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?

DIY Edit: 09 Long Dialogue Tags

Even though I’m an editor for hire, I firmly believe in self-editing. Each month I’m going to drop a tip for developing your ability to edit your own work or identify things to look for as you edit. Make sure to check out all the DIY Edit Tips to improve your self-editing.


09 Long Dialogue Tags

Dialogue tags, or dialogue attributions, are meant to identify the speaker for clarity but fade into the background of the narrative. That is why the simple “Joe said” is so celebrated, because it doesn’t draw attention to itself and distract from the dialogue. Even though I’m aware of this, often—especially in first drafts—I wind up with long dialogue tags in which there are multiple actions or descriptions. Having an action or description isn’t a bad thing, but coupling several with the dialogue tag can be confusing and distracting.

To simplify dialogue tags, first you have to identify what is “too long” for a dialogue tag.

  • Winded One way I identify long tags is by reading the dialogue and dialogue tag aloud. If I get winded reading the sentence, or if I have to pause and reframe my tone (because I was expecting the sentence to end earlier), the tag is probably too long.
  • And And And Another method is to look at the construction of the dialogue attribution. Most attributions are in a similar format—”character said, [continued sentence].” If the continued sentence has an “and” in it, or if it is longer than the dialogue that precedes it, it is likely too long.
  • Run On If the topic changes—for example, the dialogue is attributed to Elsie and then the continued sentence starts talking about Mike, or about something that is happening elsewhere—it is probably a run-on sentence. Remember, the dialogue attribution is still a sentence—it’s actually part of the sentence of the dialogue—and it needs to follow the basic rules of sentence construction.

Editing long dialogue tags is often as simple as inserting a period after the attribution and starting a new sentence. Sometimes the information in the sentence needs to be evaluated because it is extraneous or irrelevant (ah, the enthusiasm of the first draft). In any case, careful review of dialogue tags and keeping dialogue attribution brief can help keep the focus on the dialogue and let the attribution fade into the background where it belongs.


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DIY Edit: 06 Description: Camera Pan

Even though I’m an editor for hire, I firmly believe in self-editing. Each month I’m going to drop a tip for developing your ability to edit your own work or identify things to look for as you edit. Make sure to check out all the DIY Edit Tips to improve your self-editing.


06 Description: Camera Pan

Details make a story, but so often I read over a description and my attention is darting all around a room, or all over a character, and I can’t make sense of how the whole thing fits together. It’s the writer’s job to guide the camera and to show the reader the details in an order that will allow them to imagine what’s being described and assemble the whole picture.

When a character first walks into a new setting that you plan to describe in detail, organize the description to follow a camera pan of the room. This can be a vertical pan (up and down) or a lateral pan (left and right). This helps the reader orient the character within the space and gives a clear idea of how the eye is drawn (i.e., what is most important or impressive about the setting).

For example, when a character enters a foyer in a mansion, the description might start with the flooring, go up to the stairs, wrap around to the chandelier, describe the chandelier with more detail, and then come back to the first floor foyer. A logical flow up, up, and back to the character.

If the character is very tired and coming back to their bedroom, the description of the room might start with their bed and then include what they passed on their way from the door to a faceplant, or what they can see through the slits of their eyes across from the bed. Regardless, it’s important to ground the reader so that later when ninjas break through the window, the reader knows if the window is next to the bed or across from it.

Even a character who is out of their mind with anxiety, drugged, or otherwise impaired will look around a room in a way that emphasizes the important information. They may not be able to perfectly orient themselves, but they’ll be able to hit on the most important details and then flesh out those details once they’re feeling calmer.

This works the same for describing a person’s appearance. Either describe from the feet up (if the first thing the character would observe is the person’s shoes or feet), or describe from the head down (if the first thing the character observes is the person’s hair or face). Some details can emerge later—a mole the character didn’t notice earlier, nervous tics, or maybe as the couple falls in love his features become more attractive—but that first description should follow a logical flow.

Keeping the description organized helps the reader visualize and remember it.  Organizing the details emphasizes your careful work, and lets the reader focus on those details rather than struggle to follow a darting eye.


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First Drafts Suck

Sometimes one of the hardest things to do is to keep writing through your first draft. Ideas can feel flat and uninspired. Characters might not meet the expectations you set out for them. Obstacles wind up being easier to overcome than you imagined, or, the opposite, you find yourself written into a corner. It is frustrating and infuriating and quitting starts looking better and better because, let’s face it, your first draft sucks.

But the good news is that all first drafts suck. No matter how much planning you do in advance, there’s a big difference between an idea and a story. A story requires details and specifics and everything has to work together. Sentences have to be crafted, motivations have to be honed, choices have to be made, and consequences have to be realized. Moving from an idea to a final product takes a lot of work, and the first draft is the first step. And the first draft is always a messy step.

