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 coursera.org 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.