How To Read Like A Writer

“It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.”

-Ernest Hemingway


In thinking about how I personally learned the craft of writing, it’s hard to minimize the impact of books. For all the classes that I took, and all the seminars I attended, the simple act of reading is responsible for easily 85% of what I’ve learned. At first glance, this might not make much sense – there are lots of prolific readers out there who aren’t remotely good writers – but that’s because not all reading is created equal. The better acquainted you become with the craft, the easier it is to see devices for what they are, to spot the sentences that make a work sing, to notice the strengths and weaknesses of characters… in short, to read like a writer. The following are things you can do to start yourself down one of the most important journeys in any writer’s career, and they are available to you anytime you pick up a book.


Slow Down!

In high school we learn to read things as quickly as we can. Individual sentences don’t matter. A teacher will never ask “What color was Hester Prynne’s dress in The Scarlet Letter?” They ask instead, “What important decision did Governor Bellingham make, and how did it affect the plot?” This trains our minds to look for plot points when we read. It’s great if we can get through a work of fiction and understand what happened, but in reading for events, we lose so much of what brought those events about. Reading isn’t a race! It’s better to understand a single book on a deeper level than finish three books in a row without taking the time to study them.


Guess Where It’s Going

Many writers, myself included, do this subconsciously. If you don’t at first, that’s okay. For now, do it consciously. Put the book down in-between chapters and ask yourself what you think will happen and why. You might find that you’ll not only get better at predicting plots, but you’ll get better at seeing devices such as foreshadowing, that move the story forward from behind the scenes.


When Your Emotions Become Affected, Question Why

If something strikes you, either because it draws you in or is completely unrelatable, take a second to scrutinize it. Is the language bare and direct or filled with a preponderance of vernacular that enthralls you? Is it the characters, the plot, the dialogue or the description that caused you to feel something? Particularly when we become excited, the tendency is to rush through the words. If you’re overtaken in the moment, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t speed through a section – but make note of it and read it again later when your mind can better focus on what it is that makes it so thrilling to read. Can you incorporate their styles in your own writing?


Only Read The Best Fiction

People don’t like this advice. Whenever I tell this to writers, they respond with a list of their guilty pleasure books, telling me how fun they are to read, even though they know they’re terribly written… My advice to anyone considering becoming a writer is this: don’t read any books that you wouldn’t have been proud to write. If you see yourself exclusively as a science fiction writer, what could you hope to get out of a horror? If you want to write like James Joyce, why are you reading Nora Roberts? When you make the choice to become a writer, you should be aware of how your entertainment affects your writing. As writers, we are constantly drawing on the things around us, whether we know it or not. This means that the mere act of reading Twilight could, theoretically, damage your prose!


Don’t Put Writers On A Pedestal

Writers are human. If something bothers you in a book by Dostoevsky or Hemingway, don’t give that writer the benefit of the doubt. It’s quite possible they’ve made a mistake! Millions of readers every day are convincing themselves that when they get confused reading Faulkner, it’s because they read the passage wrong, or because they weren’t alive during the same time period as the author… many of these things may be true, but sometimes, even the best authors make mistakes. I’ve caught misplaced commas in Steinbeck and instances of passive voice in Fitzgerald – these things don’t detract from the excellence of these writers, but it’s important that you see their work, however excellent, without rose-colored glasses. By convincing yourself of their abilities, you risk misleading yourself in your own work. If you think it’s okay for Victor Hugo to go on a twenty page rant about architecture in the middle of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, then maybe it’s okay for you to depart from your own story to talk about the history of the town that your story is set in. If you think Proust’s 150-page-long chapters are okay in his work, why not do the same with yours? Don’t put aside your critical mind. I promise you, even your favorite book has flaws.


Don’t Ignore Grammar

Yes, this is coming from an editor – I’ll give you that. Even so, too many writers ignore things like punctuation and sentence structure when they read. I recommend that instead of skipping over punctuation as if it doesn’t exist, you occasionally study its placement. This might not sound particularly exciting, but at least until you become a master of grammar yourself, it might help you to see how your favorite authors handle it. Do you tend to use more or less semi-colons than your favorite author? How long is his/her average sentence? Given that the best grammar is practically invisible, it’s all the more important to pay attention when it doesn’t seem like there’s much to notice.


