The writer as reader

Does the act of reading help make you a better writer?
There’s no question that familiarity with a genre is vital if you want to write within it. For me, it’s a no-brainer that to write books, you must read books. But I’m talking about reading a novel by a top author and seeing it a sort of one-to-one tutorial. Analysing how the nuts and bolts fit together in a way that helps you to build your own story. (Enough engineering metaphors, Ed).

The reason I’m blethering on about this is that I’ve been thinking about my complete inability to read a novel as a writer, rather than as a reader. I’ve heard lots of other writers say that their reading pleasure has been tarnished by learning about some of the techniques involved and a feeling of ‘knowing how it’s done’. Although I’m very glad that I never feel this way, I’m slightly envious that they’re able to stand back from the page and analyse a novel as they read it. As soon as I start to be interested in a story, I’m largely blind to how it’s done. I just get sucked in.

If a book is exceptionally bad, I might find myself spotting lots of ‘don’ts’ – point-of-view inconsistency is a particular bugbear, for instance – but if it’s a good read, I immediately forget what I’m meant to be doing and just enjoy the ride. For me, it’s like looking at some haute couture dress and trying to see the stitches. And I say that as someone who can barely sew on a button and once ‘took in’ a pair of jeans as a teenager, which then fell apart at the school disco.

I just hope that somehow, by some sort of literary osmosis, some good habits might start to be absorbed, unconsciously.

The American writer Francine Prose has addressed this in her book Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. It’s extremely well written, but for some reason I found my attention drifting quite quickly off her point. I started thinking, ‘Hey, I wonder what her novels are like?’ I’ve now read three and loved them all. I still haven’t finished Reading Like A Writer. Which says it all, really.

It may seem obvious that you should want to read, if you want to write, but not everyone thinks so. I once went on a residential writing course and a handful of the people there said they ‘liked to read, but didn’t always find the time’.
The very thought of not reading makes me feel panicky. Like the smoker who has a new pack ready when they stub the last one out, I have to know what I’m reading next or I get the jitters. My desire to read is almost compulsive and always has been. As a child, I once walked into a lamppost because I was trying to finish a book on the way home from school. If I’m not enjoying a book but not quite ready yet to give up on it, I actually feel quite sulky.
I just wish other writers’ skills would rub off in the process. There is a danger, of course, that you subconsciously copy a particular style in your own writing, but I’m wondering whether you do absorb helpful stuff about technique and style and flow just by reading. I live in hope. Maybe I can say ‘I’m off to hone my craft’ next time I’m spotted trying to slink off quietly from the family with a novel under my arm.


Administrator said...

Interesting post, Caroline!

Every writer i know was a voracious reader as a child. I was. I'd read in the bath.

I read much less as an adult and when i do now it's often to clinically anaylse another writer's style. One thing i take mental notes about is dialogue.

I'm always chiding myself for not reading enough and sometimes wonder if this is why, so far, i have not had success... I am in no doubt that all the books I devoured as a child have a given me any skills i may have now as a writer.

Sam x

E.G. said...

Caroline, I totally agree with you that it's easy to say why you don't like a particular novel, but more difficult to extract 'what worked' from a novel that absorbed you. And sometimes I plain don't want to - the quiet afterglow of a really good book is sometimes damaged by talking about the different elements of it, I think. Perhaps this is why I haven't joined a book group!

Anonymous said...

Interesting post! I feel the same way about reading a good book -entirely swept away and unable to analyse!

I'm, er, off to hone my craft. ;)

♥ Boomer ♥ said...

Really good post. I mostly write nonfiction, but don't read it enough.

I usually dive into mysteries, get lost in the characters and begin to wonder WHY I can't develop them like that, and why I haven't tried.

And if I run into a stinker book, then, yes. I am the world's greatest critic.

Liane said...

