A good book sweeps you off your feet. You get so caught up in it that the messy house disappears, you forget you have children, and you end up with a dehydration headache and a stiff back. That’s what you want, right? (To be swept into the story. Not a stiff back.)
But for writers, good books are learning opportunities. Everyone says, “To be a good writer, read.” But don’t just read to be entertained. The trick is to stop and analyze. The book is good. Why? Ask yourself: why is this working for me?
It’s hard, like paddling upstream. But if you can swing your little boat close to the bank and take stock of what you’re seeing, you’ll glean tools, maps, skills. Pull back a book’s ‘curtain’ by asking questions like these:
- Why is that sentence so beautiful? (What is the author doing with word choice, sentence flow/length?)
- How/why is this scene producing this emotion in me?
- Why do I care about this character?
- How does the writer show me this character’s personality and desires without outright telling me?
- How does the writer use dialogue to pull double/triple duty (characterisation, reveal backstory, and move the plot forward)?
Sometimes, a book just isn’t working—the current’s not strong enough. But don’t just toss the book aside. Don’t just climb out of the boat. Even then, ask why. Learn from it. What about this plot feels wrong? Why don’t I care about this character? What’s bogging this story down and making me lose interest?
Some common reasons we want to toss the book:
- Too much description
- Too much backstory
- Pointless or unrealistic dialogue
- Not in the character’s head enough / in the character’s head too much
- Not enough scene setting (readers feel like they’re in a white, empty room)
- Don’t care about the character (don’t know what he wants, can’t relate to him, can’t tell what his personal stakes are)
- Not enough story questions to spark readers’ curiosity
When you’ve figured out what’s not working, take notes. Look at your own work in progress and see where you can do a little better. But here’s how you can really read like a writer: remember that writing a book is hard. Use the book’s shortcomings to improve your own writing, but don’t use them as fodder for a demoralizing Amazon review. If you do write a review, be honest but encouraging, from one writer to another.