Thursday, January 3, 2013

What It Means To Read as a Writer

For the last four years, approximately, I've been regaled with this advice: "Whenever you read, read as a writer."

The only problem is this: until this past summer, I had ABSOLUTELY no clue what that meant.

I think "read as a writer" is one of those unfortunate pieces of advice that most people, when they give it to you, think you should just understand automatically. Now, I'm not blaming them for anything. I got along pretty well without knowing how to "read as a writer" for quite a while. But when I was finally properly taught what that meant (at the Iowa Young Writers' Studio, which is a crazy amazing program, for anyone who's interested in applying) it was an epiphany.

Basically, I think reading as a writer means asking these three questions:

What parts of this book do you like? 
Why do you like those parts? 
How can you take the things you like and make them your own? 

Take, for example, "The Book Thief" by Marcus Zusak.

I love that book with all of my heart. So let's explore it, reading as a writer.

1. What parts of this book do you like?
There are so many things I love, but, most of all, I love the prose style and the fact that it's narrated by Death. I particularly love the beginning of the book (though the whole thing, of course, is wonderful).

2. Why do you like those parts? 
To answer this question, let's take a look at the aforementioned beginning of the book.

"First the colors.
          Then the humans. 
          That's usually how I see things. 
          Or at least, how I try. 

You are going to die. 

I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that's only the A's. Just don't ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me. 

Does this worry you?
I urge you--don't be afraid. 
I'm nothing if not fair.

--Of course, an introduction.
          A beginning. 
          Where are my manners?"

That's some good stuff right there, eh? As I mentioned before, I love the prose style, and the fact that it's narrated by Death. 

So why do I like the prose style? I think I like it because it's matter-of-fact, boldly and originally formatted, and it leaves you asking questions. What does the narrator mean when he says he sees the colors first? Why can he only try to see the colors first? Excetera. It feels as if someone is speaking to you, naturally and normally; and there are a bunch of snappy little sentences (Nice has nothing to do with me.) paired with longer, more formal ones (I am in all truthfulness...), which lends a lovely rhythm to the whole thing. The little starred statements (HERE IS A SMALL FACT, exc) are bold and unusual and interesting and signal to the reader that this book is going to be something different than what they have read before. 

Why do I like the fact that the novel is narrated by Death? Well, of course, it's a clever and original little conceit. But why is it so clever, precisely? It's clever because this book takes something we all know and think about--Death--and gives it a face, so to speak. It lends an eerie familiarity to the whole thing and gives you a unique and strange perspective on the events in the book. 

Which brings us to number 3. 

3. How can you take the things you like and make them your own?

There's no neat rule for this step, and it's by far the hardest. It goes on a case-by-case basis. Because I like the really short sentences paired with long sentences, I might explore that rhythm in my own writing. Because I like the little mysteries at the beginning, I might attempt to set up questions, as Zusak does, in the first lines of my story. I might be more creative with my formatting, like Zusak does with his starred statements. For example I might

                                      do this
                                                                    because I can. 

I might also choose an unusual narrator, as Zusak does, to give a different and unusual perspective on the story; maybe the narrator could be a complete bystander, someone who doesn't affect the story at all, or someone who forgets everything three minutes after it happens (a la "Memento," which is, incidentally, a very good movie.) Get creative!

I wouldn't, of course, make my story narrated by Death and use starred statements; that's plain old copying. The essence of step 3 is not copying exactly what you like from the book; it's taking the bare bones of the things you liked and being original enough with your use of them so that they are definitely not the same things, while still keeping intact the reasons why you liked them to begin with. 

Tricky. But it becomes easier with practice. 

In short, "reading as a writer" consists of identifying and being able to put into words what you like about a particular story so you can tweak and twist those things for your own use. It's not replicating them exactly; it's adding them to your mental arsenal of "things you like" for future reference. You may like snappy dialogue, or eerie atmospheric description, or long descriptions of how a character feels. That part is up to you. 

Casual reading (which is good also) means just knowing that you like what you're reading. But reading as a writer means realizing exactly what you like and why.


  1. The Book Thief is probably my favourite book - it was just stunning. Love this post! :) The problem I have with reading as a writer is being really critical, especially with things that could have been sorted out with edits, or just rewriting sentences in my head. But with a really good book I forget about all these things and just get into it x

  2. Ugh, the Book Thief is just wonderful, isn't it? I have the same problem sometimes, too... but the good books do let you forget all that!