Tuesday, May 17, 2011

On reading how a writer reads

Most of us get into the writing racket because we enjoy reading books.  Then we can't find quite the books that appeal to us, so we consider penning our own, something to fill in the gaps between what already exists.

The problem comes in trying to go from an amateur scribbling tales into someone writing something worthy of case binding and a slot in a bookstore.  It's not just enough to read books.  We have to read them with a writer's eye.  Here's one take on the process.

I agree that writers still read for pleasure.  But it's not the same.  I find I have less patience for slow openings now.  (This coming from a guy who's read Middlemarch more than six times.)  I sniff out great dialogue but more often mourn it's absence.  I get annoyed when a plot has a character circling back through the same small set of places like an endless loop.  I scream "break free and advance through the story."

Before I got into the writing process, these might not have mattered to me.  Now they do.  I look for strengths, great usage of language, great storytelling, something unique that makes me smile.  More often I find cringe-worthy elements in published books.

Here are a few things I find I read for (and often don't find):

Motivation

Why does any character in any book do the crazy things they do?  Sometimes the chain of events makes sense.  A lot of times, it's like a bad horror film.  "Don't go in there."  "Don't do that."  A character has some obsession that draws him or her into the plot, but I can't tell from the book what it might be.  If the whole plot hangs on a character's sense of mystery or trying to fill up a few bored hours, I have a problem.

I tried to get into a well-regarded private investigator series recently.  The writing was great.  The problem was I couldn't figure out why the man was doing any of the things he chose to do.  He received a threat to stay away from a certain former client.  The manner of the threat irritated him so he returned with a big friend and a gun, violence ensues.  What!  There were almost a hundred pages in the middle of the book where I couldn't believe anything that happened.  It was so far outside my level of credibility, I had to stop reading.

Energy

I re-read the opening of the first Dexter novel a week ago.  I remembered the opening chapters with fondness, some of the best in a debut I'd ever read.  Going back and rereading them confirmed how good they were.  A tense scene, a lot of story crammed into a few pages, about eight different kinds of horror presented for my enjoyment before the first chapter ends.  Well-crafted, thought-through language.  The voice of a character that I wanted to give my attention to.  A bit of twisted humor.  That's the kind of opening that will carry me through to the end (although I still think the first two to three chapters of this story are great, I don't think the plot is as good as the opening).

Aimlessness

One type of plot problem.  A few months ago I read a bestselling mystery/thriller that involved a character using a boat to get from an island to the mainland.  He was on and off the thing almost as much as he was hunting the killer.  It became a crutch and I dreaded another scene on the boat.  It seemed like throat clearing.  "I don't know what to do here, so I'll add some filler.  You did want to know more about the boat, didn't you?"  I now begin to cringe if I see the same setting come up three or more times in a story.  Introduce it, use it, give us the payoff, move on.

Those are the three that annoy me at the present.  As more aspects occur to me, I may do future posts on this topic.

Beware you readers who love to read.  Starting to write should (and must) change how you read.

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