The plan was to spend January completing the first draft of a memoir and then going back to work on the NaNoWriMo novel revisions. That was the plan.

I did, however, get to work tangentially on writing. A friend asked me to be a beta reader on the first draft of her first novel. She’s published some short things but this was her first complete, 90K word novel. I was honored.

Unfortunately, it’s in a genre I don’t often read outside of a small, narrow group of authors. So this required some research. I firmly believe that you have review things in context. Each genre or category has certain unique needs beyond the basics of good writing. Seriously, would you complain that “King Lear” didn’t have enough jokes? Or that there wasn’t enough romance in Carrie?

So in the course of a couple of weeks I re-read a half dozen titles that were successful financially and/or I considered some of the best of the genre as well as alternating between skimming and scanning about a dozen that were typical. I even plowed through as much as I could stand of the book that had sent me fleeing the fantasy aisle many years ago. (It didn’t get better with age — its or mine.)

I spent the better part of an hour randomly opening paperbacks from the rack at the grocery store. After the first six, I was about to write to my friend apologizing that I was totally unsuited to critique her book because I simply could not read more than a few paragraphs of the standard titles in her genre, when I picked up one last title, opened it at random — and found a delightful bit of good writing. I’m at the library right now, where I found the first of the author’s titles to check out and try. (Sorry, but unless a title or author is recommended by someone I completely trust or has multiple reviews that make it compelling, I always try new authors via the library first. This way I can keep affording to buy new releases, including hard copies, by the good authors.)

The point of all of this, is that I’ve spent the better part of the two months reading as a writer instead of a reader. When I read like a writer, I focus on things like the structure of the plot, how the characterization is handled, the development of tone and style. There are many times I’ve read something as a reader, completely lost in the story and characters, swept along by the pros; and then, I read the story again, this time as a writer noting how the author managed to capture me.

Some writers can write a plot that’s intrigues so completely, I ignore the less than perfect prose (My “potato chip” reads are mysteries). Others create characters that are such lively, fascinating companions, I myopically overlook plot holes — unless I fall in one. Then there are writers who voices are so witty and charming, I’m completely seduced. Often awaking to find a note on my beside table and my wallet emptied. And finally, there are the writers whose prose is so beautiful and graceful, I feel as if my own efforts resemble the first steps of a gawky teenager amongst the corps de ballet.


Periodically, when I feel I need a refresher course in how to read as a writer, I pull out my copy of Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want To Write Them. While Ms. Prose (Isn’t that a wonderful name for a writer? I wonder if it’s too late to have mine legally changed?) targets the future M.F.A. candidate and completely eschews anything so plebian as “genre” authors, she does teach me how to read, both my own work and others, critically. And by “critically,” I mean objectively with a discerning eye and ear.

Here’s how she opens her book:

Can creative writing be taught?
…I answer by recalling my own valuable experience, not as a teacher but as a student in one of the few fiction workshops I took… Its generous teacher showed me, among other things, how to line edit my work. For any writer, the ability to look at a sentence and see what’s superfluous, what can be altered, revised, expanded, and, especially, cut, is essential. It’s satisfying to see that sentence shrink, snap into place, and ultimately emerge in a more polished form: clear, economical and sharp.

Here’s an example from her chapter on “Narration”:

… this device enabled me to overcome one of the obstacles confronting the novice writer. This hurdle disguises itself as the question of voice and of who is telling the story (should the narrator be first or third person, close or omniscient?) when in fact the truly problematic question is: Who is listening? On what occasion is the story being told, and why? Is the protagonist projecting this heartfelt confession out into the ozone, and, if so, what is the proper tone to assume when the ozone is one’s audience?

I had always assumed that I was alone in having discerned that the identity of the listener was a more vexing problem than the voice of the storyteller until I heard a writer say that what enabled him to write a novel from the point of view of a rather complicated middle-aged woman was by pretending that she was telling her story to close male friend, and that he, the writer, was that friend.

Ms. Prose goes on to examine and dissect successful examples of narration ranging from Wuthering Heights to Anna Karenina, from Philip Carver to Isabel Walker to Mark Twain to Diane Johnson (Le Divorce, a book alas I didn’t finish because I was simply in the wrong mood. My mood is something else I have to keep in mind when critiquing my own or someone else’s work). I got more out of one trip through Reading Like A Writer than I did from an entire semester of writing class. If nothing else, I learned how a master writes a compound, complex sentence.

After a couple of months of reading like a writer, I’m ready to start writing for myself again. I’m encouraged by how badly some published authors write, humbled by how well some do and greatly inspired by the realization that I can improve my own initial drafts by applying some firm, disciplined manuscript critique.

To the keyboards! Tally Ho!

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