Essential Skills for Writers: Reading Critically

Story time: I have a post that’s been sitting in my drafts folder since July 2017. I last added to it in February 2019. Its working title: “If You’re a Writer, Read These Books.” I started it when I read The Poisonwood Bible, and it seemed like a thing everyone could learn from. Whenever a book or series struck me as having something particularly strong about it, from a writerly perspective, especially if it was rare in my experience, I put it on the list.

The problem was that it took me almost two years to come up with three entries for it, and I never actually wrote the whole post. Here are my notes, which for posterity’s sake I have not altered at all:

The Poisonwood Bible: this is how to juggle five (!) different first-person narrators with profoundly different character voices. Not necessarily the best for pacing, but you can always tell who’s telling you their story by the word choice and tone of the narrative.

The Talented Mr. Ripley: Using show don’t tell to define the main character, who hardly ever speaks. Clear characterization through reaction to other people.

Graceling Realm and/or MaddAddam series: multibook “trilogy” structure doesn’t have to be chronological if you plan carefully for it

But I never wrote that post, and now I never will. I’m going to write this one instead.

It’s not my job as a writer to tell you which books to read to get better; it’s your job to learn from the books you choose to read.

So when I say “read critically” in this context, I don’t mean “read like you’re going to trash the book in a review.” I have definitely learned a great deal from committing to reviewing every book I read, but a) that’s a lot of work; b) reviews are generally for sharing and not everyone wants to share their thoughts; and c) you’re not necessarily going to pick up a new tidbit of learning from every book you read. I’ve read four books so far this year, but I’m only going to mention three of them.

So what did I learn from…

Full Dark, No Stars? This doesn’t apply to me directly, as I write novels and not short fiction, but I definitely find anthologies more enjoyable when a theme connects all the individual stories somehow. I saw this before, in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Four Ways to Forgiveness–those novellas had a strong central theme. On the flip side, it’s why I found Ray Bradbury’s The October Country relatively hit-or-miss, for example, despite loving his work in general. If I ever do write short fiction again (I did a lot of stories and poems in high school and college, not so much since) I will put together collections that “go” together, rather than a random sampling.

Sunshine? This one hit close to home, because the most pressing issue I had with it was something I struggled with myself in the first draft of #spookyromancenovel: overindulgence in world-building. In Sunshine the title character will go on pages-long tangents about interesting but ultimately obscure facts about her world; in the NaNoWriMo-fueled race to finish #srn’s first draft, I did exactly the same thing. If a thing was interesting and I had thoughts about it, I wrote about it, even if it broke the scene into pieces. Perfectly fine for a first draft! But in Sunshine it got to print that way, and while I enjoyed the book, I consider that its biggest flaw. In #srn’s second draft, I cut as much world-building as possible based on relevance, shortened the rest, and left copious questions for my beta readers at the end of each chapter begging them to tell me where it was too much and where they had questions.

Autonomous? This gave me an even stronger example of not seeing the forest for the trees–as hard sci-fi this was so focused on building the tech of its world that it left hanging a huge number of questions I had about the societal and political structure that created the setting for this story. While its over-indulgence in world-building did mess up the pacing too, it was more that I felt like I was getting to examine this new world through a microscope but never being allowed to look out a window. The bigger picture just wasn’t there.

If I boil this down to writing advice snippets for consumability:

  1. Central themes can enrich and connect the various stories in anthologies.
  2. Over-indulgence in world-building details can bog down the pacing of a novel.
  3. Consider the scale of your world-building; don’t focus strictly on the micro and ignore the macro (or vice versa.)

Have I seen this advice floating around before? #1 and #2, yes, definitely. I don’t really think I’ve seen anyone address #3 in any great depth (not saying it doesn’t exist, only that I haven’t been exposed to it.) But even if I knew the first two bits of advice already, finding them illustrated so clearly in my reading drives them home more than just reading an article someone else wrote about those bits of advice. And “discovering” #3 for myself is even more powerful.

This advice applies equally to positive and negative aspects of your reading–admire and emulate the things you find successful, even if the scale is too ambitious: I wouldn’t tackle five first-person narrators in one go, but I could use my experience with The Poisonwood Bible to help me craft two or maybe three distinct personalities. And avoid or minimize in your own work the things you don’t like in what you read. Which seems an obvious conclusion when stated so clearly, but the how of getting there is the important part.

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