucker. She is introduced in the very first sentence parking her truck. I looked through my story for any important objects that my main character uses or mentions that might be in the cab of her truck at the beginning of the story. The only thing I found was the money she uses to buy a candy bar from a vending machine. As I read, however, I found a couple moments later in the story that I could foreshadow through objects at the very beginning.

Coyotes taking people across the border is part of the story, so I thought of a postcard with a coyote howling at the moon that she keeps taped to her dash. It can be the last post card she ever got from her mom. Or it could be a post card from a sibling who she hasn’t seen or spoken to for a long time.

After that idea, I did a quick internet search for what truckers have in their cabs and found some items that could add some characterization. Her raincoat’s color and design can say a lot about her preferences. I see her in a bright yellow raincoat that reminds her of Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh. Her reusable water bottle’s color and design can speak to her preferences and also that she cares about not putting more plastics into the world. Her coffee thermos speaks to her need for caffeine, probably a deeply rooted addiction. She might have a few coffee thermoses. Does one have special meaning? Is it the old style that can also keep soup warm? Did her friend Stookey give it to her? Other things I listed are: mini hand sanitizer bottles, paper towels, mints/gum, a multi-tool, and a box of tissues.

Here are the opening lines of the story draft: “Johnell DeLand took a deep breath and pulled both breaks. She stayed in her cab long enough to hear the end of “How Fast Them Trucks Can Go.” She usually liked listening to early radio shows on her long hauls, especially ‘Suspense’,  but Stookey had recently introduced her to the songs of Dave Dudley. She found the old-style blatant sexism ironic. It made her laugh.”

Now let’s add some objects for description and subtle foreshadowing: Johnell DeLand took a deep breath and pulled both breaks. She stayed in her cab long enough to hear the end of “How Fast Them Trucks Can Go.” She felt at home surrounded by everything she owned in the world. Her bright yellow raincoat sat in the passenger seat like an old friend. The thick plaid thermos that Stookey gave her for soup nested in the console with a box of tissues, mints, gum, and loose change. She put her fingers to her lips then touched the coyote howling at the moon on the last postcard her mother ever sent. She usually liked listening to early radio shows on her long hauls, especially ‘Suspense’, but Stookey had recently introduced her to the songs of Dave Dudley. She found the old-style blatant sexism ironic. It made her laugh.

It needs work, but wow what a difference. This is already working. How exciting.

2. Using dialogue to show what others think of the main character

In this story there are only two main characters, and only one other character that could have a speaking role, the waitress at the Denny’s where my main character’s meet to talk. So I read through the story and looked for my waitress. Here’s what I found:

“The waitress arrived with a heaping plate of eggs and bacon and a huge cinnamon roll dripping icing. The smell of bacon overpowered.”

 I thought about what the waitress could say that would tell the reader something important about my main character. Here’s what I added:

“As she laid the plates on the table she said, “Watch out, Johnell honey, I think you’re startin’ to look like him. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were father and daughter.”

This little bit of added dialogue tells the reader how often they meet there, how friendly and familiar they are with the staff, and the close relationship they have which will make the revelation that’s coming even more painful for the main character.

3. Using sensory perceptions to create intrigue

I have a moment of this in the first draft using touch:

“The metal flap squeaked as she pushed her arm in, but no matter how she twisted and turned, she couldn’t get to her chocolate. With a frustrated grunt she gave up. While pulling her arm out, her hand brushed against something soft in the corner of the machine. At first she feared a rabid spotted ground squirrel, but nothing bit her, so she grabbed it, and pulled it out.”

It’s the same idea as the example, but doesn’t get the same effect. What can I do to create that intrigue? Johnell squatted down and lifted the rusting metal flap. It creaked its resistance. She only saw darkness, but imagined wads of chewed gum, and filthy, grime-covered, disease-ridden hands of all shapes and sizes. Her stomach growled, commanding her to take action. She lowered to her knees, closed her eyes and puckered her face, holding her breath as she plunged her arm in, stretching, twisting, turning and contorting her wrist and fingers, but she couldn’t get to her chocolate. She let her breath out with a grunt, and began to untangle herself from the machine when she felt something soft in the bottom corner. She recoiled, picturing a rabid ground squirrel, expecting it to leap out, it’s foaming rage biting her and biting her, pain and hospital and shots. Nothing happened. She leaned back, closing her eyes and turning her head away in case the crazed animal was biding its time, and slowly lifted the flap again. Nothing bit her, so she grabbed the soft thing and pulled it out.

4. Subtle foreshadowing

I thought it was fun as I started looking for descriptive objects how they intertwined with subtle foreshadowing. I found a place in the story where the main character says that a pouch of trinkets might be all someone has in the world. I foreshadowed  that while listing the objects in the truck cab in the opening by stating that the things in the truck are all she has in the world. Not only does that shape my main character, but it puts her in relation to the migrant character later in the story.

I know that there is so much more I can learn from this novel. It has an interesting plot and does some cool tricks with circling back to the beginning. But for this first venture into reading as a writer, I’m excited that I learned from what I read and was able to apply it to my writing. I’m going to start a master list of what I talk about in these posts, so I’ll be filling my writer’s toolbox as we go. I hope you’ll take what I learned from reading The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry and apply it to your own writing.