Friday, August 19, 2016

Best of the Archives: Read Like a Writer, Write Like a Reader

Welcome to Archive Friday! I'm reprising a post that first appeared on February 11, 2014. Remember, comments are closed today so we can catch up on our reading and writing! (Check out the bottom of this post for a preview of what's coming up in tomorrow's Weekend Edition!)


Myra Johnson
Believe me, I understand. If you’ve been at this writing gig for very long, reading for pleasure is no longer just about reading for pleasure. You see everything differently. Even in a novel that totally absorbs us, it can be hard to turn off the part of our brain that wants to critique every twist and turn of the plot and even mentally rewrite the author’s words.

Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. Because, even when we’re doing this subconsciously, we’re still learning.

But if we really can’t help being critical readers, let’s occasionally get proactive about it.

Read like a writer.

Viewpoint. How is this author handling point of view? Is the story in first person or third? Does the choice work for you? Why or why not? Does the narrative viewpoint draw you in, or does it feel like the author holds you at a distance? How many viewpoints are used in the course of the story? Do the other viewpoints seem like tangents, or do they directly affect the main characters and plot?

Conflict. Does the author include conflict in every scene? Too much, or too little? Do the problems seem contrived, or do they evolve as a natural result of the character’s actions or decisions? Does the author effectively balance high-tension scenes with more relaxed passages? Does each plot twist lead inexorably toward the dramatic climax? Is the conclusion both believable and satisfying?

 Are the characters’ thoughts and actions consistent with their personalities? Did the author do a good job of blending backstory into the forward plot movement? Why do you like or dislike a particular character? Do you easily grasp the characters’ goals and motivation? Did the author make you care about these people?

Dialogue. Can you “hear” the characters’ individual voices in their speech or internalizations? Does each character’s expression sound natural for the era and setting? Does it suit their personalities and educational background? Is there a good balance between dialogue and narration? Do beats and tags enhance or detract?

 Does the author blend description naturally into the flow of the story, or is it dumped in large chunks that interrupt the action? How easy is it for you to picture the characters and setting? Based on the genre, is there too much or too little description? Is it relevant, drawing you deeper into the plot? Or does the description seem extraneous or overwritten?

Some writers go to great lengths to analyze novels, including using colored pens and highlighters to mark different types of passages. When you see the “rainbow” spread across the pages, you can easily see which colors dominate and which areas received the least attention.

Now that you’ve thoroughly analyzed a few novels, it’s time to . . .

Write like a reader.

You know what you like, and in each book you read, you’re learning to identify what works and what doesn’t. You should also be gaining a sense of publishing house tastes and preferences.

So as a writer, your job is to create the most enjoyable reading experience possible within the parameters set by your genre and target market.

Characters and POV.
 Do readers in your genre prefer third-person point of view, or is first person equally popular? Will they expect a single viewpoint, or alternating viewpoints between hero and heroine? Is there room in the book for relevant scenes in supporting characters’ viewpoints?

Action vs. Introspection.
 Is your genre typically character driven or plot driven? Suspense readers expect more faced-paced action scenes and fewer thinking/reacting scenes. Readers of pure romance and women’s fiction look for the opposite. Also think about what’s appropriate for your characters. For example, is your hero dwelling too much on his feelings?

Emotional impact. Readers of every genre seek some kind of emotional connection with the story, so make sure you give them the type and amount they expect. Romance, women’s fiction, and coming-of-age stories touch the heart. Action and suspense novels must deliver a steady flow of thrills and chills. Mysteries may also contain an element of danger, but even more important is challenging the reader’s sleuthing skills. Have you dropped enough clues without giving too much away?

Description and narrative. Too much descriptive detail in a suspense novel and your readers will start skimming. Fail to fully engage your reader’s five senses in a romance and you’ve cut the heart out of your story. If you’re writing a historical, what balance of fact-vs-fiction will satisfy discerning readers?

When your draft is finished, give it a week or two before you reread for edits and revisions. Then, once again, read like a writer!

Have you ever intentionally analyzed a novel to understand why it does or doesn’t work? What did you learn that helped you in your own writing? Is there an author or particular novel that, for you, represents the “ideal” of your genre and the quality of writing you aspire to?


This month I'm celebrating the release of Castles in the Clouds, book 2 in my Flowers of Eden series! Be sure to visit tomorrow's Weekend Edition for a chance to win one of three giveaway copies! 
The first book in the Flowers of Eden series introduced readers to Bryony Linwood, an orphan trying desperately to provide for her sisters in the shadow of the Great Depression. In Castles in the Clouds, we meet one of those sisters—Larkspur Linwood, a young woman who yearns to become a teacher but is thwarted when too many unexpected changes in her life interrupt the pursuit of her college degree.
Young and impressionable, Lark mistakes a college professor’s interest for romantic love. When he offers her the chance to join his efforts serving at a mission a school in Kenya, she pictures herself bringing the light of knowledge to hundreds of African children eager to learn. But the menial tasks she’s assigned at the school aren’t so different from life on the farm where she grew up. Worse, her fragile heart is broken when she realizes her feelings for the charismatic professor are not returned. Miserable and deflated, she gives up and returns home.
Enter Professor Anson Schafer, whom she met briefly in Kenya. Partially blinded from an eye infection he contracted there, Professor Schafer cannot return to Africa. He has come to Lark’s college to recruit teachers for a more modest venture—the founding of schools here in the U.S. for those struggling through the Depression.
Still stinging from her experience in Kenya, Lark is reluctant to risk more disappointment, but she knows how great the need has become, and—although this isn’t yet the teaching career she’d envisioned—she finally agrees. As they work side by side, Lark begins to realize that the deepest satisfaction comes not so much from what you do, or where you do it, but from the attitude of your heart. She also slowly realizes that the gentle, determined Anson is the true love of her life.