Tuesday, March 30, 2021

5 Ways to Use a Reading Journal to Improve Your Writing

By Roni Loren, @RoniLoren 

Part of The Writer's Life Series  

JH: I’ve always been a fan of studying novels you enjoyed to see how the authors did it. Roni Loren has taken it to a whole new level with a reading journal.

Roni wrote her first romance novel at age fifteen when she discovered writing about boys was way easier than actually talking to them. Since then, her flirting skills haven’t improved, but she likes to think her storytelling ability has. She holds a master’s degree in social work and spent years as a mental health counselor, but now she writes full time from her cozy office in Dallas, Texas where she puts her characters on the therapy couch instead. She is a two-time RITA Award winner and a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author. She also teaches online writing classes at her Fearless Romance Writing Academy.

Website | Newsletter | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

Take it away Roni…

Most writers can name the book that they read that first made them want to become a writer. For me, it was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I read it around 5th grade, and I fell in love with that feeling of being swept away by a story and into another world. I was a reader before that book, but that was the book that sparked something different within me, something that made me think—Hey, I want to be able to give people this feeling, too!

Since then, books have continually inspired me both in my life and in my own writing. I know that’s not news to any writer. Most writers know, in a general sense, that reading fills the well and helps with our creativity. However, I think there are ways to amp up this inspiration source by looking a little more critically at what we read. And it doesn’t have to be in a dry, scholarly way. It can be fun. There can be pretty pens involved…and stickers! ;)

What I’m talking about is a reading journal. 

Since 2016, I’ve been keeping a paper reading journal, recording everything I’ve read that year and writing my own reviews of the books. Yes, on actual paper. I know Goodreads exists. I have an active account that I love and use to record which books I’ve read. 

But as a published author, I don’t feel comfortable putting critical reviews out there publicly. The publishing world is small, and I can guarantee that if you put up a negative review of someone’s book, you will 100% be placed on a panel with them at a future conference or will share a book-signing table lol. I don’t need that kind of awkwardness in my life.

So, in a private journal, I can write whatever I want. (And of course, if you’re a digital-preferred person, you can still use the concepts I’m going to talk about if you keep your digital reviews private.) There is freedom in the privacy. You can evaluate what you read. Be critical. Pick things apart. And most of all…learn how to hone and improve your own writing.

How do you do this?

1. Dig deeper into “Hated it!”

Strong feelings about a book are rich material for you to mine. If you hated a book or DNFed (did not finish) it, then talk about why in your journal. What was it about that book that made you dislike it? Unlikable characters? Slow pace? Poor writing craft? Offensive in some way? Boring? Derivative? Or was it marketed as one thing and turned out to be something different?

As a writer this helps you learn what not to do in your own writing but it can also…show you what you want to write because

2. There is a difference between “this book is bad” and “this is not the book for me”

This is something that I’ve learned over the years, and it has become so valuable to me as a writer (and a reader.) There are some books that are just plain bad—objectively so—but more often than not, a book isn’t badly written. It’s just not for you for important reasons. These reasons can help you figure out the kind of books you want to write.

I’m not necessarily talking about figuring out your genre, though it might help with that, I’m talking about the ingredients you love in a story. For instance, I’ve learned that I’m often disappointed by mystery books because most of the time…I just don’t care who did it. *shrug* That’s not the fault of the writer. It’s because I’m character-driven. I love to read and write stories that dig deep into characterization. I want a great plot, but I don’t want the plot to take precedence over the characters—and mysteries are almost always plot-driven with characterization taking the backseat.

I’ve also learned that I like a happy ending (I was drawn to writing romance for a reason!) but can accept a sad ending IF the characters were great AND I know going in that it’s probably going to be sad. I have to brace myself lol.

Learning this about myself showed me that, in my own books, I’m always going to write a happy ending, but I’m not afraid to get poignant or sad in my backstories. One of my series--The Ones Who Got Away--is focused on a group of survivors from a high school shooting who come back together ten years later and reunite. Really sad backstory for the characters but love stories and happy endings guaranteed for everyone. It gave me a unique place within the romance genre to explore, and I received a lot of great feedback from readers and critics for the uniqueness of that series. My new series (starting with Yes & I Love You) put a spotlight on a heroine who has Tourette’s Syndrome and social anxiety. Once again, tough backstory, uplifting/happy ending story. Pinpointing what I liked in my reading helped me pinpoint my special writerly lane.

