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Learning about writing from reading

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by skip.knox, Oct 19, 2017.

  1. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    On another thread, a member gave some advice I have seen often: an important way to learn how to write is to read, read, read. Stephen King is often quoted on this.

    I'm 66 years old. I've been consuming books by the armload for six decades, across a wide range of genres. I'm sure this must have helped me in some obscure way, but none of it helped in any specific way until I actually began writing. Even then, after ten years of writing seriously, I can count on one hand the number of actual techniques I've noticed. I have never understood how reading was supposed to help writing.

    I hear the advice so often, though, and from such accomplished writers, I feel I must be missing something important. So I ask here: what specifically have you learned about writing from your reading? Here I mean reading fiction, of course. Doesn't have to be in-genre.
     
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  2. evolution_rex

    evolution_rex Inkling

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    As a younger inexperienced writer, I feel that it certainly is incredibly helpful to read but I agree that I can't exactly describe why. However, If I'm trying to write after not having read anything in awhile, it most certainly isn't as good as it is after I've just read a book. Perhaps because I forget a little bit about how it'll be read and thus stuff like general pacing and fluidity will be off. Also, I feel I pick up on a lot of smaller details like style and vocabulary, which means the larger your variety of reading is the higher chance you will have at finding your own style and a have a larger vocabulary.
     
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  3. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

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    I'll just copy/paste my answer here lol:

    It's in the little things you notice. It's why I don't plot. When we read, we take in the subtleties that make a genre what it is, story what it is. All of those things add up in your head and your subconscious knows how to turn it into story. I just sit down and write and trust that my subconscious knows what it's doing, where it's taking me, and there are twists and turns I never could've thought up on my own that occur. I think it's from reading and catching what other authors do. At least, that's my theory.
     
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  4. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    For me, reading, as well as watching movies, is about learning by example.

    Just like any other skill, you can learn a bit from osmosis. You see someone else doing something a specific way and you pick up a little of what they're doing subconsciously.

    BUT

    If you want to learn from a story, IMHO, it has to be an active process.

    When I was starting to take writing really seriously, I read a ton of books on writing and studied structure. I've mentioned this more times than I can remember on this forum. Any way, One of the things I did to learn was I took the current book I was reading and broke it down into the individual components, act breaks, inciting incident, midpoint climax, etc. as I was reading it. I also did a breakdown of each chapter, saw how it fit in to a specific structure.

    The book was lousy, but I learned somethings from it. Since then, I do a little of this with every book I read and every movie I watch. It's one of the ways I can tell if I'm bored. Generally, the more active I am in breaking down a story as I consume it, the more likely it is that it's not engaging me.

    If a story is completely engrossing, I do practically nothing in terms of breaking it down. Most stories are somewhere in between, so I'll identify a handful off things. But on second viewings in movies, I have the luxury of still being engaged while having enough of my brain free to pick out structure elements.

    Each time I do this, it gives me an example of how that part of story structure was executed. There are poorly executed examples and well executed examples and everything in between. This goes from high level story elements to low level ones.

    Some stories are simple and the structure elements are easy to identify, and other times, the story plays around with these things a little, and it takes a lot of thinking to figure things out. But in doing so you can the different ways certain elements are executed.

    For example, for the longest time, I was trying to pick out the various structure elements to the movie Alien, but there was always something that didn't quite fit, the fact that Ripley, who was the supposed to be the protagonist, didn't make certain decisions that protagonists were supposed to make, especially in a Hollywood movie.

    After literally years of thinking about this, I realized, Ripley wasn't the protagonist. She was only one aspect of the protagonist, which was the crew itself. Each crew member represented an aspect of a composite personality, greed, lust, logic, fear, etc. and they, as a whole were considered the protagonist. Once I realized that, things fell into place quite nicely, and I understood why she went back for the cat. It was the final act of her arc, to transform from cold logic to compassion, and in doing so redeeming the greater whole.

    Any way, my 2 cents.
     
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  5. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    I'm thinking about this regularly as well, because I don't read very much these days, and I feel like I ought to because everyone keeps saying one should.

    I used to read a lot when I was younger though. Loads. That was long before I got into writing though, and I just read for my own enjoyment without thinking about how the story was built or how various plot elements were used.

    These days I still don't think much about that, but every now and then after I've finished something I try to think back on it and do a little bit of an analysis in my head. I'm a slow reader though, and I forget the details of longer stories.

    What I'm pretty sure I have learned from all the reading I've done is to empathize with different characters, and in the extension also with people around me. This might come in handy when creating my own characters for my own stories, but it's not exclusively a writer's skill.

    Another thing I think I've learned is word flow. Getting a feel for what words work wondrously well with... walliterations are stupid anyway.