First drafts don’t just suck because they are the messy beginnings of a novel. They suck because they’re difficult to write and they’re difficult to stick with. But the reason you must keep writing through a terrible first draft is simple: blank pages can’t be revised. In order to make the book better, something needs to be on the page. Revising is like sculpting, and the first draft is how you make the clay.

Sculptures can’t be made without material to sculpt, and the same works for stories. The first draft has to be written so the writer has something to revise and craft into the finished work. It may be tempting to stop in the middle and start revising, but not finishing your first draft is a disservice to your story and sometimes a waste of your time. Even the most organized planners can discover things about their characters, plot, and world through writing the first draft. Ideas develop organically—it becomes clear that the character should turn left instead of right, a sub-plot more fully develops, one idea spawns another and a new area of the world is fleshed out. You might discover that a scene you wrote well and loved doesn’t belong in your novel any more—and if you spent your time honing it instead of writing to the end of your first draft, you would have wasted that time.

So push through your first draft. Even when it sucks, try your best to love the experience and motivate yourself to continue. Reward yourself for writing. Tell your friends what you’ve completed. Write the scenes that excite you. Write out of order. Leave gaping holes that just have notes like “battle scene” or “much smooching” or “Kate and Joe need to talk.” Leave notes to yourself about ideas you get as you’re drafting or revisions you want to make, but keep writing forward. You’ll have a mess by the end. You’ll have a draft that sucks, but you’ll have a draft that you can craft, make better, and sculpt into the story you were always meant to write. As much as writing is about revising, revising can’t happen if you don’t have a first draft.

The Story Sandwich

Figuring out what makes up a story and how to make those elements speak to each other can be one of the more elusive aspects of craft. While elements can be developed and adjusted in revision, it’s important to understand how those ingredients work together. In one analogy, you might think of writing a story as making a sandwich. You know that at the end of the process you’re going to have a sandwich and, before you start, you have to lay out your ingredients. The same is needed for writing a story.

Every sandwich starts and ends with bread. Like a sandwich, frequently the beginning and ending of a story show the same image so the reader can see how the protagonist has changed from the beginning to the end. This “image” might be the protagonist’s home or it could be a theme on which the protagonist now reflects (for example, in Back to the Future, Marty finally stops being baited when his bravery is called into question, or in a series like Harry Potter, it starts with Harry unable to do magic and without a family, and ends with Harry as a powerful wizard with lots of friends and support). Bookending the narrative with similar scenes can show the character growth or how the world has changed as a result of the story events.

Condiments go on the sandwich next. Personally, I like mustard on most of my sandwiches, but I prefer mayo for turkey. You may prefer honey mustard to yellow; I like deli mustard or a nice spicy brown. All this talk of condiments and preferences is really a lot of talk about flavor. Just like the condiments, the voice and atmosphere provide the flavor for any story. A narrator who is sarcastic is going to speak very differently from one who is literal or innocent. The atmosphere that voice helps evoke is going to steer the course of the story sandwich—is it spicy? Mild? Tangy? Sweet? Bold? Understated? The voice and tone of the story can influence and direct the reader’s experience.

The meat is your plot, and in making this sandwich we need to lay it on thick to put meat on our reader’s bones. Here’s the important thing to note about plot: plot is derived from characters. The protagonist’s decisions make up the plot. So while the meat is the plot, the meat is also the characters. When Katniss volunteers to go to the Hunger Games instead of her sister, she propels the plot forward. When Harry, Ron, and Hermione decide to go after the Sorcerer’s Stone instead of getting an adult, they propel the plot forward. When Luke Skywalker leaves Tatooine with Obi-Wan, he propels the plot forward. The meat—the characters and the plot—are what make the story and the sandwich.

When I make a sandwich I’m going to put cheese on it, so this story sandwich gets cheese. Cheese is known for being a little fatty and a little caloric, so it makes sense that in the story sandwich, the cheese represents the subplots. Subplots are the delicious bits of a story that further character development and often complicate the main plot. Ideally the cheese and meat work together. Both contain protein—exactly what puts muscle on the story—but they’ve got different tastes and textures and nuance. One thing I will warn, if you like a stinky cheese that distracts too much from the meat, your sandwich may be a little lopsided, so use a strong cheese sparingly to keep the story sandwich balanced.

A good sandwich—I’m talking a really good sandwich—is going to come with lettuce, tomato, or other veggies. Veggies are good for you, and in a story sandwich that still holds true because veggies represent the conflict and tension. Conflict and tension are good for stories. Stories without conflict or tension are bland and often unfulfilling. Conflict gives a story crunch. Tension makes things juicy. Both are good for helping a reader digest the story and get something satisfying out of it. A hero overcoming, a romance defying all odds, the underdog winning—all of those satisfying and cathartic beats come from the conflict.

This may sound like a simplistic way to describe a story (honestly, it is), but thinking about the necessity of these story elements when creating a delicious story sandwich will hopefully help you think about how these elements work together and consider what each brings to the finished story.