Nancy: When Writers Read

Nancy's Favorites Bookshelf

We’ve been talking a lot about what we’re reading (or have read or have considered reading) quite a bit here on 8LW this week. While we identify as writers, we were all readers first. We love books, we love story, and we are over the moon when we find a new book or author who intrigues or inspires us.

But we are also writers, and most of us have found that learning and exploring the craft of writing forever changes the way we view books. The analytical part of my brain never fully disengages when I’m reading, and there’s something a little sad in that. But there’s also a whole other world that opens up when you’re reading as a writer, and every new story is a chance to learn more about the writing craft, or to view things we think we know from a new angle. Today I thought I’d share my thoughts and lessons learned from some of the books I’ve read recently.

The Secret Place by Tana French. In the interest of full disclosure, I must tell you that Tana French has become one of my favorite authors in the few years since I started reading her books. Her books are a mix of police procedural, murder mystery, and psychological character study. With each book (this is her fifth), I’ve gotten the impression she’s trying new approaches to her writing. In this one, I really loved the way we got to see the seminal events multiple times, each time from a different perspective that might clarify events or, even better, turn our understanding of the incident completely on its head. This is certainly a technique I hope I’ll be able to employ when I tackle writing my own (very first!) mystery next year.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I actually read this a few years ago, and recently re-read it in preparation for seeing the movie (I’ll share my thoughts on how the book and movie compare after I’ve seen the movie). This book got a lot of press and seemed to be one of those that inspired love or hatred, with very little in between. The main complaints I’ve heard about it is that the main characters are unlikeable and unsympathetic, and the ending ‘didn’t work’ for many readers. Taking that second point first, the ending did work for me, because each character got the ending they’d earned. As to unsympathetic characters, hell yeah. I cannot argue that point. And as a reader who loves to connect to the protagonist, this could have been a problem for me. But there was something about Amy and Nick, the married couple at the center of the novel, that was absolutely riveting. It was the proverbial train wreck and I could not look away. I doubt I’ll ever write a protagonist that I don’t really love, and I’m not sure these are characters that even a creator could love. But I will remember that there are many facets we can give our characters that will hook our readers and keep them turning the pages.

How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny. This is the ninth book in Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series, but the first one I’d read. I was pulled in by the cozy nature of it. Part of it is set in an small idyllic town with characters I’d love to meet in real life. But there’s a dark edge to it, revealed in a brutal murder that pulls Gamache back to this town he’s obviously visited and loved well in the past (previous novels in the series). The murder, though, isn’t the central storyline. That’s reserved for the police corruption and cover-up story. I realized early in the book that I would have a lot more invested in it/get a lot more out of it if I’d read the previous books in the series. But I didn’t need to have read them to enjoy the book, and by the end of it, I really didn’t feel like I’d missed out on a thing. Penny did a masterful job of putting in enough of (and the right) details from past stories to engage new readers without inserting blatant data dumps. She did this by always having some new information or discovery or conflict, something happening in the ‘now’ of the story, accompanying information from the past. If I’m ever fortunate enough to write a series, I hope I can do as good a job of engaging new readers as Penny did.

Dead Things by Stephen Moore. Reading this book was like strapping myself to the outside of a rocket. It started kicking ass and taking names on the first page, and didn’t stop until the last paragraph. I liked the story and the world the author built, and I rooted for the very broken (inside and out) main character, but the overall experience was a little overwhelming. I felt like I never got a chance to catch my breath. I’m a reader who likes those slower scenes (NOT be confused with boring scenes or, heaven forbid, sittin’ and thinking’ scenes) to break up the pace. But man oh man, when I need an example of how to take an all-out crazy action scene, twist and turn it inside out, and pull out tricks the reader will never see coming, this will be a go-to book for me.

That Touch of Magic by Lucy March. I’d had this book on my Kindle TBR ‘pile’ for a while, and just happened to open it when I was agonizing (yet again!) over my WIP’s first scene. It’s a fairly long and quite busy scene. It introduces multiple characters and conflicts. The protagonist, her goals, her main conflict, and most of the characters who will be her support system through the course of the book are all there. And yet, it’s easy to keep it all straight. I’m currently deconstructing that scene and trying to suck all the tasty writerly marrow out of it I can. The main thing that seems to make it work is that the beats are so clean and well-defined. Within each beat, the cast of characters is small and their goals are distinct, then there’s an obvious action that moves the reader into the next beat, which is then distinct and well-contained. Needless to say, I’m considering how to apply this technique to my own first scene.

 

So what good books have you read lately? Have they taught you anything about craft or helped you work through problems in your own WIP?

6 thoughts on “Nancy: When Writers Read

  1. I’m a fan of Elmore Leonard, and I’ve recently found a television show that was originally based on one (at least) of his stories. He now serves as executive producer, he writes a few of the scripts, and he’s generally the touchstone for how the series should progress. (The writers and producers wear bracelets with “WWED” on them for What Would Elmore Do?”).

    The show is called Justified, and I like the show. But as a writer, what really interests me is the supplementary material (I watch this on Netflix). The writers talk about how many times they’ve read the novels (the producers keep a library of all Elmore’s books; the writers all say they’ve read them multiple times), and they do their best to stay true not just to the plots (or events in the stories), but the atmosphere, the language, the style, and the pacing. Over a scene I’d just watched where the protagonist is crossing a bridge to investigate a crime, one of the producers talks about Leonard’s “cutting out the boring parts” theory, and you can see in the action how the producers and editors have made this work.

    I’ve been finding their analysis of the source material fascinating, and then how they translate that to the screen so that you can tell (and you can tell) that the source material is Elmore Leonard. It’s not the same as analyzing a book for the techniques the writer brings to the page, but it’s a new way to look at analyzing material—translating a writer for another medium. And in my current revision, I plan to ask myself “What would Elmore do?” a lot more often.

    • I will have to look for Justified on Netflix. My husband and I are always looking for things to add to our ‘to be watched’ list for our workouts (I need the distraction of story to endure the pain of workouts :-)). He will probably even indulge me by watching the writers’ comments with me.

  2. Pingback: Justine: Fiction as Reference Books | Eight Ladies Writing

  3. I’ve been reading a bunch of old books off the Kindles recently, and if I were writing something period, it’d definitely help me get my brain in the right tone. (-: They certainly used language in a different way back then. The biggest thing I’m taking away is that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. And more than one way to hook me as a reader — not sure how my experience applies to the normal reader, though.

    • I think it’s hard to be a ‘normal reader’ once you are a writer, and as someone else mentioned somewhere else on one of the other posted comments (so much cross-pollination happening, I can’t keep track :-)) after McD. I will never look at a prologue the same way again…

      • (-: I still think the prologue can work beautifully in some cases. But if I see one, I spend at least a third of the book wondering how they could have avoided the prologue. (Usually, it’s not necessary.)

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