Friday, July 23, 2010

Guest Blog Post: Active Reading For Better Writing

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

One of the things that writers often argue about, in writers' forums and on writers' message boards, is whether writing is an innate talent that can be honed but not learned, or simply a skill that can be taught to anyone willing to be trained.

Whether you subscribe to one view or the other, a large part of a writer's honing, or training, or whatever you want to call it, is self-directed. Practice is vital: you don't have to write every single day (unless you want to), but you do need to write frequently. Outside criticism (from editors, colleagues, writers' groups) can not only help you improve your work, but teach you how to criticize yourself. And then there's reading. Reading widely, reading critically--analyzing how other authors handle structure, achieve effects, solve problems, etc.--is one of the best ways to build your skills.

In today's guest blog post, writer and educator Aimee Weinstein discusses the vital importance of reading, and how it can help you become a better writer.

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By Aimee Weinstein

My new relationship with reading started because like many writers, I hate to exercise. I love reading, though, and I discovered the solution to the problem was podcasts. I could listen to podcasts of short stories from various genres while making my way around the gym to use those disgusting and pain-inducing machines. Then, a week or two ago, I was using some leg-torturing device, when there was a surprising twist in the plot of the story in my ears. I allowed the weight to fall and let out a loud, “oh!” causing everyone in the gym to look over at me.

“Podcast” I explained sheepishly, shrugging my shoulders.

The story was titled “Water Child,” and its author, Edwidge Danticat, had made me to drop everything and shout out. The writer in me wanted to know how to do that. How had the plot twisted in such a surprising way that I lost control of myself while listening to it? I rewound a little bit and focused on the section that had so shocked me. The main character calls an ex-lover on the phone but the reader does not have any information about the relationship – how involved it was or why it broke up or anything. But then, instead of the man answering the phone when she calls, the man’s wife answers. CLICK. Everything fell into place with a surprising thump of a nautilus machine.

I listened again to the entire story. I realized that the author uses the telephone as a device to drive the story. We learn about the relationship in the first place because the ex-lover leaves messages on an answering machine. The main character’s parents live in another country and implore her in letters to call them on the phone; they are too poor to call her. And then the misstep of the story happens on the phone. I wondered how I might create a similar device for my own characters to use.

There is so much to be learned from reading. Put succinctly, writers need to read. There’s no substitute.

I realized that this was a pattern with me. A few weeks prior I had read Olive Kitteridge, the Pulitzer Prize winning book of related short stories by Elizabeth Strout. I admired the way the author created a world for the main character, Olive, where everyone around her thinks they know her so well--but actually, she has a completely mysterious inner life that is known only to the reader. The juxtaposition of real life versus inner life fascinated the writer in me.

I then thought about all the books I had read recently and how voracious a reader I really am. I call myself a writer because that’s how I spend much of my life, but the reality is that I read as much as I write.

From Lorrie Moore’s recent novel, I learned about creating a full and deep character. From Pat Conroy’s newest novel, I learned how the location of a story can play such a huge part in the plot that it almost functions as another character. From John Irving, I learned how a plot can stay cohesive even if the story takes place over a long time-span. And these are just the books I’ve read over the past couple of months!

Authors are our best teachers of writing. Their books wouldn’t be published if they didn’t have something to offer the reader, and it’s up to the aspiring writer to pick up the skills they present.

In order to write, one has to read what has come before, and here’s another key to the puzzle – pay attention to the details of the craft. Ask questions. How does metaphor function in the story? Is the overly bold sister supposed to function as the main character’s conscience? How does the mystery writer incorporate clues subtly without giving away the ending? How long should it take for the girl to realize that she’s in love with that vampire? It many sound monotonous, but it’s ultimately true: active reading enlivens creative juices.

If you’re a genre writer, close reading can help you figure out how to better fashion the mystery/fantasy/science fiction world that you want to create. If you write fantasy, it behooves you to read as much fantasy literature as you can, both old and new. The same goes for science fiction writers, mystery writers and even romance novelists. How can a person become conversant in the specifics of his craft if he does not immerse himself in it? Reading is crucial to every writer.

So I’m going back to the gym with my iPod and podcasts ready. I can learn as I listen. Maybe this exercise thing isn’t so bad after all.

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Aimee Weinstein is a freelance writer and writing professor based in Tokyo, Japan. Her most recent work can be found in Asian Jewish Life, and she is currently working on a book regarding Japanese/English translation issues in the public sphere. Her blog, TokyoWriter, covers life in Tokyo, writing issues and sometimes her kids, who are ages 10 and 7, and have already discovered the lack of privacy that accompanies having a writer for a mother.

