I was talking to one of my writer friends the other day about writing (what else would writer friends talk about?) and heard about a very cool idea. A reading journal. It’s a simple notebook you put next to you when you read and make notes on what works (and what doesn’t) in the books you’re reading.
I thought, hey. This is an awesome idea. You can pay more attention to how the author is accomplishing the amazingness you’re reading, or you can get a great lesson in How Not To Do That. Plus, if you employ the services of your local library, it’s a free exercise. Well, you have to pay the dollar for the lined notebook, but close enough.
The downside to this particular exercise is that you can’t quite get as lost in the books as you used to. If you see something amazing, you have to stop, note it with an example or a technique, and try to get back into it. Plus you can’t stop reading just to stop reading anymore. You have to put your finger on how the author lost you and try to follow through to the end.
Some things I’ve noticed lately in the books I’ve been reading:
*In The Time Traveler’s Wife, a totally different book than I’ve ever read, I noticed the meticulous way the author laid out the timelines. She gets our attention with a shot from both points of view in a later part of the story, then follows Clare until her mid-thirties. Then, Henry, until he dies. But since there’s so much movement between timelines (like a Mobius strip, really cool), I sat there amazed at the artistry of keeping it all straight. I can’t imagine the kind of intensive pre-writing that would take. On the downside, though, it was a very, very sad book and a little too *important* to suit my style. Having a moment of strength or happiness, a moment where the character takes charge, is a must for my fiction. Something to keep in mind as I work on my current (neurotic) narrator.
*In Deadly Remains, the independent author does a great job of getting my attention with the clairvoyant’s gifts and her plucky teddy bear sidekick, but the story fell apart (and she lost me) when the story goes off the rails into a sad and muddy accounting of the character’s mother’s death and funeral. It’s more the muddiness than anything else that made me stop reading, although being so different from the rest of the story didn’t help. Thinking about the story again, I think I’ll go back and finish reading to see if it comes back to the great energy of the beginning. Note to self to watch pacing and to make my sad moments particularly vivid.
*In Healer, the author (who’s a medical doctor) writes in a unique style and has some really, really cool moments in the mining camp. His sense of description and mood is classic. But I feel that I miss that sense of “story”; when the novel departs for the city, nothing seems to happen for a good long while. Another note to myself to plot tightly and not to leave any threads hanging.
*In The Iron Duke, I love the way the author handles the romance thread throughout, because it doesn’t overshadow the main gist of the story which is a steampunk action-adventure. The tension between the hero and heroine becomes intertwined with everything else going on, and their struggles as a couple are directly related to the remainder of the story – and the high stakes of what they’re up against (think nuke killing everyone). The action-adventure aspect and cool alternative society details also impressed me. I took copious notes on how to keep a (very long) story moving on this one as well as how to build a steampunk world. But also noted that you can only stretch the meaning of a well-known word so far (note to self) and that leaving too big a gap in time towards the end makes a story feel unbalanced.
What about you? What books have you read lately and how can you learn from them as a writer?