Monday, February 22, 2010

Read like a writer

Almost thirty years ago my wife Valerie wanted me to write romance novels; mostly because of Toni Morrison and Nora Roberts.

At the time I was writing (but not selling) short stories -- mysteries and science fiction. I had completed the ms for one science fiction novel and the first chapter and chapter-by-chapter detailed outline for a multi-generational novel about a shadow family set in the south and Harlem during the Renaissance. (I envisioned this as my breakout masterpiece.) As it happens, both the SF ms and the historical chapter-and-outline were read and commented on by professionals in the field.
I will always be grateful to Beth Meacham at TOR for actually taking a stab at reading my SF ms. The gist of her reaction was that I had an interesting idea but that I should probably work on my writing skills before submitting for publication. (I came across that moldering ms a few years ago and realized it stank out loud -- for her to have stuck with it as long as she evidently did is huge.)
I didn't submit my historical to anyone, but I did send it to my uncle, Allen Drury. Uncle Al was meticulous in researching his novels and had every blink outlined before he began writing. I'd expressed my concerns about making a novel fit around established history, not to mention my fear of outlining, and took him up on his offer to take a look and see if I was doing it right. He in turn realized he was unfamiliar with the historical period in question, so he asked his writing friend, fellow member of the National Council on the Arts, and expert on the Renaissance, Toni Morrison to take a look at it. For many years, until it faded into illegibility, one of my most prized possessions was Toni Morrison's note commending me on my "deeply felt" writing and sincere respect for and commitment to my subject, but suggesting I needed a "firmer grasp of [my] craft" before I'd be able to do my vision justice. (Is that not the best "you can't write, kid" note ever?)
I still have the outline of that historical novel -- though now there is much of it I would change; three decades adds a bit of maturity to your world view -- waiting for the time my craft is up to my vision. The first chapter was published in a no-pay literary review in the early 90s.

Enter Valerie and Nora Roberts. Valerie was an avid reader of "sweet" and Regency romances and knew that Nora Roberts wrote a 60,000-word series romance novel every month. Valerie's plan for my writing career was to give me a reading list of authors/series she liked then help me "plot-out" a series of romances so I wouldn't have to spend time between books figuring out what to write next. I would then write as fast as I could, going for Nora Roberts' pace, and she would read my ms and provide feedback as necessary. In this way I would get the practice I needed to get a firmer grasp on my craft.
We never followed through on this plan.
My photography business crashed and I went back to college to get a degree in special education and launch my teaching career and writing moved to the back burner. However, my wife did make me a fan of romances, and we did develop several pretty nifty outlines for novels I may yet write.

The worst thing I did, though, was buy a book on writing romances based on the idea of "reading like a writer." Recommended practice: Read a bestselling romance with a box of colored pencils. Underline each sentence about the heroine in one color, use another for the hero, a third for setting, a fourth for secondary characters, a fifth for problems that keep them from their goal… You needed twelve in all, as I recall. The idea was to go back through and count how many of each kind of sentence there was: this would tell you how important each element was and what percentage of your own ms should be devoted to them. I actually did this to a couple of books. Waste of time. This is not reading like a writer.

To read like a writer, you must read like a reader. In other words, just read. Colored pencils, note pads, or tape recorders should be secured in another room --mentally if not physically. Read for the pure enjoyment of reading. (Of course if something particularly strikes you while reading, make a note of it. Anything that knocks the reader out of the story is wrong, and you're going to want to remind yourself to never make the same mistake.) Give no thought to how a story is written while you are reading it.
If, however, six months later a particular passage is still with you, go back and reread it. Now you look at the scene or story like a journeyman cabinet maker inspecting another craftsman's work, observing the woods selected, how they are fit together and what stains or finishes complete the whole. Total deconstruction is not necessary; you need only an understanding of how the thing was done.

In my own writing more than one reviewer has remarked on my ability to establish a sense of place in the narrative. While I have read Bill Bryson, pretty much the go-to guy for describing locations, I owe my description-while-telling-the-story skills to Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter). Twenty years after reading my last Brother Cadfael mystery I can still find my way around Shrewsbury Abbey.


Katrina said...

I really liked this post. I think all of us have a novel that we are dying to write but we know that we are not ready to go after yet.

I agree with you on reading like a writer. It's rare for me to go through a book with a highlighter, but I will remember an author who makes a powerful metaphor or similie.

Great post.

Liane Spicer said...

Excellent advice. Reading for me is about enjoyment and immersion; I can't do either if I'm trying to deconstruct the writer's craft at the same time.

If I'm particularly struck by a writer's skill in some area, I'll try to focus on the 'how' during a second reading of the story.