Monthly Archives: May 2011

Reading Like a Writer

Recently, my friend S sent me a book as part of a care package. On a Post-it Note stuck on the cover she wrote, “Have you read this? The pacing of the last 10-20 pages is amazing!”

Can you tell S is a writer?

I’ve been meaning for a while to write a post about Reading Like  Writer. What does that mean? It’s sort of like a woodworker staring at a Thos. Moser chair. Unlike you or me, he doesn’t just stand and drool. Well, he does, but then he wipes away his drool and tries to figure out How They Did That. What tools did they use? What kind of wood? How did they get that effect? How did they stain it? Can I do that, too?

Similarly, if S were reading as a reader, she might have written something different on the Post-it Note: “The last section is a page-turner!” But she was clearly thinking about what made the last 20 pages compelling. Something about the way the author parcels out information, about the way she builds and relieves suspense. (I’m sort of guessing here, b/c I haven’t gotten that far in the book.)

Reading like a writer means not just being swept away by a scene, but going back and trying to figure out why that scene swept you away. Was it the dialogue? The actions of the characters? A vivid description of emotions or setting? How did all those things come together to build tension or suspense or beauty or mystery?

When reading like a writer, look for

  • Character development
  • Plotting and structure
  • Language
  • Voice
  • Tone
  • Dialogue
  • Setting and description
  • Scene and pacing

It’s a lot! Usually, there are one or two or three things that a particular book does really well, and that’s what I focus on, rather than trying to follow the ways the book handles every single element of fiction. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have any time to just read a passage a drool.

I’ll be following this post up with some posts where I look at particular elements in books I’ve read recently. Look for a post on structure soon. I’d also love to hear from my readers about how you “read like a writer.”

As an aside, Margaret Atwood has read every Conan the Conqueror book!


What the ‘The Voice’ Says About Competition and Rejection in the Creative Arts

Yes, I’m writing about a reality TV show.

I was worried that the “Battle Round” episodes of the new singing competition “The Voice” would be totally cheesy. But in fact, the first one was really dramatic and interesting. We often think of the arts as individual pursuits of passion, but in fact, artists often have to compete against one another, whether in an audition or by submitting their work to journals, contests, agents and publishers. Writers don’t have to compete against each other in person (usually), but we send our work into the black hole of submissions, where editors, contest judges, agents and publishers compare our stories and poems and novels to other people’s stories and poems and novels and decide who will be featured in an issue, win the contest, get their book published.

One thing the “Voice” shows is that often, the people who judge artists and their work and choose who will be given a record contract or a spot in a journal — well, they’re judging equally talented, equally passionate, equally committed people. And that’s hard. And often, the choice comes down to a personal preference, or a feeling like, “This person really has potential,” or “This piece really touched me in a certain way.” We who are sending our work out to be judged have no way of controlling that reaction. All we can do is write what we hope is a great piece, polish it to death, and send it out there hoping it will wing its way to someone who gets touched or moved by it.

Another thing the show illustrated was the range of ways artists can feel about competing against each other. The first two competitors  clearly wanted to beat each other. Their relationship was tense. The last two competitors clearly respected each other and enjoyed performing together, even though they knew only one of them could be chosen. As writers — let’s just admit it — we can sometimes envy the folks who we’re competing against, or feel superior to them and think we deserve to succeed more than they do, or feel connected to them by the creative endeavor and really, really want them to succeed, even if we don’t.

Rejections suck. Acceptances rock. Obviously, when we’re writing, we should be focused on our individual pursuit of passion, our individual artistic impulse. We should apply ourselves and make the work as good as it can be, regardless of what the writer next door is doing. But there’s no denying that if a writer aims to be published and share her work with an audience, she’s going to have to compete with others. The hope is that most of the time, we’ll find camaraderie in that competition, rather than bitterness toward the folks who share our passion for writing.