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On Other People’s Books: Reading like a Writer

In the fall of 2010, by decree of my graduate advisor and in support of my pursuit of the Master of Professional Writing degree at the University of Oklahoma, I was required to take the “elective” course Category Fiction. I was less than thrilled.

From the course description it was clearly a lecture-based, informational class, and I was far more interested in the program’s practical classes:

  • Writing the Novel
  • Writing the Nonfiction Book, and
  • Writing the Screenplay

Worse yet, the course was scheduled mid-day on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so I knew going into it that I would have to leave work twice a week, drive forty minutes down to Norman, sit through this class for ninety minutes, and then drive back to work — where I’d have to stay late making up the lost time.

I showed up (late) to the first class period dreading the semester that was to follow. That dread lasted for all of five minutes, before I saw past the one-line catalog description to realize what the class really represented.

Over the course of the semester, we read eleven novels across six major categories. Barely half of the class consisted of lecture and all of that focused on intensely practical consideration of the real-world markets for these categories.

The rest of the class was dedicated to discussion of the individual texts, including their merits and their weaknesses. The discussion was often engaging, always enlightening, and a surprising amount of fun.

Instead of a hassle, I came to see the class as one of the highlights of my week — the world’s best book club meeting in the middle of an otherwise-dreary workday. Every meeting of the class made me a better writer, in a lot of different ways.

I want to share some of those experiences with you over the next few weeks. I’ll be starting with a review of the books we read, discussing some general principles on Thursday then talking about specific strengths and weaknesses of the individual titles on Friday.

That should last into mid-February, when I’ll probably take a break to promote Ghost Targets: Expectation, the hotly-anticipated sequel to 2010’s sci-fi thriller Gods Tomorrow.

After that, I’ve got a couple specific writing techniques I learned about for the first time last semester (and will probably be learning about in more detail this spring, as I finally get to take “Writing the Novel” under the same professor). I’ll probably give you several weeks of discussion on those techniques, too, before calling this series done.

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