Michille: Reading Like A Writer

stack of booksThe first course in the McDaniel Romance Writing Program was Reading Like a Writer. I never used to read through a writer’s filter. Now, I think I read every book that way. I recently re-read one of my favorite Jayne Ann Krentz books – Family Man. JAK hits the reader right up front with the two main characters and the main conflict. She gradually adds in a host of other characters, keeps the main conflict right up front throughout and circles right back around to make the last scene echo the first scene. All of that is stuff we learned that is supposed to be there. All that stuff makes for good fiction.

We learned lots of don’ts, too. Don’t start with sitting and thinking, or worse, driving and thinking. Be careful with lots of narrative description right up front, avoid loads of back-story, don’t head-hop, start when the conflict starts, etc. However, I have read books that I enjoy that do those things that shouldn’t be done and they don’t get in the way of my enjoyment of the book. I loved Death Angel and Up Close and Dangerous by Linda Howard and there is a lot of narrative description and back-story without action on the part of the main characters for pages. Nora Roberts changes point of view in a single scene. I know that drives a lot of people crazy but doesn’t bother me when Roberts does it. One of my favorite NR books is Angels Fall which starts with driving and thinking. Some of Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ books have stretches in the middle where the two main characters aren’t in the same state, much less the same scene. Of course, these are all examples from great fiction writers with long lists of best sellers to their names.

At the same time, there are books that I read after all I learned in Reading Like a Writer in which the author does some of those no-no’s and I’m tempted to throw the book against the wall. A few of these have been best sellers, even super-mega-sellers with movies made from them and I can’t finish them, and certainly don’t understand how so many people thought they were so good.

I keep reminding myself of these personal preferences as I struggle through my current manuscript (which is giving me a horrible, overwhelming fit right now). Every scene in the first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. There can be stretches of narrative, sitting and thinking, head hopping, and back-story. It just has to be on the page. And maybe some of those no-no’s will stay because they work. And some will go. Hopefully, some readers will love it. And I know some will want to throw it down the stairs.

Do your reading preferences conform to the rules of good fiction? Do you have pet peeves in reading that translate to your writing?

8 thoughts on “Michille: Reading Like A Writer

  1. When reading someone else, I think it’s important to remember that these are just tools to fix things that don’t work. (-: If it works, it doesn’t need the tool!

    But I think in my own writing, I’m sometimes too close to it. I can see the movie in my head, and I only write down part of it — I forget that other people won’t see the other bits. Sometimes the readers will fill it in, but sometimes it leaves people shaking their heads. You remember my beginning scene at the pool, with loads of monsters suddenly erupting out of everywhere, right? Many of my readers and critiquers were really confused about where all this stuff was suddenly coming from. It was an eye-opening experience for me.

    My favorites are breaking all sorts of rules. But, they do it in interesting ways, and they don’t break ALL the rules. Terry Pratchett and his footnotes were a delight, for example.

  2. I’m reading a mega-best-selling author right now that is breaking lots of rules, but I still like the story. I think a writer can do anything, so long as they do it well. If you’re head hopping and it’s not clear who’s head you’re in, that’s a problem. But if you can pull it off, go for it!

    Another rule I’ve tried to be conscious of is overusing adverbs and creative dialogue tags. But in this first draft, I just have to get it on the page. I can go back and fix that later, or perhaps not. If there’s flow and it sounds good, or if it adds to the story, then I might keep it.

    • Dialogue tags. That is one I forgot about. I have a peeve there, as well. I read a book where the one character whispered and mumbled her way through the book. I found myself wanting to yell at her to, “Speak up for god’s sake.” (she shouted).

  3. I think readers can forgive or even enjoy passages of description or sitting and thinking if the writer is doing a great job with it, or if the reader has read other books by the same writer and knows that a payoff is coming. But even if a writer does everything perfectly, I won’t necessarily go along for the ride. I recently picked up a book by a very well-known author who I think writes beautifully; everything she writes is economical and evocative, and I’ve enjoyed every book of hers that I’ve read. I was about four chapters in and I could feel myself emotionally engaged and I could tell the story wouldn’t end well–and I couldn’t face a story that didn’t end well with characters I was rooting for. I went to the last chapter, and sure enough: badness all around. So I put it away before I got sucked in and crushed. Sometimes a writer can do everything right, everything I really admire as a reader and a writer, and it still won’t hit the right note for me.

  4. I’m a fan of a good sittin’ and thinkin’ scene. I have a couple in my WIP and they’re staying put for now. When I’ve fixed everything else that needs fixing, I’ll make a decision about them.

    I don’t mind a POV change mid-scene if there’s a good reason for it, and so long as It’s clearly signalled so that I know whose head I am in.

    First person POV is a tricky thing for me as a reader. I’ll give it a chapter or two to see whether the POV character is sufficiently charismatic to carry me through a whole story. If it works, it’s wonderful, but it’s an all-or-nothing bet.

  5. I’m glad you have those thinking scenes in. I’ve read some of your scenes and they’re wonderful. And that is the thing about drafts. You may review and realize you can cut, and you may review and realize that they need to stay.

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