Reading Like a Writer

Although English was one of my majors in college, a major where you’re pretty much required to analyze every syllable, theme and characterization into bloody and battered submission, I was never really one for reading critically.  There were books I loved, books that were okay and books I loathed and that was about as deep as I got.

However, over the past few years, proving I suppose that things really do come full circle, I’ve noticed a subtle shift in the way I read books.  In other words, while I still (and always will) read for pleasure, I’ve started to read books a bit more analytically. I attribute this shift to being more attuned to studying the craft, as I’m always working to improve my writing. Though I have taken a few writing classes and read books on the craft, the best “textbooks” really are studying the work of other authors.  I’m paying closer to attention to things like narrative structure, dialogue, word choice and pacing, why the author made the choices they made with regard to plot and characterization, etc.   
While I can’t necessarily pinpoint a specific book that made me say, “I want to be a writer,” there have definitely been books I’ve read recently that have made me say, “Gee I wish I could write like that.”

“Gone Girl” – I read “Gone Girl” when it was released two years ago and like so many, was blown away by the sharp characterizations and deft, unusual prose.  I later read “Sharp Objects” and “Dark Places,” and while those were terrific page-turners that gave me the heebie-jeebies, I can see why “Gone Girl” was Gillian Flynn’s breakout book.

“High Fidelity” – This is probably the first book where I was acutely aware of “truth in fiction,” without even being aware of it, if that makes sense.  Things like Rob making sure to wear his “good” underwear and of course measuring life in terms of music and top five lists plucked a “truth” cord.

“The Husband’s Secret” – I really liked the unusual narrative structure and the way Liane Moriarty wove the individual stories together.  The sly, subtle humor and the layering of thought-provoking themes without being preachy also made an impression on me.   

“What the Dead Know” – I really admired the way Lippman plotted this story, so much so, I went in search of insight into her writing process and learned how she plans her narrative. 

Silence of the Lambs” – I avoided reading this for many, many, many years.  The movie is such a masterpiece of psychological terror, that I knew the book would give me nightmares. I gave in earlier this year and I'm glad I did.  It’s an incredibly intelligent book and most definitely a “master class” in suspense writing.  And yes, I didn’t sleep for a few nights.

“Madame Bovary” – Though it has been a few years since I’ve read it, this relatively simple story is an example of characterization at its finest.  Emma Bovary is a chilling study of madness and it is her descent into depravity that drives every note of this stunning tale.

“Beloved” – I’d be lying if I said I just breezed through this, but, I will say there is no question that Toni Morrison can work wonders with the 26 letters of the alphabet. Her descriptions are so lyrical, they border on the magical and she can wring more emotion and imagery out of two words than most writers can out of two sentences.

Since it’s summer, I’m taking some time off from reading the “heavy stuff” and delving into some beachy, breezy reads, which believe it or not, I’m learning from those books as well.  After all, it all helps.