Learn to Read Books with a Writer’s Eye

Recently, I read A Deadly Game of Magic, a young adult mystery by Joan Lowery Nixon, who had been a favorite author many years ago. I decided to pick up a couple of her mysteries that I had not read before. A Deadly Game of Magic lived up to my memory of her suspenseful writing. Not only did the story keep me turning pages, it scared the pants off me – more than any other book I’ve read in recent memory. (Then again, I’m easy to scare.)

Why was her book so successful in my opinion? What kept me turning the pages to the very end? How did Nixon create tension throughout the story? How did she manage to scare me (and other readers, I’m sure) without mentioning a single drop of blood or showing a dead body?

These are questions I will have to ask myself the next time I read the book.

We’ve all had those novels that we could not put down. Or conversely, we’ve read stories that bored us to tears or made us feel confused by the protagonist’s actions.

This is where it helps to know how to read a novel with a writer’s perspective. It’s one thing to read for pure enjoyment and entertainment. It’s quite another to observe the techniques the author used to develop the story. You read to notice how the story was constructed.

In other words, you read in order to learn about the writing process.

As Gabriela Pereira at DIYMFA explains: “You understand that every piece of writing has a purpose. Once we read toward that purpose, we can see how writers shape and craft their words to accomplish what they want.”

When you read with a writer’s eye, you might focus on certain areas of writing, such as:

* Plot/story structure – How does the plot develop? What is the inciting incident that starts the story?
* Emotional tone – What is the tone of the story? Is the protagonist sad, angry, surprised, or confused at the start? How does the tone change throughout the story?
* Character development – is it consistent throughout the story. Do you care what happens to the protagonist?
* Conflict – is there enough conflict to keep your interest?
* Point of view – Which point of view is used to tell the story? Are there multiple viewpoints or just one? Would you use a different point of view if you were telling this same story?
* Theme – Most stories have a theme, such as good always wins out over evil. Does it come through the story?
* Setting – Where does the story take place? Can you visualize where it is? How important is the setting to the story? For example, in Nixon’s mystery, the story takes place at an old home in the middle of nowhere that is thought to be uninhabited – but it isn’t.

So how do you go about reading with a writer’s eye? First you need to understand that writing consists of a series of choices by the author on how they will tell their story. As you read, you work to identify what some of those choices are, whether they work well or not, and whether they can work within your own writing.

Author Shaunta Grimes says as “story consumers” (I love that description), readers must first “read deeply and analytically.”

But does that mean you must study every paragraph of every chapter? No, say most writers. Go back and re-read only those sections that drew your interest. For example, was there a particular setting description that intrigued you? Or a chapter that was filled with tension? Go back and re-read those passages to study the techniques the author used.

Grimes shares a three-step process for doing a “deep dive” to study an author’s craft.

1. Choose a story you’re already familiar with. Perhaps it’s a book from the Harry Potter series, or a childhood favorite such as Little Women. When you’re already familiar with the story, you can study certain passages without getting distracted.

2. Know what you’re reading for. As mentioned previously, you’ll be looking for specific passages. For example, you may want to study how the author makes transitions between the current time and the past. Or you may want to look at the way the protagonist’s character is developed so that she feels real to you.

3. Read with a pencil in hand. Don’t be shy about marking up the book and highlighting sections that stand out. Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t, and try to understand why.

Another word of advice: Be patient with this process. It takes longer to read as a writer because you are studying and absorbing the content.  

It’s one thing to read for pleasure. But by studying the works of others authors, we can all learn to be better writers ourselves.  

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