Reading as a Writer

Dickens_Great_Expectations_in_Half_Leather_Binding I just returned from a trip to England during which I read, for probably the fourth or fifth time since my childhood, a book I have always loved: Dickens’ Great Expectations.

Part of my goal for this read was to physically experience the book’s setting. To trace Pip’s steps through the dirty London streets and walk along the Thames where he rows his boat to check on Magwitch. To shop in Covent Garden where Herbert Pocket goes to get the best fruit to welcome his new roommate. To visit the Temple courts where Jagger lives and works. To see with my own eyes Newgate prison—which doesn’t exist anymore, I’m sorry to say, although there is a sign marking where it once stood.

My bigger goal, though, was to read a book I had long loved in a completely new way: as a writer reads. Reading as a writer is a kind of dissection, really—not just of the work, to figure out how it works, but of my own psyche as a reader. What is it that has always enthralled me about this book? I ask myself. Why have I returned to it again and again in the course of a lifetime? I examine the story, the details, the transitions, the very sentences of Dickens’ masterpiece, looking for applicable clues about how to make my own writing successful.

There’s no better writing teacher to be found, no better course of instruction or writing program, than a book you loved as a child and continue to love in adulthood. For me, that’s Great Expectations and Robinson Crusoe, The Good Earth, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, and the dark fairytales of Helena Nyblom. And works of nonfiction like Helen Keller’s autobiography and Jade Snow Wong’s account of growing up the fifth daughter of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco, and a hagiography I wore out as a child called Little Pictorial Lives of Saints. There are more, each one a teacher with the rare pedagogical skill of educating not by presenting something new but by confirming and demonstrating old truths.

Reading as a writer, I learned from Dickens that even the most honorable characters are most engaging and memorable in their failures and absurdity. I knew this. We all know this. It’s why Peter and Thomas are my favorites of Jesus’ followers. And it’s why Esau is so impossible to hate. (I don’t know how God manages it!) Through their faults, they become more believable, more real. Jesus himself, though without fault, becomes 100% human in moments when he seems least likeable, such as when he balks at healing the demon-possessed daughter of a Canaanite woman who argues that “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (Matthew 15.27 NRSV).

Great_Expectations_(1917)_1Each character in Great Expectations is a surprise. Miss Havisham experiences remorse. Estella confesses genuine emotions to Pip. Jaggers ends up being as much a father to fatherless Pip as he is a heartless professional. Pip moves from fear and repulsion toward Magwitch to concern and compassion. Through such surprises, Dickens helps me find the life-giving contradictions and winsome growth opportunities in my own characters.

Dickens also taught me how to keep my reader focused through blunt meta references to “the last chapter” that I would never have recommended to my own students. He was writing serially, after all, so his readers would have needed more help remembering what had gone on in the previous issue than the contemporary reader of the assembled chapters would need. Still, it’s a helpful technique. And referencing one’s previous remarks and chapters is certainly freeing.

Students in my writing courses often complain about my “reading as a writer” assignments. I’m always wanting them to apply what they learn from their favorite writers—or from one of my favorites—to their own writing, and I’m never pleased with their flowery, laudatory assessments of their favorite books’ writerly techniques.

“You’re reading like a literary critic!” I rant. “You’re reading like a teenager in love. I want you to read like a writer!”

It is the hardest way to read, I think, but surely, once you’ve read a book the first time through, the most useful. Once my students get how to do it, they thank me.

“Don’t thank me,” I tell them. “Thank the author!”

In case you’re wondering, reading as a writer won’t wreck the book for you. To the contrary: Discovering what made you love a book gives you a new appreciation for it—so much so that, if you’re anything like me, you’re eager to read the book again soon.

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So Many Books, So Little Time

278153_3301Do you have a TBR pile? Yeah, I hear you. Stupid question. Who doesn’t? In fact, I’ve got an entire TBR bookcase I like to call Storyland. It’s a magical place, filled with books I’ve promised to review, those I want to read because the back cover copy hooked and reeled me in, and a few that I feel obligated to plow through.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not whining. There are many more titles I’d add to Storyland if I had the money, but where would I find the time to read them all? Surely with so many books and so little time, the topic of reading outside your comfort zone is a moot point, isn’t it?

