Nancy: Reading Like a Student of Writing

Nancy's Favorites Bookshelf

If there’s one thing we discuss here at 8LW nearly as much as writing books, it’s reading books. And why wouldn’t we? One of the things all of us ladies have in common is that before we were writers, we were avid readers. We continue to read fiction and to use what it teaches us to apply to our own writing. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.

While being a good reader is essential to being a good writer, I try to keep the time dedicated to those activities separate. This is necessary to getting words on the page. But if I’m having a bad day/week/month of writing, I’ve been known to allow myself extra reading time. It keeps my head in the fiction game, I tell myself. If I’m not spending my writing time writing, at least I’m using the hours to study craft, I say. And that’s fine when it’s true.

Unfortunately, sometimes my claims that I’m reading instead of writing because I’m learning is as fictional as the books I write. There’s nothing wrong with reading, with reading a lot, with reading more sometimes to help inform and inspire our own writing. But when reading becomes yet another avoidance technique, it’s time to approach it differently. For me, that meant coming up with a way to keep myself accountable for that time I’m taking from writing and applying to reading. That has led me to start keeping a good old-fashioned (actually not that old-fashioned – more on that in a minute) reading journal.

When we were in the McDaniel romance writing program, it was easy to stay accountable for our reading time. The first class in the program was called Reading the Romance Novel. Of course, it was much more than reading. It was Reading, Dissecting, Analyzing, and Debating the Romance Novel. Because we had class requirements to post on the virtual blackboard in response to specific questions and to write papers with assigned topics for each book, we really were diving deep and engaging our reading brains in a different way. Because we were a whole class of very chatty and engaged writers who were reading these books at the same time, there was always a new perspective to consider.

These days, some of us occasionally read some of the same books and engage in discussions of them, sometimes here on the blog. But for the most part, we each read far and wide and in diverse genres and for our own specific reasons, so there’s just no opportunity to do in-depth analyses of books as a group. But that doesn’t mean that kind of analysis is no longer important. Being a good fiction writer means being a lifelong fiction reading student. Harry Connolly wrote about this over on Chuck Wendig’s blog last week. He discussed a scientific approach to learning, as outlined in Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel.

In discussing the book’s suggestion to use self-testing to improve retention of learned material, Connolly writes, “…low-stakes testing where students are asked to recall what they’ve learned is an excellent way to reinforce that learning…Self-quizzing is the basis of study and learning.” That’s exactly what I’ve started doing with my reading journal.

In my Evernote app, I have set up a notebook titled Reading Lessons. In that notebook, I make a ‘note’ (the basic unit of capturing information in this particular app) for each book I’ve read. I ask myself a lot of the same questions we used when critiquing each others’ work in our McDaniel classes: What about the story worked for me? What didn’t work? Could I identify the main characters’ GMC? What expectation of the book do I have a the end of the first chapter? Does the book ‘keep its promises’ to the reader? And then I capture book-specific details, for example, if there was an unreliable narrator, I’ll note whether I felt sympathy for  and connected with the the character and was able to ‘forgive’ the narrator’s deception, and I’ll try to deconstruct just how the writer fooled me into believing the narrator and where I started to doubt the character’s veracity.

While I could capture all of this information with a pen and a notebook, there are advantages to keeping a virtual reading journal. Because I have a synched version of the app on my phone, which is small and likely to be with me most of the time, I don’t need to worry about having a paper notebook with me when I want to jot down notes. But my favorite part of keeping a virtual reading journal is the ability to attach tags to each note that capture the most important lessons I learned from each book, which can then be used to quickly retrieve information about a specific aspect of craft.

Using the unreliable narrator example, if I’m having trouble with a plot or just a scene where the POV character is unreliable (maybe she’s intentionally lying, fooling herself, drunk, etc.), then I can use the tags to pull up the notes on each book I read that used that element. I can remind myself which books I thought did it well, what I did or didn’t like about the writer’s approach, and how the writer employed the technique.

And then I actually can do the thing I’ve been telling myself I’m doing when I’m reading all those books: take lessons from other people’s books and apply them to my own writing. Because while writers need to read, they also need to write.

How do you analyze and track lessons you’ve learned from other people’s books? What have you read recently that has taught you something you can use in your own writing?

