Monday, June 04, 2012

Read On: Do Your Read Like a Reader or a Writer?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I've had some interesting conversations lately with a few people about the difference between reading like a reader vs. reading like a writer, and how that translates to writing a novel. Because let's face it, we've all read a mega-bestseller people can't stop talking about and thought..."Eh? Really? They think this is good?"

Readers and writers read things differently.

I remember my father raving about a series. I tried it, it was painfully slow, but he told me, "Oh it doesn't really pick up until about 100 pages in, but after that it's fantastic." (For the record I never finished it)

So how does that figure in with the sage writing advice about hooking your reader at the start? Doesn't that totally contradict it?

It does. And that can drive a writer insane.

Readers focus more on story and characters. If they connect to the character and are interested in the story, they'll read on and love your book. Odds are they won't care one whit about the writing. That's not why most readers read.

Writers focus on the writing. We know what goes on behind the curtain and we notice all the things that break rules, or things that are written differently than how we'd do it. We notice what's "bad" as well as what's "good." We see how the trick was done, not the magic itself.

The hard part, is learning how to read like a reader again.

We all had it at one point (the lucky ones haven't lost it). We love books and stories or we wouldn't be writers. Trouble is, we've gotten so caught up in the technical aspects that we sometimes forget why readers read.

For the story. For the characters.

And let's face it, the business of publishing doesn't make this any easier. Queries require solid plots and good hooks. Agents are looking for writing and ideas that blow them away. Editors want great voices and plots that wow them. The business is focused on the technical because they want to put out the best possible product for their customers.

But readers just want great stories with great characters.

So how do you get back to reading like a reader? Thinking like a reader as you write?

Focus on your story and your characters.

Yeah, I know, that's like saying you learn how to run by running. Makes sense, but doesn't actually help you any. And that's what makes this so frustrating.

Let's try to make it easier.

Pick your five favorite books. List them. Write down why you love them so much. What makes them memorable. What makes you go back to them, talk about them, what makes them stick in your mind.

If you write down writing reasons, throw that book aside and pick another. Because this isn't about the writing, it's about the story.

I could easily add Harlan Ellison and Dave Duncan to my list, but both of them would be disqualified because I love their prose. I love how they write. Their stories are great too, but what I love most is the writing.

The stories that stay with me?

World War Z by Max Brooks. It scared me. Moved me. It felt real and I desperately wanted to know what happened during this war that never happened. I felt like I was reading actual interviews and stories about real people who experienced a real zombie invasion and struggled to survive.

13 Reasons Why, by Jay Asher. I needed to know what happened to Hannah. Find out why Clay was on that list. These characters became real to me and I had to know what happened with them.

Great characters. Great stories.

Look for universal themes in the books you love. Elements that every reader no matter who they are can relate to. Survival, sex, hunger, protecting your loved ones, and so on. These are usually the things that resonate with a reader and make a great story because everyone can understand them. (If you're a Save the Cat fan, Synder calls these the primal urges)

And it's not just books. Think about your favorite movies and TV shows. What draws you to them? What do you love about them? What keeps you hooked?

Forget the perfect sentence. The perfect metaphor. How dialog tags are used or who's showing and not telling. What resonates with you on an emotional level? What stories, whatever medium they're in, stay with you long after you've seen or read them?

These are the aspects you want to pay attention to. The more you can identify why you love certain books (and not for writing reasons) the more you'll be able to see how to bring those aspects out in your own stories.

What books, movies or TV shows do you love? Why? What about them resonates with you? Do your stories reflect any of those aspects?


  1. Thanks for posting about this, Janice, and for talking about it with me in private, I spent parts of the past weekend thinking about this issue.

    It has definitely become a problem for me. It's getting better, though.

    I do think it's hard to think purely from a reader's perspective once you've crossed over to being a writer.

    While some writers don't have the problem you're sighting, as you eluded to above, for many writers like myself (Especially non-plot driven writers), this can be no less an obstacle as depression or other emotional disorders, and like more complex forms of depression and other linked mental issues, the problem is different for every person, and thus hard to rectify.

    Case in point, I applaud you for acknowledging that this CAN be a problem, and it doesn't mean you're being flaky or wimpy, as it can seem like when you describe the issue to other writers who (if they don't have a similar problem) may think it's all in your head and that you can just will it on and off, and it just doesn't work that way.

    I hope all the parents/writers I know will read this post and understand this problem is real, even if they don't have it, or can "Will themselves" out of it due to their time-starved lives, it's not fun nor productive having this animosity towards reading.

    I do think the misconception often comes from writers who see the writing process from a more pragmatic manner.

    It doesn't mean they don't have a passion for writing; they just see things in a more, that's how they best work. But I fear because of this, these writers lose touch with how certain things may seem like common sense to them (If not 'easy for them') they have a hard time relating to writers like me who feel their way through certain parts of the process, and have a harder time with the pragmatic stuff that matters to all writers.

    It's also not always a conscious "choice" it's just how I feel, and if we were meant to turn emotions off and on like machines, a lot of the hurtful things people do and say to each other would either not have happened, or we'd at least not make foolish jerks of others or ourselves, and I mean that generally.

