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Reading Fiction to Write Fiction

One of the ways I prepare to write a novel is by doing a lot of reading. While some of that reading is nonfiction research to help me with the time period, jargon, or specific details surrounding the novel or topic, some of my most potent research comes from reading fiction.

There are a few ways reading fiction can help with the writing process:

1. Familiarization

Getting familiar with your genre allows you to internalize story structures, characters, and tropes within the genre and speak about the genre with authority. You can find inspiration in what other people have written and you can figure out what concepts have been written about extensively or haven’t been covered at all. Also, the more familiar you are with your genre, the easier it will be to determine comp titles, which are used to pitch your book and for agents and editors to determine the marketability of your work.

2. Internalization

Just like how you can internalize tropes of your genre, you can also internalize the descriptive and narrative techniques of your favorite authors. If you start to analyze why a particular device works, you can start to understand how to recreate and use that technique in your own writing.

3. Research

Reading fiction set in the same time period as your work or about the same subject matter can do some of your research heavy lifting by generating a list of what you need to research to establish authenticity or accuracy. You also might be able to pick up some details from those published novels (just make sure you double check that those details are accurate and fit your story).

Now that you’re on board with reading fiction to write fiction, you have to start reading as a writer and not just for enjoyment. It may sound difficult, but with a few tools, a plan, and some practice, you’ll be ready to dissect any novel.

Tools & Organization

The three most helpful tools for reading as a writer are a set of color-coded page flags, a pencil for underlining, and a notebook. If you’re reading eBooks, page flags won’t be so helpful, but most eReaders have highlighting or note-taking options, so familiarize yourself with what you can use in your app to mark your eBooks.

While you could use any page flags, or even just dog-ear your book, I prefer using color-coded flags (or color-coded highlighting on eReaders)—this was especially useful when I was just starting to develop my skill of reading as a writer.

Pink—anything involving character development, which may include dialogue, reactions and descriptions

Blue—setting and physical description

Purple—world-building dealing with history, politics, religion, or other abstract ideas (to differentiate from setting description)

Yellow—compelling language; sentences that have excellent imagery, syntax, and rhythm

If there’s a different area you need to study (dialogue, how plot fits together, etc), you may decide to swap out a label, or get a pack of page flags with more colors. The important thing is to pick what each color represents and be consistent with it.

In addition to organizing your notes, color coding helps create a guideline for what you’re looking for as you read. If you’ve thought about it before you start reading, it’s easier to tune into craft as you read.

Since a flag only identifies what page you want to review, you’ll need to mark exactly what on the page is drawing your attention. There are a few options for doing this, which I’ve divided between those who will brazenly write in books and those who like to keep their books pristine or who are borrowing books.

Write In

  • Underline in pencil or pen
  • Highlight using your flag color coding

No Write In

  • Take a picture of the page
  • Write down the quotes in a notebook

Regardless of your method, document the sentences/paragraphs you want to come back to review. If you are writing them in a notebook, it’s helpful to include a page reference in case you need the full page context later.

Study Plan

Once you’re in the groove of tagging, you need to have a plan for how to go from reading fiction to learning from fiction. This is when your notebook will come into play.

When you’ve finished a few chapters, or are at a comfortable stopping point, go through your flags to study what you’ve marked. Compiling notes every few chapters ensures those chapters are still fresh in your mind and makes analysis a little easier.

The most organized way of studying the highlighted material is to go through your flags by color, grouping your notes by topic of study. By focusing on one topic at a time, you might start to see patterns and make connections about what you’re seeing the author do.

Consider this routine as you start:

  • Copy the quote in your notebook.
  • Underneath, write why you captured the quote.
    • What made you think this was exemplary writing? What about it drew your attention? How does it provide context to the wider narrative?
  • After you’ve organized the quotes for one flag color, start thinking about how you can use these same techniques in your own writing. In short, what can you learn about writing from reading this novel?
  • Summarize what you learned. Include a checklist of strategies and techniques you want to try. You might refer back to the quotes to identify examples for each strategy.

If you don’t copy the quotes in a notebook, I recommend at least capturing what you learned from the book. It’s easier to try writing strategies if you have a list of writing strategies you want to try.

Read & Practice

Practicing is the only way to develop the skill of reading as a writer. A good way to practice is by studying a book you’ve already read. Using a book you already know well, you can start to see how the beginning affects the end, and you might even notice more writerly things because you’re less concerned with knowing what happens since you already know the plot and outcome.

If you find it difficult to keep track of all the things going on in a book, consider focusing on one thing. Personally, I struggle with knowing where to incorporate description, so I might decide to just focus on how characters and locations are described and when those details enter the narrative. Starting by focusing on one area of craft can help you learn how to identify and appreciate individual elements of craft within the wider narrative and can help you build the skill of reading as a writer.

As you continue to develop this skill, you may be able to skip some of the steps, eventually passing on page flags, or just keeping a notebook beside you as you read. However your process evolves, ask yourself two questions when you finish reading a book: What did I learn from this? What can I apply to my own writing?

Reader Multi-Tasking

A friend recently flailed at me that I should read a book she was reading. “Oh, I have that one,” I told her, and decided that I should see about reading it sooner rather than later, since I already own it. I wanted to tell her that I’d start reading it right away, only the problem is I currently have five books checked out from the library and have a bookmark in two others. Even I will admit, that’s a lot of books on my nightstand.

