A writer does the same. We tear things apart to figure out the how and why, so we can duplicate the techniques in our own writing. Reading is the primary means of learning to write, which is why it makes me sad when new writers tell me they "don't read." I typically sic Stephen King on their heretic asses:
Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. (King)
Reading as a writer is a good talent to have, as reading is the sole training ground for writers. You don't have to have a background in "how to write fiction," you don't have to have an undergraduate degree in Literature or an MFA in Creative Writing in order to be a writer. You just need to start as a reader.
But as often as English teachers or writing professors or well-meaning friends tell you to "read like a writer," most of them aren't as explicit at what they mean by that. Some call it close reading, because you're reading very carefully, but I like the phrase read like a writer, because it gives reading a purpose. I'm reading like a writer so that I can become a writer (or a better writer).
Mike Bunn, in his essay "Read Like a Writer," says that
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. The idea is to carefully examine the things you read, looking at the writerly techniques in the text in order to decide if you might want to adopt similar (or the same) techniques in your writing. (Bunn)
Before we know what to write, we need to know how to write, and the how is reading like a writer. Asking questions, annotating, figuring out how a writer accomplished a certain technique. Like the seamstress, we are taking apart a shirt so that we can use it as a pattern for making our own shirt.
Mimicry is part of the learning process. In middle school I wrote a noir detective story my teacher said sounded "borrowed." Nevermind that her destructive commentary became that negative voice in my head (and most writers have them). The point is that I started at a point of mimicry, but I grew past it. I learned the rules so I knew when, where, and how to break them effectively. I still read like a writer, and I'm reading a book a week (or more). I read across the card catalog: fiction and nonfiction, literature and genre fiction like romance, mystery, thrillers, women's fiction, and just about any genre but horror (sorry Stephen King). Speaking of Stephen King, he continues the quote about the value of reading with the following:
Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in … Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered anyway" (King).
Reading is an invaluable part of a writer's toolbox. In fact, it may be THE essential tool, but only if you're reading like a writer. So what does that mean? Check out Mike Bunn's article, published free as part of an OER (Open Education Resource), for specific, concrete ideas on what it means to read like a writer. Also, see the video below on how to annotate as you read.
Happy Writer Wednesday. I'm cross posting a video this week as I'm on the road taking my daughter to college (cue crocodile tears). See my video and follow up with the link below for questions you can ask when you're critiquing or being critiqued.
Is there a connection between our lives and the story we are writing?
In an obvious sense yes. And no. Yes, of course it revolves around the writer's experience, but no, it is not a poorly disguised autobiography. I'm reading The Hidden Machinery by Margot Livesey, a gift from my MFA mentor. In the first essay, she discusses both Henry James and E.M. Forester. Forester, she claims, could have finished A Passage to India when he first started the book in 1913. The pieces were all in place, he had four novels under his belt, so he had the skills, but Forester was never happy with it. Until he was.
Why did this novel take Forester longer?
"He needed certain things to happen--a war, a massacre, the discovery of his own sexual nature and of how he too could be corrupted by the white man's power in India--before he knew where the [book] was going." --M. Livesey
He had to mature, essentially, to the point where the novel made sense. He first had to experience the things which would became central to the story.
The writer's life informs and reforms the writing. I could only write Untouchable after going through a hellish divorce. I have a novel in a drawer that languished, waiting for me to get over the hurdle at the first turning point. And since I didn't get through the barrier in my life, the character failed to thrive.
"Both inner and outer events were required before he could write [the] novel."
It's not just physical events, like Forester's return trip to India. It's internal change in the mind and spirit of the writer that impact the writing. I've written eight novels. Seven are published and they are the result of who I was and what I believed at the time they were written. But that one book that's not yet published makes me wonder.
Where do I need to be, what do I need to experience, what must I observe before the book is ready for birth?
What inner or outer events must take place before I feel satisfied with this book? And can I nudge those events into place faster so I can finish it already?
I haven't gotten that far in Livesey's book, but I'm guessing that no, I can't shove myself into the fire to force the inspiration. Instead, I must keep writing and writing, putting in my time and wallowing in the characters, before those internal and external events converge.
In February 2016, we had the wonderful Jennie Marts speak on the process of Indie publishing, traditional publishing, and hybrid publishing (a combination of the two). We will have Jennie speak again, because she's smart, a good speaker, and presented some great information, however, if you missed Jennie's presentation, let me suggestion you visit Derek Murphy's How to Self-Publish a Book site. He has a dozen or more videos that talk about publishing, traditional publishing, and indie publishing. While I'm one of those who believes that every writer needs a good editor (and his editing video says the opposite), I do believe he's spot on in most of his analysis and provides a great overview of the process.
If you like a quick graphic of what it takes to publish as an indie author, a group of authors are presenting a workshop at Romantic Times Convention, and have pre-published their Indie Author Cheat Sheet here. It's worth a look.
Have a great month!
