Reading Writer – what am I reading for?

One of the most useful things I took away from my MFA program was a way to read with an eye on the writing. Maybe some writers do this instinctively, maybe I was doing it a little bit on my own before I became aware of it, but now I work very hard to do this consciously and with each book that I read.

I don’t just mean the larger decisions like POV or tense or structure. I try to keep track of the smaller stuff as well, like how a particular author handles transitions between scenes or time periods or how they might break into a scene with narrative summation, how long they let that summation last and how they get back to the action. I try looking for certain stylistic repetitions and why they might be useful or what kind of decisions an author has made about revelation vs. suggestion. I’ve found that cataloguing these kind of textual details gives me something to go and look at when I get stuck in a scene or an idea and don’t quite know how to work through it.

Sometime last year I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and although this book was intensely gripping I couldn’t keep my writer brain from taking some serious notes about how he sustained such intensity for over 200 pages. First off, structurally, he does not ever give the reader a break. There are no natural pauses in the text, no line breaks and no real time jumps. Each scene moves directly and smoothly into the next, something which makes it difficult for many readers to put the book down. Second, he only allows his main character’s focus to waver from the present action (i.e. to reflect on the past) on three or four very short occasions. So those moments really stand out, like little psychic breakdowns, and are subsequently very powerful. Also, he doesn’t go into a lot of detail about any actual violence. His restraint is pretty amazing and I think it pays off. Leaving things to the reader’s imagination in many scenes is much worse. There’s plenty of examples and I should drag out my notes and do a proper post on this book sometime, because in terms of crafting this type of fiction, it’s a goldmine.

So if I ever want to write a novel with a similar intensity I would go back and read The Road about a million times, looking for all these details. I would probably also take out Don Delillo’s The Body Artist and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Another writer that comes to mind is Virginia Woolf. In To The Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway she writes with a similar intensity, keeping the reader thoroughly submerged beneath the story, although her overall affect is much less “dark”.

I enjoy going through as much fiction as possible this way because it helps me understand what kind of aesthetic I create with my own choices when I’m writing. I like what McCarthy did to establish an intense reading experience so I want to see if some of those techniques apply to my own writing. They won’t always but I hope that examining his choices is one way to develop as a writer.

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Michelle

Reader, writer, translator, nature-lover, happy expat and concerned world citizen.

6 thoughts on “Reading Writer – what am I reading for?”

  1. This is both interesting and useful because ‘The Road’ is high up on my TBR pile. What you say here places it very well for me in terms of style and makes it clear that I need to postpone it for a few weeks. I’m just about to start on a huge pile of marking and I’m going to need books that are reasonably easy to pick up and put down. This needs saving for later in the year.

  2. I’d love to read that way, but I don’t always have the energy or patience. Plus I’m not a fiction writer myself, so I don’t have that motivation. But still, I do like knowing exactly how a writer creates his/her effects.

  3. Ann – Its an intense book and I can’t wait to hear what you think of it. I can see why you might want to wait a few weeks before diving in, if you need to be able to put it down from time to time. Most people I know read it in one to two sittings.Dorothy – Its been fun to get more serious about this kind of reading. And of course there are certain books I start and then realize I don’t need to do this so I just sort of let that part of my brain relax.

  4. haven’t read “the road,” though now i want to. getting an mfa was the worst thing for my enjoyment of reading. i can’t read anything ever again without analyzing structure, language, characterization, etc. in one way, i get more out of reading; in another way, it’s less enjoyable. perhaps that’s why i’m reading so much non-fiction these says.

  5. Bookfraud – you are absolutely right, reading this way does change the reading experience significantly. I found a few books recently that I wish I could have turned off the writerly commentary because it made me overlycritical and I might have enjoyed the story more if I had shut that part of me down. On the other hand, I discovered some stuff I’d like to avoid so in that sense it will eventually help me in my writing.

  6. Interesting thoughts. When I was thinking more of an editing career, I found myself reading the grammar of a novel. I don’t do this quite as much, but I pick up on peculiarities every once in a while. It is tough for me not to do this with McCarthy. Simply put, his writing fascinates me.

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