A few months ago, Janet blogged on how Writers Gotta Read. Read and keep reading is advice writers are told repeatedly. Many of us shake our heads at the thought of anyone who wants to be an author who doesn’t have a reading list a mile long. This is a not a problem that pertains to us. Or does it?
Writers need to stay current on the books in their genre – that much is true. An editor these days reading a story about a boy magic user riding a train to a magic school to face down an evil wizard might not be too impressed with the author’s originality. Sure, we all put our own spin on standard storylines but weary editors and agents inundated with manuscripts want to see some originality. So yes, knowing your genre is important, but there’s another vital reason to keep reading.
Aspiring authors need to learn to think critically about writing. Examining a successful book and breaking down how the author uses specific techniques for specific effects teaches you how to do the same in your own work. Reading not-so-good works can teach you what to avoid.
This approach involves more than reading a book. You need to study the book – break down the sentence, paragraph, and story arc structures. Listen to the rhythm. Identify the voice. Determine what makes the voice unique. What does the author do to make the character live?
One suggestion is to get an old copy of a book you admire and mark it up. Underline specific elements that work. Make notes in the margins. Internalize techniques that grab and hold the reader. I haven’t actually managed to bring myself to mark up a book but I do read and reread sentences, mentally dissecting them. No matter what works for you, pull apart the writing and study it.
I mentioned The Hunger Games in Description is Not a Sin. When I first began the book, I had difficulty plowing through the use of the present tense. At the end of the story, it didn’t bother me and I ultimately realized the author had no choice but to use present tense for that particular story. Katniss had to be the narrator because its her story – what she saw, how what she wanted helped overthrow a corrupt regime, and how she changed. Much of the suspense is derived from whether Katniss is going to live or die and then whether the revolution will succeed or fail. Having her narrate in past tense would completely ruin the suspense.
That doesn’t mean we should all start using present tense. Copying the use of the present tense just because Collins has a wildly successful book misses the point. She had a reason to use it in that particular story, a really good reason, which is the key to knowing when and how to successfully break established rules.
The writing in Hunger Games is trim, almost terse, both in the voice of the book and in Katniss’a voice, echoing the Seam. a place that has no time or energy for fripperies, where you work or die. Especially in the first chapter, every sentence serves a calculated purpose, driving the story on, providing backstory. All those things we are told to do as writers, but find so hard to do in practice. It’s worth a good, long study.
Do you have any study techniques you use? Any novels or stories that you find especially worthwhile to examine?