Reading for writing: reflections on a recent read

Coffee time

I finished one of my latest reading-for-pleasure ventures recently, and it gave rise to some useful reading-for-writing introspection and analysis I thought might be interesting to share. The thing was, it certainly had its flaws – some extremely annoying ones at that. But, even so, I found it an overall satisfying read and I’m even keen to seek out the next one in the series and give that a go.

So what’s all that about? How does that work?

And, more importantly (and in keeping with the theme of my earlier reading-for-writing posts), what can I learn about this for my own writing?

First, the flaws.

The story was a whodunnit. Not an actual murder mystery, but a tale of two people trying to solve a spate of serious crimes, in which their lives were very much at stake if they failed.

The villain turned out to be someone known to the protagonist – in fact, someone the protagonist knew well and admired. (OK so far. A bit standard-operating, but solid.) The villain also turned out to have an intimate connection with the arch-enemy of the protagonist’s off-sider and potential love interest. (More interesting.)

What bugged me about the way the plot was constructed, however, was that the villain didn’t get any screen time (so to speak) until the big confrontation at the end. Sure, the narrative had mentioned this character, and had even done so in conjunction with an important clue. But the reader never got to actually meet the villain in her lamb’s clothing, never got to witness the relationship between her and the protagonist, and never even got the slightest hint about the existence of someone with this kind of relationship to the arch-enemy.

The effect of this was that:

  1. The reader couldn’t involve themselves in unravelling the mystery with the characters by pulling together their own theories and testing these against the characters’ sleuthing abilities. There was no Ah-ha! moment where we saw how the puzzle pieces fitted together, because we never knew half the pieces existed.
  2. The reader was unable to engage with the protagonist’s sense of gut-punch betrayal when the identity of the villain was revealed. Further, during the climactic scene, when the villain behaved in a way calculated to provoke a particular emotional reaction from the protagonist, the reader had to be told she was experiencing this reaction, rather than experience it with her (which we would have been able to do, had we been able to build our own relationship with the villain earlier in the story.)
  3. The connection to the off-sider’s arch-enemy came off as ridiculously convenient. It could have been a revelation. But it was essentially meaningless.

So what did I learn from this?

Seed key plot devices early, whether they’re characters, emotional connections or information.

But why did I like the book?

This is actually more important than the book’s flaws, because it’s this that has me hooked and interested in getting hold of the next one. I have to say, it’s embarrassingly simple.

Frankly, it was all down to the two main characters and the relationship between them. I’m not sure it was exactly a romance, but it was intriguing, and emotionally charged, and I want to know where they go next.

And what does this teach me?

Make my characters, their relationships and their emotional journeys arrestingly interesting. (Note: interesting does not mean tortuous or outlandishly dramatic. It means relatable, charismatic and one step away from being completely satisfying.)

Reading for Writing Part 2

In my last post, I talked about how being a writer has limited my capacity as a reader. But I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t read any more. Far from it. I just find I have to be a lot more selective these days.

A small portion of the teetering to-read pile.
A small portion of the teetering to-read pile.

So what do I read and how do I prioritise? Well, here are some thoughts. In terms of priority, it’s roughly in order, but subject to change on the basis of necessity or whim.

1. I still read to my kids. I’ve put this first, because it happens almost every day, so it probably makes up the bulk of my fiction reading, even though it’s not technically for me. They’re 12 & 10 now, but they love being read to. Right now we’re reading Joan Aiken’s All But a Few. But we’ve worked our way through plenty of fabulous books. This is pure, unadulterated fun.

2. Books I really, really want to read. These are the ones that furnish the landscape of my imagination. These books have built the pantheon that I want to be a part of as a writer. They feed my muse and inspire me.

3. Books I want to read because they’re going to help me improve my craft. They might be beautifully written, or have an intriguing story premise, or won an award, or have caught the zeitgeist, or be somehow relevant to my own work.

4. Beta reading for friends. It might not be for leisure, but it’s reading fiction written by someone else and it certainly helps my own craft.

