Reading for Writing: It’s Not Copying

Years ago, when I was working on a mystery novel, I read one of Lawrence Block’s writing books. (I can’t remember which it was, and, honestly, the list of his books is TOO long to go through right now!) The most important takeaway from that book, for me, was his instruction to pick a few of my favorite (as in, written well) mysteries, and plot them. I’m not getting this exact, because it has been a while, but the idea was basically to go through each chapter & write down the important turning points of the story.

To see how it was done. How it was done right.

In other words, read to find out what the hero did, what happened to the hero to get in their way, what events increased the tension, and how the story–with all its problems–resolved itself in the end.

I still do this, and not just with plot. I talked here about Sarah Ockler’s brilliant management of the passage of time, in Fixing Delilah, and–when I get to that stage of revision–I plan to study how she did it. What she did. It’s not copying, folks, it’s dissection. It’s finding the craft behind the art–a craft the writer may or may not be conscious of, but that I do believe is there, present, for us to find and learn from.

I find myself recommending this technique to editing clients all the time. I’ll do my best to explain how goals & obstacles create tension, how middle-grade voice differs from young-adult, how dialogue beats add to the layers of a conversation or argument. And then I’ll find myself typing this: “Go by the bookstore, or your library, and pick up some books.” I tell them to look at the books they love best, to scan the New Books shelves at the library, or ask the children’s librarian for help. Find a passage (or three) that does what they’re trying to accomplish…and read it. Then reread it. Then reread it again.

One of the “downsides” of doing a lot of critiquing is that, yes, I am more critical of the books I read. In my thirties, I pretty much finished every book I started, no matter what. Now, honestly, you have to catch me in the first two pages, and I will put down a book 3/4 of the way through if the characters or story are letting me down. (And, yes, I do take it that personally!)

BUT…the “upside” of that is that, when a book stuns me, and many do, I have a resource, a tool, for my own writing. My reading eye has sharpened enough so that, as I’m being carried away, a little voice inside is saying, “OMG. Look at that scene structure!” or “That hero is totally taking the lead!” or “Do you see how that dialogue is moving the story forward?!”

I know, weird. But helpful. And, honestly, I think the resource is there for all of us, even if we aren’t realizing it the first time through. It’s why I keep the books I do keep, even with continuously shrinking shelf space–because I will reread them, and I will learn from them.

And doing so will make my writing better.Β  This Lawrence Block says, and this I know.

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10 thoughts on “Reading for Writing: It’s Not Copying

  1. Great post and one I can really relate to. I do this all the time and urge my students and clients to do the same. I call it a “close reading” or “reading for craft.” And I’ve had the same reaction as you to reading books now (and also watching films) — I’m super-critical! But, yes, you can really recognize good stuff when you see it and it’s not weird at all. πŸ™‚

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    • beckylevine says:

      “Close reading.” I like that. I seem to be able to detach a bit more from movies, in terms of being critical–make me laugh, and you’ve got me. Oh, wait, that’s pretty much true in reading, too. πŸ™‚

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  2. Now weird at all, Becky. I also do it for “craft” problems/ solutions.

    I was surprised by a recent FB posting asking writers to weigh in on whether they do this. Surprised because so many claimed they didn’t, were fearful of plagiarizing or sounding like someone else.

    Personally, I can’t imagine not at least being tuned in to what’s being published or what’s considered the best in the genre you are writing in.
    Great post. Thanks.

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    • beckylevine says:

      SO not plagiarizing. πŸ™‚ I think people are afraid, at some level, that they’ll unconsciously mimic what’s going on in the book they’re reading, but I just don’t think that happens. And, yes, keeping up with what’s good that’s being published–critical for me. If only in terms of inspiration.

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  3. Larry Brooks has a website on which he often “deconstructs” books and movies. I sometimes follow along when it’s a book or movie I am interested in. His most recent is The Help. I read the book then went back through the series. I’m a poor student though. I can’t seem to read a book twice no matter how hard a try. This book was worthy of reading twice, but I just couldn’t do it. I lost interest.

    For those worried they will copy or sound like the author. That’s just ridiculous. Musical composers/artists improve by listening to the greats. That’s how it’s taught in college. Same with creative writing.

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    • beckylevine says:

      I do sometimes have to leave some time before I read the book again. As long as I don’t wait TOO long, so that I still remember the basic plot, then I can let the story flow around me and do some of that dissection.

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    • beckylevine says:

      That’s very cool, Sherrie. Thanks for the link. I haven’t gotten to the point (yet!) where I break down whole scenes, but I do find reading deeply for one element helps a lot.

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