    After this post, I now see the part of the reason for my reading slump was because I was trying too hard to "read like a writer" so that even my pleasure reading was damaged, and I do think you need to pace yourself with pleasure reading to better keep your pragmatic mindset out of the loop, or vice versa.

    I do think story and characters are most important, as Janice is saying, but it still doesn't change the fact that the plot still matters, and there comes a point when you have to be pragmatic about it, but I read for character, and I write for character, and that's why I need my small team of trusted readers, because they help me see plot when it does matter, because the best characters and stories need a plot to help support it, just not "take over" or it reads overdone, or even "phoned in."

  2. I think for the most part I still read like a reader. I just reread Exile's Honor last night for the upteenth time, and despite knowing exactly what comes next, it still makes me cry especially through most of the last third of the book, because the emotion is so gripping, the heartache of being in exile, trying to maintain one's honor, the war and loss of new friends who've become family, and the joy of finding something wholesome at the end to alleviate the grief. I have to make myself slow down in order to study the sentences, because I just want to stay immersed. Alberich is a fabulously complex character, and if I could ever meet a character for real, he'd be someone I'd be honored to call a friend.

    But other books I read for the writing more, where the writing is the reason for reading. The City and the City kept me reading for the worldbuilding because I really wanted to know how to "unsee" something, how you'd know what to "unsee." And other books I toss aside either for content or because the writing is missing something that keeps me from buying into the plot and/or characters. Those I often look at with the eye of a writer to interpret my response as a reader.

  3. I love what you wrote Janice. I think that I have become a teensy more picky since I started writing. But for the most part, I still get very immersed in the story. I do find when I "come up for air" and have a moment to think about the book, I find myself trying to figure out what Blake Snyder story it fits. Sometimes I chuckle to myself because I could "see the trick" or shake my head wondering if I'll ever be able to master such "slight of hand".

    But over all, I still am a reader. Maybe because I'm still at the earlier stages of writing still. I still love reading my old "Harry Potters". I dive into every Rick Riordan or John Flanagan adventure that comes out. Shannon Hale's heroine's have so much heart and have super adventures. And I love the Madeleine Brent books I read when I was younger. All of those have good characters but have fun, interesting plots in which the protag is challenged and comes off triumphant after growth. (I see the same trend in my own writing).

    I love interesting characters. I find myself going back to Dick Francis novels and wonder how he makes each book's "average Joe" reveal his unique strength and character without seeming cocky or annoying. I love the earlier books of James Herriot and the crazy individuals he illustrates in each story. And how does he make everyday frustrations seem like an adventure? I love the character's in Cornelia Funke's books that seem like you've met them before, and yet are so "themselves".

    I guess I love the mix of great characters and a fun plot. I love to see my favorites go through enough hard times to grow, mature and come off successful.

  4. The above three mega-comments are making me guilty. :(

    However, I'm not sure what a "TW show" is. ;)

    On another note, Thirteen Reasons Why is right on my backpack, ready to be read. Hopefully, I'll at least like it, if not love it.

    But I like your idea of a story resonating. Those universal themes should be something I should aim at more in my novel, in order to catch that magic authors like JK Rowlings or Neil Shusterman possess.

  5. Great topic, Janice. I can really relate. I went through a phase of `reading like a writer' where I learned a lot but didn't enjoy readin so much. I was fortunate enough to grow out of it. I still read to study form a lot, but I can enjoy a good story again, which is important.

    I adore Jim Butcher's Dresden Files because the hero is smart and funny, and keep surprising me with how he gets out of really awful situations. He has a lot of integrity, too.

    I Vivian Vande Velde's books because she's funny and suspenseful. And I love Gillian Bradshaw for the same reason. Hmmm. I seem to have hit a trend!

    Honestly, suspense is probably the biggest draw for me after good characters, which is odd, because I almost never read stories that are advertised as suspense novels. The few I tried, I didn't relate to the characters at all, which made the stories booring to me.

  6. The problem I've always had with this dilemma is that I fall on both sides. I read like a reader and a writer at the same time.

    It's cool, because I can enjoy a book and learn at the same time. But when I try to talk about a book to someone who isn't a writer, most of them feel like I'm being very negative, because I rave about the book, but I can't not mention where I felt the book was lacking.

    The same thing happens when they talk about a book they love that I've read. Even if I think the book was great, I can't stop from bringing up any problems I had with it.

    I can love a book even if I felt it was deeply flawed, but a lot of my friends who only read and don't write can't accept that double perspective as anything but negative, and it makes book discussions very awkward. Which sucks because I love talking about books. Sometimes being a writer is so frustrating.

  7. I try to read like a reader, and if the author can draw me in with a great character, it's easy to do. But the writer in me does try to come out and ruin things for me on occasion. I hate when I focus on the writing or figure out the plot before I'm supposed to. I really do try to tune out of my writer side when I read.

    Great post!

