Reading Like a Writer

One of the pieces of advice most often offered by writers and authors to those trying to break into print is that writers must first be readers. Good advice, to be sure. Most of us started out as avid readers, and through books we gained an appreciation for the written word, which is what made us aspire to be writers in the first place.

At some point however, the way that writers read changes and reading for pleasure and entertainment may fade, and we may find ourselves reading more critically. We start noticing writing style, word choice, character development, story lines and plots. It’s not that we no longer derive pleasure from reading a good story, but now we think more about the creative process, and these things just seem to jump out and grab our attention. It may be that the dialog rings so true that we long to emulate it in our own writing, or perhaps an ending is so totally sappy that it spoils an otherwise great story.

This change occurs because when we read like writers, we learn from other authors; both their successes and their mistakes. For example, in Patricia Cornwell’s The Book of the Dead, halfway through the book I found that although the story line was compelling, I wasn’t really invested in the characters. As I continued to read, I found myself analyzing this further. Most of Cornwell’s characters in this series are independently wealthy and act rather pompous. Most people that I know do not possess either of these qualities and so to have a group of them, who seem to take being well off for granted does not ring true for me. The only character that I could really identify with was Marino, who is portrayed an emotionally messed up puppy dog, who has followed Scarpetta around for years harboring feelings for her that he conceals because he knows that she has a thing going with Benton. He seems to always be hurt because she doesn’t look at him as her equal, let alone a prospective lover, which makes him look rather foolish from the third person’s, or reader’s POV. Even though I have read other books in the series and I have some idea of what brought the characters to this point in time in the story, Cornwell was unable to interest me enough to really care about them, because they just didn’t seem realistic to me.

In comparison, the works of Anne Rice such as The Vampire Chronicles series holds characters that stand on their own merit and one doesn’t have to know what came before in the series to be invested in them. Whether Lestat is in the spotlight, where he most likes to be, as the hero or the villain, the reader still cheers him on and cares about what happens next. When the story is over, we want to know more about his exploits and he becomes almost like an old friend. And who could not fall in love with kind and mild mannered Louis, who fights against what he is so desperately, even though he is only featured in the first book. In fact, throughout her entire vampire series, Rice allows you to know many of her characters intimately, and she keeps the readers coming back for more.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out which author I would rather emulate in my own work. Obviously, I want to create characters that are rich rather than shallow. The point here is that these differences are what I notice now when I’m reading. Dialog that doesn’t sound realistic makes me stop and say to myself, “Who says that?”; improper punctuation makes me pause; misspelled or missing words cause me to stumble on the text. These things never seemed to happen when I was just a reader. I’m not complaining though. I could never have become an editor if I didn’t read like a writer.

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