Reading as a writer.

Two things: currently 20,000 words into my, hopefully, “new and improved” manuscript and my new year’s resolution was to read two books a month, at uni we read a book a week so it seems slow in comparison (I’m on my 19th book by June so am chuffed).

During the MA, we were taught to pull a book to pieces, metaphorically speaking, so much so that I resented reading because I stopped enjoying it.

They call it critical reading.

As much as it peed me off, learning how to do it has been invaluable to improving my craft.

How my writing and reading hold hands:

As all writers should, I read for guidance and tips. Sometimes it’s great, I have the same ideas as others – although I worry it will look like copying further down the line (damn the fact that nothing we write is original). Other times, it’s a !eureka! moment, ‘Duh, why didn’t I think of that?’

My protagonist is six years old. I was concerned about perspective; getting into a young mind. I hardly remember my world at the age (I’m plagued with an awful memory subject to much mockery in my family). I remember a boy, Alistair, calling me cobwebs because of my fringe, not in a mean way, no, he was unique and very funny (hmmmm… wonder what happened to him, funny how he’s helped create one of my oldest memories and doubt he’s given me a second thought).

So yeah, I was worried at getting into a 6yo perspective so I read My Name is Leon, Pigeon English (on Hellie’s suggestion), The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (on Jo’s suggestion), am halfway through Room and have The Secret Life of Bees ready to go (on my cousin’s suggestion, although this was because I like bees).

These books have been invaluable at giving confidence in my writing of a 6yo and also provided insight on how to approach particular aspects, for instance, how to write a traumatic event; I usually put too much effort into “showing” feelings and action when I need to cover thought better. I think.

I ask myself:

  1. How does the voice sound?
  2. What language is used?
  3. What things in the world capture the protagonist’s thought?
  4. How is imagination portrayed?
  5. What drives the character?
  6. Why does it feel emotional?

Funny, a couple of the books I wanted to avoid reading because of how haunting they were reported as being, but it’s been worth it, despite affecting my ability to fall asleep if I read before bed. I’m embarrassed I wanted to stay ignorant beforehand. Fool!

Then there are the books to advise my ill-managing of plot and to inspire stylistics especially around gritty subject matter; mainly anything by Joyce Carol Oates (but also used the books mentioned above).

I ask myself:

  1. What is happening in every chapter?
  2. Why do I want to keep reading?
  3. Who do I like/dislike and why?
  4. Why am I invested?
  5. What language is being used?
  6. What format is being used?
  7. How is pace used? Does it feel fast or slow? Why? How long are sentences, paragraphs, chapters, wider sections?
  8. What are the subtitles?
  9. Is there tension? Why?
  10. If I don’t like it/something, why? Just because I don’t like something, doesn’t mean it’s not brilliant.

And I’ve read books because they’re popular, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, or because I worry about honeybees, The Bees.

*Interruption* “One must also consider the wider context”; political, cultural, social, historical, feminist, LGBT (course, I haven’t done this since graduating… Oh, who am I kidding? I was rubbish at it then too).

To be honest, I do all this analysing and most of the time still think my writing’s crap, but I hope that it’s an investment, that in four manuscripts time, I will have started to read critically in a useful way and my writing will be a lot better for it.

The best thing about all this reading? Remembering how important it is to read a book purely for escape.

Honestly, is there anything better than curling up with a cup of tea and a book? As a writer, I think it’s easy to lose sight of why fiction is important; escapism, pleasure, leisure. And I don’t find leisure in constantly analysing so I’ve made a promise to myself that every fourth book will be read purely for the enjoyment and I’m not allowed to ask myself any questions. Until the end at least!

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