Sunday morning was the final event of Booktopia Vermont. Author Steve Himmer joined Ann, Michael, and a few dozen Booktopians back at the Northshire Bookstore for a discussion on the topic Reading Like a Writer.
What does it mean to read like a writer? How do you do it? Can you ever not read as a writer after you learn how to? Where do audiobooks fit into this mix?
I really enjoyed this discussion. It seemed that everyone was pretty much in agreement that English majors and voracious readers tend to read for the story, character, and themes. Sure, such readers are often struck by a beautiful scene or sentence, but digging in and unpacking how such a beautiful scene was constructed to understand how it caused that effect is not something most readers get into. At least not most of us who were in the room nodding in agreement. Writers do dig in. Steve mentioned that he’ll re-read books important to him several times to see how the writer does what he does in order to learn those techniques.
So when writers read they see things readers don’t necessarily pay attention to although readers will/might feel these things. This is neither good nor bad; it just is. Author Matthew Dicks was in attendance and made the comparison to a friend of his who builds houses. The friend walks into a house and sees every thing behind the walls, he no longer just appreciates a pretty room. In fact, may not be able to simply see only a pretty room anymore. The point being that writers, as story builders, see the underpinning, the structural beams holding up the created story.
This analogy resonated with me. I thought about when we bought our first house. Like most first time home buyers we were so naive–we were all about the style of the house, how we would inhabit its space, where it was located in relation to what was important to us. Looking for our second home was a different experience. We were still concerned about the style, the space, the location, but we also knew what to look for in terms of structural soundness, health of the mechanicals, proper drainage, etc. I can still appreciate a nice looking house, but I’m also more aware of the nuts & bolts and potential issues a house may have.
One of my favorite comments came from Penny Duffy who said (and I am nowhere near as eloquent as she was when she said this) that during a first draft the writer is writing like a reader–writing to get the story, images, and characters onto the page. Then, during subsequent drafts, the writer is reading like a writer–looking for opportunities to apply the tools of the trade in order to transform the draft into a seemingly effortless story for other readers to enjoy. I hope I got that right. It makes perfect sense to me.
Once writers intimately understand how a story is constructed, can they ever read for pleasure? Steve said he reads outside of the genre he’s writing in for pleasure. For one, he isn’t comparing technique, and two, he isn’t being influenced by content that’s similar to what he may be writing. Not reading a book that’s on the same subject you’re writing about is the easiest way to avoid charges of plagiarism. I have heard that’s why Patricia Cornwell doesn’t read mystery/thriller novels (and she was accused of plagiarism in the past).
Matthew Dicks said he finds that listening to audiobooks makes him less critical of the writing. He simply listens and enjoys the story. A Booktopian said the exact opposite happens to her, that she is more analytical when listening to audiobooks. Interesting, right? I wonder how much these opposing reactions have to do with learning styles. My critical tools go out the window when I’m listening to an audiobook. If anything bothers me its usually the narrator’s voice. I’m more of a visual and tactile learner than an auditory learner.
This brought up an experience that Kelly Corrigan had. Her latest book was already typeset and she was recording the audiobook version. Through reading her work out loud, she found all sorts of changes that she wanted to make. 1,100 to be exact. And since the book was already typeset she had to pay for the changes to be made, but she did because they were that important. Bruce Holsinger told someone that he cringed a bunch of times at his own writing when listening to his book in audio. So note to writers: read your work aloud! [Cayt, if you’re reading this, remember how you told me to do that last year?? You’re brilliant!]
I could go on and on about this session and how awesome it was, but hopefully the recorder worked and you’ll eventually hear it on Books on the Nightstand.
If you’re interested in learning how to read like a writer, check out Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. I have the book and started reading it earlier this year, but got a little overwhelmed. I think I’ll go back to it, but take it much more slowly. Its not only for writers, but for readers who want to learn how to read more deeply.