It’s hard to look at any collection of advice from writers without seeing the proverbial statement: to write well, you must read. Don’t worry, I’m not about to disagree. However, if you value your time as much as I value mine, you may want to give me a few minutes. Taking a few minutes to read this post may make the countless hours you’ll spend reading more fruitful. Reading is great and will absolutely make you a better writer. But. . . You do have to be careful. One danger is not using your time efficiently, or even worse, wasting a good book.
So you’ve slapped around a few books? You’ve got a huge bookshelf full of your conquests? Good for you. Did you learn anything from them or did you just gobble them up without stopping to taste? Chances are, you learned from some and inhaled others. That’s natural, but every writer owes it to themselves to learn from everything they read. It can be hard to stop and really analyze a page-turner, but those will often teach you the most about what compels you. So how do you do it? Change your mindset before you read the first page.
Get Your Mind Right
The difference between reading like a writer and reading like a consumer is a mentality. It’s like visiting a theme park. You could visit as a casual tourist, or as an aspiring entrepreneur who plans to start his own theme park. Can you still wear your Mickey Mouse swag and enjoy the rides? Yes! But now, instead of closing your eyes on Space Mountain, you’ve got to shine your light into the dark places and figure out how it works.
Maybe your gut reaction is, “that sounds like work,” or, “that doesn’t sound fun.” First of all, even if it wasn’t fun, I would still advise you to do it because it will make you a better writer. But the good news for you is that peeking behind the scenes of a book can enhance the experience. You’ll also find yourself entertained by a wider range of books, because it can often be fun to pick apart less established authors as you read, learning from their mistakes as much as from their triumphs. As an added bonus, it’s great for your self-esteem as a writer to see published authors with large followings doing things poorly that you do well. To paraphrase Stephen King, the moment you read a published author and say, “I can do better than that,” is when you will really feel like an author. It’s also great to see that even really popular authors make mistakes and still find success despite it. Keep that in mind the next time you’re down on your own work.
Getting The Most From Each Book
You can either learn from a book or you can consume it. You may learn a few things from consuming a book, but it’s like tearing through a candy wrapper that explains how the candy was made and tossing it aside. You enjoyed the candy; maybe you can even guess at a few of the ingredients, but you definitely could have learned more. Reading to learn is about knowing where to look. As someone who has been reading like a writer for a long time, I can save you some time and point out the key areas.
- Learn the common tropes. Even if you are not writing in a traditional genre, every field of writing has common practices and themes. In the fantasy genre, for example, readers expect a certain number of the tropes to be fulfilled. The best way to learn how many of those tropes are expected and what they are is to look for them. Over time, you’ll build an understanding of what is done and when it might be okay to break from the mold. It’s also a good idea to look out for gimmick ideas that are used again and again. For example, many authors try to create a drawback to the magic system in their worlds. This is both a trope and a gimmick. The magic system is somewhat expected, and the gimmick should be unique. The Wheel of Time had men going mad from using magic; Mistborne requires they eat certain metals, which could be exhausted; The Cycle of Arawn simply has “nethermancers” getting too exhausted if they push themselves (and the extremely underdeveloped “ethermancers”); The Warded Man requires physical symbols or glyphs; A Crucible of Souls requires the use of “trinkets” that channel and augment magic. But you may notice that fantasy authors aim to create a unique magic system and they typically introduce a drawback. So keep reading so you build your background knowledge – if your readers know more than you, you’ll risk boring them.
- Get a sense for what is overdone. I spent most of my previous writing career and early career reading relatively dated fantasy like Lord of The Rings and the Wheel of Time. So it shouldn’t have shocked me when I learned that my treasured idea about a fantasy world that was actually in the future, set on earth, had already been done. In fact, of maybe ten fantasy books I’ve read in the past year, only four did not allude to a past civilization of more technologically advanced people.
- Absorb the basics. Have you ever wanted to maybe have a crowd of unidentified people shouting snippets of dialogue? Maybe you want a character to hear bits of conversation from around the room or as they walk but don’t want to stop and identify everyone who speaks. So keep an eye out. When you see unusual things being done, take a second to make a mental note. It will save you trouble down the road.
- Study the middle. Another useful idea to keep in mind is that, as I mentioned in my post about the miserable middle, figuring out what to do with the middle of your book can be the greatest challenge you’ll face. To ease your burden, try paying special attention to what happens in the middle of the story. Is the author just stringing together scenes that appear random? If so, what makes them feel random and how can you avoid that in your own writing?
- Look at characters. Do you have a vivid image of one but not another? Figure out why. You may find that characters who are described in great physical detail are harder to picture than characters with brief but efficient descriptions, as I mentioned in my compelling characters in ten minutes post. Seeing something like that for yourself will hammer the point home more firmly than any amount of advice.
- Study their dialogue. Does it feel natural? Does it drag out? If so, why does it seem that way? Watch to see if each character has their own voice. Does any character have such a unique voice that the writer could almost get away with never tagging their lines? Try to figure out how they pulled it off.
- Notice voice. Pay attention to how the author uses his or her unique voice to enhance the story. For many readers, a great voice is what keeps them coming back more than any other element of the story. It can make up for a lot of shortcomings and it’s worth your while to pay attention to how skilled authors convey it.
- Mark places for reference. If you ever read a section that really just works, like an action scene, a conversation, a inner-monologue, or a section of prose, save it! It’s easy to say you’ll remember and can come back if you need to some time. Chances are, you never will. Take the time to write it down or mark the spot in the book so you can reference it when you’re writing. The time will come when you feel that a scene is dragging and you can’t find out why; you can refer back to examples to help yourself find out where you went wrong.
For some, my words may fall on deaf ears. Many people would rather jump into a sport and learn as they go. But some prefer to put in extra effort at the outset to learn proper technique and avoid having to go back and fix bad habits later. I can tell you that the former group is often slower to develop and does not reach as high of a skill level. While reading is hardly a sport, it is still a skill. The same principles apply. If you put in the work to make the most of it, your writing can only improve.
If you take your writing seriously, treat your reading even more seriously!