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Writers... also read

We cannot be a successful at writing if we don’t read. I like to think this statement doesn’t need to be defended, but I’m gong to make a small fool of myself to demonstrate the idea.

I had a tickling that it might be fun to write some steampunk content. I had read precisely zero books or short stories. My inspiration was art work, and movies. Both are non-literary inspiration, a wonderful topic we can talk about some other time. In preparation for the activity, I decided I would read one novel and a book of short stories. Thinking I had the basic handle after twenty authors’ takes on the topic, I set out to make some of my own.

I handed the piece to my editor, and the response was… “Interesting.”

“What do you mean interesting?” I asked.

“Interesting. Different. Not … bad… but you certainly don’t understand the genre.”

After only a single effort you say!? Of course, I stood no chance to understand the genre. I hadn’t read it. I enjoy fantasy and science fiction having read hundred and hundreds of each of them. I have engrained the tropes, structures, expectations and how to subvert or use them, because I have experience in the genre. Without knowing it, I had read them critically, and that is what I want to talk about. As writers, we have to read, but there is more than one way to read.

Have you ever finished a book, put it down, and then tried to explain to a loved one why you thought the story was amazing, and find your description falling far short of the feeling of amazing? It might be because you absorbed the feeling but didn’t necessarily notice how the author did what they did, because they were so skilled at it. This is a compliment, but it is one you need to consider pushing past to a deeper understanding.

Recently I have been reading books through much more slowly, once for my enjoyment, and when a chapter comes through that really strike me as impressive, seamless or fantastically written, I reread them, at one third the pace, making notes for how and why they achieved it. What actions did characters take? How were sentences structured? How did the chapter fit into the overall story? How did plot progress? Theme? Character arc?

I wanted to understand how the writer manipulated my emotional state. I wanted to see the forest past the trees, and see the trees that comprised the forest. I needed the details and how they fit. This is the basics of critical reading.

Since I have started doing this, I have gone back and reread several of my favorite novels of all times, and learned a few things. First, authors are mortal. They are amazing mortals, but they remain mortal nonetheless. I could see how they did it! I couldn’t copy it yet, but the gulf between the styles I wanted to emulate and the style in which I wrote suddenly felt smaller. I no longer needed a jet liner to get across it, only a bridge. Reading critically more often has become my bridge to help me build up to a more complex writing style.

Writers write, but writers also read. Critically. Find your favorite book, and challenge the author to a contest of understanding. Figure out how they manipulated you, so you can do it too. Leave no detail unconsidered. Sentence level, paragraph level, character development, and the whole novel. Gather enough reading so that when you sit to write your opus, you don’t make the mistake I did. 😊

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Anna Varlese
Anna Varlese
31 mars 2023
Noté 5 étoiles sur 5.

Very thoughtful and enjoyable post.

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