Reading as Research

DeathtoStock_Clementine2You know the feeling. You’re reading a book, and for some indefinable reason it completely sucks you in. When you finish, you seek out the rest of the author’s backlist, and devour them. Wow, you think. This is a really good book!

Great. We all love good books. But as authors, we also want to write really good books. The problem is, a really good book will make you forget you’re reading a story created in the imagination of someone who labored over a laptop for months at their kitchen table. It takes a lot of work to make a book read effortlessly. At the end of such a book, you’re left wondering, how did they do it?

This chat topic came about after I found myself flying through a series of werewolf romances by Viola Rivard. I love reading these books, but I couldn’t explain why. When I work with students, I won’t let them get away with saying something is “good”–they have to be more descriptive. So I subjected myself to the same line of questioning. Is it the voice? Yeah, of course, it’s usually voice. Is it the world-building? Yes. The tension? Yeah, that, too. The tropes? Oh yeah, definitely the tropes, and also how she incorporates a large cast of characters without it feeling crowded or confusing.

Ah. Now we’re getting somewhere. Now we’re being specific. (Another word I tell my students a lot.)

By contrast, it’s easy to pinpoint what’s not working in a not-so-great book. You’re aware of the written words and you think about how you’d do it differently. The key: keeping that critical part of the brain turned on while reading the books we love so we can learn from our favorite authors and infuse that un-put-down-able quality into our own writing. It’s not copying, although I’d guess we all start out by emulating our biggest influencers, whether consciously or subconsciously. It’s reading with an eye toward learning. It’s analyzing the books of an author who tackles tension well, or who nails narrative voice, or whatever element of writing you’re looking to improve. It’s asking, how can I do that, too, in my own unique way?

That’s what we’re going to talk about on Sunday at #RWchat. See you there.

~Alexis Daria

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