How To Read Like A Writer

All a writer’s gotta do is read and write.

That, the most simplistic piece of writing advice around. So dismissive of what writers do, isn’t it? As if writing is just practice, practice, practice. Nothing to learn here. No thought behind it. No understanding of the mechanics of language. No need to ever gaze into the bloodshot eye of publishing to learn its secrets. Just read and write, read and write, read and write, and poof

You’re a writer.

IT’S GODDAMN MAGIC IS WHAT IT IS.

Ahem.

That’s not to say the advice is bad.

You do need to write a lot.

And you sure as hell need to read a lot.

But the truth of those statements cannot be contained in those statements.

Meaning, it’s a whole lot more complicated than all that.

You can’t just pick up a book, read it, and have its wisdom absorbed into you. Eating a microwave burrito doesn’t make you a chef. Sitting on a chair doesn’t make you a fucking carpenter. And reading doesn’t make you a writer.

My impetus for this post comes from the Passive Voice blog, which linked to a quote of mine regarding reading outside one’s comfort zone as a writer, and some of the comments in response troubled me a little bit — “…I get zero inspiration from what I read. All of my inspiration comes from the world around me. Reading is what I do to put my brain in neutral and coast for a while.”

Now, I certainly approve of the idea that one should grab inspiration from the world around them — I think the all a writer’s gotta do is read and write chestnut constantly misses that third and arguably most important axis: “…oh, and also, the writer should damn well live a life and experience the world all around him.”

But not gaining inspiration from reading? Jeez, really? How did one decide to be a writer at all if one is not inspired by the written word? That sounds to me like a special kind of hell.

Still: I get it. We’re accustomed to reading for entertainment. We want to be amused by the antics on the page. Excited by a scene of tension or terror or action. Griefstruck by a character’s death. Turned on by a mistress sticking the whip-handle up her submissive’s uh-oh-hole. We’re reading to elicit a certain emotional reaction. We’re not necessarily reading to be challenged.

Well, cram that up your uh-oh-hole.

You need to start reading like a writer.

Here’s how:

Be present in the text. Do not put your brain in neutral and coast. It’s great when a book takes us out of our own lives and draws is into the life on the page. But it’s precisely that moment you want to avoid: you don’t want to be lost in the text. You want to be aware. Because that writer’s ability to make you forget you’re reading a book? That writer’s doing something super-fucking-awesome. Don’t you want to know what it is?

Read to understand; dissect the page. Go back to the chef metaphor: a chef doesn’t just eat to enjoy. A chef watches how another chef operates. A chef wants to look at technique and then wants to see how that technique translates to the food on the plate: what ingredients are present? What textures and spices? What ancient shellfish from beyond space and time? The chef dissects the meal and so must the writer dissect the page and the story before him. You are not reading to be entertained. You are reading to understand.

Read with questions in mind. Always be asking questions. How did she write this? Why, if you can guess, did she write this way or choose the words she chose? Look at the placement of the words on the page. How much dialogue to description? How does she handle character, or setting, or action? Perhaps the biggest question of all: how would you have done differently? Not better. Not worse. But how would you have handled writing this?

Read to critique. The notion of critique has lost all its nuance in the Internet age — now critique is either a plate full of firecrackers and cookies and My Little Ponies or it’s a bowl full of llama diarrhea. Everything is either OMG AWESOME +1 LIKE RETWEET HERE ARE A THOUSAND EXCLAMATION POINTS or THIS WAS THE WORST THING I’VE EVER EXPERIENCED IT MADE ME STAB MY OWN MOTHER IN THE NECK WITH A BROKEN COKE BOTTLE. But remember — critique isn’t about love or hate. Critique is an analysis. Analyze the work.

Read deeply. Our reading is often quite shallow. Don’t let it be. Look beyond the words. Figure out what the author is trying to say. What themes are at work? What ideas are resonant throughout the piece? What secret childhood traumas can you discern? Was the author the victim of many so-called “swirlies” in junior high? I KID THE POOR BULLIED AUTHORS. Just the same — look for the author on the page and in the story. Try to seek subtext hiding behind text. Look for hidden purpose and the show going on behind the curtain.

