The web is replete with admonitions for writers to read. They range from Stephen King's terse
"If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that."
to W.P. Kinsella's kindly:
"Read! Read! Read! And then read some more. When you find something that thrills you, take it apart paragraph by paragraph, line by line, word by word, to see what made it so wonderful. Then use those tricks the next time you write."
I agree! But quotations like these leave an important question unanswered: How? How should we take others' prose apart so we may be enlightened? Are there techniques? Hints? Pointers?
The other day I found an article by Lee Goldberg on how to read critically. Mr Goldberg didn't set out to write about how to read critically (at least, I don't think he did), he was talking about adapting Nero Wolfe's books to the small screen. But, in so doing, he read Wolfe's stories critically and described his process.
Before we get into that, what does all this talk of reading critically amount to? What are our goals?
What do we mean by reading critically?
"Reading critically" is a phrase that's used quite a bit, but what is it to read a story critically?
Here's how I think of it: reading critically is to read a story in such a way that one acquires an understanding of its underlying structure and how that structure gives meaning to the story as a whole.
As W.P. Kinsella wrote, it's all about taking stories apart to see what makes them wonderful and then using those techniques in one's own tales.
Lee Goldberg on reading critically
By the way, I'm not saying that Lee Goldberg would agree with any of the following five steps. I'm just saying this is what I took from what he wrote.
Step 1: Read the book from cover to cover. Read it for pleasure, read it for a sense of the story.
Step 2: Read the story again and, as you do, answer the following:
a) What are the key emotional points of the story?
b) What are the major plot points?
c) What are the essential clues?
d) What is the central conflict between the main characters?
Step 3: Highlight dialogue that is essential to communicating the important story points.
Step 4: Using the notes you've taken so far, create an outline of the story. What are the scenes? The sequels? The arcs/sequences?
Step 5: If you were going to write this story, what changes would you make? Is there a more effective way to communicate the main story points?
Right now I'm thoroughly enjoying Cheap Shot by Ace Atkins, a continuation of Robert B. Parker's Spenser series. On audiobook, I'm listening to Stephen King's Needful Things.
What are you reading or listening to at the moment?
1. "Writing Nero Wolfe," by Lee Goldberg
2. How To Read Like A Writer (NSFW)
Photo credit: "tunnel at place des vosges" by Greg Westfall under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.