How Writers Read, and Sometimes Why

I was having an online conversation recently with one of my novel-writing students about reading more thrillers–because she’s writing one–when one of her classmates chimed in with a question.

It boiled down to this: “How do you learn to write from reading? Is there an article explaining how that works?”

A number of answers occurred right away. There are so many ways to learn from reading other authors, living and dead. It’s a huge question. We learn from a form of osmosis, for example: simply by reading books for pleasure, we absorb some sense of how sentences are supposed to sound, proper grammar, new vocabulary, the idea of voice, fundamentals of worldbuilding, word play, plotting, and how to structure a variety of points of view. Everything we want to try, in fiction, is in a book somewhere.

If we want to try out some particular literary technique, chances are it’s because we read it in a book somewhere. I structured the Indigo Springs frame story as I did, in part, because I wanted to understand novels like Katherine Dunn’s exquisite and heartbreaking Geek Love.

keep readingWe can break down a book we love or admire–examine it scene by scene, plot point by plot point, character journey by character journey. We can outline it, draw graphs, shuffle around cards with the story components jotted on them, all to better understand its structure. On the micro level, we can become better prose stylists by examining small pieces of writing within larger works, the passages that make your heart beat faster, the ones that sing within the mind’s ear because they’re just that effective. (Or, sometimes, the opposite. Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places has some deeply annoying comma splices, which break up its rhythm quite badly.)

Many of you already know I do this, using my text fragment collection.

Moving off the beaten track of this topic, there are also a number of books and movies about readers and writers, pieces that are instructive. They’re fiction, is what I’m saying. But they can add to your understanding of craft, or discipline, or process. A somewhat frivolous example would be the romantic comedy Music and Lyrics, which–amid the tasty froth of a boy meets girl tru luff always storyline–sneaks in some hard truths the value of art, the persistence and commitment it requires, genre snobbery, writer’s block, trying too hard, and giving up too soon. All that and Drew Barrymore, too!

Or, if you want something loftier in this vein–not to mention thoroughly wonderful–go pick up Alan Bennet’s novella “The Uncommon Reader” It’s about the birth of a writer, a certain eminent person who takes up reading comparatively late in life and who does nothing, for most of the story, but read, read, and read some more. If you want a fictional and yet true answer to “How do you learn to write from reading?”, this is very much it. And the beginning of that answer? Learn to read. Or, rather to read. Not glancingly or inattentively, but with passion, intent, and thoughtfulness.

(This novella is, btw, quirky and delightful. You’ll laugh.)

I hope to have more on this subject in the future, and perhaps not just from me. In the meantime, what do you all think?

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About Alyx Dellamonica

After twenty-two years in Vancouver, B.C., I've recently moved to Toronto Ontario, where I make my living writing science fiction and fantasy; I also review books and teach writing online at UCLA. I'm a legally married lesbian, a coffee snob, and I wake up at an appallingly early hour.

5 Responses to How Writers Read, and Sometimes Why

  1. I found that as I wrote more, I read differently. The structure leapt out at me, like seeing the bones through flesh. Occasionally I’d think something like: “Oh, that’s sleight of hand, he’s trying to slip it past instead of fixing it”. And of course I could usually tell how it was going to end — that works with movies too. Later I developed a sort of mental switch, doing ‘reading reading’ and then a ‘writer’s reading’.

  2. Yes! One of the things I love best, when I read now, is that rare feeling of having no idea where the writer is going.

  3. Josh English says:

    Once I discovered Chandler, I found Marlowe’s voice and pacing entering my style, which is fine as I like to think of myself as writing hardboiled fiction. Two things in particular: Chandler describes people and things without trying to explain it to the reader. He describes one character in “a blue gabardine” and I had no idea what that meant until I asked my local expert. This descriptive style has come into play in my stories, but it’s not as successful. “She wore a black sleeveless with a glitterstamp logo flashing under the collar” is fine to me, but every critiquer has said there’s a missing word in that sentence.
    The second is a style, the name of which escapes me, of using very short paragraphs after long paragraphs as a pacing device, or for impact.

  4. John: Chandler could assume a good deal of knowledge on the part of his readers that a speculative fiction author or writer of historicals often can’t. Contemporary fiction works against a common background.

    Take the “black sleeveless” example you used.

    If Chandler was writing that, you could automatically assume that the missing word is “dress”.

    That’s simply because apart from a few low-profile subcultures and some unusual situations, if the “she” is referenced she’ll -always- be wearing some sort of dress in Chandler’s day. “Woman” = “person wearing a skirted garment” and vice versa to both author and audience; it’s water to a fish. A common slang term for female at the time was, in fact, “skirt”.

