“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” ~ Stephen King
I begin with those words as a reminder that if we want to be serious writers, we must first be serious readers.
There is reading for enjoyment, reading for analytical purposes, and reading like a writer. With required reading in school, we quickly learn the difference between reading for enjoyment and reading for analytical purposes. We learned how to analyze texts for themes, give detailed character analysis, and discuss symbols and motifs. Reading like a writer was something I did not understand until I was an adult. It was not until I read Francine Prose‘s Reading Like a Writer and took classes at NYC’s The Writers Studio that I truly began to understand how to approach my reading. I will impart some of what I have learned to you.
Grab a few of your favorite novels/short stories and follow this two-step process:
Study the Structure
How is the story told? Is it in chronological order or does the middle/end come first? Outline the story. In what order do the key events in the story unfold? In what order do they actually happen?
Once you have a solid idea of how the story is structured, start asking yourself why. Why did the author choose to tell the story the way he/she did? What effect did that have? Did it build suspense? Try to push yourself to answer these questions and in doing so, you will understand why authors take certain approaches to telling a story.
Study the Narrator
There is the first-, second-, and third- person narrator. Within those narrators, the first and third offer mobility. When I first started writing, it took me awhile to realize that the “I” narrating the story was not “me”. Not only was it not “me”, but the “I” could vary. I studied Susan Straight’s story Mines to understand how to create a mobile first-person narrator, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye to understand how to create an unreliable first-person narrator, and ZZ Packer’s Brownies to understand how to create a peripheral first-person narrator.
Third person can be limited, omniscient, or somewhere in between. When I first read Neil Gaïmen’s American Gods, I asked myself why most of the book was a limited third-person narrator (instead of first). I realized that the protagonist was not bright enough to articulate what was happening around him and that this narrator was the perfect filter for the events occurring in the story. Once again, asking and answering the “why” question provides clarity.
Those were the two main aspects I wanted to highlight. Some other elements of a story to pay attention to: dialogue, scene, and descriptions.
Enjoy the story first but then reread. While you reread, you must continually pause and ask: “Why did he/she make this choice?” and “What affect does this have?”
Questioning the decisions authors have made allows you to understand how those decisions work and, ultimately, help you decide how to make those decisions in your own writing.