Posts like this--How To Read Like A Writer--are why I love Chuck Wendig's blog.
Chuck Wendig has identified something I've felt in a hazy kind of way and shined a spotlight on it. (After reading his post I'm tempted to write 'shined a #@*#! spotlight on it'. Color me impressionable.) He writes:
You can’t just pick up a book, read it, and have its wisdom absorbed into you. Eating a microwave burrito doesn’t make you a chef. Sitting on a chair doesn’t make you a ... carpenter. And reading doesn’t make you a writer. (How To Read Like A Writer)Makes sense! Of course the saying--A writer must read and write--is true as far as it goes, it's just not terribly helpful due to its generality.
Chuck Wendig gets beautifully specific.
Chuck Wendig's Tips On How To Read Like A Writer
1. Be present in the text
I have trouble with this. For instance, I'm currently reading Kim Harrison's latest book in her Hollows series--Ever After--and whenever I start reading it I'm sucked in.
Every time I try to snap out of the story and examine the words she's using--examine how she's able to submerge me in her world--I get sucked in again!
But, yes, being present in the text is something I strive for. Though, tragically, it is easiest to achieve when I'm reading a book I'm lukewarm about.
2. Read to understand; dissect the page
Chuck Wendig writes:
[A] chef doesn't just eat to enjoy. A chef watches how another chef operates. A chef wants to look at technique and then wants to see how that technique translates to the food on the plate: what ingredients are present? What textures and spices? What ancient shellfish from beyond space and time?A Chef wants to understand how the other chef creates his culinary magic.
Chuck Wendig doesn't specify, in this section, what precisely he has in mind by 'dissect the page', but in his article 25 Things I Want To Say To So-Called “Aspiring” Writers, he writes:
And, when you do read something, you learn from it by dissecting it--what is the author doing? How are the characters and plot drawn together?That reminds me of something I wrote down in my writing journal earlier today: Create a goal for your character that will eventually force them to deal with their unique weakness.
I think that's a paraphrase, not a direct quotation. It's from a three minute YouTube video about characterization: How To Make An Audience Care About Your Characters by John Truby. (The 3 minute video is excellent.)
So, for starters, I need to ask myself things like:
- What is the protagonist's weakness?
- What is her external goal?
- How will the protagonist achieving their goal resolve the character's weakness? (Sometimes the weakness is called the characters 'wound', or their 'internal goal'.)
I think that the stories I would rate as mediocre probably don't do the above well.
3. Read with questions in mind
Here are Chuck Wendig's suggestions:
- How did the author write this?
- Why did the author write it this way? Why did she choose the words she did?
- What is the ratio of dialogue to description?
- How does the author handle character? Setting? Action?
- How would you do it differently?
4. Read to critique
As Chuck Wending notes, a critique is an analysis. I came across an excellent article the other day about how to structure a story. One idea I had for a blog post was to take a classic short story--a very VERY short story--and analyse it in terms of character development, pacing and story structure.
I think doing that sort of analysis would benefit me more than reading any number of books solely for pleasure.
5. Read deeply
Chuck Wendig advises us to "look beyond the words".
- What themes are at work?
- What ideas are expressed?
- What were the author's childhood traumas? Look for the author's personal contribution to the unfolding story.
- What is the subtext?
6. Understand the interplay between writing and storytelling
This is another reason why I love Chuck Wendig's blog posts. This is SO true! But I can't recall anyone else ever saying it, at least not this clearly. CW writes:
Those are two separate skills (or crafts, or arts, or magical leprechaun incantations or whatever you want to call them) — the story comprises all those narrative components and the writing comprises the language that communicates those narrative components. Both have structure. Both utilize the other. Separate but then ask: how and how well do they work together?
7. Read from the screen
Be eclectic in your research, don't just read novels. CW writes:
Watch television. Films. Games. Get scripts. Read those. You’ll learn a lot about dialogue and description. You’ll learn the architecture of story.
8. Read beyond the walls of your pleasure dome
I'm bad at this. Atrocious. I read what I like, I should get recommendations from my writer friends and read those books even if they don't, initially, seem like my cup of tea. Chuck Wendig writes:
If all you do is read in the genre in which you write and/or enjoy, you’ve created for yourself a narrative echo chamber — your own authorial intentions are boomeranged back to you. You gain nothing.Chuck Wendig ends his article by writing:
[I]f this writing thing is what you want to do with some or all of your life, then accept that reading is part of the job. And this job demands that all the lights in your brain are turned on, not dulled to a dim room in order to passively absorb the haw-haws and ooh-aahs of entertainment. Read like a writer, goddamnit.Amen!
Do you read like a writer? What questions do you ask when you read?
Other articles you might like:- Author Solutions: The New Carnys?
- Structured Procrastination: Procrastinate And Get Things Done
- Joanna Penn's Tips For Writing Realisitic Fight Scenes
Photo credit: "Week #1 "New" [1of52]" by Camera Eye Photography under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.