  8. This hasn't happened to me with writing yet, and I hope it doesn't, but this is something I can relate to when I worked in the entertainment industry. Movies lost their storytelling magic for me because I knew how everything was made, could see all the tricks to making the story come alive. Nowadays, there's rarely a movie that takes me in so completely, that I forget to think about camera angles and special effects, and editing, and the acting, and fake blood, etc. It especially messes with my mind when a book I love is made into a movie and not only do I compare the movie to the book but then I analyze all the reasons why a director shot a scene a certain way, why a certain actor was cast, etc. It all serves to destroy the experience for me and needless to say, I'm trying to prevent that with writing but in doing so, I think I'm blocking myself from writing. I am reluctant to pick apart my favorite books because I don't want to see the technique behind the story and have the story destroyed for me, but if I don't do that, then I won't ever get better. My conundrum; I'm working through it.

  9. Taurean, it's very hard sometimes. Plot does matter, but one thing that might help, is to think of the plot as a way to show what's wonderful about your characters and story. It's what your characters do to solve their problems and the struggles they have to overcome. If plotting is challenging, perhaps pinpoint those few big turning points in the story and letting your characters work organically toward them. Take more of a pantser approach.

    Jaleh, I love that you keep books that didn't hook you and study them as a writer. Great tip!

    Amelia, thanks! Sounds like you have a great mix of reader/writer going. (lucky you!)

    C0, lol short works too ;) Oopsy, that was TV show. Fixed now (bad me). Theme really help pull a novel together and elevate it to more than a story.

    Chicory, sounds like you like the surprise but you want to care or it doesn't matter. That'll probably help with your own writing since you're sensitive to it.

    Atsiko, oo no fun :( You need more writer friends! Maybe some of the online book clubs might be something fun for you? Goodreads had a bunch where folks discuss books all day. Not the same as face to face, but might help.

    Kelly, I know what you mean. I try so hard not to try and figure things out (I still do though). I want to be surprised, but it's tough when the writer takes over.

    Janice, writing and books is just like that (at least for me). Maybe there's a middle ground? Don't analyze your books, but think about why you liked them after the fact in more general terms? Keep some distance so you don't get sucked into the details.

  10. Janice, I'm not sure I get what you mean here-

    "one thing that might help, is to think of the plot as a way to show what's wonderful about your characters and story."

    Forgive my being dense but, "Huh?"

    And what you said here-

    "Take more of a pantser approach."

    How will that help? The last time I tried that I was left with a story that didn't work at all. Is this a purely instinct thing you're getting at?

  11. Thanks for posting this, Janice. I want to write using the same techniques I enjoyed when reading other books, but sometimes those techniques don't always mesh with the so-called rules and it drives me crazy trying to decide which way I should write a scene.

  12. Taurean, let's see if i can be more clear. Let's say your protag is a great guy who wants to solve all his problems diplomatically and never resorts to violence. The goal of the book is to show him solving the story problem in a non-violent way though his own smarts and good heart. The plot will very likely be examples of him being put into situations where he has to struggle to maintain his beliefs, and in some (probably small) way start to change things by sticking to those beliefs.

    Throwing a character like that into a bunch of action scenes where he has to grab a weapon and bash some heads isn't going to help your story any, even though it might be exciting and the perfect thing for another character.

    Take Nya for example. What makes her special is her shifting ability, and her desire to help people and protect her family. Her willingness to sacrifice herself and her happiness for those she's acre about. So I put her in plot situations where she had to make those sacrifices for her family, and you got to see the type of person she is. She wins by making the ultimate sacrifice. (with a twist). Conflict came from her need to protect her family and doing things she knew was wrong and went against her core beliefs. She had to choose, and sometimes she had to do the wrong thing for the greater good.

    Does that make more sense?

    As for the pantser, I couldn't remember if you'd tried it or not. I know you have trouble with plotting, so I was suggesting you try letting the characters dictate the story to see if that was easier for you. If you've tried it and that doesn't work any better, then naturally don't do it. If trying to outline and plot is making you crazy, try some different approaches and see if there's a way that works better for you.

    Chemist Ken, write it the way your gut tells you. If it works, it works. If you write it that way and it doesn't work for you, then you can start looking at other ways to write it and see if any of those rules help or not.

  13. Janice, thanks for this. The trouble as a writer is convincing an agent to be like your father. Not all published books have the initial hooks and things agents ask for so how do they get published?

    1. Tastes and styles do vary and change. Typically, there's *something* that hooks an agent or publisher or the book would not have been published. If nothing makes them curious to read on, why did they?

      I think what gets confusing is that "hook" has a lot of different definitions, and what one person considers a hook another may not. So odds are the books you say had no hooks, had a hook that differs from what you consider a hook.

      A hook can be a great voice, a funny character, or even an interesting setting. It doesn't have to be a big action-packed scene or someone hanging off a cliff.

      It helps to think about the hook as being the reason someone would want to read your book. You'll have the general story hook (what the book is about that grabs readers when they read your cover copy), then the opening pages and scene, which should give them something that makes them want to read on. I know that's vague, but there are a lot of options on doing that.