When I’ve mentioned the number of books I’m currently reading to other people I usually get gasps of horror or confessions that they can only focus on one book at a time. I get it. I’ve been there, but reading multiple books at a time is my usual modus operandi (though, I admit, right now this is a bit ridiculous).

So how can I possibly read this many books at the same time and not get confused? It’s easy to get confused if there are no differences in what you’re reading, but I vary my reading in three different ways: medium, genre (or content), and pacing.

Medium

Of those seven books sitting on my nightstand, there are four books I’m actively reading, by which I mean, four books that I’ve read within the last week. Of those four books, one is in audio format, two are physical, and one is a graphic novel. Switching between an audiobook and a physical book helps me keep straight what’s happening in each book. It’s easier for me to remember if I read a fact or if I listened to it. Graphic novels are obviously a very different format from all-text or audio, so that’s easy to keep straight as well. The more variety I have in how I consume the media, the easier it is for me to track what’s happening in each story.

Going through four books at the same time is a little excessive, even for me, but it’s normal for me to listen to an audiobook and read a physical book at the same time. I’ve been doing that for the last year or so, and it’s been a good way to help me get through books when I might not otherwise be able to read, taking advantage of time when I’m on a long car ride, taking a walk, folding clothes, or if I wake up in the middle of the night but don’t want to turn on a light. Having the audio option in addition to the physical book has helped me get through more books in the last year.

Genre/Content

If medium is one of the ways I keep stories straight, how is it that I can read two physical books at the same time? This is where genre and content come into play. I find it’s much easier to mentally track which story I’m on if I’m reading things from different genres. For example, if I’m already reading fiction in audiobook and physical formats, and I want to start another book, I usually add something nonfiction. This can also work by reading fiction from very different genres—futuristic science fiction and high fantasy or contemporary realism. The more different the genre or content, the easier it is to keep the stories straight.

In addition to varying books by genre, right now I’m also rereading an old favorite. No matter the genre of the other books, I’m not about to confuse the events of Harry Potter with any other stories, so it’s not difficult for me to keep rereads straight from other stories.

Pacing

Another way I help differentiate between the books I’m reading is by staggering my pacing. I try to space out the books so I’m starting and finishing them at different times. It’s much more difficult to read multiple books if I’m about at the same progress on each one. Climaxes can get confused, or I might not remember which new character is in what book. Staggering starting and finishing points helps a lot—also it means I never have that lag period between finishing one book and starting the next one. (In fact, it might be nice to read just one book for a few days, but I never get out of the habit of reading.)

 

Reading multiple books isn’t for everyone, and not everyone has to do something as crazy as reading four books at a time, but for an author who wants to read for research, read to know her genre, and read for fun, I have found these strategies for multi-tasking some of the best for increasing how many books I read per year, and, in general, for making the most of my reading time.

 

What am I reading now?

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The Changeable Plan

Almost every week I meet my friend for dinner and we go to either Barnes & Noble or the library. We spend an hour walking through the books, reading titles, touching covers, and expanding our to-read lists. In addition to an ever-increasing to-read list, I also have an ever-increasing library. And of those books there are a good many that I haven’t read. This year I decided my reading theme would be Read Your Damn Books. I made a whole plan for how many books I wanted to read, how many of them should be books I already own, how many audio books, how many graphic novels, etc. And then I proceeded to the library website and I ordered a bunch of books for home delivery because I apparently like usurping my own plans.

But aren’t all plans really just guidelines? I mean, when I made the original book list, I knew I would swap out books if I wasn’t particularly feeling a title, and that I would make new discoveries over the year. My primary goals were to read thirty books and to spend about half of my 2017 reading time consuming books from my home library. I also wanted to read at least five books borrowed from my local library and to listen to at least two audio books.

I had no idea that I’d get so invested in audio books. I’ve been listening to them while I take walks and so I’ve so far been through seven audio books. (Can I count one as “reading my damn book” since I already owned it?) My guideline of a plan obviously involves some spontaneous revision since I now have to decide how upping my audio book intake affects the number of physical books I read. Do I still need for half of my 2017 books to come from my bookshelf? Can I revise that number to just twelve? (Or ten seeing as how we’re over halfway through the year and I’ve read a whooping total of six books I own.)

I also had to scrap and revamp part of my plan. I had planned to start researching for a time travel story in the latter half of 2017, but in starting to draft my pirate novel, I realized I need to do more pirate research. So it’s back to the high seas, air, and steampunk for me. All the time travel books have been relegated to 2018—at least I already have the start of next year’s guidelines.

The main thing about plans is that they have to be flexible. Rigid plans often prevent productivity. If I said I had to stick to reading my physical books and ignored that I was enjoying listening to audio books on walks I might not have finished as many books as I have, or I might have stopped walking so I could add that time to my book reading time. Sticking to my original plan would have ignored my natural inclinations and that frustration would have easily made me stagnant.

Strangely this reminds me of writing my last novel. I had an outline laid out—an excellent guideline, indeed—but I got caught in the middle, trying to force the main character to read books when she just wanted to listen to audio books (at least in this analogy). Once I let her listen to audio books, things started coming much easier. I had to refigure my plan and change a few expectations, but finishing the first draft became much easier when I stopped fighting against my plan, just like how reading over thirty books in 2017 will be much easier if I let myself continue listening to audio books. Going with the flow isn’t so easy if you’re a planner, but learning to find my own rhythm and accept that as a new plan is key to staying productive.