Category: How to Study Fiction

How to Study Fiction, Part 8: Reading, Part 2

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.

Techniques to help handle reading issues:

First, what to read.  You have a number of options.

  • Read deeply, that is, inside the genre/subgenre you’re most likely to write in.  This will give you the deepest views of the tropes involved in your genre, but will not help you write work that appeals to readers outside your genre or across genres (per se).  You will be at far less risk of reinventing the wheel in your genre, but you will miss out on mining other genres for stories that your genre hasn’t used to death.
  • Read broadly, that is, across genres.  This will give you a better idea of the concept of “story” in general over time.  It puts you at higher risk of reinventing the wheel in your genre, and at first will confuse a lot of issues when it comes time to write in your own genre, but will pay off more later, as you’re able to identify different reader types and what they want.
  • Read for mastery, that is, studying the masters of fiction in order to steal their techniques.  The general idea is to read books from a writer who is a current bestseller, publishing for at least 15 years a book a year, but only the books that have been published in the last ten years.  You, too, would like a long-term, bestselling career with a book a year coming out.  You, too, would like to use the latest techniques for getting this done–not techniques that went out of style in the 1950s.
  • Read with focus, that is, with some other emphasis than merely genre concerns.  This is something you can use to stay within a genre as a reader but not get stuck in a rut of reading what you always read.  For example, you might read only books written by authors of color, or from the 1930s, or from Japan, or simply a “best of X genre” list.  This often can uncover a prejudice or shortcoming in your own writing.  However, this is also a great way to make yourself hate reading.  People usually read for comfort, and this kind of project is almost deliberately uncomfortable.
  • Read for research, that is, digging into books that will help provide background inspiration for what you’re writing.  The benefits are obvious, but the drawbacks are many.  Not only can reading too much research material hamper your efforts to make the material you’ve researched flow naturally into a book and prevent you from writing at all (the research rabbit hole!), but reading solely for research can prevent you from achieving any other goals.  No depth of genre, no sense of story, and no questioning your assumptions.  Be careful with this.

Personally, I tend to mix up all of these, because I read quickly and can afford to spread my reading time around.  I also read for pure pleasure, but again, this is because I can afford to.

It may be highly beneficial to take some time and learn how to read faster.  This can help you read more books, but can come at the expense of fully enjoying the books you do read.  On the other hand, learning how to fly through books that you hate but need to understand can be a real benefit.

Personally, I do most of the techniques listed in this article, at Lifehacker.  It isn’t just about reading faster, but about preventing reading fatigue.  I often switch between a difficult and a pure-pleasure book to keep myself refreshed, or take a break on the really hard ones and cruise through a bunch of mindless websites.

And yes, I find that holding my thumb along the side of the paragraph I’m reading totally helps.

As a side note, in order to find the books you need for any of these projects (anything other than “pure pleasure”!), just google “Top 100 Books of X.”  For example, you might google “Top 100 books of science fiction” or “Top 100 books of alien invasion science fiction” or “Top 100 books of all time” or “Top 100 books of authors of color,” or “Top 100 books of the French Revolution,” or whatever.

Google will give you a number of top-whatever lists, whatever the number happens to be.

Next time:  You’ve read a book and you have all the feels.  Now what?

Look.  You just want like one stupid pun per month in your inbox.  I understand.  Sign up for the Wonderland Press newsletter and I’ll send you one, along with (my) book news and reviews.  Mystery, horror, history, and just plain weird.  It’s cool.

How to Study Fiction, Part 7: Reading, Part 1

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.

What to read, how to read, and how to start studying it.  Every professional writer seems to have the same kind of advice:  Read more.

But you could read the back of the cereal box all day and not get better as a writer.

So…what?

Reading issues at this level:

  • Being unsure of what one’s reading goals should be versus what you’re trying to achieve as a writer overall.
  • Being unsure of how to understand why you felt about a book the way you did (either to love it or hate it).
  • Feeling like reading someone else’s book choices is a waste of time.
  • Feeling like you’re missing something and you don’t know what.

When you’re reading as a reader, you basically only have one goal:  to please yourself.  One’s pleasure as a reader isn’t something you should ditch as a writer, either.  Sometimes I wonder if learning what you love and don’t love about a book isn’t 80% of the work of improving as a writer anyway.

However, when you’re a writer, you have some additional tasks as a reader that need to be met:

  • Understanding the genre(s) you’re writing in.
  • Understanding how stories work on a primal level.
  • Identifying what elements of storytelling you enjoy in a practical (“So that’s what is missing from my stories!”) kind of way.
  • Getting at the roots of what makes stories valuable for readers.

Being a professional reader (which is kind of an aspect of being a professional writer!) means both understanding what best fits your own tastes and why other readers read what they do.

When you hit that point, you no longer roll your eyes at bestsellers you don’t like.  Instead, you start going, “So people like book X because it gives them Y.  I like Y, just not how it’s done here…why not write Y in my own way?”

Getting better as a reader is about half the raw data that you need in order to decrypt what makes a book good or not.

Where does the other half come from?  More on that in a bit.

Look.  You just want like one stupid pun per month in your inbox.  I understand.  Sign up for the Wonderland Press newsletter and I’ll send you one, along with (my) book news and reviews.  Mystery, horror, history, and just plain weird.  It’s cool.

How to Study Fiction, Part 6: Words of Wisdom

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.

I’d like to take a moment to interject something that came up in the middle of writing these posts.

