Monday, January 25, 2016

Reading Like a Writer

A popular post from September 2010

by Annette Lyon

We've mentioned it before many times here: writers should read a lot. And they should.

Even inferior stuff.

Awhile ago, I finished some less-than-stellar novels. I pushed myself to finish them, even though I was afraid of losing brain cells in the process, for one big reason: reading bad stuff even to the bitter (sometimes literally) end can be a powerful teaching tool.

Now, I don't recommend finishing every single book you don't like, but finishing some can be worth it purely for the education you get as a result.

By finishing an entire bad book, you get to see poor plots (and how they don't resolve well) firsthand. How to make flat character arcs (you can't tell that from a few chapters). How conflict can fizzle when it's supposed to be ramping up. How dead wood flattens a story. How telling instead of showing weakens the entire effect.

Any time I purposely read bad stuff, I make a point of analyzing it. Why is this bad? Specifically? What could the author have done to fix this part? That one? Why does the voice drive me crazy? Why can't I connect to this character? Why am I bored during what's supposed to be the climax?

If I ask those questions and try to find the answers, then the time I spent on the book isn't wasted. I can apply what I've learned to my work, avoiding problems I might have made if I hadn't seen close-up how this or that doesn't work.

A few gems from some recent reading:
  • Make your hero/heroine ACTIVE participants. Having your MC react to everything and not take action is boring.
  • On the flip side, don't make your MC act rashly. If you must get them into a dangerous situation, find a way to do it that doesn't make your reader think the character is a total blockhead.
  • Assume your reader is at least as smart as your MC. Or smarter. Readers will get it. No need to spell things out. They'll also catch plot holes the size of Alaska. And even ones the size of Rhode Island. Remember, readers are smart.
  • Keep the pace clipping along, especially if the story is supposed to be suspenseful. Nothing like your MC spending weeks or months (and wasted paper and words) on, well, nothing.
  • Show. Show. Show. No, really. SHOW!
  • Make conflicts big enough for the MC. That means not building it up to be something big and then having it resolved in one paragraph like magic.
  • Make sure the MC's actions are properly motivated. Just because you need X to happen doesn't mean that readers will buy it when the MC does W to set the wheels in motion. (See the "man, that character is a blockhead" bullet above.)
  • After the cool, intense, climactic part hits, don't spend another 80 or more pages wrapping things up and trying to throw in additional minor conflicts for the sake of tying up every little detail.
  • Don't belabor points. We got it the first time. And the second. By the ninth time, I'm trying to find a hot poker for my eyes. (Remember that "readers are smart" bit?)
  • Make each character unique. They must sound different, not all like versions you.
Anything you've learned from reading crappy stuff lately?


Stephanie Black said...

Beware of infodumps. We don't necessarily need all that info right away.

Watch for emotional tone. If something scary, mysterious, or freaky happens, make sure the character reacts to it emotionally, instead of going calmly along.

Beware of unintended slips out of viewpoint.

Watch out for glitchy little writing things like antecedent problems and illogical -ing constructions ("Tying her shoes, she ran down the stairs").

Heather B. Moore said...

I agree with Stephanie, about the info dumps. I do it still in my first draft, but it's important to develop into scenes and not just tell the reader everything. It takes away the experience of "being inside the story."

Rebecca said...

Great post! Thanks!

I came across several books that have been quite the learning experience for me.

I was shown firsthand how -ly adverbs are tools of the telling trade.

Point of view shifting makes me say "What?" and I lose track of the storyline.

Ends that are too neatly tied up-- such as everyone being related to each other in some fashion--don't seem coincidental, just lazy on the part of the author.

Holy infodump, Batman!

Using precious word space for useless information such as detailing board games that are being played, or mentioning that a person is struggling with having been adopted on nearly every page. I'm not that stupid.

I've also become very tired of the "independent career woman/ice queen with less personality than a cold, dead fish" that an awesome hero falls for. Why does he like her? Just because she's pretty? Overdone, in my opinion.