No. It’s not. I’m a big advocate of broadening your reading horizons even when—or especially when—your time is limited. Why? Many reasons…

1. It gets you out of a rut, opening your eyes to other possibilities that just might spur you on to greater creativity.

2. It demolishes prejudice. How do you know you don’t like a western if you’ve never read one? If story is king, the genre doesn’t matter. When choosing to read outside your comfort zone, choose titles that are classics or bestsellers (because there’s usually a reason they’re in that position).

3.  If you want to be a well-rounded writer, you must be a well-rounded reader. Don’t forget short stories, poems, and plays can teach and hone different skills than a novel.

4. You just might discover a new favorite author. It’s happened to me. Because I write reviews, I don’t always get to choose the books I read. I’ve come across some fantastic new authors this way.

5. There’s always something to learn, from a new time period, to a people group you’re not familiar with, or even scientific theories you’ve never heard of. Reading outside your comfort bubble is educational.

1207951_88385713Now that you’re chomping at the bit to try some new genres, here are a few you can check out:

Steampunk

Generally this is an amalgamation of the Victorian era with modern technologies powered by steam. Plus there’s an excess of spin-offs such as dieselpunk, atompunk, decopunk, and loads of others.

Metafiction

Put on your thinking cap because this one is a little tricky to wrap your brain around. Metafiction is a literary term describing writing that purposely poses questions about the relationship between fiction and reality using irony and self-reflection.

Urban Fantasy

Think elves or magical fairies roaming around the alleys of New York City. Better yet, how about dwarves in the sewer system? This genre is usually set in contemporary times and contains elements of fantasy.

Musical Fiction

This is a genre wherein music is supreme, both as subject matter and via the flow and rhythm of the prose. Music is manifested through the language itself.

Robinsonade

Search your memory banks way back to junior high when you read Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and you’ve just about hit the bull’s eye. The success of that novel spawned so many imitations that the title was used to define an entire genre, more simply described as a “desert island story.”

So go on…nudge, nudge…step out of your suffocating little box. Fling a completely out-of-your-zone book onto your TBR pile today. You can thank me for it later.

Preferably with chocolate.

What Stories Teach Us

Woman readingI just finished reading two novels that I ended up loving but started out hating. Or, not exactly hating. Just struggling to keep on reading.

Both were assigned reading. One was a friend’s favorite novel: David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. After repeatedly recommending it, she finally sent me a copy all the way from Germany. I couldn’t not read it. But it was a challenge. It’s about training dogs, I kept thinking through the first hundred pages. I like dogs, (we have four of our own), but how could this book have been such a bestseller? Right around then, though, the dogs and characters coalesced into a gripping mystery, and I read all night long.

The same happened with Randy Boyagoda’s Beggar’s Feast. A colleague organizing a conference featuring the novel’s author asked if I’d participate in a panel discussion of its “Christian elements.” The assignment made me leery. If there’s anything I can’t tolerate in fiction, it’s a sermon, which I assumed the presence of discernible “Christian elements” would comprise. When I sit down—or, more often, lie down—to read a novel, I want to be entertained. If there’s a message, I like to discover it myself, as with Jesus’ parables. “If you want to preach,” I tell my fiction workshop students, “write devotionals, not novels.”

My colleague’s new to our department, though, and I didn’t want to alienate her. Plus, running a conference is hard work; I wanted to offer support. Accordingly, I said I’d read the novel and, if I liked it, join the panel.

So, I started Beggar’s Feast, the syntactically gnarled tale of a boy mistreated and abandoned by his benighted family who subsequently fights, smarms, and schemes his way through the docks of Ceylon to become wealthy and powerful. A Ceylonese Horatio Alger, minus (thank God!) the moralism: Boyagoda’s protagonist, the self-named Sam Kandy, is no tractable boot-black. He despises everyone, even his own children, and murders two wives in the course of the story. Indeed, he’s such a baddie I’m struggling to discover Christian elements in his exploits.

tree diagramWhat made me dislike the book initially was that it was so hard to read. Those gnarled sentences— barrages of images so jumbled and knotted they defied sorting into logical wholes, even by someone who makes her living sorting sense from mangled prose. It was so linguistically maddening to follow this boy’s experiences—worse than Benji’s in The Sound and the Fury—that I decided my difficulty must be Boyagoda’s fault. That, though the novel was roundly acclaimed, he was incapable of writing a sound sentence.