    Okay, seriously now: I think I've learned a lot about prose and readability of text. As young I mainly read in my native Swedish, and while I'm out of practice on that after 10+ years abroad, I'm pretty sure it wouldn't take much to get back into the swing of things.
    I know I posted a thread the other week about how some readers complained about how my language is stilted and lacks flow. That's for my English prose, and it does not apply to all readers or I hope I'd have heard more of it.

    Reading hasn't really taught me much about developing an interesting story, but it has taught me how to write easily accessible prose, and it has taught me about people.

    +´+´+´+

    On a vaguely related matter, I read sometime recently that we pick up a lot more knowledge from reading when we're young - teens to early twenties, than we do when we're older. I don't know how much that factors in.

    Another question is: how much do you pick up instinctively just from enjoying a story, and how much do you pick up from analyzing it while/after reading?
     
  6. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    I do actually have one specific thing I've learned that I'd like to attribute to having read a lot of fiction: I've learned how annoying it is when the author gets a description wrong.

    It's a favorite topic of mine and I've written a few articles about various aspects of writing descriptions. Getting it wrong can really break the immersion for me. I get this image of someone or something in my head, and when the author's words don't match my initial impression it's annoying.

    Okay, one more thing. I learned this from the Malazan empire books: you don't don't have to explain everything.
    Steven Erikson does this really well. Things just happen and stuff just do things and you'll just have to accept it. This doesn't work for everyone, but it works really well for me, and the effect it has is that it adds a lot of depth to the world of the story. I have more blanks to fill in myself, meaning I put more of myself into the story, meaning I become more attached to it and that it feels more alive.
     
  7. Incanus

    Incanus Archmage

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    I'm a lot like Penpilot in this regard.

    As a reader I'm very slow, but I read virtually every day, probably about 15-40 pages or so. I like a constant input of prose hitting my mind, and I like to keep up a mix of old/new, genre/classics. Sometimes I analyze, sometimes I just take it in.

    For me it's not about learning specifics so much as just keeping myself immersed in storytelling. I like to re-read and re-watch certain favorites and keep them in mind just so I have a number of examples I can dredge up and think over whenever I need to.

    Hope that makes sense - I dashed this out faster than usual, because for me, the weekend is just about to start...
     
  8. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I would distinguish between reading and analyzing. The King Formula (if I may call it that, though it long predates him) says only read, read, read, as if the mere activity somehow teaches. I completely agree that analyzing a book is a good way to study the craft.

    I'm honestly ambivalent about this. A musician must play, play, play. Do you know how to get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. But he must also study, and I'd argue the study comes first for the serious musician. I could sit and play my guitar day and night and take great enjoyment therefrom. I could listen to others play and learn therefrom. But I'm going to learn even more if I study chord inversions and different tunings. There is a craft as well as an art to it.

    Here's my stab at it. First, read, read, read. Read in your genre but also read outside it. That's first. That kind of "blind" reading, if you will, is akin to gathering raw materials. You can't even begin to think about the craft until you've built up a fair amount of fodder.

    At some point, and it will happen at different times and will happen even to experienced writers, something catches your eye. A memorable character, scene, plot twist. If you are just a reader, you'll think how cool that was. But if you're a writer, you'll go back to the book, to that scene. How did the author do that? What exactly was done that touched me?

    My earliest exposure to this was Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles (I've told this story before). I was fourteen. I was so moved by what I'd read, I read it again. Then I went back again and wrote out whole chapters. Word for word, just for the sheer joy of the words. It may not be coincidental that I soon after began my own writing.

    A few years later I read War and Peace. Read that one twice more, once aloud. The scene at Borodino (or was it Smolensk?) when Andrej is shot is seared into my memory. It's an extraordinary scene, as is the entire battle. I have returned to that more than once as a writer. It provided me with insight and with an approach on how to handle a set-piece battle.

    It will be different for each of us--how dialog is handled, descriptions, a sex scene, the list is endless. The more you read, the more examples you have, the more potential inspiration you will find. But I would amend King et alia in this way:

    read, read, read
    then
    study, study, study
     
  9. Sheilawisz

    Sheilawisz Queen of Titania Moderator

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    I am not a great reader, but I have read some great stories in my life.

    I think that perhaps the one that influenced my natural learning the most of them all has been The Neverending Story by Michael Ende. Whenever that I mention it, people think of the movies but those are very inaccurate. I recommend reading the original book, it's really good and a great style of Fantasy very unlike that of Tolkien.

    My other most important mentor is Lewis Carroll with the Alice stories.

    I also received this natural reading-based learning from Jonathan Swift thanks to his Gulliver's Travels. I also read Dante Alighieri a long time ago, and Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea which I know as El Viejo y el Mar. Tolkien too, even though I only read the first book in the trilogy of The Lord of the Rings in a really good Castilian translation.

    Thank you Erich Maria Remarque and All Quiet on the Western Front.

