1/6/16 – Reading Critically
There are two things in a writing career for which there are no substitute: reading and writing. The education, and the execution. You learn best by doing, so certainly you must write, write, and write some more. But first, and during, and after comes the reading.
Good books are books that tell a compelling story, and tell it well. Writers like to argue back and forth about which is more important – the plot of a story, or the telling of a story. It’s a silly argument, because both are important. An interesting plot can be ruined by sloppy, unintelligent writing; likewise, a beautiful book without a plot tends to bore readers. So our goal then is to tell an interesting story, and tell it well. We don’t want our books to sound like jumbled text message conversations, do we? No. And the first step toward developing a mature, intelligent, artistic voice of our own, is to read. Read frequently, and read widely. Read constantly. Read books from all genres. And above all, read well-written books.
In a well-written book, the author has complete control over the language, and is able to convey significant meaning with each sentence. Contrary to some explanations, writing is “tight” if the sentences are meaningful, not simply because they are short. Likewise, not each scene needs to have “action”; character-building moments of quiet “fluff” are perfectly acceptable, if they serve to further the story. Brevity does not equal quality. Length has absolutely nothing to do with the strength of the novel, or the quality of the writing. The author should take as many, or as few words necessary to convey his or her exact meaning – even if that meaning is a realistic depiction of a character struggling to understand vague or difficult notions. The author should use a combination of simple and complex sentences, and be conscious of the impact of each word. For instance, a short, punchy sentence after a string of complex ones serves to drive a point home.
A well-written book will also display correct grammar, punctuation, and word choice.
The next time you pick up a novel, put on your Writing Goggles and really look at the book, at its structure. Take note of where the author places commas and semicolons. Notice the imagery: what sort of picture does your mind conjure? And which words created that particular picture for you? Look at the dialogue. Does it sound realistic? Contemporary romantic fiction as of late tends to lean on a particular brand of male dialogue: “I will own you, claim you, break you, make you beg…” That sort of thing. Long strings of intentions. Using that sort of dialogue – dialogue that is specific and common within a certain genre – labels your book, and thereby limits it. Some writers enjoy labels and use them. I do not. A difference of preference.
It’s helpful to start thinking about the books you read, outside of their entertainment value. Keep a journal and track your reading progress. Make note of what you like about an author’s style, and what you don’t. Write down lines that especially inspire you. Think about the ways in which the author used specific details to connect with you personally, rather than vague generalizations that turned you off.
At the end of last week’s post, I shared two poems. It is critical that fiction authors read poetry! A poem is like a delicate little tasting spoon of words, each one carefully selected, bursting with flavor. They teach you how to play with words; they teach you how words can be paired to create lines that are more powerful than their component parts. There’s lots of great imagery and subtext in poems. Reading poetry helps you become a more subtle writer.
In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” we have this:
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
Can’t you see a cat? Rubbing its back upon the window panes? The metaphor is clever, realistic – you wouldn’t compare the fog to a giraffe, for instance – and the language itself lovely. Eliot writes such vivid lines, and at times his work is tender, at others quite visceral.
I should have been a pair of ragged claws,
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
An evocative, visual poem, and one of my favorites.
Prince of Tides - Pat Conroy (arguably the most disturbing book I've read. It made me angry for so many reasons, but it's a definite recommendation)