Hee hee. I know what you mean. When I did a self-editing course I couldn´t read a book without adverbs jumping out of a book and bringing me out of the story. My mind was on high alert to everything I´d learnt and I was ranting at my husband that it wasn´t fair, my favourite hobby had been spoiled and he could still enjoy a book -yes, not very grown up, I know. The great news is it wore off. And I wouldn´t have it any other way. My editor mind pops in on occasion and I´ve learned to accept him. He does a good job. Having just read one of my favourite Octavia Butler books for the fourth time I have to say I´m so glad he sleeps most of the time and lets me travel to her world. Thanks for a great post, Caroline. You´re so right. There´s nothing so great as a delicious read. Liane x

Geraldine Ryan said...

Caroline, I've been meaning to buy this particular how to book for ages. In fact I may just get onto Amazon in a minute. I don't know how it's done either, and I'm glad I don't. I don't even know how I write, come to think of it, which is one of the reasons I gave up teaching CW because people kept expecting me to give them the answer.

It's magic and it's the magic you get from reading as a child, that feeling that nothing else exists but the characters in your book, that I always wanted to bring to writing and why I became a writer. It's what people who haven't grown up yet do for a living! LOVELY IMAGE - nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

Caroline Green said...

Thanks so much, all, for your comments. Lovely to come on here and find them this morning!

Geri, the magic you mentioned here...that's also why I want to write. If I could make other people feel the way I do about a good book, well, strikes me there is no greater reward than that.

Sam, if it's any consolation, I read constantly and I haven;t had any success yet either! :-)

Caroline Green said...

PS Have to credit Luisa here also, because it was chatting with her about this that gave me the idea!

Gillian McDade said...

An interesting post Caroline!
I always make time to read, even if I have to make sacrifices in other areas of my life. I read in the bath, in bed, on the sofa until my head gets sore.
And I'm forever analysing a book, especially the opening line and the first three chapters. This also stirs a memory... - my primary school teachers used to tell us off for reading Enid Blyton because her writing style was lazy and incorrect (?) and instead encourage us to read books by people like Noel Streatfield.

Caroline Green said...

I think it's a shame that teachers would ever discourage kids from reading.

I'm also a bath-reader, Gillian. Sometimes with all too predictable consequences....

Administrator said...

I have lots of Malory Towers books in the loft, brown and curled from being dropped in the bath and dried on the amersion heater!

I blame pregnancies. Since then i've had the attention span of a gnat.


Jayne said...

I read a lot, the thought if not having a book on the go scares me! I do wonder if I should try to take a step back and look more at the nuts and bolts of what I read though. I tend to get totally lost in the story and characters and everything else just passes me by!

Anonymous said...

Really interesting post, Caroline. I'm one of the poor benighted people you mention who, after starting to write fiction four years ago, has become UNABLE to read as a pure, unsullied reader. Or to read very much fiction at all.

I find I am analysing - which could be good except that I rarely make it far enough through a novel any more to get to analyse the structure, because I start to analyse the tiny details of the writing, and lose my engagement and hence my interest in the book.

My problem is therefore how to re-enable myself to read. This leaves me feeling bereft (after devouring two or there novels a week to the age of 40, I now get through fewer than one completed book a month. probably fewer than that). But more importantly, how can I do the refuelling - by reading - which is so essential to the writing process?

Does anyone else suffer the same way? And are there any tricks for 'getting back into' reading?

Administrator said...

I guess part of your problem, Rosy, is that you always have a project on the go - you find it difficult not to write.

If you took a complete break like you were supposedly going to, recently:) I bet the writing side of your brain would eventually switch off for a while and enable you to remember how to read without analysing.


Caroline Green said...

I have no tips to offer, Rosy, but I really feel for you. The grass is always greener, isn't it! There's me with the completely opposite problem.

I wonder if reading right outside your normal genres helps? I'm thinking some nice childrens or YA book, or something you might not normally go for?

Anonymous said...

True, and good idea, Caroline. I can read non-fiction OK - biography and such - and have also read plenty of children's and YA books to and with my daughters since I began to write. Some crime fiction, too, holds my attention - I suppose because of the mental puzzle element - but also because it is so far removed from what I am trying to write myself.