5. Non-fiction reading, usually for research, but sometimes for fun. Hell, the best research is fun.

6. Catching up on published work by friends. This is basically an impossible task now. But I do what I can.

And that’s it. That’s all I can fit in.

What I find interesting, now I’ve put that list together, is how all of it ties back, somehow, to supporting my own writing. It might just (just! *rolls eyes*) be reigniting my passion for stories and beautiful words, or it might be something more concrete, like learning more about a historical period, or how to construct a murder mystery. But I can’t not read without that writer part of my brain ticking over, hoarding the good stuff and putting squiggly red lines under the bad.

Which tells me, ultimately, that time spent reading is time well spent. Even though – or perhaps because – it’s rarer and more precious than it used to be.

Reading for Writing Part 1

I’ve had quite a literary week. On Monday I went to see the entertaining and debonair Joe Abercrombie talking about his new book, Half the World, at Harry Hartog’s (and what a beautiful Canberra bookshop that is.) I had the opportunity to chat to him before and after his talk; beforehand I quizzed him about the sex scenes he writes (!!!) and after the crowds had drifted off my CSFG buddies and I had a chance to chat to him about a bunch of things including the fantastic covers on his books.

Meeting Joe Abercrombie at Harry Hartog's
Meeting Joe Abercrombie at Harry Hartog’s (That’s me on the right, behind Shauna O’Meara. The rest of the CSFG crew, behind Joe, from left to right: Craig Cormick, Ross Hamilton, Tim Napper)

Then on Wednesday, we had our first general meeting of the CSFG for 2015, which my good friend Kimberly Gaal and I kicked off with a session on goal setting for writers.

How are these two things linked? Well, one question Joe was asked on Monday night was what is he reading now? His initial answer to this was interesting: he said “I don’t read anymore.”

I found this interesting because a quick Google search will throw back at you plenty of quotes from high profile writers telling aspiring authors that the one thing they must  do is read. But even so, this is not the first time I’ve heard a high-profile author say they just don’t read anymore.

Joe then went on to demonstrate that, actually, he does read (of course). But when he talked about reading, it was very clear that it’s not something he does for leisure these days. He reads a lot of non-fiction for research, and he indicated the fiction he reads now is mostly in genres other than what he writes (dark fantasy).

At our CSFG meeting on Monday, one of the things we talked about in relation to goal-setting, was doing a reading challenge as a useful way to expand our horizons, connect with readers, understand markets and feed the muse. (Here’s a great post from Elizabeth Fitzgerald over at Earl Grey Editing about reading challenges.)

This all got me thinking about what and why I read. I absolutely do not read anywhere near as much as I used to. I have no hesitation in saying it is one of life’s great pleasures. I was an inveterate bookworm as a child. I read Charlotte’s Web when I was six. I started reading the likes of Anne McCaffrey and Tanith Lee when I was about thirteen. I read and read and then I reread and reread again. In University, I wrangled my degree so that it was about 85% English Literature subjects. This meant I (was supposed to) read something in the order of thirty to forty books a year. I can’t say hand-on-heart that I did read that many, but I read most.

But now…

I find reading uses a similar part of my brain as writing. It also scratches a similar itch and fills in the same few spare hours. So for me, it’s often a choice. Read or write. Still, I definitely do read. I just have to be very selective. I’m also pretty brutal now about finishing books. If it’s not doing what I want it to do for me, I stop reading it. I do not have time to persevere with duds. I set aside one massively popular bestseller just recently because I could not stand either of the two main characters and I did not want to spend another minute in their company. If I decide I want to know how it ends (I’m not fussed right now, I don’t want either of them to prevail), I’ll go see the movie.

Having said all that, I do still read, and it is still one of my favourite ways to spend an hour. Or three. Or eight. Like most people who love books, I have a to-read pile that in its darker, more unstable moments could kill small children if it toppled over. So in my next blog post, I’ll talk about what and why I read, and how I prioritise that growing stack beside my bed. And the one on the bookcase. And the one beside the bookcase on the floor. And –

*sound of books falling*

*muffled screams for help*