Understand the interplay between writing and storytelling. Those are two separate skills (or crafts, or arts, or magical leprechaun incantations or whatever you want to call them) — the story comprises all those narrative components and the writing comprises the language that communicates those narrative components. Both have structure. Both utilize the other. Separate but then ask: how and how well do they work together?

Read from the screen. Watch television. Films. Games. Get scripts. Read those. You’ll learn a lot about dialogue and description. You’ll learn the architecture of story.

Read beyond the walls of your pleasure domeIf all you do is read in the genre in which you write and/or enjoy, you’ve created for yourself a narrative echo chamber — your own authorial intentions are boomeranged back to you. You gain nothing. You are a part of a giant genre centipede, consuming material and excreting it, passing along a series of tried (and tired) tropes and ideas, with the only advantage being that they first pass through your intellectual colonic flora. Don’t be afraid to read books that trouble you. Books that have found success beyond your understanding. Books that live outside your favored genres. Fuck comfort.

* * *

Now, all of this is not to say you can’t or shouldn’t read for pleasure. I wouldn’t rob you of that. I might steal your wallet or your shoes or your wife but never the pleasure you gain from reading the written word. Just the same, if this writing thing is what you want to do with some or all of your life, then accept that reading is part of the job. And this job demands that all the lights in your brain are turned on, not dulled to a dim room in order to passively absorb the haw-haws and ooh-aahs of entertainment. Read like a writer, goddamnit.

78 comments

  • Hi Chuck. That’s the problem. The problem is, once you start writing seriously, studying the craft, you lose the ability to read a book like a reader. And there’s nothing better than tucking yourself into a world created by a master storyteller, going with the flow, living in his/her reality. It’s magic, that. When I read a book I see adverbs and run on sentences and head-hopping and typos and plot holes. My wife sees nothing like that. For her, writing is like eating for a non-chef. She enjoys a book or not and moves on to the next one. I’d love to recover that lost facility, but I fear it’s gone forever.

  • What jjtoner said? Truth. I absolutely get what this post is about, and I get the need for it and wholly agree with what you’ve said, Chuck, and strive to do so (though do still get lost in good work at times). But there’s undeniably a small feeling I get of missing that ignorance, as it were; the better to enjoy what’s being offered with my whole brain rather than just part of it while the other part analyzes the whats and hows and whys. In a similar way, it’s why I’ve made the conscious choice to not take a wine-tasting course: I like what wine I like for what it is and don’t want to learn why it’s actually swill and I should only drink stuff twice the price, thanks very much.

    To me, reading like a writer is a bell that can’t be unrung; a genie that can’t be put back in the bottle. I’ve found that once you start opening it up to see what makes it tick, you can’t not do that any more. However, with that paradise lost, you then get your personal paradise found in getting to write your own stuff better and better, which for me is hell and gone beyond a fair trade for what I’ve given up.

    In any case, the main comment I was going to make was something I’m certain you must have heard before, but at risk of unoriginality: you could almost certainly make a solid career as a speaking lecturer or teacher of this stuff. Love it, as always.

  • Great post, Chuck.

    I did a similar post last week (with the same title even!) http://literatureandlibation.com/2013/02/06/how-to-read-like-a-writer/

    I love the idea of “reading from the screen.” I’m constantly scrutinizing movies (much to my wife’s dismay) and pulling apart the problems with stories in video games and even songs, to a lesser extent.

    I think there’s a way to attune your brain to appreciate the nougat at the center of the story-cookie, and when you can do that, your own writing improves. I think a write does lose a little bit of the “fun” of reading, but hey, that’s just one of the less-fair deals we have to make with the writing gods.