Don’t Worry About Books Losing Their Allure

Does following the above advice ruin the time you spend reading? Absolutely not. Knowing where something is going means you’ll be surprised less often, but it will make you all the more appreciative when an author does surprise you! When you’re reading as a writer, you’re “chasing the dragon” of literary fiction. Instead of just reading and accepting the world an author tries to paint, you look beyond their portrait and at the colors themselves, and the act of truly understanding a work of fiction makes it all the more beautiful.


Writing Prompt

The following is the opening to Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. What do you like about it? How is it different from your own writing? Is there anything you can learn from it?


A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.
It is too late. The Evacuation still proceeds, but it’s all theatre. There are no lights inside the cars. No light anywhere. Above him lift girders old as an iron queen, and glass somewhere far above that would let the light of day through. But it’s night. He’s afraid of the way the glass will fall—soon—it will be a spectacle: the fall of a crystal palace. But coming down in total blackout, without one glint of light, only great invisible crashing.
Inside the carriage, which is built on several levels, he sits in velveteen darkness, with nothing to smoke, feeling metal nearer and farther rub and connect, steam escaping in puffs, a vibration in the carriage’s frame, a poising, an uneasiness, all the others pressed in around, feeble ones, second sheep, all out of luck and time: drunks, old veterans still in shock from ordnance 20 years obsolete, hustlers in city clothes, derelicts, exhausted women with more children than it seems could belong to anyone, stacked about among the rest of the things to be carried out to salvation. Only the nearer faces are visible at all, and at that only as half-silvered images in a view finder, green-stained VIP faces remembered behind bulletproof windows speeding through the city. . .


Look for positive things. Did you notice the powerful opening sentence? Did you notice how Pynchon alternated the standard order of things as in “Above him lift girders old as…” instead of “Old girders lift above him, old as…”? Did you notice that Pynchon is describing a character as “he” without giving his name in order to increase tension? Did you note the interesting way “soon” was separated by dashes? When you read “Only the nearer faces are visible at all”, did you notice how everything in this Third Person Present never leaves the eyes of our character? How about negative things? Did you notice the considerable use of the word “But” in the first paragraph? Whatever your stance, did you notice how Pynchon occasionally strings on sentence fragments, such as the following: “But coming down in total blackout, without one glint of light, only great invisible crashing.” It’s okay if you didn’t immediately take these things in. Reading as a writer takes a lot of practice at first.

On Adding Dimensions To Your Characters

Flat characters may be the number one problem in all of writing! Both novice writers and professionals often struggle to give their characters depth. Sadly, most of the time they fail. The literary world is filled with goody-two-shoes Ken and Barbie types who fight against evil forces like corruption and greed, only to achieve victory at the very end and reflect on how they’ve changed as people. It’s gotten old.  In this post, I’m going to talk a bit about what you can do to set your characters apart from the others so you can strengthen your novel and prepare it for the eyes of an agent or a publisher.


Don’t Go For The Easy Explanation

Let’s say your main character has devoted her life to stopping cancer through any means necessary. Why? An easy answer would be that her father, or some other member of the family, died of cancer when she was growing up. It’s perfectly plausible, but the motivation is a little too perfect, and it puts our character on the side of right and good immediately. Now let’s say that her father, instead of dying of cancer, was sent to federal prison for 20 years because he illegally dumped toxic waste into river water, causing over a thousand people to get cancer… Knowing even this much about her motivations immediately adds multiple facets to her personality. Why is she doing it? Maybe she wants to redeem the family name (honor). Maybe she hates her father? Again, these are all the easy explanations. What if instead, she has an extremely complicated relationship with her father? What if he was extremely loving as she was growing up, and so she refused to believe the allegations until he himself confessed? Maybe even now she views him simply as a good man who did a bad thing. Not taking the easy answer not only adds depth to a character, but it also opens up areas for plot expansion. For instance, what would happen if her father were released from prison? Would she want to see him? Perhaps this story is ultimately about repairing an imperfect relationship and how sometimes, even when those we love let us down, we have to forgive.

On a separate note, I’m a strong believer in character-based plot because that’s how the events in our lives happen… and if our fiction is to contain the ring of truth, why shouldn’t we mimic life?