Even as I thought this, though, I knew it wasn’t true. For one thing, despite my struggle to pin down what Boyagoda’s sentences were saying, their images and rhythms and little imbedded amusements carried me forward in a narrative that grew increasingly gripping. And, as the story developed and Sam sorted himself out, the prose did too. Soon I wasn’t laboring but just lying back, enjoying what happened next.

It eventually occurred to me (I’m slow, I know) that the sentences’ incoherence mimicked Sam’s, that a person so broken early on would likely perceive and express life brokenly, especially at first. What’s maturity, after all, beyond the accrual of coherence? As I progressed through the novel, I increasingly sensed and trusted, beneath the verbal chaos, Boyagoda’s guiding hand, shaping Sam alongside my experience of his story.

I hate devotional writing that’s just one long metaphor, but I guess that’s what this is. These two reading experiences reminded me of life—of how often I wade through a slew of confusing and often vexing mundane events unrelated to (or, worse, antithetical to) what’s really important only to realize, much later, that it was all relevant, every bit of it, all its elements, positive and negative, part of some bigger vision.

We are, each of us, part of a better story than we’re sometimes aware of, a story that unfurls only slowly, only slowly displays its meanings. Life may seem pointless or muddled or just plain wrong at times, but beneath and behind and above and within it all is its capable Writer, pulling us toward him.

The Hidden Benefits of Reading

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I have a confession to make. Sometimes I read in order to avoid writing. There. I said it. I read at stoplights often enough that my children have to point and say, “Green. Green! GREEN!” in increasingly frantic tones, just before the rude non-reader honks come from the cars behind us.

I read while I wait for my children and while I brush my teeth. Just last week, I read on my daily walk. While passing my oldest daughter’s home, I understand that she pointed out the window in disbelief. “Nick!” she called to her husband, “Is that lady really reading while she’s walking?! Oh. It’s my mom. Why am I even surprised?” Once, I even read 43 pages while in the dentist’s chair.

As it turns out, my reading habit might be one of the best things I can do for my writing.

Read to Inspire

We all know there’s nothing like losing yourself in a book whose pages are so magical, they fairly turn themselves. We look up and are surprised to find it’s not raining – after all, it was pouring in the story.

Start noticing which phrases delight you. Stop a moment and think about why they do. Chances are, it’s because this book unpacked a suitcase of fresh word choices, analogies, and dialogues. The clichés have left the building and we’re thrilled!

Read to Motivate

When I read about Stephen King being able to paper his bathroom with rejection slips, I am motivated. When I recall that both Stephen King and John Grisham had wives who believed in them (the infamous Carrie was fished out of a trash can by King’s wife; Grisham and his wife self-published his first novel when he couldn’t find a publisher. They sold it out of the trunk of their car; today, they are laughing their way to the bank), I count myself blessed to have a spouse who is my biggest fan.

Knowing that 80-something publishers rejected The Wizard of Oz and that Nicholas Sparks was a drug rep, putting out juice and donuts for yet another hospital sales pitch when he got the call regarding his mega-deal for The Notebook, I am reminded that there’s something to be said for both perseverance and the chance for a modern day fairytale. Hey – it’s a book! Anything can happen.

Read to Learn

I’ve been 40 for 7 years now and I still don’t know all there is to know about anything, much less everything.  So, when I embarked upon writing my first novel (after seven non-fiction books), I began to read even more fiction. I gulped down dialogue kings and drama queens. I devoured women’s fiction, swallowed romantic suspense, snatched up crime novels marinated in mystery, snacked on current secular best sellers and wolfed down articles, chapters, blogs, and books on the art of writing itself.