  • This is great! I read fiction for pleasure, and also to learn. I don’t ever just throw myself into neutral and coast through books. I (hopefully) breathe the words, feel them beat in my heart and insinuate themselves into my brain. I want to be forced to shield my eyes from their glare or mop my cheeks from their sorrow or be the subject of suspicious glances when I burst out laughing at my table for one in the middle of an otherwise low-humming coffee shop.
    As for reading outside my preferred genre, I am finally reading Stephen King’s “The Stand.” While I read horror like it was going out of style back in the late 70s and early 80s, I now prefer sweeping romances and lighthearted romantic comedies, or Dan Brown-esque history-drenched thrillers (hooray for “Zero Hour!”). Mr. King is outside my comfort zone here in the 21st century, because his writing is so very dark, and I veer strongly to the light on most levels, but decided I needed to read this one, and I’m set to read “Under the Dome” in the near future.
    I’m also eyeing your Miriam Black series, Chuck Wendig. That would be another giant step outside my comfort zone. I’m tiptoeing around them on Amazon, reading and re-reading the blurbs, scoping out the phenomenal reviews. The premise intrigues me, but the blood and guts aspect repels me, but I hear-tell the writing is superb, but I have a way-too-vivid imagination as it is and can scare the shit out of myself, but… You see my dilemma? ;-)

    • @Ellen —

      Heh, yes, Miriam Black is a bit on the grim side of things. (MOCKINGBIRD is gorier than BLACKBIRDS, if that’s a concern.)

      And King’s not as dark these days in some ways — his latest, 11/22/63, was reportedly not that dark.

      — c.

    • Congrats on expanding your writely horizons!

      in my opinion, books that most often get labeled “dark” are the ones that are more raw and brutal than mainstream fiction, even though they might not necessarily be a straight up horror novel. Case in point, BLACKBIRDS gets labeled dark a lot, but I also wonder what the person is comparing it to. Compared to a romance novel? Yes, absolutely. But I’ve read a lot of horror and there’s far more books out there that will make you squirm uncomfortably the entire time and scar you for life much more than BLACKBIRDS (I am looking at you, HAUNTED by Chuck Palahniuk).

      I say this as a compliment, because there ARE dark parts of BLACKBIRDS, and of course people harp on the swearing, but Chuck manages to balance that with an awesome narrator and compelling story, so the reading experience itself is enjoyable, while at the same time giving you that raw, honest feeling I love in horror. Nothing in BLACKBIRDS is excessive. There is descriptions of wounds incurred, but it’s not torture porn. The narrative swears like a sailor, but it’s part of her character. The darkest part of the entire book to me is the concept: here is a girl who can see how a person is going to die, and can’t do a damn thing to stop it. She grapples with this reality the best way she can, and I think she does so with a certain nobility. I’ve given this book as a gift to lots of non-horror fans, and not a single one of them has thrown the book back at my head.

      I read horror because I like how it makes me feel. Not the scared-out-of-my-mind part, but the “this is how it happened; we’re not going to sugarcoat things” that I don’t find as often in other genres. If you’re trying out new books, I can say you can’t go wrong with BLACKBIRDS. Genre classifications aside, it’s just an amazing book.

      If you want to read other well written, straight up horror books I would also recommend HEART SHAPED BOX by Joe Hill. Well written, elements of horror, but there’s a good story there that has nothing to do with the ghost. JOHN DIES AT THE END by David Wong is also good, but there’s an element of absurdity to it that some people might not enjoy. FEED by Mira Grant is hella good, and slightly more assessable to non-horror fans.

      Okay so I am done rambling. Thanks for letting me wax poetic about awesome books. ;)

  • I wish! Sometimes a movie can transport me away from my anal(ytical) self. Avatar (3D) did, and it was only after leaving the cinema that I realized how shallow the storyline was.

  • Some people are inspired by the mystery and beauty of a book they completely get lost in, while others are inspired by the results of their thorough analysis of that book. I think each should do what gets his fingers typing, regardless if it’s analytical or not.

    I do analyze the books I read, but only in retrospect. If I try to analyze them as I read them for the first time, their effect is mostly lost on me, so I won’t be able to tell if they’re “good” to a reader or just “correctly written” technically. I prefer the first, for both my reading and my writing.

