I imagine that, for most authors, the urge to write comes from reading. My earliest attempt came from having read a story and wanting to emulate it. There is something about the cognitive process that, for writers and would-be writers, makes the act of reading equate almost directly with writing.
Unfortunately, our cognitive process blithely glosses over an important fact: that writing a book is an order of magnitude harder than reading one. That single issue has broken the will of more than one would-be novelist over the years. We probably all know someone who, flush with the pleasure of having finished a really good book, has bought a new laptop, a shelf-full of Writers Digest guides, and sat down to knock out their first novel in a weekend…only to give it up before Monday morning.
But that doesn’t mean that the original impulse—to read in order to write—was unfounded. To be a good writer, you have to continue to read and, in fact, improve as a reader if you want to be successful.
This isn’t a secret and there are many approaches to making this work and no doubt a number of handbooks you can buy to guide your writing, but I’d like to talk about one reading exercise that I believe has helped me grow as a writer: the book critique.
Back to School
You probably never thought that things you learned in grade school would come in handy as an adult, but the book report, or critique, is the genesis of a mandatory skill for a writer: critical reading. As would-be writers, it’s not enough to sit back and allow the author to dole out their story to us. To get the most out of a book, you have to engage with the text critically and aggressively.
The book critiques that I write now build on some of those early skills: questioning authorial choices in narrative voice, POV, setting. Noting word choice and dialog construction. Even getting to the simple heart of the matter: what worked and what didn’t?
Getting It Down
Reading critically is the first step. But thoughts are fleeting and you should get all that hard work recorded if you want to make use of it as a writer.
Keeping the good stuff locked away in your head may make you think you’ve learned something—and, sure, some it is bound to stick—but writing it down is the sure-fire way to make sure it’s captured forever. If you give it the attention and care it deserves, your critique can be a repository for all those shimmering thoughts you had while you were reading, all those scribbled notes in the margin.
And it’s not just a great way to record the obvious: I’ve found that the act of formally documenting my thoughts has brought out connections and discoveries that either I hadn’t fully articulated in my mind or simply hadn’t thought of, period.
What to Do
You should use your own approach, but here’s what I do when I want to read a piece critically:
- Ideally, if you’ve got a classic of the genre in your hands or personally find it to be the best thing since sliced bread, read the book at least twice. Enjoy yourself on the first time through. On subsequent readings, approach it like a forensic detective.
- Keep notes. If you own the print copy, bookmark or highlight the sections that appeal to you. If you are reading a digital version, make sure you use the Highlight or Annotation function. You will forget where certain passages are that you want to remember. Don’t waste time later thumbing through the book trying to find them.
- Pay attention to the structure of the book, not just the style of the prose. You may learn a lot about the book by looking at how it’s put together. See Basics, below.
- Write your critique while the book is fresh in your mind. Don’t let more than a week after reading it go by, if possible.
I tackle the book using six (give or take) tools: Basics, Synopsis, Themes, Style, Issues, and Summary.
I note the mechanics of the book itself here: how many pages, how many chapters, the length of Chapter One (if different from the others), how many sections/books/parts, the POV of the narrator, if POV changes, if there was a prologue or epilogue, etc.
Basics may or may not be important. But as you examine what works for certain genres, you may find helpful information in the logistics of a book’s construction. For instance, I found that the opening chapter of most of Lee Child’s mega-successful thrillers are under four pages. In many of his books, you’re in Chapter 3 by page 9. That tells me something about pacing from someone who has made a very good living writing fast-paced suspense novels. The only time he abandons this (in The Persuader), he is actually hood-winking the reader in the narrative, which tells me something else.
Similarly, in master crime fiction writer Michael Connelly’s award-winning debut Black Echo, there are no chapters, just nine parts. All of them are “mock dated” to increase suspense and give explicit timing to the action. In another book, he bucked tradition and new chapters start on the same page as old ones, with no blank page in between. This heightened the suspense for me and kept me reading.
Are these techniques something to pay attention to when one of the genre’s best-sellers uses them? Would you have remembered or noticed these approaches if you’d only read the book and not studied it?
This is the easiest section: I write the “back cover” for the book. I don’t copy it; I write my own based on my reading. It’s good practice for my own books and I prove to myself that I paid attention enough to encapsulate the plot. I may also add the “unknowns” (the killer, the solved crime, etc.)…I’m not trying to hide spoilers from myself, just withholding judgments.
This section is for boiling down the book into its simplest parts, a short-hand way of reminding myself later what the arcs of the novel were about.
Here is where I usually expound for a page or two about the writing, good or bad. I try to give myself concrete examples, literally retyping whole sentences, paragraphs, or scenes if they’re good (or bad) enough. This is where bookmarking and highlighting come in handy.
Dissect the author’s style and try to get to the nitty-gritty of what makes their delivery unique. To use him as an example again, Lee Child does not mind repeating phrases—sometimes many times—if they get his point across. For his hero, Jack Reacher, he literally writes “I said nothing” sometimes five or six times in a dialogue. This style, rather than being stilted or strange, works for his terse, to-the-point protagonist. You may not remember that if you’re not noting it.
This is also the point to analyze certain fundamental choices the author makes. For example, Stephen Dobyns chose to tell his suspenseful, disturbing thriller The Church of the Dead Girls in first person. Initially, this doesn’t seem like any big deal. But when your realize that the narrator is a suspect, you begin to appreciate why Dobyn’s chose that POV; as a writer, you’ll recognize just how difficult it was to pull off the narration so skillfully.
This is your chance to really let the author have it. Every book has its weaknesses and, if you want to learn anything from your reading, you have to jot down the bad with the good. Write down poor phrasing, mistakes, impossible coincidences, faulty assumptions, unbelievable characters, and any “cheating” the author does, such as not playing fair with the reader or bringing in a deus ex machina-style ending to save the day.
If the goof-ups are due to poor sentence construction or errors in prose, retype the entire section to better remember it. If the mistakes are serial and the author makes them throughout a book or even a series, make a note. For instance, as much as I love Robert Parker’s Spenser series, he recycles many of the same jokes and one-liners—not just in different books, which would be bad enough, but even in the same book. I don’t want to make that kind of mistake in my own writing, so it goes into the critique.
A general wrap-up of the piece and my feelings about it. I relate it to others in the series, if possible, and note if I thought the writer was growing or progressing—or regressing.
If you’re hoping to make a career as a writer, not all of the work you’re going to put in will be writing your own books. Some of it is going to have to be studying the best and worst of what’s gone before and making educated analyses of those works. It might seem tedious, but once you write a critique—and, for certain, the first time you refer back to it for help—you’ll thank yourself for spending the time. You’ll be a better writer when you commit to being a better reader and writing critiques is a crucial part of developing that critical eye.