Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Writers Learn from Reading

Today I planned to read for sheer enjoyment. Not as easy as you think. I’m always analyzing writing styles, flinching over typos, questioning grammar...  Distracting, to say the least.

Settled in my recliner, I breathed a contented sigh, and cracked the cover of Two of the Deadliest. Out of habit, I checked the publisher and the date of publication before beginning the collection of short stories by top female crime writers.

After reading only two or three titles, I knew it was an excellent book. I began taking notes. I couldn’t stop myself. I gave a star rating and a one or two sentence review for each one. Despite my good intentions, I was reading these stories as a writer. On the plus side, my comments would come in handy if I wrote a book review.

Taking a break from reading, I glanced over the brief notes and the three to five stars allocated to the stories I’d finished. Unsatisfactory ending was one comment I’d scribbled. Why was I dissatisfied? What would have satisfied me? Why did I feel the main character lacked ... character?

Characters are almost more important to me than the storyline. They don’t have to be characters I can identify with, or people I would like to befriend, as long as they are three-dimensional. Well-portrayed.

The very act of delegating a star rating to each story forced me to identify its strengths and weaknesses. It gave me pause to reflect on what I liked most. Was it the turn of phrase, storyline, ending, character profile? Did the suspense and imagery capture and keep my attention? Why did I enjoy this particular story and how could I apply this attribute to my own stories?

I put the book aside. I’d take a walk and think further about the winning features of each author’s story. There were also some near misses that I needed to think over. Yes, a walk was a good idea. My dog would agree.

Unless it’s too windy, too wet, too cold, or too hot, Lex is crazy about going for walks. So much so, that we have to be careful saying the word around her. She dances and spins, her toenails scrabbling for traction on the hardwood floor.

We can’t get away with spelling the word, either. She knows that w-a-l-k means her leash is coming out of the drawer. She stands next to the door shifting on all fours.

While Lex led me along the trail, I compared the short story I’m currently working on to the stories I’d just read. Based on how I judged them, how would I rate my own? I tried to apply the same criteria for evaluation. Could the reader enter my character’s state of mind? Is the imagery vivid enough? Would the reader feel his pain? Are my descriptions graphic enough that the reader will be in the room with my character? Sitting across from him? Will his or her breath quicken as the nightmare unfurls? Is it suspenseful from start to finish? Is the ending satisfying?

Perhaps knowing what I like to read, and why I find it effective, will help me become a better writer. 

Speaking of reading, I have a very entertaining book to finish.



  1. Even if you manage not to read with a writer's eye, just reading can help a writer--if they can manage to just read. It's like sitting in the passenger seat of a car. Sure, you don't learn all the details, but you learn about speed and pacing, turn signals, when to use them and when to change lanes, when to use the horn, to check the gas and oil, etc.

    Also, maybe try the word 'stroll' vs. walk or even spelling it. Maybe it'll suffice for a time. If we opened the drawer that held the leashes and there was even a single jingle or the chain...we were in trouble with many of our dogs in the past. The two we have now, not so much. Each pet is so different.

    1. Terry, you think of the best analogies. You previously compared a road trip to plotting and outlining a novel. That made perfect sense and so does this.

      Today my dog was bouncing around the kitchen and I explained to my friend that Lex wanted a t-r-e-a-t. Oh, treat, she said. At the sound of the word, Lex ran to the cupboard and w-a-i-t-e-d. hahaha Yes, she got her treat.