  • Its great to get lost in a really cracking story with great characters. When its topnotch my inner editor gets switched off. On the other hand reading some of the stuff that has been published by major publishing houses gives me great comfort (surely I can reach that low standard!)
    Enjoyed your post.

  • I find that, almost without fail, I get sucked in to most books/stories the first time I pass through them, making it almost impossible to do anything but enjoy the story. It’s only on repeated readings that I can try to pick the thing to bits and look for clues.

    • This is what happens to me – when it’s good writing, I have to read it through several times before I can get past the “omg awesome!” stage of liking a story. Conversely, I find I have a much lower tolerance for mediocre writing/TV/films these days

  • Much as I dislike the term, this is deconstructing the book/story. It is pulling the toy apart and looking at all the little spinning gears, the cables transferring power to different locations and coils of spring expanding and contracting as they absorb and release power again and again. Hopefully you can put the toy back together again and have it work for you, but if it doesn’t, that just reveals there is a part of that construction that you don’t understand .

  • Good info, thanks! FWIW, Kristine Kathryn Rusch just recently posted a lecture on reading like a writer. One of the thing she emphasizes is to read something first for fun, and really try to shut off the critical side of your brain while you do so. After you’ve read the story, then go back and re-read it and start picking out what you liked and why, and what you hated and why.

  • I spent years and years being an amateur critic, constantly pulling apart every movie, book or whatever that I got my hands on and figuring out what made it tick, why it was good or bad. Like an amateur mechanic of veterinarian… But all it did was make me a better writer when I finally decided to use all that crafting knowledge I had archived.

    I still get scorned by my writer friends for the small amounts that I read, which is justified. But I read plenty of books… I just can’t ever finish any of the damned things…

  • This is some serious shit here, Chuck. You could mold a master’s writing class on around this. This is the aim of one of the classes I am taking right now on Fantasy Classics.
    BTFO!

  • A thousand points to Chuck for nailing it. It’s a bullshit cop-out to say that once you gain the capacity (or willingness) to analyze something you used to enjoy with a comforting level of ignorance, you lose the capacity to simply enjoy that thing. I’ve answered this question hundreds of times as a musician teaching music theory: “but if I learn about music theory, I won’t be able to enjoy the mystery of music anymore.” CRAP. That “mystery” you think you want to preserve is not what powers your enjoyment. It’s not a mystery at all, it’s ignorance. And the enjoyment you experience from that state of ignorance is the tiniest tip of the iceberg. Using your brains to analyze while you listen/read/watch brings levels of enjoyment that can’t be touched with ignorant baby brain. There is so much wonderful shit to be experienced when you dig around. Which is to say: sing it, Chuck.

  • This is a great post

    I feel (or at least I like to!) that I’ve managed to find my own happy medium with pleasure reading/critique reading in that I can kind of control my brain mode that way.

    My problem, and I must admit I have one, is that I am quite genre bound. I HAVE branched out some but I know I am still quite narrowly focussed. I am on a bit of a mission to fix this as I hope to begin a writing MA soon and I know I will be selling myself short from all the potential goodies (and baddies) out there if I don’t learn to expand my book love.

  • February 19, 2013 at 9:34 AM // Reply

    Funny you wrote this today.

    I am now at a place in my life where I can focus on my writing again. Life really did get in the way and somehow as that happened I lost the enthusiasm I had for writing that I had when I was younger. –OK I can hear you saying BULLOCKS right about now but it is true.

    True I didn’t make it a priority and so it was not one. It is now.

    However throughout those years 10-15 to be exact I did continue to read. I love to read. But now as I am back and doing what I do believe I was born to do reading is research. I found that I can create great storylines and plots with twists and turns and unexpected endings. What I am not so good at right now is showing the story instead of telling the story. Hence, the reading research, I am trying to learn how to make my reader get lost in the book instead of walking him hand in hand through every doorway so to speak.

    So yes, in order to be a good writer you have to read like a writer. Thanks for the post today!

