Saturday, June 30, 2012

Reading Like a Writer

If you’re a writer who loves to read, you’ll probably understand what I mean when I say good books take you along on wild rides. You love the vicarious experience, don’t you? Especially if, like me, you’ve grown too “dignified” for rope swings, skates, or skis!

Loving to read so much, I read fast, mostly too fast on the first pass to read like a writer. But since I’ve been writing regularly, I notice a lot more in a first pass than I used to.

A particularly good book might get a second reading, but even a second reading doesn’t take the place of analysis. I wish it did. I enjoy the effects a good writer achieves, and pinpointing how he or she achieved it takes away the mystery… spoils it in the same way that learning how a magician works destroys the fun of his trick.

I’m therefore a reluctant analyst. I do it because I have to learn the craft. It hurts in a weird sort of way.

I hate, for instance, that Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli wound up like a corpse on my table. I very messily dissected that book years ago before I knew much about technique. Mostly, I sawed up the plot, looking for clues. Recently, on a first reading of Spinelli’s Stargirl, I realized without analysis that she was less successful than Maniac and so I left her well enough alone.

Except for the first paragraph. Amazing how much good writers pack into small spaces. In Stargirl, for example, Spinelli does this (at least) in five sentences: He introduces Nick, the first person narrator; establishes Nick’s relative age; delivers the “hook”; hints at his quirky character; gives visual and tactile exposition; delivers brief backstory; foreshadows the theme.

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead is another book currently awaiting my knife. I’m amazed at the intricacy of this one. Every seeming detail is integral. So many threads, so expertly woven. Although I hate to dispel Stead’s magic, I need to know how she did it so that maybe someday I can.

I’m new at this and not very good. If you have favorite ways of analyzing fiction, I’d love to hear them. What questions do you ask? How do you proceed? Are you a writer who feels the push/pull of analysis? Please leave me a comment or send me an email.


  1. I tend to wear my editing hats when I'm analyzing a book. I actually just did a guest post on this subject.
    My favorite way to dissect a book is by discussing it with others who have read it.

  2. I'm terrible at analyzing. I tend to read and read and read and hope that I'll absorb what I need to learn. Although when I'm feeling particularly dedicated, I will attempt an agenda.

  3. I just read When You Reach Me this week. It was recommended by my agent as an example of a story with a good hook. It definitely has that. And as with anything that's done very well, Stead makes it look easy. Of course, we know better, don't we?!

    1. Yes, Ruth, I know it more and more!

  4. I'm the same way. It takes me longer to read books now because I'm studying the plot, characters, and even sentence structure.