Cut Out Side-Stories

If you think this doesn’t sound like a character note, you’d be wrong. Time and time again, I’ve witnessed perfectly good books being ruined by subplots. Oftentimes, side-plots are added because the author didn’t do enough planning when constructing their key story. When an author finishes his book at 40,000 words, there’s a strong temptation to add fluff. In a detective story, it happens when the bad guys distract the main character by stealing his car. He goes on a 10,000 word quest to get it back before turning his attention back to the grisly murder on 13th street. Not only does this kind of thing make the plot weaker, it makes the characters weaker. Think about it. For the entire duration of the 10,000 word subplot, the character’s motivations for getting involved in his investigation mean absolutely nothing. His inner turmoil means nothing. The influence of his dark past means nothing. Think of character depth like the speed on your speedometer. If you start at zero miles an hour, and with every chapter you go five mph faster, it adds up – but if at any point you come to a complete stop, you have to start all over again. Subplots, especially when they feel like subplots, are hard to recover from. Make sure you have as few as possible.


Make Your Villains Human

Whenever you write an antagonist, I want you to remember that villains are people too. It’s totally fine if your villain wants to control the world. It’s even fine if he goes around kicking puppies and committing other heinous acts – but you need to show how he got that way. What if he wants to control the world because he’s too tired of senseless violence and he doesn’t think that the world is smart enough to control itself? This is the basic idea behind Ozymandias from Watchmen. Having his evil plan be, ultimately, for the good of humanity, adds a level of depth that most villains don’t have. As with anything, don’t choose the easy explanation as to your antagonist’s nature. Being abused as a child won’t set him apart – it’s too generic and too obvious. Perhaps instead, your villain had a perfectly normal childhood, but was simply far smarter than his parents and judged them for their stupid behavior. Always strive to break the norm! Never settle for a character that “works.” Dig deeper.


Don’t Force Your Characters To Push The Plot Forward

This is an extremely common mistake. What’s more, it’s something writers refuse to listen to. “But she needs to be at the bus terminal! Why does it matter how he gets there?” If your character isn’t the type to walk around at three in the morning, then she shouldn’t be walking around at three in the morning. It’s that simple. To a lot of writers, I’m sure this sound confining – and it might be – but it’s also absolutely necessary. In good fiction, a character only does what he/she would do. Let’s say you’re writing about computer programmers, and for some reason, it’s really important to get a certain piece of information out. The obvious way would be to have two computer programmers talk about it… but if you do that, you fall into a trap. The problem doesn’t lie with the obvious exposition, it lies in the fact that computer programmers don’t sit around talking about the differences between object-oriented programming languages and procedural programming languages. They know the difference. NEVER EVER EVER use your characters as a plot device. If you can’t think of a way to do something without hurting the integrity of your characters, don’t do it. If you hold to this rule, you might be surprised by how authentic your fiction becomes, and by how expertly you can push the plot forward when you allow your skills to develop instead of taking the easy way out.


Remember That Your Characters Existed Before You Wrote Them

Let’s perform an experiment. Pick somebody you know at random. Anybody. Do they have a past? Do they have friends? Well, of course they do! Why is it then that characters often pop into existence on the page? In most fiction, it is rare for a character to have more than a single friend. Oftentimes, they never talk about their childhood or even their parents – it’s as if they never existed! It’s absurd. If your character falls in love, it can add a whole new level of realism if she compares her new lover to her extremely passive ex-boyfriend who only stayed with her because he was used to her, not because he loved her. Just because we’ve never seen these people doesn’t mean they don’t exist! These invisible people are constantly pulling at your characters, and they are ESPECIALLY important in the beginning of the story when you’re setting the stage. Be careful though! This doesn’t mean you should write a preponderance of backstory. Sometimes the best way to get these connections out is through the way your character behaves. If she constantly pushes away people in her life, maybe that’s a sign that she was hurt in the past. Subtext is key!


Give Your Characters Flaws

Writing about human nature can be uncomfortable, but it’s truthful. The literary world is full of righteous and wonderful personalities that make awful characters. The truth is, humanity isn’t perfect. Even the best of us have flaws. Don’t be afraid to allow your characters to make mistakes. Sometimes people act based on misinformation. Sometimes, people just have bad days and say things they don’t mean. Don’t be so worried about people disliking your character that you don’t allow her to be human. Personally, none of my favorite characters are without flaws. Cordelia in King Lear is unable to play the game of politics. Rhoda in one of my favorite films, Another Earth, is an ex-convict who is emotionally distant, and is unable to forgive herself for a DUI that resulted in the death of two people. Sometimes the most beautiful thing about a character is their flaws. People cover up imperfections in real life, but the best fiction should be naked.


Writing Prompt

Write a 500-1000 word story on an extremely flawed character. Make sure he or she has at least one friend! As always, if you send it to me via the contact page on the website, I'll edit it for free!