  • Reading when your a writer is a delicate balance. I used to not be able to read anything, especially after editing, because I still gripped that invisible red pen. I’ve learned to walk the fine line between both worlds.

    I’ve been always told to ‘write what you know’ ans have gotten into several verbal banters about the meaning of it. There’s always one person who wants to go off the deep end and think that hprase means you’ve got to experience it first hand. It’s like libraries and people with first hand experience never existed.

    I also read and write a lot of genres. The one genre I write in but don’t read much (if at all) is YA. A good bit of it is written in first person present tense. Reading that wants me to set my eyeballs on fire with a couple of red hot pokers.

  • I think I tend to agree with some of the others.

    I find it hard to just read for pleasure anymore, as I’m constantly evaluating (and yes I know it’s wrong) comparing the author’s work to my own; their sense of craft, their voice, their imagery, etc. Not necessarily in a critical way though, and certainly not all the time. But having newly found my ‘voice’, I’m also wary of infusing it with good things that I read from others, which also seems to dilute my enjoyment.

    I had a similar thing happen with me and gaming. I used to enjoy RPG gaming quite a bit, until I picked up a particular toolset one day and taught myself to use it.

    After designing levels and mobs and building parts of whole game worlds, playing the dang things just isn’t that much fun; especially in comparison.

    I add that last bit because I don’t think the fault lies with the creators of the books or the games. I think what’s going on here is that consuming the content brings me nowhere near the pleasure that I find in creating the content.

    And just like with games, right now I find writing a story (or even thinking new bits through) infinitely preferable to reading one; and given limits on available time, I know which one usually wins.

    Thank goodness I’m not in the movie biz. At least I can still enjoy those, although I do catch myself second guessing them sometimes …

    • They did, at that. Though presidential autobiographies are indeed a real thing. Paranormal Bromance is made-up, but a show like SUPERNATURAL probably falls under that auspice. :)

      — c.

  • There is a school of thought that I have heard regarding experiencing nature. One group seems to think that the less you know about it, the more magical the experience becomes. I favor a different concept and this has been my experience. Knowing more about the subject does cause you to see it in a different way. perhaps you loose some of your simple misconceptions that grew out of lack of knowledge, but these are replaced by a deeper appreciations of what you do see. They are replaced by the ability to see thing you otherwise would have missed without that knowledge. You can see relationships and patterns that were not apparent before. You can even have thoughts that would not have been possible to conceive before your gain in understanding. The hope is that your favorite books have the depth to withstand the “writer’s read” and still retain the qualities that caused you to enjoy them in the first place.

  • I have noticed, as a writer and reviewer that my critical faculties have slowly started raising. I am seeing the “Scaffolding” more and more, both good and bad. Its like a new sense I have, that I don’t quite know how to turn off.

  • Excellent advice! While reading to learn can really screw with your enjoyment of the written word (“this crap got PUBLISHED?! Not self-published, but by a HOUSE-published?!”) , you can and do learn a lot from it. And once you get some more training (read: reading) done, you can learn to read for pleasure again. Or, well, so I hope. ;-þ

  • For years I’ve been able to see the bare bones of stories. Then I became more educated, and now drive my family crazy with the way I dissect things. That doesn’t mean I don’t like fluffy writing. I found that I can enjoy writing “for fun” if it’s relatively well written. Well structured characters, good dialogue, and logical plot progression can go a long way even if the protagonist is just trying to save San Francisco from the vampire cat plague.

    Going back to my education, I used to have multiple professors say: “The ideal way is to read a book three times. The first time, you just read it. The second time, you read it with a pen in your hand. And the third time, you grab a different colored pen to catch the stuff you missed.” Sounds a lot like editing, wouldn’t you say?

  • Can I cry on your shoulder? Cause I need to. Cause I’m making myself read GONE GIRL for this very reason. Cause everyone loves it, and I’m… well… err… Anyway, kill me now!!! I wrote this blog post about it, and I will die from being pelted with dead crabs by Gillian Flynn’s fans. http://www.kseniaanske.com/blog/2013/2/18/give-your-reader-hope-your-reader-will-love-you.html

    So, request for the future, what do you do when you don’t like the book? How do you talk about it and not hurt author’s feelings?!? Just tell me, because I feel awful.

