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:
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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?