April 8th, 2015

Reading as a Writer — Is It Different?

James R. PrestonJames Preston

When I was growing up I read a lot.

I had a pattern, a way that I approached books that just evolved sort of on its own. I’d read for a while, get to a really good part and then go off and do something else, something mindless. Often I’d dig a hole. No kidding, I just loved excavation and while I was busy my head would be working, thinking about what might happen next in the story, hearing the characters’ dialog, thinking about how they felt — Frank Hardy when Joe got kidnapped in What Happened at Midnight, Tom Corbett stranded on Mars. You get the idea.

As an adult I still read a lot, not as much as I would like, but as much as I can. And I realized that while I’m turning those pages, I’m thinking as a writer. I bet you do, too.

I hope the ideas I share with you today do not detract from your pleasure when you settle in with a good book; my guess is these suggestions won’t because you probably do some of them already.

Reading as a writer for me means that you stop and think about what’s happening. You may stop for particularly good (or bad) dialog, or a great opening paragraph that pulls you right into the story. You appreciate your favorite writers even more when you see their craft, things like that perfect foreshadowing that makes you say, “Of course” at the end.

And there’s the rub. If you only read people you love, writers who are so good they make you want to quit writing and just spend your life  reading, you have narrowed your focus. I read many different writers and I learn from all of them. Before I provide suggestions, a word about my choices. For the most part, since I’m a mystery writer, they are not romance writers, but I sample them on occasion and I am almost always glad that I did.

It’s important to branch out and learn.

Some time ago I had a book review column called Books People Are Talking About. The idea was that I reviewed best sellers, book that would be topics of discussion around the water cooler, but that many people might not read. What an experience!

It was a lot of work for not much money but I wouldn’t trade it. I read some books that I never would have picked up if I hadn’t had a column due. I’m talking books like Valley of the Dolls. I read many books that I did not care for and tried to say something about them. Here are some suggestions for authors you might want to check out. I tried to choose writers that you may not have encountered, and who are available electronically.

For stories that are so dialog-driven that they race off the page, look at any of the Fletch novels by Gregory MacDonald. (Side note: don’t try to take a shortcut and watch the movies. They are most emphatically not the same.)

For extreme detail, writing that is way down in the weeds for how things work in the military or the police, try W. E. B. Griffin. Some reviewers knock him for too much detail, and that makes his work worth looking at in itself because you may agree. Same author — police procedurals and war stories that are light on shooting and heavy on relationships.

Want to hear a truly tough guy, who still has ethics, tell his story? Track down Death of a Citizen by Donald Hamilton and meet Matt Helm. (Important warning! Avoid the Dean Martin movies of the same series, unless you really want to experience a singing spy.)

For a very funny tough guy, look at Richard Prather’s Shell Scott stories, in particular the one called Everybody Had a Gun. Prather produced one novel after another from the fifties into the seventies and deserves more attention than he gets.

Plot? There are excellent writers everywhere, but for playing fair with the reader nobody’s better than Earl Stanley Gardner and the Perry Mason novels.

Pacing is an important topic and one that has been discussed in detail on this blog. For an extreme sample of rocket-propelled speedball stories, look at anything by James Rollins, but particularly the Sigma Force books. Hard to put down? Oh, yes, because things are always happening.

For incredibly good openings, see Jayne Ann Krentz. Brilliant! The woman grabs you immediately.

What about watching movies and TV with a writer’s mindset?

For me that comes down mostly to studying dialog, and in many cases I am critical. For example, I enjoyed CSI: Miami enormously and consider it the best of the CSIs — but the characters are constantly telling each other things they already know. “I will run this sample through the new Wombat 3000 Spectroscope.” “Good. That will give us the blood type.” Both of them are familiar with the Wombat 3000.

In fairness, the CSI dialog is really aimed at the viewing audience that doesn’t know about the Wombat 3000, and building in the science background is a challenge. That’s why you so often see the writers bring in an outsider who needs an explanation. In Jaws Richard Dreyfuss teaches the sheriff about sharks, and the viewers learn right along with him.

Should you stop reading or watching to make notes about a piece of work that you admire (or loathe)? Oooh, that’s a tough question. In an electronic world it has become easier to highlight and save quotes, but it can still break that magic that is a great story. I try to capture things I like, with mixed results. One mistake I made was in reading an excerpt from a romance novel that showed up in a blog. The sea captain closed the door to his cabin and leaned back against it, arms crossed, as he eyed the proud beauty standing defiantly in front of him. I cannot quote it, or find it, and this paraphrase most emphatically does not do it justice, but when I read it I was struck by its succinctness, and clarity. You were there in the cabin on a old sailing ship. I didn’t highlight it and I’m sorry. I guess I would say, when in doubt, highlight, or scribble a note to “come back to page 29 for a great description.”

