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?