(Here's more with The Difference Between a Writing Problem, and a “Not For Me” Issue)

3. Dig deeper into “Loved it!”

You can ask the same types of questions when you loved something that you did when you hated it. Why did you love it? Great characters? Intricate plot? Big twist ending that landed perfectly? Beautiful descriptions? Sweeping narrative? Made you laugh? Made you cry?

But this time, push even further. Once you figure out the answers to the why questions, add the how questions. Pinpoint how the writer pulled off those things you loved. How did they make me love the character? How did they hide that twist? How becomes a really important question because then we can take those skills and apply it to our own writing.

4. The “3 star” conundrum

Knowing why we loved or hated something can become easy to pinpoint once we get the hang of digging a little deeper, but the stories that can sometimes be the hardest to pick apart are the ones that fall in between. The dreaded 3-star read where you didn’t hate it but it also didn’t inspire or excite you. A book that was…fine.

We don’t want to write books that readers walk away from thinking they were…fine. Readers don’t recommend “okay” books. They don’t come back to authors who they thought wrote something “just alright.”

So when you find yourself feeling this way about someone else’s book, it’s really important to uncover what gave you middling feelings. Sometimes it’s because a writer played it too safe. Or it felt like a hundred other books you’ve read with nothing unique about it. As writers, it can be easy for us to fall into this trap. When you’re trying to please ALL readers and don’t know your audience, you might end up not exciting anyone at all.

Or you may be able to uncover areas in the story that could’ve been amped up or improved to elevate the book to a four or five star. If I hadn’t seen the twist coming… If the main character had taken more initiative… If the romance had better chemistry… There are a million different reasons the book might’ve stumbled for you, but deciphering what those reasons are can help you look for those blind spots in your own writing.

For instance, I’ve learned that I don’t like conflict that is too…fluffy, for lack of a better word. I want real, “holy crap, how are they ever going to figure this out?” conflict. I want to worry. But readers of cozy books don’t want that. So, it’s not that one way is right and one way is wrong. Both can be right. The key is finding out what’s right for you as a writer. What experience do you want to give the reader? Fine tuning your critical reading skills can help you find your niche.

5. Have fun with it!

The best part about a private reading journal is that you can write whatever you want without having to make it sound pretty or academic or whatever you might worry about if you knew someone else was reading the review. Learn from the process but have fun with it too. Don’t be afraid to be messy.

Here are a few pics of my journal if you need some ideas. I’ve covered up the name of the negative review I’m posting (because private journal!) but I wanted to give you an idea of what the reviews look like. They don’t have to be long. Your handwriting doesn’t have to be neat. Mine is meticulously organized because I enjoy that part but has messy handwriting because my thoughts are too fast for my hands lol. I also record my reading challenges in mine (you can see my TBR Backlog Challenge and Read Wide Challenge rules on my blog if you’re interested.) Make it work for what you need!

If you want more nuts and bolts about how to format your own journal, I have a post that goes deeper into that. And if you don’t want to go through the trouble of creating your own, I have a free printable reading journal as the freebie for signing up for my newsletter, so grab that if you want a print and go option!

Happy journaling!

About Yes & I Love You (contemporary romance)

Everyone knows Miz Poppy, the vibrant reviewer whose commentary brightens the New Orleans nightlife. But no one knows Hollyn, the real face behind the media star...or the fear that keeps her isolated. When her boss tells her she needs to add video to her blog or lose her job, she's forced to rely on an unexpected source to help her face her fears.

When aspiring actor Jasper Deares finds out the shy woman who orders coffee every day is actually Miz Poppy, he realizes he has a golden opportunity to get the media attention his acting career needs. All he has to do is help Hollyn come out of her shell...and through their growing connection, finally find her voice.

1 comment: