A practical guide for authors: so you want to read like a writer?
Stephen King, in his book “On Writing” said: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
I’d agree with him. If you aren’t devouring books on every spare second, in the line up to the movies, between work breaks, before bed, then writing may not be the profession or art for you.
Because if you don’t love reading, if you don’t love stories, you likely aren’t truly in love with the artform.
That would be my warning to you: if you aren’t in love with reading, and if it feels like a chore, then don’t spend the time learning how to write. It won’t be a fruitful endeavour.
(And I would wonder how on earth it came to be that you decided you wanted to write without ever having read something that made you stop and think “I want to do that.”)
If you do love reading and you’re just starting out, this is the blog for you.
One of the first questions you should ask yourself is: what should I read?
That’s a great question with a simple answer: read the type of stories that you want to write, written by the greats of that genre. If you want to write science fiction, read Asimov or Heinlen. If you want to write magical realism, read Borges or Márquez. If you want to write Fantasy, read Tolkein or Martin.
Allen Tate on two different ways of reading: When you are reading like a writer, you’re trying to figure out how the piece of writing you’re reading was constructed, so that you can construct one yourself. You’re not just reading it.
Chances are, you’ve read a lot of the best writers in your given genre. However, I’d advise you return to those books with a pen in hand and re-read them.
I remember in University, I snuck a glance at my professor’s novel. It was marked up in every which way, in pen, in pencil, between lines, down the side of the page, and everywhere there was room to write.
Before you read like a writer, what should you know?
Every great piece of fiction comes within a historical, political, and socio-economic context. Do research before you read your story.
In Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, set in sometime in 1930s Stalinist Russia, in the city of Moscow, knowing the background of Stalin’s regime would help you get at the heart of the novel.
Even knowing Bulgakov’s own struggles with the publication of the novel (which wouldn’t say the light of day until after his death), you’d gain a greater understanding of the work.
In Orwell’s 1984, also a quasi-takedown of Stalinist Russia, understanding the relative warm reception that Britain’s left-leaning intelligentsia had for Stalin at the time will also help you understand the greater context of the work.
Further questions to ask yourself before opening the book are:
Do you know the author’s purpose for this piece of writing?
Do you know who the intended audience is for this piece of writing?
Do you know what genre this piece of writing is?
What does the title mean? What images does it bring up?
What kind of book do I think this is?
What are you looking for when you read like a writer?
For me, when I’m reading a story, I’m always on the lookout for whatever part of the draft I’m on.
If I’m on my first draft, my main concern plot. That means I’m looking for and considering everything that has to do with plot.
I ask myself as I read:
How did the author move from one scene to another?
Why did the author choose to show this scene and not another?
What were the scenes that the author could have shown, but didn’t?
In each beat of the scene, what is the author trying to accomplish?
Why did they choose this specific perspective?
What roles are the characters in this story fulfilling?
“All the elements of good writing depend on the writer’s skill in choosing one word [or plot point] instead of another.” — Francine Prose
If I’m on my second draft, I’m looking for things like character motivation, dialogue, and symbolism.
If I’m on my final draft, and I’m considering sentence construction, I’ll create a document that has all my favourite lines. In that document, I write out why I loved that line, and the context of it.
Whatever sticks out to you whatever moves you to the core, write it down and examine it. Try and figure out why this one piece stood out when so many other sentences fell by the wayside.
How. How. How. Why. Why. Why.
You want to be constantly asking yourself questions regarding the text in front of you.
Just like constructing a building, they would ask certain questions like: what type of style was this? What type of materials did they use? What questions must the writer ask of the book to figure out its construction?
And in order for those questions and their respective answers to be of use, make them be relevant to you and your writing.
While reading, the temptation might be to speed up. It’s essential to slow down and read every word, examine it, place it in your memory, before you move on.
One thing I’ve found that has helped me do this is to summarize a chapter when it’s over.
What was the point of this chapter?
Did it accomplish what it set out to accomplish?
Was there anything you’d remove from the chapter?
Don’t be afraid to re-write parts of the story you loved, parts you hated, and parts that moved you.
“Most of us find our own voices only after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people.” — Neil Gaiman.
When you’re finished with the book, what do you ask yourself?
Once the book is over, you’re not quite done your investigation.
One of my favourite questions to ask myself when it’s all over is “If I were writing this book, what would I have done differently?”
Here, because you’re going to be writing something within this genre, you’re looking for places where you can improve upon the work. Even if you feel a little silly asking yourself this question with great pieces of fiction, this is a worthwhile exercise.
(Maybe Joyce could have made Ulysses a little easier to follow?)
For example, in “The Satanic Verses” the language was too flowery for me, in that it distracted from the actual story. Though, at the same time, now that I think about it, high-society Indian seems inherently flowery in much the same way. It sort of makes sense within the context of the story itself.
But that’s now all.
When you’re done with a text, you want to build on what you’ve learned.
One of my favourite things to do is to start going through a writer’s catalogue of novels and short stories and see how they developed as a writer.
Where they shifted and moved and changed as they also grew. I want to know how their voice developed and what they stopped (or started doing).
When I was writing my first novel (It’s A Long Way Down), it was nice to read Orwell’s A Clergyman’s Daughter or John William’s first novel Nothing But the Night and realize that I didn’t like them all that much, though I love both those authors. It was reassuring and helped me get over my own fear.
(Almost every writer I know hates their own writing, or probably should. How else would they improve?)
So, if you’ve learned anything here, it’s to read inquisitively, asking yourself as many questions about the text in front of you as you can.
You are deconstructing a work, so that you can understand it and learn from it. With the tools you take away, you’ll want to fill your own writing tool box, to be used when needed.