Happy New Year! In case you missed my writers in residence series on Totally Random, here are my tips for reading like a writer.
Read as much as you can, as widely as you can: First, seek out other novels that orbit the same world you’re interested in writing about. Learn the hallmarks of your genre. (And by “genre” I simply mean “category.” All writing falls into a genre—from science fiction, to contemporary realism, to academic journals. Genre never is and never should be a pejorative term). Learn the rules and how to break them. Figure out what you think is most exciting about your genre and what you think are the biggest pitfalls. And then—pick up a book that is as far outside the world in which you’re writing as possible. Pick up a non-fiction book about popular science or a thick old Russian classic. Trust that you can learn something that will expand your mind and your capacity as a writer in every book you enjoy. But don’t waste your time. Obviously, not all books are for all readers. That is okay! I give most books fifty pages; if I’m not hooked as a reader after that, I move on to something else. Read several novels at once! When I started writing YA novels, I began alternating between one contemporary YA novel, one non-fiction book, and one classic novel—sometimes all in the same day. Right now, for example, I’m reading a non-fiction book about the history of tears called Crying, as well as Moby Dick and Margot Lanagan’s spectacular The Brides of Rollrock Island. I enjoy the way the texts interact with each other. It’s almost like all the books I’m reading at the same time are in the same room, bumping into one another, sometimes having to apologize for stepping on the other stories’ toes.
Don’t be afraid of being influenced: I often hear about writers shying away from reading a worthwhile book because they’re worried it’s too close to what they want to write about. This is a fear that I strongly believe must be overcome. Writers must write and read throughout their lives, and if they take time off from reading every time they’re writing…they’re going to have a lot of catching up to do. All great writers have their influences. In fact, naming your influences is a question interviewers love to ask writers and readers often love to know about their favorite writers. No writer should feel ashamed to have found inspiration in someone else’s story. We should only feel emboldened. Embrace your influences fearlessly. Borrow from the greats and don’t look back. Readers who look closely might see William Faulkner, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, Ernest Hemingway, William Shakespeare, Philip Pullman, Roald Dahl, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez all being paid homage to in my books. I’m honored to have loved their stories and enjoy being able to show my appreciation with small tributes in my own books. Of course, being influenced is not the same thing as being a plagiarist. It should go without saying that we still need to do the work to make the things we borrow our own. Roland Barthes famously said that “the text is a tissue of quotationsdrawn from the innumerable centers of culture.” As long as we remain curious and open to drawing inspiration from everything around us, our tissues of quotations will be rich and varied and uniquely our own.
Take notes: A devoted reader’s tendency with a truly remarkable book is to escape completely into the text, to forget his or her surroundings and enter the world of the story. I know this is a delicious activity, and occasionally, I allow myself the indulgence. But most of the time, I fight to keep my mind slightly above the surface of a great book so that I can ask myself the questions that will make reading it not just enjoyable for me as a reader but also productive for me as a writer. When a book makes me laugh, cry, or shout out “Wow!” I stop. I take a minute and ask myself how the writer pulled off this miraculous feat. I trace back the steps that led to my emotional response. How did the writer handle the pacing leading up to that critical moment? Did things slow down or speed greatly up? When did the character go from being a separate entity to the suit I put on, zipped up, and became? How and where were the seeds planted throughout the book to make this particular moment so effective? Do I have a sense that the author knew all along that this moment would be revelatory, or does it feel like one of those magical curveballs the brain sometimes throws at a writer in the heat of typing? All of these questions will produce highly subjective responses. If I were to answer them, to ask another reader to answer them, and to ask the writer to answer them, we would have three completely different sets of answers—that doesn’t matter. What matters is what lessons you, the affected reader, want to take away from your experience. What matters even more is how you can learn to apply these lessons to your own writing in the future.
Join a discussion group. Maybe some of the things I’ve been suggesting sound like good advice…but you don’t know where to start. Maybe to you, books have always been a private getaway, a chance to let your mind go, a place you want to experience but not have to scrutinize. Maybe thinking critically about your favorite novels feels like something best left inside a dreary literature class. Maybe you simply don’t know how joyous book discussions can be! I grew up with a mother who loves to read, who was always suggesting books to me, and who enjoyed talking about the things she read, so chatting about plots and settings and point of view, gossiping about characters as if they are real people is very natural to me. If you haven’t had that experience and you are interested in writing, I suggest seeking out some kind of community to discuss the books you love (and love to hate). Book clubs can be marvelous. Online forums are a great way to connect with people with similar reading aesthetics you might otherwise never have found. Stop into your library or local bookstore; they often host discussions of books, sometimes even when the author is present. I should add that the best book club discussions I’ve had often occur over a book that inspires varying opinions. It’s fun to bond with a group of people who wholeheartedly love the same book you love and have no questions or complaints about it…but it might help you more as a writer to get into the nitty gritty of a book that compelled you but also made you think: Why did the author make that choice? Why didn’t the author explain xyz? How does my worldview impact the way in which I read this book? Why did the ending bother me so much?
Cheers to fresh starts, new ideas, and endless inspiration!
Happy reading and writing,