Reading to Learn

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I have always been a voracious reader. My parents used to ground me to my room when I broke the rules, but I considered it the perfect form of punishment because it gave me hours of uninterrupted time to read and I read a lot.

As I moved into adulthood, my reading habits changed. A full-time job meant less nights I could spend staying up until 2 a.m. finishing off a riveting book, but I still read quite a bit, particularly when I traveled for work. Once I had kids, I still managed to devour a novel-length book or two a week, and they were almost exclusively romances. When you’re up to your arms in diapers and baby spit, a happy ending sure makes you feel good about the world for awhile…at least until the next diaper change.

But something very interesting happened to me when I started the McDaniel Romance Writing Program last year…I became a very discriminate reader. I mean very

Seemingly overnight, I didn’t have the patience to read books that I hadn’t read before. I didn’t want to experience a new story. Okay, if I were to own up the truth, I didn’t want to risk reading a book that might not be good (I’m really embarrassed to say that). So I read nothing. Well, not romance, anyway. I read non-fiction, history (I always like history), and of course People and Entertainment Weekly (hey…gimme a break…we all have our “chocolate” reading).

But I didn’t read romance or any other fiction, which, in my view, is just abnormal for a writer. Writers love books, right? That’s why we’re writing them! But I just couldn’t get into anything. Then I went to the RWA conference in Atlanta last month and something changed. I heard speaker after speaker say, “You must read romance to write good romance.” So I’m finally taking that advice and the advice I read in Stephen King’s On Writing…I’m reading to learn, and not just romances that make the bestsellers lists or books in my favorite sub-genre (historical/Regency). I’m reading anything. Particularly free (or very inexpensive) downloads from iBooks or Amazon.

And boy, am I learning! I’m amazed that I can now identify what makes a book good or bad (in my mind, anyway). I can easily see passive voice. There are actions the character takes that don’t make sense. There’s missing “stage direction” (the character goes from washing the dishes to getting into bed and I didn’t even know she left the kitchen). I “hear” what good dialogue sounds like (as well as bad), often by reading some of the dialogue passages out loud.

I also look at the book as a whole and evaluate each character’s goal, motivation, and conflict. Hallowed words they be. Every writer should learn them. I’m still learning, for sure, and it’s something I look for in every book I read now. Is the conflict real or is it just a misunderstanding that could be remedied by a quick conversation? How does the character deal with the conflict? What is their goal? Why? What challenges must the characters overcome? How do they deal with those challenges? It’s fascinating now to pick these things apart in what I read.

What I’m doing with all of this information is filing it away in one of two columns in my brain: “Things To Do” and “Things Not To Do.” Now, when I’m writing a scene where characters are moving, I’m making sure their actions make sense. I’m keeping an eye out for adverbs. I’m avoiding passive voice. In other words, I’m remembering what worked and what didn’t worked in what I read and I’m either doing it or avoiding it. Well, trying to, anyway. It’s a process, right?

A benefit of getting into reading again is I’m finding a lot of new authors I like. Sometimes, getting through a book takes no time at all and in a blink, I’m done. The story and characters moved so well, I had no idea four hours just passed. Other times, it’s a challenge for me to get through the first fifty pages, but I carry on like a good soldier to the end. There is something to learn on every page, even if it’s learning what not to do.

On a rare occasion, I get a gem (well, rock) that is so poor I just can’t get through it. But that’s okay…I don’t have to worry about how the story is going to end. It’s a romance! The guy gets the girl. They fall in love. They live happily ever after. The End.

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