For me, story stems from character, so I start with a character and a situation and I go. I write 10,000 words a week without conscious choice. Sometimes, I get stuck. This week has been a little bit of torture while the characters and I wrestle for control. I'm winning, and that's bad. If story stems from character, the character should lead, so when I'm "in control," I'm not writing 10,000 words (this has been a rough week).
And then I happened upon this article on The Case for Writing a Story Before Knowing How It Ends. Andre Debus III says, "But during my very early writing, certainly before I’d published, I began to learn characters will come alive if you back the fuck off. It was exciting, and even a little terrifying. If you allow them to do what they’re going to do, think and feel what they’re going to think and feel, things start to happen on their own. It’s a beautiful and exciting alchemy. And all these years later, that’s the thrill I write to get: to feel things start to happen."
It is magical when the characters take control, but then again, I think writing is a special form of magic. Happy Writing, my friends.
January 2016 workshop
As a reader, I skip mass amounts of description in long narrative form. Others read each juicy detail and want more. Where's the balance between too much setting description and not enough?
When you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip.”
Part of this is understanding your readers. What is your demographic? In my experience, science fiction and fantasy novels include way more setting detail than thrillers. Neither is right or wrong, but rather common conventions for your preferred storytelling type. The best way to determine this is to read frequently in the genre in which you write.
In our January workshop at the 21st Century Writers group, we had a lively discussion regarding setting. We started with Four Ways to Bring Setting to Life by Moira Allen. The first recommendation was to "reveal setting through motion." If a writer has a reader like me, who sees a huge chunk of description and jumps right past it, they're tricking me by breaking the description up. The writer is showing movement. If a waitress is delivering drinks to the galaxy ala Star Wars Cantina scene, the writer could show the waitress maneuvering past a creature with 8 hands or tripping over tentacles. Action allows the setting to filter into the story organically.
Another recommendation was to "reveal setting through a character's level of experience." In other words, the world as seen through the eyes of the character is different if the point of view character is a hardened galaxy waitress who no longer notices funky tentacles or a newby Jedi who has never left his rural planet. What does the character notice? What does the character NOT notice? And perhaps most importantly, why does it matter? I think this is where many writers fall into trouble.
As writers, we love our worlds, but if the three and a half paragraphs of detailed setting have no bearing on the plot or the character, why include it? As an example from our discussion, a hardened police detective probably wouldn't notice many "extra" details while eating lunch at a cafe. It's whatever to him. A place to eat and nothing else, but put that same detective at a crime scene, and they notice EVERYTHING. And the reader wants to read these paragraphs because somewhere embedded in the setting details are clues to the overarching mystery.
A third suggestion from the article was to "reveal setting through the mood of your character." A castle ruin takes on different details if the heroine is on a day hike versus lost in a creepy old ruin. Word choice is affected. A movie example of this idea is Hoodwinked. In the movie, the same story is repeated for four different characters: little red riding hood, the bunny, the huntsman, and the wolf (oh, and maybe Grandma, too, it's been awhile). Each character is part of the story, but they have very different perceptions of the setting. It's why sometimes when you're writing a scene and it isn't working, you should consider writing from another character's point of view. It can significantly alter the mood and pacing of the story.
A final idea from this article was to "reveal setting through the senses." I highly encourage you to read the source document for this section, but a part that really resonated with our discussion was the idea that the senses we include have different effects on the reader's emotions. For instance, "When we describe a scene in terms of visual inputs, we are appealing to the reader's intellect. Emotions, however, are often affected by what we hear." As readers, we view the world through our senses. If we're walking and suddenly smell grandma's barbecue sauce, it evokes an emotional response, say disgust since grandma couldn't cook if her life depended on it. The same is true of our reader. By showing the setting through the senses of the point of view character, we allow the reader to see the soul of the character, creating someone who is complex and interesting.
That's great, but how do we incorporate that into our writing? For this, I took a look at 21 Writing Prompts for Setting a Scene in Your Novel by Suzannah Windsor Freeman. For our purposes in the workshop, we read through the list of 21 items and answered as many as we felt called to answer, and then wrote or rewrote a scene in our current WIP, adding setting details we learned from the Moira Allen article. The results were pretty amazing. For me, I was stuck on a new project I started at the first of the year. Reviewing these 21 questions helped me to define my character in her current location and turned a blah scene into an active scene. It's amazing what happens when you slow down.
If you'd like to use those 21 questions to write/rewrite a short scene, include it in the comments. Have fun!
Writer Reference (Blogroll)
Genre by any other name
He for She
A Little is Enough
Writing 17 minutes at a time
The Unlisted List:
The best women nonfiction writers.
Aubrey Hirsh' Beginner's Guide to publishing with format templates and more
Agent Query 15 posts on writing query ltrs
Platform Action Plan
Writer, college professor, lover of story, fan of all things bookish. Plus chocolate, because who doesn't love chocolate.