Friday, February 28, 2014

Read Like a Writer

I didn't exactly make New Year's Resolutions this year, but there is a new habit I'm trying to build. I want to read like a writer.

My daily writing habit is still going strong. I've only missed one day since I started that experiment, around a year ago now. It's undeniably effective. I've finished two books, gotten good starts on two more, finished a short story and written drafts of three or four more (oddly, I think short stories are harder than novels), and written lots of blog posts. Writing is easier for me now. I can produce more words in one writing session, and more of them are words I can keep.

Rearranging my life to make time for all this writing is cutting into my reading though. And I would argue that reading is essential to a writer's practice. It's important to see what others are doing, to have models to aspire to. It's not that I want to write like someone else; I'm not wanting to imitate anyone.  I want to read more and think hard about what works in the books that work and what doesn't in the ones that don't and apply those lessons to my own work.

So, to that end, here's what I've been reading so far this year: I've finished six books so far this year. (I'm a notorious book-starter, often reading four or five books at the same time, but getting distracted and not finishing them). Four of the books I've finished are worth considering from a writer's perspective:

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu was brought to my attention by a reading circle of middle school teachers I work with. I read it in paperback, purchased from Amazon. It's a quiet book, and, at times, I wasn't sure I liked it. Maybe this is, in part, because I haven't read many middle grades book. I've read a fair amount of Young Adult, but this was obviously gauged a bit younger. I was genuinely surprised when magic came into the story as a real element. The first half of the book made me think the magic was all in Hazel's mind.

What kept drawing me back in to the story were the little moments in which the narrator described some small aspect of life with a haunting accuracy and sadness. "School was very easy, it turned out, if you just disconnected your heart." Poetic. Heartbreaking.

The Life and Times of Persimmon Wilson by Nancy Peacock came to me from another reading circle--a neighborhood group. We've decided to read books with a connection to North Carolina, our home state. This one was by a local writer. I read it in paperback, purchased from Amazon. I was genuinely surprised by how much I liked this book. Nothing about the cover or the title made me expect what I got.

It's a great example of the curiosity-building opening line that Stephen King is so fond of: "I have been to hangings before, but never my own." It's a sentence that packs a wallop, emotionally, and definitely made me want to know more. This is something I've been thinking about in my own work. I tend to ease into my stories slowly, but readers seem to appreciate being grabbed in the opening paragraph.

I also admired Peacock's ability to keep the story interesting in first person. So far, I don't write in first person. I like close third, sort of the "over someone's shoulder" view. First person brings a lovely immediacy, but it's also limiting--you can't show anything the character doesn't see or know. Persy's life took some interesting turns and Peacock integrated her historical research beautifully, providing detail without ever making me feel like the story had stopped so she could show me what she had learned.

My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira came into my life from the public library's online collection
of audiobooks. I choose audiobooks almost at random. I just go the website, click the search option that shows me what's available for checkout and choose the first book that has any appeal for me. So, I listened to this novel not having any idea at all what is was about, but just drawn in by the cover and title.

It turned out to be a Civil War story, set in the North and focused on Northern characters. I've not encountered much of that in my life. Most Civil War stories I've read or viewed have been set in the South. It was fascinating. One of my own projects right now is a historical novel set mostly in the early twentieth century. Oliveira and Peacock both have strong lessons for me about incorporating research and factual detail without letting it overwhelm the narrative.

In Mary Sutter, the key was Mary herself. She was both a woman of her time, and out of her time. I was instantly intrigued by her and cheering for her in her quest to become a surgeon at a time when medical training was not available to women. Oliveria also handled the complicated feelings of disappointed love beautifully.  Since my own character, Freda, is disappointed in love, I hope I can handle it as well.

Lastly, there's The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. This one came to me from the same reading circle of middle school teachers, in a paperback copy borrowed from another teacher. I should state upfront that I have a hard time with Holocaust literature. It eats at me in a way that reading about other tragedies does not. So, I wasn't sure I wanted to read this book at all.

I read it very slowly. A chapter at a time, with breaks for other reading in between.

At first the narration fascinated me. What an interesting idea! Having the story told by Death personified. It brought to mind The Lovely Bones  by Alice Sebold for the creativity of the narration.

Partway through, though, that narration began to feel contrived and false to me. I almost wish the author had found a way to let Death slip away once he had introduced us to the players and just let the story play out for itself. Death, after all, didn't change or grow, and his fascination with Liesel was unexplained.

I felt the same way about some of the neat poetic/not quite sense-making descriptions Death used. They were striking, like the moments of insight in Ursu's book, but maybe too much so. They started to feel precious and removed me from the story. "You will be caked in your own body." Trying too hard? I'm still not sure.

I also couldn't decide how I felt about the cues to future events. This was more than mere foreshadowing. The ending was basically announced several times before it actually arrived. Was this a function of being a book intended for younger readers? Was it supposed to lessen the shock? Or build anticipation? It didn't do either for me. Again, it pulled me from the story to wonder what he was after by that tactic. If I'm thinking about the tactics, they are probably not working.

So, what have I learned?

  • Historical fiction has to be accurate, but not call attention to the accuracy. It's the characters that make you care. Don't lecture. Know the details, but don't tell them all. 
  • First lines are very important
  • An interesting narrator is a blessing and a burden
Now, off to read some more and see what else I can learn. What should I read next? 

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