15 comments:

lakeviewer said...

Amen!

David Jace said...

This is a wonderful truth. It would be like learning to play an instrument but never having heard a concert or turned on the radio.

However, as a teacher as well as a writer, I see a fearful danger in this as well. Some people think you can teach someone to write merely by forcing them to read, and that just isn't true. Reading, especially pleasure reading, is wonderful but doesn't give you the tools or the experience to guide you in what to look for as you read. It doesn't give you the terminology to be able to discuss the construction or details. Nor does it teach you the rules so that you can recognize when to break them.

I do very much like that you specifically called out Active Reading, instead of merely reading. You didn't just listen to the story and say "wow, that was cool." You returned to the section where it happened, analyzed what caused it, and then reviewed the whole story with that tool in mind, looking for the methods of use. I wish I had taken more classes in college that focused on critical reading. Or understood it better when they were trying to tell me about it!

Thank you for this reminder not only to read, but how to read and what to read! Well done.

Gary Baker said...

Totally agree, but ... Reading and listening: are they the same activity? Being a non-multitasking bloke type person, when I think about the sentence I've just heard I miss what immediately follows. When I read I constantly use my Mind Activated Pause Button. If you have any pull at Apple can you suggest an MAPB for the next version of the iPod?
Thanks.

pensees said...

Great post. I couldn't agree more. I actually wrote a post on reading and exercising today as well: http://ctefft.blogspot.com. Great minds and all that! :)

Mary said...

You should, however, include a warning that if you follow this advice, you will change the way you read.

Forever.

And at all times.

D.G. Hudson said...

Reading in the same genres as I write helps me understand my audience & the expectations of the story type.

Great guest post - enjoyed Aimee's take on the subject.

K. A. Cozy said...

I've also found that it helps to read a variety of books, and to not be afraid to read bad books. Sometimes you can learn more from an example of bad writing than from good.

Karen Packard Rhodes said...

The basic advice works for us non-fiction writers, too. As a historian, I read other historians to see how they present a particular situation, what their research methodology was for a certain era or group, when I am doing a similar project. Reading critically and "actively" is absolutely one of the most basic skills a writer can develop.

I also agree with David Jace that one must have other tools in the toolkit, such as a thorough knowledge of grammar, usage, syntax.

Great post; thank you, Amy, and thank you, Victoria.

Julie Musil said...

This is so true! I read totally different now, paying attention to plot twists and structure.

Author Guy said...

Much of my writing is influenced by what I've read, but mostly to the extent of "I've seen that done before, how do I achieve the same goal in a different way?" I was discussing my latest short WIP last night and realized just what a debt I owed to many classic SF authors. As an example, I deliberately borrowed Heinlein's 'stobor' idea, and I will say so in the text, and extended it to a category I call latabs, an acronym for 'lions and tigers and bears.' Important categories for planetary survey teams. I have others, but they are not specific terms, more themes and plot twisty things. Another big lesson is in learning how not to write. I've read many bad books, and I devoted a lot of thought to what makes them bad and why, so I wouldn't do the same.

heteromeles said...

I'd add for all of the genres mentioned, it pays to read non-fiction as well. How does a naturalist convincingly describe the real world? That's a good guide to writing about an alien world. Romance? Read autobiographies of real lovers. Mysteries? There's lots of true crime. Literary fiction? Read blogs.

The danger of reading only within a field is that your writing becomes mimicry, and only recycles what other people have already done. A field that does this too much becomes intellectually inbred, with all of the problems that implies.

A novel is supposed to be, well, novel. That means that it should contain something new and interesting in it.

Patterson said...

This is a reality and everybody have to accept actually it is very essential for one self improving and it also makes you to think on the higher level nobody can dare to disagree with you here
Nice Post....

Christine Walker said...

I couldn't agree more. Close reading not only makes a better writer, it makes a more astute and appreciative reader. As writers, we all want that reader. In the classes I teach and in my Read to Write Books wordpress blog, I share my discoveries and lessons to be learned from close reading of masterful fiction.

Writer At Work said...

When I studied creative writing at university this subject came under 'Key Practices,' and had the topic of "Reading as a Writer."

We were asked to examine different stories and discuss the techniques used, why and how they worked (or didn't).

At the end of it all a 3000 word essay on a specific authors skills within a story was demanded... And when summarising why work should be read at the end of the essay, I closed with the advice from John Updike - "read to steal." (Updike was encouraging the 'theft' of good technique, not plagiarism)

Carl said...

Interesting to read about the writers argue with the forums and on writers' message boards,post is also good to read.

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