Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Reading like a writer

A little over a year ago, I attended a panel on writing, and one of the panelists (herself a published and successful author) warned that learning to write would for a while kill your joy of reading. She warned that revisiting some of your old favorites while wearing your writer's hat may mean that those books are no longer favorites. I was confused by this. I was teaching myself how to write long form fiction because I loved reading long form fiction. I wasn't at the point where I was reading everything I picked up with a critical eye for that author's craft. 

Now, a year later, I am starting that part of my development. But for me, it hasn't been much about being aware of these things for the first time. Instead, I find myself hyper aware of things I was already aware of. "Ah, this author has a problem with effectively building a scene," or "this author has a problem with characterizations." I was aware of these things before, but now I have names to put to them, and I understand better how these weaknesses can affect the entire work. In turn, I can take that understanding and apply it to my own work. Right now I feel like I need to work on characterization and descriptions, and so my focus in reading is going to be on those things and not on things like theme and pacing. 

The key to my entering this phase was twofold. First, I started picking up books because other authors had said that this author did something extremely well. For example, in panel after panel focusing on dialogue I've heard two names come up again and again. First was Elmer Leonard, who writes primarily adventure suspense and mystery. While I didn't find Leonard's dialogue to be to my taste (I tend to lean towards characters that are a bit chattier than his), I did find that he is especially skilled in inserting dialogue into text without having a high number of obvious tags. Learning to do this transformed scenes I'd already written from choppy and awkward to smooth, tight, and effective. The second name was Jos Whedon, of Buffy and Firefly fame. While you can't really analyze Whedon's work on the page, pay attention to how his characters talk and how much Whedon tells you about them just in dialogue. No character will talk like any other character, particularly in Firefly. Even without tags, you know who’s talking. The dialogue is exceptionally tight and effective. The last time I watched Serenity I was blown away by the subtext contained in the dialogue. Learning that level of craft will take me quite a lot of time, but it will be worth the effort when I get there. 

Second, I started writing book reviews again. When I first started this blog in 2010, I was looking to 'build a platform' like so many agents and editors advise. If someone is already reading my work, and I can market professional publications to those people, then I'm more likely to get a professional publication. Now I'm actually using this blog and my work at the Ranting Dragon to further my craft, which is a huge difference. Now I'm talking much more knowledgeably about what an author did well or poorly, why did I like something and why didn't I like something. When I was reading a book in order to review it, I was paying closer attention to the details of craft than when I was just reading for fun. 

So far I’d say I've been lucky. I haven't picked up any old loves and gone "This is trash! Why did I like this?! What was I thinking?!" But at the same time, I'm finding it harder to find new loves. The bar for loving an author is so much higher than it was in the past. It's no longer just about giving me a few hours of entertainment, now it has to be highly crafted fun.


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