I talked to multiple other intermediate- and higher-level writers on this topic, and what they mainly wanted writers going through a transition from beginning to intermediate writing to know was:

  • There is no finish line when it comes to learning about writing.  You will never run out of things to learn or relearn.
  • You will need other writers for sanity and support and getting better as writers more than you can imagine.  Invest in networking.
  • No words are wasted; nevertheless, there is an immense power in throwing out words.
  • Being able to write on command is an essential part of growing as a writer; “mood” can go to hell.  If you can’t write on command, you’ll never get in the zone where writing is easy.
  • On the other hand, you can’t rate everything about writing in terms of words per minute, or dollars per word.  Part of the journey here is becoming as much “yourself” as a writer as possible.  In other words, writing isn’t just craft; it’s an art.
  • You can’t see the patterns in what you write and what you love to write without a body of actual, finished work.

They also made a lot of smartass comments, but I’ll skip those 🙂

I felt like the journey from being a beginning writer to an intermediate one was very emotional and transformative.  There were days when something in my subconscious was running in overdrive so hard I could barely process the world outside me.  I went through terrible mood swings on a regular basis–great writer, terrible writer.  Great writer, terrible writer.

I believe that any field that is sufficiently complex and creative has a kind of process like this–cooking, music, woodworking, programming, martial arts–where you move away from the limitations and structure of following rules and head out into the wilder territories of, “We’re not sure, but try this…”

I firmly believe it’s a kind of magical process, and should be respected as such.  That is, a lot of work that occasionally produces sparks of something that are more than what they came from.  It’s wonderful.

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How to Study Fiction, Part 5: Productivity and Speed, Part 3

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.

Resources related to productivity/speed issues:

  •  Look for good general productivity, happiness, and habit-changing books and websites, like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People or Eat that Frog.  They often talk about how to practically juggle conflicting priorities.
  • Look for good writer’s habit books, like The Artist’s Way or Bird by Bird, not to teach you how to write so much as to teach you how to survive the long haul as a creative person.  These books will help you dig down to your emotional fears about writing.
  • Sign up for a writing challenge that will definitely stretch you from your current habits, like National Novel Writing Month, in order to test your skills.  It doesn’t have to be NaNoWriMo, and failing one just means “this is not for me.”  Don’t harass yourself about failing any writing test.  Identify why you didn’t succeed, and look for a different writing test.
  • Start tracking your word count using different periods of time:  five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes, etc.  When your words per minute peak, you’ve found your ideal writing session time.  (You can often string several shorter sessions together, with a short break to refill a cup of coffee between them.)  If you are totally against wordcounts, you can track pages per day–or stories per month.
  • Look for good books on building writing speed, like 2,000 to 10,000: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love.
  • Make a note of any distractions that occur in your writing sessions and decide how to get around them.  To block selected sites on the Internet, for example, try Freedom software.  Make part of your writing routine handling distractions before they can occur.
  • When you write a piece of fiction, allow yourself to spell-check the work and look it over one time to review for missing pieces, oopsies, or extraneous pieces.  After that, send it to an editor for submission or a freelance editor to get it ready for indie publishing.
  • You don’t have to be perfect.  Intermediate writers are still better than 90% of wanna-be writers.  You are writers.  But, well, you’re not master artisans yet, and nobody expects that you magically turn into ones.
  • Other technical issues should be addressed later in the series 🙂

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How to Study Fiction, Part 1: Welcome to Intermediate Writing!

New series!  I’ve been studying fiction with a scalpel and a jeweler’s lens for a few years now, and I’ve found it immensely helpful.  I’m going to cheat a little and use most of a post that I typed up for the pacing series, which you can find here.

The issues are the same 🙂

When writers first start out, what they’re mainly aware of, writing-wise, is conflict.  This is when you sit down and start writing a scene and go, “This is two people fighting about something, how exciting!”  Let’s call that Level 0.

Beginning writers have started to be inundated with English classes; they often have a set of rules and guidelines that they have to follow (in order to pass the class).  They have learned that the vague mush of conflict can be split into categories:  character, setting, plot, grammar/punctuation/clarity, repetitiveness, style, mood, atmosphere.

Intermediate writers are starting to break off from the early categories and rules.  (If I’ve ever told you that every writer has to break at least one rule in order to become a good writer, you’re moving into this category.  It’s a gradual process.)  They have a decent grasp on the basics.  They are starting to think about things like tension, depth/opinion/voice, pacing, and condensing repetitive things instead of removing them.

Advanced writers are starting to mess with their readers, and they’re starting to put the pieces back together, so that character = voice = style = plot = mood = everything else.  Genre, and screwing with genre, is a big deal here.

And master writers don’t give a damn about anything but screwing with the reader.

The issues that I’ve been running across lately are people moving from beginning writer to intermediate writer–and having no idea that there’s anything between “beginning” and “master.”

Why am I not getting published?  Why am I not getting published in the top magazines in my genre?  Why is XYZ shitty writer getting published and paid millions of dollars and not me?

That’s the kind of complaint/attitude I’m seeing.  Partly, it comes from 90% of all writing advice being focused on beginners–because that’s where 90% of all writers are at, and where 90% of all writers seem to drop out.  (I have no exact stats on that!)

The writers saying these things are decent at the basics for the most part, and may shine at one or two of them.  But they don’t really have a clue that there’s more to learn.

Let alone how to learn it.  More on that coming up.

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