And yes, Sam - I dream of a complete six month break from fiction-writing. But it never seems to work out that way!

Sheila Cornelius said...

I'm a voracious reader since childhood - even did an English degree and taught Literature for many years. Maybe I can see what makes a novel or short story tick if I take the trouble to make notes for a review, but otherwise I too am just carried away by the story. I wouldn't say it destroys my pleasure, knowing the elements of good narrative, as I'm hardly aware of them while I'm reading.


Anonymous said...

Good post. I can either read with my writer's head on, or with my reader's head, but not simultaneously. And I can't read a whole book in the latter mode. I'll usually read a book for the first time as a reader - as you say, swept away - and then it's filed in my head, for the moment when I'm wondering how other writers handle the particular problem I'm stubbing my own toe on. Like Shiela, I mainly analyse and think critically after the event, as it were: that's when I might start thinking in Francine Prose's terms (or David Lodge's, or John Mullan's), not while I'm devouring the book. Beryl Bainbridge says she expects her readers to read like this, as she does herself.

I agree with Liane that to some degree, as you get used to having one, your geiger-counter can be turned up or down. But, like Rosy, I mostly read non-fiction when I'm actually in the throes of writing an novel.

The main thing that's been affected by my becoming a writer is that I'm much, much less tolerant of sub-standard writing. I don't mean bad writing, I just mean writing that does the basic job of conveying the story, but not enough more. I spend too much time being exacting about my own use of words to put up with stuff written less exact and exactingly. I don't despise it, and in a genre I enjoy I'll put up with it if I'm enjoying the story. But, fundamentally, if I run out of steam for a book, that'll be why. It's the instinct-based equivalent of a reason-based literary judgement. Its actual manifestation is that if I mislay the book, I won't bother looking for it.

Ali McNamara said...

I'm much more likely to put a book down now and not finish it if it doesn't grab me after the first few chapters.
Life's too short, and my spare time is too precious to spend a whole novel thinking 'I can do better than this...' Sad, but true.

Sam, I loved Enid Blyton's Malory Towers, & her St Clares stories too!

Gillian McDade said...

I loved Malory Towers! I have the whole series, along with the Famous Five and Secret Seven.

Caroline Green said...

Emma, I have a feeling you were the person who recommended Francine Prose? She's a fabulous fiction writer too. I can't think why she isn;t better known here, because she seems to be huge in the US. I wish I could get hold of one of those geiger counters!
Ali, I agree about not sticking with books you don;t enjoy, but for me, it was having children and therefore less time, which did it.
Thanks all so much for your comments. Very interesting to hear how others view this writer/reader issue...

Anonymous said...

I know what you mean about discarding disappointers - I used to do it a lot. One of the 'benefits' of a readers' group is it makes you read on, if only so you can have a coherent, reasoned whinge at the next session. I say it's a benefit because it makes you think about faults as well as virtues in fiction - useful for an aspiring writer, I think. Other peoples' views are useful, too, especially when there's concensus. The last book that was universally condemned by my crime reading group was one a literary one by Jasper FForde about kidnapping fictional characters. It provokes thoughts about genre boundaries, too.


Administrator said...

Yes, Ali, i loved the St Clare's too.
And Gillian, the Famous Five too!

I got all mine down from the loft for my kids - plus all my Brer Rabbits, Naughty Amelia Jane, Wishing Chair.

Sigh - happy memories...


Anonymous said...

Caroline, yes, it might have been me - I know I thought the how-to-read book was terrific. (All the best how-to-write books are actually how-to-read books...) And I remember thinking that I liked her voice and attitude, so it's good to know her fiction measures up too. Note to self - get hold of some once current first-draft-fiction-famine ends.

Unknown said...

I'm completely with you on this one, Caroline! And I also have had a faith that it's all gone in and has composted away nicely without me having to intervene, and will greatly enrich my writing. Just like living life does ;)