Another Wednesday, another #AuthorToolboxBlogHop! Even though I’m actually posting on Tuesday for once – take that, procrastination! Check out the main link for lots of other fantastic authors with lots of other fantastic advice.
I don’t have anything particularly mindblowing this month, just a truism that I apparently have a lot of trouble holding on to: it’s really hard to be a good writer if you’re not a good reader.
There’s a difference between being a reader and being a good reader, and it’s a distinction I often lose track of when it comes to my own life. It’s important for an aspiring author to have books nearby. Reading helps you keep up-to-date with the things that are happening in your genre so that you don’t accidentally invest hundreds of hours writing a book that’s already sitting on top of the NYT Best Sellers list. (I discovered three days ago that N. K. Jemisin has already written the book I was planning on starting after I finish my current project, so … back to the drawing board there.) It helps you understand what’s selling, what other people like, what’s been done poorly or done to death.
Not to mention, reading is fun! It challenges your sense of the norm, opens you up to new ideas, teaches you while it entertains.
And that’s great, for someone who just wants to understand the market and meet their Goodreads goal for the year.
For writers, though, other people’s books are pretty much the best resource we’re going to find. Each of the rules we’re trying to understand has been executed perfectly by hundreds and hundreds of authors – and broken by thousands upon thousands more. All we have to do is figure out which books can teach us what lessons and open ourselves up to the experience.
Which is a lot easier said than done. So to help simplify things for myself, I break it down into two categories.
These are the easiest to learn from if you’re willing to give them a chance. By “bad”, I mean books that have been panned by critics or books that you’d rather have dental surgery than reread. Books you abandoned midway, books that anger you, bore you, bother you. Books that feel like they’re bad fanfiction for something that doesn’t actually exist.
These books are a writer’s gift! Everything that bothers you as a reader is something that you want to make sure you don’t do as a writer. So rather than throwing them at the wall, settle down with the books you hate and start taking notes. Literal ones, if you can bear it. I find it incredibly cathartic to take violent notes in the book itself, circling offending passages and littering pages with exclamation points and red ink, although nowadays I mostly have to content myself with enthusiastic Kindle highlights.
Questions you need to ask yourself as you’re reading: Why don’t you like a particular chapter/scene/line? What, specifically, has the author done wrong? What could the author have done to make it better? How would you write it, if you had to convey the same basic ideas?
Hint: if your answer to any of these questions is “Augh, I don’t know! It’s just horrible!” then it’s time for you to put the book down for a while, clear your head, and then read the chapter/scene/line again. “It’s just bad because it is” isn’t the kind of answer a writer can afford.
In the best bad books, you can see what the author was trying to do and where and how they failed to execute the plan. I feel like everyone who wants to write young adult fiction or fantasy needs to read The Blending series by Sharon Green; the series is dull and difficult to get through, exposition-heavy and a classic example of telling (and telling, and telling) rather than showing. It’s also as close to a textbook example as you’re ever going to see of an author who knows what she’s trying to accomplish and has no idea how to actually get there. The characters are one-dimensional, which means that their every motivation and arc is set out clear as day from page one. And yet, I’m not the only person who’s found the series oddly compelling. There’s a nugget of a good book amid the rubble, it just gets buried in the execution.
More challenging are the books that are madly popular, in spite of seeming terrible. I’ve grown to love these books because reading them forces me to really work as I try to understand why they appeal to so many people. Again, “people like them because people are horrible” is not an acceptable answer. The average reader might not be a literary critic, but that doesn’t make them stupid. There’s a reason that Harlequin romances are popular. There’s a reason behind the Twilight series’s mass appeal. If you can’t figure that reason out, how can you hope to compete against it?
I have to add a caveat here: trying to understand unpopular books can be dangerous because if you do it right, you’ll come out with a certain understanding or respect for the material. I avoided reading the Twilight books for years because I was afraid of the inevitable backlash when I realized that I appreciated some of what Meyer did. (My fear was warranted; I consider the books to be solidly two star, and I think Meyer did quite a few things very well. Admitting this does not endear me to other bibliophiles, because it’s much more fun to just hate something than it is to accept that maybe we’re too quick to judge.)
These are much easier to read – and are consequently much harder to learn from unless you’re really trying. A good book should be able to draw you in, lose you. Some people suggest that the best books make themselves invisible so that you as a reader connect directly with the story itself.
That makes it particularly difficult to stop and highlight exactly what the author of such a book did that works so well. It’s hard to step out of a perfect moment to start analyzing the perfection. I find that most good books take two or three read-throughs before I’m able to be even remotely objective, and stepping that far away does take some of the shine away from the novel.
It’s always been my experience that being a writer means giving up the ability to just read for the sheer joy of it. It’s too bad, but just because you analyze doesn’t mean that you can’t also enjoy – in fact, that’s sort of the point.
The questions for good books are similar to the ones for bad books: What is it, specifically, that resonated so well for you in a given chapter/scene/line? What skills did the author employ? Have you seen another author attempt to do the same thing and fail? How does the success differ from the failure? Would anything you’re trying to write benefit from the skills you’re admiring in the chapter/scene/line? How much of the chapter/scene/line is dependent upon the specific context of the book in question, and how much of it could be adapted or transplanted to a different book?
“Good books”, of course, refers to both critically acclaimed books and books that just make you feel good, regardless of other people’s assessment. Many books that are good for some people are bad for others … that’s just how it goes.
I was struggling with one of the books I’m working on. I think about narratives as colors, and the color of this particular novel was just wrong somehow – it was gray, which it was supposed to be, but the hue just wasn’t lining up properly. Then I read N. K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and as I was reading I decided that that novel is a sort of pearlescent rose-gold color. It was only after I’d noticed that I realized what was wrong with my novel: the gray was correct, but it needed to be a pearlescent gray rather than a matte color.
As soon as I figured that out, everything else just sort of came together.
I’m not expecting my color analogy to make much sense to other people but hopefully, the general principle is still helpful: whatever problem you’re having in your writing, someone else has solved it in theirs. All you have to do is figure out what your problem is, and then go out and find the solution.
Simple as that! 😜
Do you have any books you’ve found particularly instructive (good or bad)? Any key lessons you’ve learned from reading other authors? Does anyone else see books in color, or am I just crazy on my own here? Let me know in the comments!