Friday, September 9, 2011

Improve Writing Skills by Reading Books You Love and Books You...Don't

As writers tend to do, I often find myself critiquing books I read. I'll pick up a book, typically in my genre, settle down, and start analyzing from page one. Why isn't this scene starting off faster? What is wrong with this main character? Or on the good end, how does this author always manage to pull me in?

And not only do I critique, I compare. I take my writing skills and compare them to the skills of the author of the book I'm reading. Yeah, so that's not always a great way to improve writing skills (or self-esteem), but it is a great way to learn and grow as a writer.

Here are some big topics I find either make me want to continue reading a book, or make me want to stop.

Opening (Hook)

And opening that grabs me right away is super important. We have so little time these days that I tend to be one of those people that wants to be snatched up by a story and not let go. I don't really enjoy building up to it unless the book turns out to be phenomenal. A strong, catchy opening is a great thing we can take away from a good book.


Not all of us are big fans of dialogue, but it really depends on the genre. Sparse of dull dialogue really makes me want to put down a book. Also, great dialogue is a super way to show instead of tell a characters personality.

Sympathetic Characters

Although I do enjoy unique characters, with characteristics that are different from my own (like a sassy sense of humor or unwavering independence), I like to be able to relate to them somehow. I like to know that they have feelings just like me, even morals just like me.

Character Growth

On the same note, if I'm going to invest myself in a couple hundred or more pages of a book about a character's life, I want to see the change in that character's life. I want to see that they've gone from a challenging spot and overcome it. Or I want to see them grow up to be a strong person. I want to see them get better and grow over time.

Steady Action

Dull or slow parts (particularly the beginning or middle) definitely make me want to put a book down. When the action continues and something new or different is always happening, I'm swept away by the book and hardly notice I've read the entire thing so quickly until I'm done.


Cliche endings bother me. They make me wonder if investing my time in the whole book was a good idea or make me wonder if I want to read a book by that author again because I expect more. So, keep those endings fresh. Make the reader want to cheer at the end, or make them think and wonder what happened afterward. But make it a believable ending and one that the reader will appreciate.

Even though we enjoy reading books we love, as writers we can still learn a lot by reading books that turn out to be far from our favorites. We can see what doesn't work and make sure to keep that from our own writing.

So, what do you love or dislike about books you read and what makes you want to read more by that author? Are you going to have a checklist the next time you read a book or do you already have one?


Laura S. said...

I do this too. I like enjoying books so I usually don't analyze them the first time I read it. But later I might go back and think, Wow this part was really amazing how did she do it? Or if I re-read it, I'll give it some writerly attention!

I don't like whiny passive characters. I do love unique, flawed characters who bravely overcome those flaws.

Sarah Forgrave said...

Awesome list, Cindy! Lately I've been doing a lot of research of other novels and studying how the authors handle the characters' spiritual arcs. That's something I want to improve in my writing, and it's been helpful to read books with just that aspect in mind.

Keli Gwyn said...

I look for great characterization. For that reason, I don't need to have non-stop action. I can enjoy stories with scenes where I get to know the characters better or see them dealing with the action that's taken place.

Of course, those more introspective scenes still need to have a reason for being there and help move the story forward, but I like being able to take a breath now and then. If I don't have those breaks, I can get fatigued. You should see how drained I am after watching an action-adventure movie with my hubby. LOL

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Laura, that's great that you can read a book through the first time and simply enjoy it--I know that's hard for a lot of writers. And I definitely agree with you about passive characters - make them flawed but strong, and with a goal!

Sarah, great point about looking for specific things in books. If we study other authors who do a great job telling a story we can learn so much--big and little!

Keli, great point! Yes, we need to be able to take a breath. Balance is sometimes a challenge, and we can learn this well from some great authors out there. Have a great weekend!

Wendy Paine Miller said...

I'm with you, cliche endings get to me. They can ruin the whole deal.

Great list!
~ Wendy

Beth K. Vogt said...

I read for pleasure. If my internal editor turns on, I close the book. Pleasure is ruined.
What do I look for when I read? Getting lost in the story. Missing the characters when the book is done. A surprise--somewhere in the story. An "Oh, I didn't expect that!" moment.
I rarely read a story with a checklist--but I just may try it.
Great post.

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Wendy, I agree. Even if I've loved the rest of the book, a cliche or rushed ending is disappointing enough to almost ruin the rest.

Beth, I'm glad you can read for pleasure! That's what got us all interested in writing in the first place :) I am definitely with you on missing the characters when the book is done. That's one thing I love about a good book.

Jonz V. Stoneroad said...

I agree with your analysis and yes, reading both books you enjoy and loathe can be very instrumental in our own writing.

Pet Peeves:

Weak protagonists and over-powering supporting characters (Alice in Wonderland)

Lack of character development (Moll Flanders)

One-Dimensional characters

Useless sub-plots

Bad grammar and poor English skills (the Twilight series)

the lists go on but reading these will help you develop into a better writer.

Enid Wilson said...

I read a story recently. The author had John and Mary in every sentence of the dialogue to tag who was speaking. Although the plot was good and the development was nice, the tag just annoyed me a lot.

Every Savage Can Reproduce

Susan Anne Mason said...

My pet peeve, especially with some romances, is that you wait and wait for the moment when the hero and heroine get together, solve their problems, announce their love, and poof, it's over in 2.5 seconds! WHAT!

Wait a minute, don't I get to enjoy the happiness for a bit?

That's why I love Epilogues, if the story wraps up too quickly, at least we can get a peak at their lives and their happiness a little later!


Cindy R. Wilson said...

Jonz, thanks for stopping by. One dimensional characters are definitely challenging to read - we can learn a lot from how they're sculpted and what's missing.

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Enid, great point about dialogue tags. They seem like such a small, simple thing but they can make a huge difference when used well or not quite as well :)

Sue, I so agree with that! I love reading romances because I love a happily ever after. But since it takes the whole book to get to the happily ever after, I'd love if it would actually last longer. Have a great weekend!

Mary Vee Writer said...

I can't help but notice great or poor writing. I blame the fantastic writing classes/books/blogs/etc.I've been exposed to. The more I learn, the more I notice. When I see something significant on either end I can help but respond out loud. My poor family! LOL

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Lol, Mary, I know what you mean! I am reading a women's fiction book right now and my husband has already gotten an earful. Good thing he's being very tolerant :)

Pepper said...

Gee Cindy,
I posted something earlier, but I realize now that it didn't take.
Oh well...
What I SAID was -
Poor writing draws me out of the story, but I can overlook it if the characters and plot are fabulous!

I'm with Susan about those endings. I want to savor the happy ending to the long journey!
LOVE myself a savory ending :-)

Cindy R. Wilson said...

I agree, Pepper, I can overlook poor writing as well if the story is fabulous or the characters just charm the pants off me. :) But those endings have gotta keep me interested!

Faith Hope and Cherrytea said...

in a novel i don't like being told things like i'm reading a documentary! i prefer to read info included naturally by the characters and situations. the book gets shut if it's tedious slogging...

Faith Hope and Cherrytea said...

oh 1 more thought -
i don't like christianity to be added on. it makes greater impact if the characters are portraying their faith through their lives - no need to turn off readers with overdone quotes or scenes proving it's a christian novel. you're losing the very readers you're {hopefully} intending to read your work - unless you're not interested in the missional consequences of a well written relevant story...