I’m currently serving myself a buffet of historical fiction; my master’s degree is in American history. As a full-time high school teacher and the mother of four blessings who also love to read, I’d love to write historical novels someday. As a writer, I take note of what works and what doesn’t. As a history lover, I treasure authors whose research renders their prose not just lovely, but accurate. As a police chief, my husband does the same for authors who justly portray the world of law enforcement.

Read for Fun

Make sure reading doesn’t become just another chore. Don’t be a book snob – read because you love that author, that genre, that time period, that gift for dialogue. Curl up on the porch swing, in the hammock, by the fireplace, or at the stop light, and savor.

And remember, since books foster dreams, there’s nothing wrong with dreaming someday it will be YOUR book someone is reading just for fun!

Mandatory Reading

readingI’m often surprised when I hear a writer say they’re too busy to read. Really?

Is a doctor too busy to bone up on emerging diseases?

A network administrator too over-scheduled to learn the latest technology?

The teenager down the street too booked to check out a new video game?

Face it. We all wish there were 32 hours in a day to accomplish everything. Newsflash: that’s not happening. Those who are too busy writing to read just might regret it one day. It’s kind of like living on a diet of junk food. Works for now. Tastes great. But eventually your body is going to crash…and so will your writing.

There’s a bajillion reasons why reading sharpens writing, but here are the top 3:

#1. Reading hones your craft.

Seeing how others structure their sentences, weave their plot lines, or develop characters presents a model (an obviously winning one since you’re reading a published book). Read and study the big name authors who’ve mastered the craft of ordering words, then follow their example.

#2. Reading outside your chosen genre stretches your writing capabilities.

I don’t write young adult, but I read it because of its snappy dialogue. I don’t write horror, but sometimes I pick up a tastefully done creeper because of its shock-and-awe factor. I don’t write epic sagas, but sometimes I’ll page through one to fill up my beautiful prose tank. Then I can use all those elements in my historical fiction to make it a more full-bodied manuscript.

#3. Reading puts your mindset into a different world, allowing you to see your created writerly world with fresh eyes when you come back to it.

Sometimes when you’re stuck on a particular scene, it helps to walk away from it for a time and focus on something else—something like another well crafted story.

Now that you’re hopefully feeling the need to race over to your local library, what books should you invest your time into?

Big Sellers

This one is a no brainer. There’s a reason these books fly off the shelves. Pick one up and figure out why.

Classic Tales

Granted, the language in many of these can be archaic, but they’re still worth the effort. If you can dissect a classic to understand what makes the connection to a reader’s heart, then you can mimick that in your own work.

Bargain Bin Books

These are the novels nobody buys. The characters are milquetoast. The plot is flatter than the tire on my ’91 Honda. And the writing, well…let’s just say it’s marginal. So why in the world would I recommend you read one of these losers? Because even bad writing can teach you good technique simply by presenting the inverse. Besides which, it will spur on your I-can-do-better-than-that attitude.

Outside Your Box Novels

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not dissing the concept of keeping yourself well read in your chosen genre. In fact, you should be. However, you will grow as a writer if you subject yourself to other styles and more variety.

Barring the occasional looming deadline or real life catastrophe, writers should be readers. But don’t just take my word for it…

“No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time for reading, or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance.”

~ Confucius 

So…what book are you currently reading?

Top Ten Things You Should Read on Your Birthday

Yesterday I turned 29… again. So I decided to write a blog post about one of my favorite things: reading! On your birthday, you should definitely take a little time for yourself, if you can afford it. I try to take some extra time for reading on a personal level, since it is something that I enjoy, and it is an affordable indulgence.

Here are the top ten things you should read on your birthday:

All of your “Happy Birthday!” posts on Facebook Since most of my family and friends live in Michigan, and several of my friends are in Vermont and Wisconsin, I revel in birthday greetings from all across the US of A. How fun to read and respond to people you don’t often see.

Your birthday cards I always save my birthday cards, especially those from family. Since my Grandma Mason passed away in October of this past year, I plan to read some of the previous messages she blessed me with. Her words were always so wise, and I could definitely feel the love that she had for me, even in just a pen and pretty paper.

