Friday, August 6, 2021

Approaching Summer Reading--Like a Writer

Back in the day, I came across a book on writing by the renowned teacher and author Francine Prose. Reading Like a Writer changed how I approached my reading. I still read for the pleasure of being immersed in a story, of learning, of becoming inspired. But now I took something else away from my reading time: techniques I could use in my own books as a writer.

Prose's book is one you've no doubt read yourself--if you haven't, be sure to!--and I learned much from her step-by-step unraveling of story.

It was a similar change in awareness that happened when I discovered storyboards and the five turning points of well-structured stories. I remember watching a film not long after my first storyboard immersion. My family grew very tired of my muttering "a perfect point #2" or "there's the all is lost moment." But my admiration for good structure and my new understanding of how writers achieved it did change my take-away from good movies.

Same with books. My summer reading has a different outcome now. If I'm working on my own book(s), reading other authors for a break, there's all likelihood I'll glean some new structure ideas or pacing tips from them.

Case in point: last summer, at the family cabin, I dove into Ann Patchett's novel The Dutch House. It's a good but complex story about a house that changed two siblings' lives. Patchett's lesson for me in that book was about weaving backstory. She has two storyboards running together, childhood and present time, and she works the transitions with such skill. I read, pondered, made notes for my own novel-in-progress, and was still able to thoroughly enjoy the story.

Understanding the underpinnings only makes a reader appreciate the magic more, in my opinion.

In another lifetime, or so it seems, I worked as a restaurant chef in California. After hours, my crew and I were hungry. We were also wired from all the rush of the evening, so we would drive to another restaurant and order a very late dinner. As we ate, we'd analyze the ingredients of each dish, taking notes for our own. It's hard to avoid doing this if you love your work with a passion and if you are creative at heart. Or so I feel.

A writer in my recent weeklong class with Madeline Island School of the Arts forwarded me this wonderful article by Ann Patchett on her own experiences as reader and writer. It's from Folio. The link is here (if it doesn't work, go to and search for Ann Patchett). It gives an insider's glimpse into how many writers approach their reading.

My summer reading has mostly been after the puppies are in bed (we have two, 5 and 7 months--and yes, we are insane), but I have gathered a lovely stack which may last me into winter. I'm currently reading Lorna Mott Comes Home by Diane Johnson, to see how the third person limited and omniscient voices are woven. Very hard to do well but Johnson is a master of much, including this.

Each book in that stack has a purpose for my own writing. Kind of a self-created tutorial. It doesn't diminish my pleasure, not a bit, but it gives me something more that juices up my own writing.

What are you reading right now? I encourage you to read--a lot--if you are writing. Some say this isn't a good idea, but I've never found it so. Creative people learn from other creative people, and that learning never stops.

No comments:

Post a Comment