    • I once made the mistake of telling an Erich von Däniken fan just what I thought about van Daniken’s illogical historical contrivance. What I didn’t realize at the time was that this woman *needed* to believe in van Daniken – in his exotic excuse for reality. She never spoke to me again, not one word.
      What did I gain from this experience? You don’t have to give people your every opinion; and certainly not attempt to get them to agree.

      (van Daniken fans, just shut up, I’m not getting into that fight again!)

  • I’m a big fan of re-reading books that I like. If I finish the story and found that I loved it, it’s guaranteed I’ll be devouring it over and over and it’s in that stage that pick away at it, figuring out what works. Books I read and dislike I start taking it apart the first go-round, so I don’t read those more than once very often.
    I guess for me it’s “if you want to read like a writer be prepared to read a thing more than once.”

    • My “to be read” pile is always growing faster than I’m able to knock it down, due to a combined tendency to read slowly and not read often enough, so I decided years ago to not bother finishing a book I’m not enjoying. To paraphrase a late friend, “Life’s too short to read shitty books.”

  • Hey Chuck–

    I’m a recent follower. A friend forwarded me a post of yours–and shocked my ass because I think of her as, well, one of the “easily offended” crowd. Knowing that she reads you–and FORWARDS YOUR STUFF to folks impressed the hell out me. And I LOVE that she thought I would appreciate you.

    And I do.

    There are so many other writers out there that are trying to make the same points that you are. And they are being so damn polite about it.

    You cut right to the chase. Go for the jugular. And you rock.
    Loved this post as much as the last couple that I’ve read.
    Yours are the ones that I’ll keep for reference.
    Because you tell it like it is.

    Thanks for that, man.
    Thanks for the gift of your words. And for sharing ‘em.

  • I’m actually following a tip I’ve seen in a couple of writing books – to go through and deconstruct every scene in a novel. It’s tedious as hell, yet interesting, because the book I’m looking at doesn’t work the way I thought it worked when I read it the first time.

    By now, I have come to the conclusion that you’re right: Writing advice is dubious. This is after reading half a dozen books by various authors who can’t seem to get to the fucking point. Any one of those books could be cut by 75%. The ones who insist their way is the only way are clearly incorrect.

    As I get older, I find myself increasingly underwhelmed by most stories. Not to be like a cranky old person (I’m barely 50), but I notice people becoming more predictable according to the phase of life they happen to be in. I’ve done a lot of stuff and don’t feel experience-deprived. I’ve also read thousands of books. Most of what I read now is non-fiction. I like to understand how things work. When it comes to writing, I want to read whatever makes the deconstruction process go quickly.

    I read across a broad spectrum of genres and subjects. There’s no particular rhyme or reason to what interests me. If a book is by an author I don’t know, and it doesn’t grab me in the first two paragraphs, I don’t read further. If the book is recommended by a friend, I might feel obligated to read the first chapter. If I know the author because I’ve read their stuff before, I’ll hang in a lot longer.Too much of what’s out there is like everything else. Different is good, but it’s not everything.

    What people respond to varies. While we might like to be able to predict or control that response, I’m not sure it’s possible – there’s no magic cookie recipe to doing this, not even the “if it bleeds, it leads” rule because people get fatigued and burned out by mayhem also.

    How likely is it that novels are going to remain a viable form of entertainment, now that we live in an age of computer games? There’s some heavy artistic gaming stuff going on out there, super atmospheric, sort of like interactive novels in which the player gets to alter the direction of the plot. That stuff is cool. Which I only know about because I have teenagers.

    Nice thing about books is they don’t always have to be plugged in.

    What are your favorite novels of all time, and why?

  • Timely post for me.

    I just started re-reading a series I adore by an author whose career I would love to have. This time I’m looking at her craft and her structure because I want to learn how she constructed strong characters with detailed worldbuilding. It’s hard not to slip back into pure enjoyment mode, but it’s worth the fight to take in how she structures her scenes, what hints she drops.