    Reading Harry Potter has been part of my natural learning history as well. I read the first three books in Castilian, the fourth in both English and Castilian and the final three books in English only. Before HP I seriously doubted my abilities to write stories in English, but reading those books helped me to feel more confident and I improved my English a lot.

    Thanks for that, great J.K. Rowling.

    Finally, I have to give credit to the legendary Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha.

    Reading the eternal Quijote in original 17th century Castilian was an unbelievable experience. It definitely left some magic in my soul, a truly wonderful story and characters. Ever since then, I still get teary every time that I think of the last moments in the life of Alonso Quijano and those last words that he dedicated to loyal Sancho.

    Oh God, it hurts so much:

    Perdóname, amigo, por haberte dado ocasión de parecer loco como yo y haberte hecho creer que hay y hubo caballeros andantes en el mundo...

    Those words marked for me the end of so many adventures, so many great moments and one of the greatest experiences in my life. I could not accept it. I could not accept that Quijote was dying, and then he was dead.

    Facing those words I just broke down in tears, to this day it still hurts a lot and I love Quijote anyway.
     
  10. Insolent Lad

    Insolent Lad Inkling

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    I try to write out a review of every book I read, put down in words why I like and dislike things about it. This, I think, has helped me quite a bit with my own writing. I started doing it when I read some advice by the poet Annie Finch to analyze writing in this manner—she was addressing the writing of poetry, primarily, but it can apply broadly. Read, yes, read a lot. Then be a critic, actually organizing and writing out your thoughts. It can help one understand what a author did, or attempted to do, and what worked or didn't.
     
  11. Russ

    Russ Istar

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    As I recently posted in another thread I don't have the facility to get much of anything other than great enjoyment out of reading.

    I get totally wrapped up in a good piece of fiction and carried away. With a good rider I get totally swept up. I get to the end of a good book and think "that was amazing" but have no clue how they did. I just can't seem to read for craft and pleasure at the same time.

    I can sometimes tell why a book bombs, but not why it is great.

    I suspect I could probably do this on a second read of the book...but who has time for that?
     
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  12. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    I have an issue with most “soundbite” advice. Read, read, read! Read the classics! Write a million words!

    They’re all good ideas, nothing wrong with them, but the weight some people give them is overblown and are often taken in a simplistic manner. If you write a million words of crap, is 1,000,001 bound to be better? Nope. The assumption of improvement only goes so far.

    The number is obviously arbitrary, but if I were to prescribe advice for improving writing while using 1 million it would be a bit like this:

    Write a complete 100k novel. Stuff it in a desk for 3 months, study craft in that time. Pull it out and edit the crap out of it. (count this as 200k) Stuff it back in the drawer, you can now write a second 100k novel (300k total) and when done edit the first novel (400k) now go back and forth editing both novels while studying word and story craft and by the time you get to 1 million, you had better have improved, LOL.
     
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  13. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    I don't read as much in the last few years as I read in my teens and early twenties, and when I do, it's mostly for entertainment.

    I think I picked up a lot during that time. Nowadays while reading for entertainment, I’ll still notice a little thing here, a little thing there—my writer brain is never totally absent as I read for entertainment. But often these things are like the insights you forget to make a note about: they’ll disappear from my conscious mind as I keep reading. Later, after the book is completed, I might or might not recall them, depending on whether the memories are triggered.

    The one area reading helps more directly is in the negative case. Something very bad in a book. That throws me out of the story anyway, and I’ll make a long-lasting mental note: Don’t do that!
     
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  14. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

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    I tend to view any do X and Y will happen advice as cautionary rather than prescriptive.
    The old adage of practice 10,000 hours and you'd become proficient/expert, isn't wrong but its taken the wrong way round...
    Most people that are really good at something will have taken 10,000 hours to get good at it.
    So the million words thing isn't write a million and you'll become good. It's those that are good have already written a million words.
    The same with read to become a good writer. It should be those that are good writers read... a lot.
     
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  15. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

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    Great observation. Just last night as I was laying in bed trying to fall asleep, I was tortured by the thought that I hadn't described the setting in my last scene at all. I briefly mentioned a vanity--and that was it. But when I went back over the scene, I hesitated to add setting details. The emotional intensity is what I wanted to highlight. Sometimes, I think letting readers fill the gaps in in their imaginations while feeding them something else can be just as powerful.
     
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  16. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    Like Fifthview, I am more apt to learn what not to do from reading than what to do, at least to fit my tastes.

    A lot of successful writers claim to read piles of books per year, and I have no reason to doubt them, but I think this has more to do with keeping up with industry and trends and just loving to read than having anything to do with how well they write.
     
  17. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

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    Apart from a few articles and blogs linked to on this site, and a few reference type works (dictionary, thesaurus), I have read all of two books on writing craft - and of those, I view the one as an overly long article. My expertise, such as it is, comes from reading - lots and lots of reading, on the order of 100+ books a year. I can't even claim to be that great of a grammarian - my scores on the subject were never more than average.

