… The Library.
Yours at home, the public one in your city/town, the state one, the one at the university several doors down from you, the boxes under the stairs, the geeky flatmate’s comic book collection, the one online via Google Books, the one on your Amazon wish list, the one on your Kindle, the charity book sale, your neighbour’s garage – it doesn’t matter which one really, just whether you use one.
Did you see the two writing tricks I just used?
1) I gave you a hook in the title, pulled you in and then gave you an unexpected twist with the first two words: “…The Library.”
2) I then spun out the interest by naming all the possible places you could find a wealth of reading material including some that you didn’t expect.
Why is a compendium, a library, a bibliotheque, a collective space of reading material the number one secret for writing a book?
Because if you are reading (and doing it both objectively and subjectively), you start to see the (for the want of a better word) tricks.
See? I used a third trick: using the first two to illustrate my point about tricks in general.
Reading teaches you to recognise narrative styles, plot structures (and the holes), and very bad authorial habits.If you are doing it right, you will also start to notice what kind of words and ideas move you or provoke a response when you read, what feels like a relevant voice to you and what doesn’t and whether you visualise what’s happening when you read or not.
All of that is important information for a writer. All of that is gold. The more you read, the more you figure these things out for yourself and the more you train yourself subconsciously to recognise it.
Then when you want to write out a scene and you are trying to figure out how to describe it, you will be able to pick out these elements you have picked up elsewhere and try to write so you mimic what you think fits best in your scene. It fills in the edges of the road map.
Example: You could read Agatha Christie over and over again and then try to write a mystery novel and then you would get stuck when you got to the problem of how to pepper the clues throughout the story without making them blindingly obvious. At that point, you could then think about how Christie does it. The answer in this case ismisdirection like a magician – the detective’s sidekick’s most important job is to distract the reader.
In a Poirot novel, Hastings will narrate the story therefore you see Hastings deliberating as to what the solution is throughout the story, occasionally rushing off to do something gallant but totally down the garden path while he wonders why Poirot is more concerned with arranging knick knacks on the mantelpiece. You, as the reader, get swept up along with Hastings, especially when he spots a red head and you groan because you know he won’t get anywhere (because the only decent red head in all the novels is his eventual wife “Cinders”). And so you fail to notice what Poirot notices. Et voila, clues and killer at the end are a complete surprise.
Unless, like me, you grew up on Agatha Christie novels and can therefore see the tail end of a crime fiction novel coming from a long way off.
Some of these things, you can be told straight out (though whether you take them in or not is another matter entirely). Some of these things that you will learn by reading are very subjective.
Reading a lot with this sort of dual objective and subjective critical thinking in mind is not that hard. The next time you read a book, ask yourself: “Why am I getting caught up in this? What am I reacting to? How have they written it in order to get that reaction from me?” The first two are about your reaction (subjective) the last question is about the means of eliciting that reaction (How has the author done it? With what words? What sentence structure or tricks?).
So with that in mind, think back to your favourite book.
1) What is your favourite bit? Why? What grabs you?
2) How is that bit written? What are the tricks you can identify? Even if you don’t know the technical name for a trick, give us an example.
3) What else can you see about the plot? The genre? The structure? The narrative? How does it differ from other books (similar or otherwise) that you have read?
Can you do this with non-fiction? Yes.
Non-fiction is written to entertain, interest, inform or shock the reader in the same way fiction is. The authors only have words (ok, some have pictures and little helpful CDs in the plastic package at the back but still, mostly words…) to get their message across.
They have to do this in a way that you can understand it. That means they need to elicit a reaction from you where you understand what they are trying to say. That means tricks and the way they use words again.
1) So again, how do they structure information? Is there a narrative?
2) Is there humour? Again, what sentence structure? What tricks?
3) What language?
By the way I am fully expecting answers to these questions in the comments below.
I have to warn you, it can get a bit annoying. Not for you, but for your characters, for when they come out of their dressing room, their greasepaint on and ready to do their turn, invariably you are caught up in reading a really good book.
And then you have that annoying see-sawing going on where you are never really sure if the excuse that the reading you are doing right then and there is going to help you write the book eventually, is going to wash.
It usually doesn’t but given that my characters are currently playing a poker game (and losing badly), I’m going to go read a book. They didn’t invite me to play anyway.
Originally posted on Emergen as part of the How to write a book group on 18 August 2010.