Friday, March 22, 2019

Reading as a Writer--Why Reading Other Authors' Books Helps You Learn Your Craft

This weekend, I'm traveling to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to join fifteen emerging (and already published) book writers for my week-long retreat. I've asked each to bring along two books in the same genre as the book they're working on. 

Sometimes this raises questions--"I want to work on my writing, not read other people's."

Newer writers ask this. More experienced ones, less often.  The newer ones don't yet know that writers learn so much by studying those who do it well. 

When I was an art student, I remember my teachers assigning visits to art museums. Not to look at the paintings.  We were supposed to copy them--sit in front of them, sketch them, learn the elegance of line and form by muscle memory.

In my MFA program, same thing.  My advisers assigned me 10-15 books each semester to read.

But not just read as a reader--to enjoy. Because many of those assigned books I didn't enjoy. They wanted me to learn to read as a writer, going beyond the wordcraft into the underpinnings of each story.  How were the chapters structured? How was a character introduced--and when? How about the dialogue and pacing? 

A past student sent me a question this week, about this very topic.  He's a new fiction writer.  He writes, "Dean R. Koontz is today a most successful fiction writer.  In his book How to Write Best-Selling Fiction, he advises the aspiring novelist to read plenty of novels by other authors. He even provides a list of his choice novelists and of some of the books they've written.
"When I read a novel it takes me a lot of time. I usually need to read it a number of times, to understand it, how it's written, to savor its special style of writing, and what emotions and ideas the author is trying to get across.
"Is there any special way for a fiction writer to read other novels by various authors, to learn his craft?"

I would refer this writer and anyone else to Francine Prose's excellent book, Reading Like a Writer.  A great first step to learning how to read other authors' books specifically to learn the craft.  My edition is 2012 so you may have to search for used copies or borrow from friends or a library.  Totally worth it.  

And here are some tips I've picked up for my own study, which might help you:

1. Go into your reading with a goal in mind. There's so much to learn from other writers' work.  What craft skill are you working on right now? 

2.  Make notes as you go.  I like to underline or highlight passages that are great examples of what I'm picking up.

3. Post reviews. Join Goodreads and share your thoughts about books you read. Read others' posts.  

4.  Book clubs are also great for discussion.  Especially if you have a book club made up of writers.  You can also dedicate one writers group meeting to discussing a book--it's a merge of the two types of gatherings and very fun.

5. Let go of your concern about whether it'll hamper your writing to immerse yourself in other people's words. Or about inadvertent plagiarism.  Nobody can or will write like you--or the author you're studying. 

6.  Get recommendations from writers you trust. I keep a running list of books to read, which I add to at each class or retreat I teach, each writers group I attend. 

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