    Writing against a common background allows a terse shorthand, which writers from the early Modernists on liked, partly as a reaction against the very dense descriptiveness of the Victorian style. Hemmingway was particularly fond of it, but the hard-boiled school to which Chandler belonged also frequently used it. Editorial preferences heavily encouraged it.

    Therein lies a long-term danger. Over my own lifetime, for instance, and to reference the above, skirts have gone from ubiquitous to actually fairly rare in ordinary dress. As a sociological fossil, that’s why the women’s toilet often has a stick figure with a triangle superimposed to mark it.(*)

    Stuff that’s transparently obvious in the exchange between author and audience becomes opaque to the reader as you move further away in time from the frozen moment of composition.

    If you’re writing set in the (early 21st century) present, the “black sleeveless” could be a dress.

    Or a shirt, or a leather coat or something else entirely. Likewise, a “blue gabardine” would have been immediately obvious to someone in Chandler’s day: “blue gabardine [masculine garment, probably a suit or sports jacket].

    Unless you’re -trying- to jar the audience there or limit their information (which can be perfectly OK, of course) there really is a missing word. You can’t make the same assumption about your audience’s reception of the sentence that Chandler (probably unconsciously) could.

    “The past is another country; they do things differently there.” You -can’t- use Chandler’s sylistic mannerisms; or rather, you can’t use them and get the same effect he did on his contemporaries.

    That’s a fairly straightforward example, but there are subtle assumptions about human relations built in to a period style that you have to parse because they’ve changed and which make it risky to simply take stylistic tools and use them the way the writer you’re reading did.

    It’s more obvious when you’re reading, say, Shakespeare than it is with an early-to-mid 20th century writer like Chandler, but it’s there. It may be more likely to trip you up because it’s more subtle.

    Technology comes into it too. When the telephone became general, writers complained that it made plotting different and more difficult. They had, for some time, to laboriously describe the process of making a telephone call because people -weren’t- familiar with it, and many narrative tropes depended on it -not- being possible to quickly talk with someone that way; note the role of the letter or telegraph in a lot of 19th-century fiction. Cellphones have done the same thing to writers in our day. If you’re writing in the future, connectivity will presumably be even more ubiquitous, in ways we really can’t imagine.

    If you’re writing in an alien or secondary or past world, often there’s no real alternative to a more densely descriptive style, because you’re dealing with situations that the audience will be deeply -unfamiliar- with. You have to visibly connect the dots.

    Eg., a writer in 1900 could say “it smelled like a barnyard”, and everyone would immediately get a vivid sensory impression from their own memories.

    -Everyone- knew what horseshit smelled like in quantity, because even cities had horses all over the place. And usually cows and pigs, too. Nearly everyone would know what the sort of soupy mixture of mud and dung in a barnyard smelled and felt like; it was part of the common currency of the time.

    About the same time, “The great unwashed” was often used to describe the lower classes, and it wasn’t simply a term of derrogation. The working classes had much less access to hot water, soap, and opportunities to change and wash their clothes. They -did- smell different, because the middle-to-upper classes had taken up a cult of personal cleanliness generations before anyone else could even if they wanted to. Anyone who got on public transport or walked a downtown street was going to notice it. This had all sorts of sublte effects on personal interactions which could be assumed then but would have to be made explicit if you were writing in a similar situation now.

    If you want to get something like the same reaction with an audience now, you have to expand the statement.

    Likewise, if you write a scene in which someone grabs a kid by the ear and pulls them away, whacking said kid on the butt the while, you have to write it differently from the author in 1950 if you want to get the same impression into the reader’s head.

    (*) you can date this shift on skirts rather closely. Eg., in “Lucifer’s Hammer”, an asteroid-apocalypse book written in 1977 and set roughly in that period, after the fall of civilization a character notices when passing from a more to a less impacted community that he suddenly starts seeing women in skirts again, as oppsed to the other area where they’re all in pants. The book was written by guys born in the 1930’s who were young adults after WWII, but in 1977 it was still an unremarkable observation. I was born in 1953, and I recall when reading it at the age of 24 that this struck me as slightly odd — not the simple fact, which was reasonably plausible, but the character’s seeing it as a sign that he’d passed from a place of terrible hardship to one where the margin of survival was larger. It was like a Victorian author taking “dressing for dinner” in some godforsaken tropical outpost as a sign of moral worth and strong character and preserving the decencies of civilization, though not as strongly so.