  • Regarding “Reading outside your comfort zone”, I’ve found one of the best ways to do this is to join a book club at work or with friends (though you want to make sure your friends have different enough taste in books for this to work). My work book club has read a pretty huge variety of genres, including fiction and nonfiction and graphic novels and YA and whatever TOO BRIGHT TO HEAR TOO LOUD TO SEE falls into. I know that each of those books has affected my writing, in either my desire to avoid the pitfalls I saw in other pieces or cherry-picking the neat ideas that I found.

  • “But not gaining inspiration from reading? Jeez, really? How did one decide to be a writer at all if one is not inspired by the written word? That sounds to me like a special kind of hell.”

    Yes! Reading for pleasure vs. reading for craft has a fine line between them, but I wish more hopeful writers would work to discover that line.

    I used to be involved in several editing groups, and I found that many of the writers fell into two categories:
    1) I read only to pick apart everything on the page, but God forbid I actually apply any of that analysis to my own writing. (It was exhausting to listen to them. I wanted to ask, “Do you ever find any inspiration? Does anything you’ve ever read move you at all? At what point will you take the endless energy of your hyper-critiquing skills and devote it to your own work?”)
    2) Read? Why? I would hate to muddy my own brilliance by allowing my beautiful mind to be sullied by another person’s words. (Usually, these were the people that had spent years working on a manuscript, finally handed it over to be looked at after weeks of, “You won’t steal my idea, will you?” and within minutes I would have to ask, “Do you read anything in the genre you are pursuing?” “No? Then do you read anything besides the latest reviews of your favorite TV show?” Again, the answer would often be no. For many reasons. Most came back to not wanting to be “influenced.” I always wanted to say, “You could use influencing. A lot of it.”)

    The few who read for fun but also to work the craft often had manuscripts that I wanted to read because the work was more alive and interesting. Without fail, those people would admit to having a love for books, read widely, and looked for inspiration from what they read.

    I have grown suspicious of people who want to write and have people read their words, but who find no joy in or inspiration from books.

    • Re: Stealing ideas – There are only so many ideas to go around. When I kept a painting studio, I would sometimes find that an artist I didn’t know, working on the other side of town, was using similar imagery. No knowledge, no theft. We’re human beings. We respond to similar things. Idea-theft is a silly thing to worry about. If I’m thinking of something, someone else is thinking the same thing. It’s unavoidable. The same idea in one person’s hands could be total crap, and in another’s, world class fiction. It’s all in the delivery.

      Read anything good lately? I like stories with a plot but that also mean something. Meaning without plot I can handle, if I don’t fall asleep, but plot without meaning is a crime.

      • Sara, Years ago, Marijke van Vlaardingen, the Dutch woman who initiated me into the world of sculpture, would say, when similar ideas are art themes popped up, “It’s in the air”. Today we have the benefit of the internet to tell us that if we’re have a thought, so are 200,000 other people, more or less. I see no need to worry about having the same idea or coming up with the same theme for a piece of artwork. The uniqueness of each individuals experience and genetic code guarantees that the end product won’t and can’t be the same.’

  • The content of the article is obvious but thought provoking. As I read, I recalled a scene in Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities which I read about a week ago. Dickens skins the British legal system alive in his description of Charles Darnay’s trial at the Old Bailey. I would have missed this altogether when I first read Dickens’ more than 50 years ago. Some of those old, out of copyright books that you can get for free from places like Archive.org and Gutenberg.org may not have car chases and explicit sex but, they can be well worth the read -not just for the social history, but to see the tools earlier writers used to move nations.

