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 . . .
James 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.