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On Reading Like a Writer: Every Page Counts

I’ve got to make an admission before I get too far into this topic, because there are just too many of you who know me in real life.

I don’t really read a lot.

Well…not a lot of books, anyway. I’m sure I spend 80% of my waking hours reading, but it’s far more likely to be emails, memos, training materials, technical instruction manuals, news articles, or blog posts, than it is to be any kind of fiction. And the fiction I do find the time to read is almost always a friend’s unpublished draft.

That’s a fairly recent phenomenon, though, and it has changed a little bit in the last month. As you probably know, I started working on a Master of Professional Writing at OU this fall, and one of my first two classes has been Category Fiction. We’re spending the whole semester looking closely at several of the most popular commercial genres out there, and for homework I’ll end up reading 13 novels over the course of 14 weeks.

That’s more published fiction in one semester than I’ve read in the last four years combined. And the whole focus of the class is reading like a writer: you should be learning what works, what doesn’t work, and why, in everything you read.

Finding Things You Hate

The way you do that is by looking closely at what an author is doing in the story. When you’re reading, instead of focusing exclusively on how the story affects you, spend a little time considering how the writer creates those effects.

Nathan Bransford had a fantastic article on just that topic a while back. (I shared that link in my newsletter a couple months ago, but I don’t know that I ever talked about it here.) He said:

The one question that aspiring writers should never ask themselves when reading a book is, “Do I like this?”

Here’s the thing about the question “Do I like this?” Who is that question about? Well, it’s about you. It’s about your taste, and whether the book fits in with your likes and dislikes. It’s not about the book. It’s about you and whether the book spoke to you.

That doesn’t mean you have to love the book. In class yesterday, we spent seventy-five minutes discussing a pulp Romance novel that I wouldn’t recommend to anyone, ever, and I spent a large portion of the class talking about the things in the book I hated.

I didn’t allow myself more than a moment or two to discuss the way I felt about it, though. Instead I focused on the things the author had done wrong that made me feel that way — faltering narrative tension, erratic fluctuations in character motivation, and a big dramatic climax (for the characters) that was little more than a formality for readers.

Finding Things You Like

You’re robbing yourself of valuable material if you just focus on the things you hate, though. One of the points Bransford makes in that post, and one my professor echoed on the very first day of class, is that these published books passed muster. Say what you will about traditional publishing, but it’s an extremely selective process and my professor went out of her way to pick novels that have proven commercially successful.

That means they work — not necessarily as works of fine art, but as stories aimed at wide audiences, these books are working. And that goes for Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer and any other writer whose name you know. I haven’t hesitated to throw punches at times when it comes to things they do wrong, but I’m not blind to the fact that these authors are clearly doing something right.

And, more importantly, they’re doing it right enough to make up for their wrongs. If you can approach successful novels with enough of a discerning eye to recognize both, you can walk away with the knowledge needed to borrow their successes and avoid their failures.

How to Write within Your Genre

As a matter of fact…you’ve been doing that all your life. My dad has been studying writing since he first started reading The Hardy Boys, decades before he ever thought he might want to try a novel someday.

When you approach it deliberately, though, you can dramatically increase the amount of detail you’ll pick up. In fact, if you want to get the very most out of your reading, you should not only manage your reading style, but manage your selection as well.

Come back tomorrow, and I’ll talk a little bit about perfecting your genre writing.

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