April 12, 2012

What you learn from reading

I've recently returned to writing my third novel after a gap of some months. In the interim I've been reading assiduously for this blog and reading in a different way - reading to learn instead of just reading for pleasure. Now of course writers say - and beginning writers are told, endlessly - to read and read and read. That's fine, but you have to read differently, critically, if you're to learn from what you read.

For example, you must try to keep an eye out for how the plot is working. When you're reading for pleasure (RFP) you get caught up in What Happens Next. When you're reading to learn (RTL), you might be saying, 'Right, I see what you did there ... you led us up to a revelation at the end of the chapter. Then in the next chapter you cleverly took us to the sub-plot.'

Here are some more differences:

CHARACTER:
1. RFP: Hero, don't do that!
    RTL: Ah, he's given the character a personality by showing him doing something we wouldn't dare to do.

SENSE OF PLACE:
2. RFP: This city is really interesting, I might like to go there ...
    RTL: Hmm, how little information about that place did the author actually give, and how much did he get from Google Street View?

DRAMATIC TENSION:
3. RFP: That bad guy is really evil! I'm scared for the hero!
    RTL: How did the writer set up scenes so that we could see the bad guy do bad stuff? And thus know how bad he really is ... ?

EMPATHY FOR CHARACTERS:
4. RFP: Wow, I can really understand what the heroine is going through right now ... it's awful.
    RTL: OK, so there's a lot of inner dialogue in that scene. And in the previous chapter we saw her thinking about her first marriage ... that was all foreshadowing for this scene.

STYLE:
5. RFP: I'm getting a really clear idea of what's going on, I can see it in my mind's eye.
    RTL: Look at the order in which the writer has described the events ... and his use of metaphor there was exact and resonant.

Of course when a book is well-written and gripping it's hard to keep this critical distance. In fact, it might even be true to say that the worse a book is in the genre, the fact that it's been published means that it works at some level - for the publisher at least - and it's therefore probably easier to see the mechanisms in action.

I learned so much from The Da Vinci Code ...

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