    The main things I instinctively learned and applied were -

    - Keep it interesting. Put the characters in an immediate predicament straight off and force them to grapple with it. Tension. Whenever I go back and look through my older works, the best tales (or parts thereof) always feature this element.

    - Be sparing with longer descriptive sections. Unless well done, these get boring in a hurry. Anymore, this means keep an eye on the passive voice, adverbs, and vague words - these don't have to be eliminated altogether and are frequently necessary, but overuse is not good. (I got into trouble with 'historical digressions.')

    - Don't get carried away with the worldbuilding. That can be an endless rabbit hole. Also, unless well done, worldbuilding notes incorporated into the story are boring.

    Main things I have picked up since coming to MS are -

    - Always have at least some notion of the beginning, middle, and end of a story in mind before you start to write. I had a lot of cool concepts that went nowhere in the old days because I couldn't figure out what came next.

    - Outlining, at least to a minimal extent, has value. It helps organize the various scenes and concepts.

    - Write. The way to become a good writer is to write, preferably every day. Sadly, exhaustion and the press of real world events has resulted in me being on a bit of a writing hiatus now. (Well, that, and slowly figuring out how to approach the rewrite of the WIP.)
     
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  18. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    I agree with Skip 100% about "read, read, read" then "study, study, study." I have nothing new to add to that opinion at all.

    What I will add, that has not been touched on, is non-fiction reading. Most everyone has touched on "reading fiction as a way of writing better fiction"... but I'd argue that reading non-fiction is just as important for developing story ideas.

    Here is why:

    Most people agree that "writing what you know" is important. So is "writing what you are passionate about." I notice with myself that I tend to be the type that reads a TON, but it is not always fiction. I'm constantly keeping updated on news and current events... refreshing my "google news" page a million times throughout the day. When I hit on something I'm interested in, I obviously read it, but then it might spark my interest in another direction, like the meaning of a word I don't understand, or a political viewpoint I may not be quite clear on. So then what do I do? I look it up. I do a bit of light research, which sometimes turns into me spiralling into the the depths of the internet in search of information I didn't even know existed half an hour ago.

    So I end up reading about history, and political struggles in other countries, and the viewpoints of world leaders I didn't know too much about. All this reading opens up my world and in turn, opens up my story worlds to new possibilities.

    In another direction, say I'm sitting in the doctors office. I'm bored. So I read. I read National Geographic, and Popular Mechanic, and opinion pieces in trashy woman's magazines... all this reading leads to me being able to create characters with different viewpoints, interests, backgrounds and abilities that I may have never known existed before that appointment.

    I'm the type of nerd who always has some sort of opinion or odd-factoid about everything. The origin of flip flops. Why boys have more cases of autism than girls. Why baby boomers are divorcing at skyrocketing rates, why people who are into BDSM are psychologically happier in their relationships.... I know all this random stuff because I read. Everything. All the time. I'm constantly reading random stuff about the world.

    "read, read, read" is not just about sitting down and reading as much fiction as you can, it's about paying close attention to your world. Branching out and picking up a different magazine than you normally would at the dentist and learning something you never knew before.

    All that stuff goes into our stories and makes our characters and worlds richer for it.
     
  19. Rkcapps

    Rkcapps Sage

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    For the last decade, my reading decreased (young kids didn't help), but it's improving. Audible books help, but if I want to study, I need the book. The tricks of the trade stand out the more you read. I still find it hard to start something that doesn't grab me immediately, so books with prologues don't hold my attention unless short. I want the character.

    Recently, I've been watching the Brandon Sanderson lectures on YouTube. I must say ... man, he's well read! One of his guest lecturers taught, "writing comedy". Now, I'd never considered writing comedy before, but I thought I'd like to at least know how. From that lecture I found the Dilbert writing humour website (google it). I'm sure Demesnedenoir knows what I'm talking about. Now, I'm able to dissect (without trying) the humour in Terry Pratchett's "The Colour of Magic". If I didn't keep up some reading, I wouldn't know how to do that or recognise it. I'd just burst out laughing without understanding why. Now, I know.

    Btw, if ever you want a good book to either read or study, that's it. The guy was knighted for a reason!
     
  20. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    Actually, I know nothing about writing humor that I didn’t learn from Monty Python. I did study screenwriter under an ex-stand-up comic turned screenwriter (he wrote Belushi’s K-9) and naturally comedy was discussed, the anatomy of the stand-up joke being the basis for comedy writing (in his opinion). I wrote my comedy screenplay without studying comedy at all, and it worked. I tend to prefer comedy relief over a full blown comedy.

    The important thing I learned about comedy is that if you are throwing a party in Hollywood and you want it to be fun and exciting, do NOT invite comedy writers.


     
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