The 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 backstory, 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 backstory 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 backstory. 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?