I need to be clear that I am not in any way talking about copying. Soaking in good work improves yours, but if I set out to do a Jayne Anne Krentz opening, I’d fall on my face. You will find your own way, but seeing masters at work makes it easier.

The point of this essay is that as writers we are always learning and we are responsible for our own education and growth. I haven’t read a lot of romance novels, but most of you will have some as examples, so c’mon, share!

Who do you read when you want a really creepy villain? Who does Regency manners best? Who do you study to get better? I’m interested and I bet the other readers are, too.

If I could just find that sea captain . . .


About James

 Sailor Home from Sea coverJames R. Preston is the author of the award-winning Surf City Mysteries. His books have been selected for inclusion in the California Detective Fiction Collection at the Bancroft Library, one of the libraries at UC Berkeley. James’ novella, Crashpad, will be published next year by Stark Raving Group. See bookxy.com for more information.

The newest Surf City Mystery is Sailor Home From Sea.

43 comments to Reading as a Writer — Is It Different?

  • Great post, James! I’d love to read more as a writer – but I have so little time to read nowadays, mostly I try to get lost in a read, and read like a reader. BUT – if you choose really good writers, you can do both! I try to stray outside my comfort zone too.

    For humor – a debut author, Austin Davis – Shoveling Smoke. It’s a new lawyer book, and Southern, and had me rolling. Seriously, check it out!

    For creepy villains, King is always my go-to. Just finished Mr. Mercedes. Excellent, and no horror.

    Who I study to get better: Pat Conroy, for beautiful prose, Jodi Picoult for fresh emotion, and Stephen King for a gripping story, and great internal dialog.

    • jamesr403

      Thanks, Laura. You are so right about Stephen King. Talking about stories to my Godson last Sunday I told him about the villain in Rose Madder — truly one of the creepiest guys ever to walk the pages of a book. I known what you mean about time. The number of books I have started and had to set aside is embarrassing. Rose Madder is about an a used wife and is a companion novel to Gerald’s Game. Both are worth a look.

      • Oh James, you’re preaching to the choir! I’ve read everything he’s written! My favorites are the ones with kids in them. He takes me back to how my mind worked as a child. We forget that, when we get to be grown-ups.

  • Fae Rowen

    Thanks for the super reminder, James. Jayne Ann Krentz is my favorite–she’s the reason I started reading romance. Linnea Sinclair writes pull-you-in-fast science fiction with a touch of paranormal and more than a touch of romance. Like Laura, I just don’t get to read as much as I used to.

    • jamesr403

      You are so right, Fae. I have started a list so I won’t start a book over by mistake. Yow, that’s probably as nutty as digging a hole.

  • Someone once said, “When you become a writer, you’ll never read the same way again,” and I agree. I LOVE to get so caught up in the story that I’m not aware of all the structural stuff, but my mind is always playing editor. That doesn’t keep me from reading, and I’ll have to go check out the books/authors you’ve suggested. There’s always room to learn.

  • Great post on reading as a writer. I know I read differently since I began writing seriously. I love reading and getting lost in a book, and that rarely happens anymore. But I just finished a wonderful book set in Regency England and Wales and yet not there either because it is a fantasy adventure. Patricia Burroughs wrote it and I would call it “Harry Potter for grown-ups”.

    • Fae Rowen

      Thanks for the reading tip, olderwriter!

    • jamesr403

      Patricia Burroughs, huh? Somebody to look for. Just what I need! I mean, thanks, Olderwriter. BTW, does anyone else see a theme here? We all love “getting lost in a book.” And we sacrifice some of that to share our stories.

  • Thanks for the great info on reading like a writer. We need to study the masters, who can teach us and push us beyond our borders.

    • Fae Rowen

      Having avoided English classes-with great success-in college, I have to say this spikes fear into my gut. But you’re right, Jackie. I just don’t know how to do it on my own.

    • jamesr403

      An emphatic yes, Jackie. However, I think it’s important to study people you like, regardless of status. Call them your master writers. Thanks!

  • James, one could say the rub is that most writers are readers … and since we read to write … they can’t exist without each other. The time to get lost in stories might compete with the time we need to create new stories … but then we still try to squeeze 48 hours into 24 so we can have as equal measure of both.

    I don’t study any writer. Like Laura … I read as a reader and when I am in the mood … I switch genres. My moods dictate who I read as much as what TV or movies I watch. CSI? I still preferred the original … BUT I watched the first half of the new Cyber CSI and knew I hated it. If I read a few chapters and decide I don’t like something, I don’t care who wrote it … i put it down. Sometimes I revisit them to see if I changed my mind.

