Reading Like a Writer

Black and white photograph of a woman looking out from a clock tower for Reading Like a Writer post by Malin JamesI’ve been thinking about how I want to approach writing about books. I used to write fairly standard reviews and that was fine but, honestly, there are so many good review blogs at this point that adding my opinion doesn’t feel particularly necessary. I can talk about what I liked or didn’t like about a book, but it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. And who knows, maybe there is nothing new to bring, but I want to try.

The fact of the matter is that my opinions aren’t unique – they’re personal and informed by my experiences – but so are everyone else’s. Generally speaking, my opinion doesn’t carry much weight for a person who isn’t me. That’s why I’m going to avoid the temptation of giving a general opinion and focus on something specific instead, something informed by the way I read.

The way I read has changed a great deal over the years. I used to read purely for entertainment. Then catharsis. Then curiosity. Then entertainment again. At this point, I read all across the board for a lot of reasons and, while I’m attracted to a different kind of book than I used to be (more on that in a post of its own) the fact is that I read widely from all sorts of genres and styles for all kinds of reasons. The only through-line in my reading is that I have an agenda. In addition to reading because I love to read, I read to become a better writer.

Even when a story has completely gobbled me up, part of my brain is whirring away, deconstructing and noticing and trying to figure things out. I love the craft of writing. I love technical elegance and subtle, inventive structures. I love the little mechanisms that make, or fail to make, a piece work. Sort of like a person who disassembles clocks, I love to dissect stories to see how they tick.

I’ve always done this to some degree, but the habit got formalized in college and grad school when I started applying theory to what I read. Later, when I started teaching myself how to write fiction, I applied the same principle. I found writing books that emphasized reading for different aspects of craft, from characterization and structure to pacing and voice. Slowly, I habituated myself to noticing these thing regardless of what I’m reading. That was more than twelve years ago, and that anatomical approach is just how I read now.

That’s why I talked about the structure Sarah Waters used in Night Watch and noticed the different way Muriel Spark manipulates the reader in The Driver’s Seat. It’s why I love Helen Macdonald’s use of a loose narrative style in H is for Hawk (there’s a post coming up on that). It’s not about me being all Miss Fancy Pants – it’s just the way I enjoy books.

So, rather than blog my general opinion, as scintillating as it may be, I’m going to write about the book from a writer’s perspective, hopefully in a way that isn’t totally boring for non-writers too. If nothing else, it’ll give me a chance to talk about two of the things I love most – stories and how they’re made.

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9 thoughts on “Reading Like a Writer

  1. I, too, finally read like a writer. It took the right teacher to show me how. Something clicked. Now I’m a prose junkie, soaking up everything I can steal (appropriate). BTW, Helen Macdonald was on NPR as I drove to see a client today. She read from H is for Hawk. Holy shit!!!!!!!! Can’t wait to see your post on it.

    • Thanks, Melina! I love “prose junkie” – that’s exactly what it feels like 😀 As for H is for Hawk, I loved it in a completely chaotic, bowled over by everything way. I just put up a post on Helen Macdonald’s narrative flow – it was a hard job narrowing down which part to focus on. Oh, and I heard that interview on NPR too – brilliant. I loved hearing her read from it.

  2. It’s an approach you’re pulling off brilliantly Malin, analysing books from a ‘writer’s perspective’. As you say: ‘I love the craft of writing. I love technical elegance and subtle, inventive structures. I love the little mechanisms that make, or fail to make, a piece work. Sort of like a person who disassembles clocks, I love to dissect stories to see how they tick.’

    I’ll always make time to stop by and read your reviews. Love your insights.

  3. Love this and look forward to future posts. Do you have any recommendations on writing style manuals or one that has inspired you?

    • Thanks, Glen! There are a *lot* of style manuals out there, and what works for one writer won’t necessarily work for another. The thing that I can really recommend is figure out which authors you love and want to emulate and read them a lot. For a really good guide on how to read like that, I’d have a look at Fiction Writing Master Class – it’s a great place to start. 🙂

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