  • I totally agree with what you’re saying here, Chuck. Reading a book with the ability to analyze what we’re consuming is a key part of learning for writers. And I love that you brought up the point on ‘Read with questions in mind’ and ‘Read to critique’. I always consider how I would have written something differently and ask what works and doesn’t work for me, and I don’t let something with best-seller status escape if I spot a flaw. You’re absolutely right; reading is part of the job-description for writers, and we need to gather as much inspiration from what we read as we gather from the world around us. Thanks for sharing, Chuck! :D

  • This business of reading like a writer is something I am trying to learn right now, as it happens. I was really put off the discipline of English literature (ie analysing a book for structure and the like) by some pretty dreary teaching when I was in my mid-teens, and it has taken this long to come round to the idea that I need to read intentionally in order to figure out how my favourite authors do the amazing things they do.

    Indeed, I have just started a Writer’s Book Club for this very purpose: the first book is Snow Crash.

  • Here I thought that this happened automagically when you started writing. Just me? It’s such a sensible thing to do if you want to make a story work, both in writing and thus obviously it must also be present in reading.

    For all the highschool forced reading and analysing them, I never quite managed to do take those books apart till I really started writing.

    /will only go so far out of my comfort zone that I am still able to sleep
    //blessed and cursed with both a vivid imagination and lack-of-filter for incoming emotional stuff
    ///then again, I never wanted to be(come) a writer. I just started writing…

  • I can’t “just read” anymore, since I started writing. Still enjoy, but can’t “just” read. I like to read anything and everything. Wish I didn’t need to sleep so I could cram in more books. Libraries and bookstores make me almost hyperventilate. I want to buy (or check out) everysinglebook I see.

  • I read for pleasure and writing at the same time! It is great fun for me to read a book that I hate and smirk at the writer and think, “Man that was bad.” I also think finding that line, that one line, that one character, that one right-placed word in a novel, that one that goes “boom” and makes you wish that you wrote those words first, is as much fun as reading any book for “pleasure.” If I want to numb my brain I watch tv.

    I have also found that if I’m making myself read a book, (because the world thinks it’s so great) and I’m hating the book, I throw it! This helps a lot. I don’t mean I quit reading the book. I mean that every now and again when I am really feel like I want to hit the writer for what he or she has done to me with awful pros, I throw the book, at the wall, at the ground, sometimes way up in the air. It does help.

  • I read like a writer, but my mind works in different ways than any other reader I’ve talked to. I get lost in the world of the book, but when I come back to myself, the book has been disected, analysed, broken like a Lego buliding after a two year old stomps through it, then sewn back together, all nice and pretty again. I’m a freak that way, it seems, but there it is.

  • My question would be: How can a writer NOT read like a writer? I find pleasure in reading but always seem to find myself dissecting the author’s story. A mind in neutral? Is this person really reading for pleasure or mindless hypnosis? The “read beyond the walls of your pleasure dome” comment reminded me of a habit I have long neglected. I’d read a different genre with each new book; rotating through general fiction, mystery, classic, fantasy, non-fiction and romance novels. Need to get my grappling gun out once again.

  • Totally agree with reading a book more than once — I essentially put my mind in a sling for the first pass, let the author do whatever they want with me, then flip back through the book and think about character, structure, action, etc before I put it away. If it’s a compelling book, I’ll read it again, just like I’d see a good film or play more than once. And speaking of which, I’d like to recommend reading plays or screenplays once in a while. It’s a good way to get out of your comfort zone, doesn’t take as much time as a novel, and it really shows you how a story can be stripped down to the bone. A scriptwriting course was an eye-opener for me.

  • I read books at least 3 or 4 times each. I have been doing that since I was in 8th grade. I didn’t even do it with the intention of learning to be a writer. I just figured I must have missed something the first time, and then some. There are always details there for the reader to find, even if they are small. Some of my favorite characters didn’t become so until I noticed the super small things that made them wonderful on a second or third read. Also, if it is a book, I will probably read it. While fantasy is my medium when I write, I find it easier to be a fantastical writer when I read about the crazy shit that actually happens in the world. It almost always makes me say “oh dear” and then I come up with a fantasy equivalent.

  • One of the things I started doing, is reading books twice. So far I mainly read in my comfort zone, but started reading a small amount of fantasy. I read once for pleasure, and then a second for studying syntax and themes.

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