    We learn so many different things from reading and watching … dialogue and pacing in books and TV … lovely prose in novels or the music of poetry. My fav mystery writer is either dead or hasn’t been born, but I love Agatha with the same passion as Connelly and Gerritsen and Nora and Rowling … like the classics or Salinger or the first ten of Janet E. I don’t seek horror or dystopian but can still get lost in King and enjoyed The Hunger Games Like people, there are so many lovely hues … and who can love roses more than wild flowers … even though wild flowers are actually weeds 🙂

    • Fae Rowen

      I am just learning to put down a book if I don’t like it, ramblingsfromtheleft. Being the eternal optimist, I’ve always hoped I would finally get sucked in. Now, I realize, I just don’t have time for that. But I’m trying to pay attention to why I don’t get sucked into the story when that happens.

    • jamesr403

      Ramblings, thanks! Dead on comment. My Godson introduced me to Hunger Games and — what a tour de force! LOL about Janet E, but I still read the later ones. Stephanie — pick one of the guys or enter a nunnery! Get it over with! Oh, sorry, lost control for a moment. Thanks for the comment.

  • Great article. Thanks for sharing. I have always loved reading. Pretty much any thing with pages I will pick up and read. Science Fiction and Fantasy have always been my favorites. I have read and re-read many things by Asimov, Pohl, McCaffery, Tolkien, etc. Now i’m starting to branch out more. I like the techno-thriller authors like Clancy and Koontz. So many books, so little time 🙂

    • jamesr403

      Well put, Shawn. So many books . . . If you have not read Heinlein I envy you that first-time experience. I still love his YA novels like Have Space Suit-Will Travel and Star Beast. Reading him is watching a genius mind at work. Okay, I can’t resist a brief commercial. I broke in writing short stories for Analog. My first one, “Law of the Instrument” is available at no charge on my web site. End of commercial. We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog. Thanks for commenting.

      • Cool thanks! I love Heinlein. There is no way I can list all my favorite authors, let alone everything I’ve read 🙂 I’ll check out your story.

        • jamesr403

          Thanks, Shawn. The wonders of technology — the story Ben Bova bought so many years ago is instantly, effortlessly, available. The bad news is that “so many books” has grown exponentially.

  • Fae Rowen

    Love your list of authors, Shawn. Well, except for Koontz. I just can’t read horror. Have you read any CJ Cherryh? Or Niven and Pournelle? Yes, I’m the resident SF freak here at Writers in the Storm.

  • jamesr403

    Hi, Fae. Hmmm. Koontz? I think his early work like Whispers is remarkable. The newest books, not so much. Can you spell Deus ex machina? I know you can. If you have not tried her, take a look at Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s vampire novels. Historical, and a great example of just the right amount of detail.

  • Thanks for a great post. Shared on Twitter. Happy reading and writing, Shawn! 🙂

  • jamesr403

    Glad you liked it, Bette, and thanks for sharing it. I think that vote of confidence is very important.

  • Yes, I seem to critique every book, movie, tv show that I get my hands on! This is a great article, sir.

    • Thanks, Barbara! It was fun to write, because I got to look back at some favorite books. Yesterday I went back & reread the opening to King’s Rose Madder to see if the villain was as bad as I remembered. Yow! He is so much worse, Really really creepy.

  • Fae Rowen

    I’m particularly guilty of comparing the book to the movie. Not fair, but I do it anyway.

  • A final note: I got an email from Linda Pendleton (her husband, Don created the multi-million-selling Executioner series). I found a lengthy,detailed interview she conducted with Richard S. Prather that is a real course in how to write. Look for it on the Don Pendleton website or on Amazon. It is worth your time!

  • I’m finding that I read novels with a writer’s eye now. I’m paying more attention to dialogue, voice / POV, pacing, writing style, etc. than I used to in the past. It’s really neat; I feel like I’m learning more about the craft of writing because of it. It’s also making me a more critical reader, too. Two books I recently read were poorly written, and I wonder if I would have noticed the same weaknesses two years ago – or even one year ago – that I noticed now.

    Great, thought-provoking article, James. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    • Hi, Sara — Thanks for the comment! Yeah, me, too. On the flip side, some books I love from early reading I find are flawed, but I love ’em anyway. I wonder if you notice that? One writer I can think of spins a great tale, is a master of pacing (express train with just the right amount of relax time) BUT — the dialog is um, shall we say, weak? I read him anyway.
      Thanks again!

  • Thanks, James, for the mention of the exclusive Richard S. Prather interview I did with him. As it turned out, it was his last interview. And yes, it could be considered a writing course as he went into a lot of detail, not only about his long career, but about writing. He was a very detailed writer and plot was always his focus. I was delighted when he insisted on reading my first Catherine Winter Private Investigator novel, “Shattered Lens,” and gave me a very nice cover quote. He encouraged me to continue the series. He also asked me to publish his last Shell Scott novel, “The Death Gods.”