Your favorite blogs Because I am busy reading emails and queries and manuscripts for work, I generally don’t take time to read a lot of blogs during the work week. So, on my birthday, I like to catch up on blogs. A few blogs I will be spending time with include Jamie the Very Worst Missionary, John Green Books, Literati Cat, and A Miniature Clay Pot. The last blog is by my friend, Marie, who wrote a blog with over 5,000 responses after the Aurora theater shooting. She and her daughters were in theater 9, and she has been such a blessing to those involved in the shooting, as well as others. Of course, she was a blessing to others long before the shooting; she helped me through some difficult times, and she made my wedding invitations for free!

Queries, partials, and full manuscripts in my inbox as well as manuscripts that I am currently editing Yes, I work on my birthday, mostly because my husband also works, but also because my mom visited for the week, and she left yesterday morning. Instead of sitting around being sad and missing her, I plan to focus on projects that I need to complete.

Bible/devotional While I am not a daily bible or devotional reader, I do like to check in on special days. It is always so wonderful to see what God, who knit me together in my mother’s womb, has to say about me on my birthday. He planned the day I came into the world as well as every other day after that. I love to receive a special birthday blessing from Him.

Text messages Who doesn’t like to receive “Happy Birthday!” text messages?

The menu at your favorite restaurant. While I am normally an Olive Garden girl, this year, my husband, mom, and I plan to go to White Fence Farm, a home-style restaurant that specializes in fried chicken and high cholesterol. For those of you in the Denver area, be sure to visit the restaurant which includes a petting zoo, fun shops, and different music nights including square dancing and line dancing.

The menu at your favorite coffee shop A friend recently introduced me to the awesomeness that is Espressole Caffe. It is a bit farther than I normally travel for coffee, but I can’t think of a better way to spend my birthday than working on an editing project while sipping a five spice latte. Yum!

Your driver’s license Make sure it hasn’t expired!

And my favorite: a good novel! Currently, I am reading Pulitzer prize winning novel, Tinkers, and I finished it on my birthday. It always refreshes me to read beautiful writing with amazing story, and what a great way to start the weekend than with a great story still ruminating in my mind.

What sorts of birthday reading do you do? Do you have any other fun birthday traditions?

Word of Mouth or Cyber Bully?

I’m hearing more and more conversations crop up lately from small business owners who say dissatisfied customers with even an ounce of Internet savvy can create an unfair disadvantage for their businesses. They argue customers are too quick to zap off a bad review, poor rating, or negative ‘word of mouth’ without ever giving the business a chance to make it right. “Feedback is a gift,” business owners claim. “And I never even got to open it until it was too late.” I can’t help wondering if it’s more like a party too many businesses don’t pay attention to until a hundred people jump out of the dark and yell “Surprise!” Either way, these highly visible online rants and ratings of the unhappy and dissatisfied can be a real detriment to acquiring new customers. And some businesses are crying, “Cyber bully!” 

But are they really? Let me take it closer to home: enter the novice or mid-list author. These author folks may feel a similar squeeze when negative comments or one-star ratings crop up for their books at various reader/author social networking sites or online booksellers—sometimes even before the book is released and based solely on how excited someone is (or isn’t) to read the book. Add the rumor of authors gaming the system by soliciting everyone and their brother for 4 and 5 star ratings and by low-balling competitors’ titles, and you can see why authors can be squeamish about the power of word of mouth on the Internet. At its best, it works for you. At its worst, not so much.

But does that mean people who scatter low ratings like jellybeans at an Easter egg hunt—with or without commentary to support them—are really abusing the author? Don’t readers realize how much power they wield, how much of a boon or a detriment their ratings could be for an emerging author? 

Probably not. And not only is it a bad idea to police the system, I think it’s futile to try. Internet word of mouth is organic in nature. Those who trust and value the opinions of others will continue to seek them out, and in the long run, that’s a good thing for everyone. Just like when we write we make positive assumptions about our reader’s intelligence and ability to follow our stream of consciousness, we shouldn’t underestimate the sensibility of those same readers when it comes to their ability to sort through the good, the bad and the ugly reviews. I like to think unless the negative rating came from a highly trusted or personal source, most prospective readers toss out the outliers and look for themes anyway.

What about you? As a reader, how much do negative ratings influence your decision to try a new author?