Some aspiring writers I meet say they are so busy making time to write that they don’t have time to read.
This is paradoxical to me. All writers should read and enjoy book as readers do. This is important, when you are first building your writer’s skills, to read in a way which develops your sensitivity to the way in which words and prose are used by particular writers: they use all aspects of their writing craft to share their vision of life in this particular story, with their readers.
You can apply this more directly to your own writing:
It is possible and often desirable to go try this process with any writer from Dostoyevsky to Dickens, Brontë to Woolf. However, if you wish your work to strike a chord with a modern audience it’s most useful to apply this quality of attention to well regarded contemporary work – say something written in the last five years.
- Choose a book.
- Avoid reading any further on-line or newsprint reviews of the book you have chosen. Discard any commentary you have already scanned. These will warp your unique perception.
- Read the novel or story very quickly. Don’t think! Just enjoy.
- (NB If you find you don’t like it, find another story that you do enjoy – you can’t develop your own writing by analysing what you don’t like about a writer! You will drown your own talent in negativities. Don’t waste your time.)
- Put the story to one side and, without referring to it, make a list in your notebook of the five things you most enjoyed about it. These things may be anything at all. There are no right or wrong answers here,
- Beside each item on the list write a single sentence about why this element makes the story work for you.
- Find a direct quotation from the books which illustrates this.
- Consider structure: How many chapters does it have? How long is each chapter? Does the writer use chapters at all? How do chapters begin? How do they end? How does the arc of the story work? Where do the high points or dramas occur in the story? If there are chapters what is the relationship between the end of one chapter and the beginning of another? Look at a single chapter or section very closely. How does the writer use the length of the paragraphs? Can you spot deliberate use of long or short sentences?
- Consider language in these pages: In a single sentence describe the kind of language this writer uses. Is it plain and forceful? Is it soft and subtle? What is the writer’s take on simile and metaphor? How would you define their style? What is the proportion of text here of narrative and character, between description and dialogue?
- Take a page of this chapter and re-draft a page of your own story, sentence by sentence, in the style and form of this writer. It may seem surreal. It may seem like a parody. But what have you learnt in doing this?
- Characterisation: Does the writer use the evolution of character to drive the story in this book? Give a quotation to illustrate this.
- Consider themes: What is this book about? Be very broad here – don’t retell the story! Think hard and dig out the underlying themes. These could be as broad as ‘redemption through pain’, or ‘vindication of past action through present dramas’, or as small as ‘one woman’s successful search for happiness’ or ‘the impact of a stranger on a family’ - just make it up in your own words.
NOW! - make a list of anything you've learned, in completing this process, that could have a direct impact on the way you tackle your own writing. The list may be short or long, but there will be something significant here.
NOW! - apply this whole process directly to the reading of three stories. After that you will begin to notice these important elements automatically as you read. You will also begin automatically to apply elements that suit your style to your own work, as you write.
IMPORTANT TO NOTE that I am not advocating that you copy any other writer’s approach of techniques. NOR am I saying you should directly focus on any of these things as you write your story. Not at all. BUT this process will expand your skills and options when you come to tackling your own writing. It will also especially help you when you edit your own completed long work. It can also help readers to appreciate the thought and creativity that goes into the work of a writer they admire. WR