10 thoughts on “Nancy: Reading Like a Student of Writing

  1. I don’t track, but I should. I have found myself struggling with a passage and I think, I read a book in which the author did this really well, but I can never remember which book when I need it.

    • If it was a romance and you remember some other details about the book, you might be able to get some help over at the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books site. Good luck in finding it and in working out your problem passage. You’ve been making such great progress with your story – I can’t wait to read it!

  2. I love hearing about all the technology boosts people can use to improve their writing! This sounds so cool. Alas, it’s all I can do to get myself to open the manuscript, so opening something else is probably beyond me. However, while I can’t point to a specific technique, I did learn something a while ago by reading: I was reading a thriller/suspense novel (and I’ve written a couple of those), and the body count was just too high (one reason I tend to stick to writing romance novels). It wasn’t just that so many people died or were beaten or raped or whatever. It was that in the book, it was all so casual. Turn the page, another stabbing. Turn the page, two deaths by torture. Etc. And not only did this not increase the suspense or raise the stakes for me, it both got boring and also put me off, because the way the story was handled, I felt that the deaths weren’t important. So my takeaway: if something bad is going to happen, make it count. Build it up. Show the anxiety, struggle, fear, and pain. And that goes for romance novels, too.

    • I remember when we discussed writing about death at McDaniel, and the consensus really was that if you’re going to have death on the page, it needs to mean something (but that’s true of everything on the page, isn’t it?). There’s certainly an argument that the rule can bend a bit for certain genres, but treating it callously would not work for me as a reader, either.

      I read an urban fantasy several months ago that had a lot of gruesome murders. In that case, they really did send the protag reeling, especially since some of them were people close to him, so it wasn’t a total deal-breaker for me. The pacing, however, was another issue. The story moved at such breakneck speed, I got whiplash. I’m going to try to read the next book in the series, but if there is no breathing room in the story, I probably won’t finish it. There’s a lot to be said for building up to major events and bad things, as well as for changing up the pacing throughout a story to build suspense and hold reader interest.

  3. Nancy, I love your reading log. I kept one for a long time that listed the book, who the main characters were, and my own personal review of the book – mostly to keep the stories straight and to keep from re-buying / re-reading books I didn’t like.

    I really like your idea of capturing the “writer’s perspective” information. I can see where that would be very helpful. I see an expanded Excel spreadsheet in my future 🙂

    • Well, you know I love a good spreadsheet! I was going to build my journal in Excel, but I wasn’t sure how I wanted to set up the information to make it as searchable as a tagging system like the one I’m using in Evernote. If you set up one in Excel, let me know how it works!

  4. Great post! Some random thoughts triggered by this:

    1) I wish we did a monthly (seasonal?) book read together. I miss really getting into the deeper bones of the book with other people.

    2) Other people’s perspectives turn a book from simply great literature into something more like a lifestyle. I belong to a mailing list that discusses one author’s books, and while I don’t agree with everyone’s interpretations, I can often see how they see things that way. And some of the insights that people have given me! Incredible. (You probably can guess which author — it’s Lois McMaster Bujold. The latest thing the mailing list has me contemplating is bug butter. Is it a GMO? Under what circumstances would I eat a GMO? Answer so far: starvation conditions or super-gourmet once-in-a-lifetime conditions. Why do I feel that way? I’m discovering more about myself through the discussion.)

    3) I’m wondering if Goodreads would be a good tool for this. I use it on and off. I’m not sure if there’s a “privacy” function, and I do feel bad if I publicly give a book anything less than a four. I’m pretty sure there are tags, and there are bookshelves. Like so many things, it’d probably be more convenient in the long run to just do this privately on my own computer.

    I think it’s a great idea to keep a searchable reading journal. (-: If nothing else, it might prevent double-buys. But I can see it being a very useful tool for writers, too.

    • As I was writing this, I was thinking the same thing about a monthly book read. I can see it being difficult for many of us to make time to contribute to the discussion and I wouldn’t want to steal time from anyone’s writing, but it’s something fun to consider.

      • Joining in late to say I’d be up for a monthly book read.

        I also try to analyse books as I read them (and tell myself lolling on the sofa of an evening reading romance novels and drinking wine is ‘research’) but I often notice that I am only analytical for about the first third of the book – after that I’m generally into the story and forget all about analysis!

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