Saturday, July 28, 2007

Reading Like a Writer

It must be frustrating to make a book selection for a workshop or book discussion group. No matter what you choose, the odds are that in a large group of people, most of them won’t like it. As writers, we need to be realistic when we think about the type of book we’re writing and recognize the reality that if a hundred people read the first page, most of them probably won’t want to keep reading. Whether it’s mystery, chick lit, sci-fi, fantasy, paranormal, thriller, suspense, up market, down market, women’s fiction, gay fiction, literary fiction, historical fiction or any of the dozen more categories I’ve probably left out, there is a specific audience for each book.

Less than a week before Kurt Vonnegut died, I bought a signed, first edition copy of Bagombo Snuff Box, his Uncollected Short Fiction. I don’t know why I found it or decided to buy it then, but I’ve considered it a sign ever since. In his introduction, Mr. Vonnegut recounts his story as a writer and as a professor of writing. I like to refer to the following section from the book often, because these eight simple pieces of advice are succinct enough that I can keep them posted in front of me at all times:

“Now lend me your ears. Here is Creative Writing 101:

  1. Use the time of total strangers in such a way he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your reader as much information as soon as possible. Readers should have such complete understand of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.”

Today, I’m thinking a lot about number seven.

Most successful writers will tell you that reading and reading and reading some more is just as important as writing and I happen to agree with them – happily, of course because I love to read.

One of my favorite things about the retreat I attended recently was that there were book discussions, led by our instructors. We read a collection of short stories, a memoir, a book of poetry and essays and a novel.

It was interesting to note that although there were twenty four retreat participants, the book discussions themselves were attended by only a handful of us. I was lucky. I read a pretty wide variety of books and so I didn’t mind reading any of them, although I might not have chosen them myself. The first discussion was an eye opener. We discussed the short story collection, Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson. One of the discussion participants hadn’t read the book, but opened it, looked through it and then closed it. He said he’d seen all he needed to see. Another read it, but said he didn’t like it. He thought it glorified drug use. The truth is that the collection of stories are linked and they are about a period of time in the author’s life when he was mired in drug and alcohol use. The stories reminded me quite a bit of William S. Burroughs or Charles Bukowski, primarily because of the subject matter. What I got from the stories was that they didn’t glorify anything related to substance abuse. In fact, each story had moments of beauty, but we were helplessly on a ride with the author that we knew would not end well. By the last story, the author was in rehabilitation and was cautiously optimistic. There was hope. I read the stories, not as a casual reader, but as a writer and there was some incredible writing, but the participation in the discussion group drove home the point to me that even writers have a very difficult time reading like writers.

The hardest book for me to read, not literally, but from the standpoint of having to make myself read it, was the memoir by Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle. The writing is good, the narrative structure works, but my confession here is that I’m tired of memoir. So sue me. I’m in the minority because that was probably the most popular reading and it’s been on the New York Times Bestseller List for a very long time.

I also put off reading Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson until last, because I’d read Gilead just before getting the reading list and I rarely like to read two books in a row by the same author. Still, her writing is beautiful. It’s a challenge for me because books heavy on description of landscape are usually not my thing. But something happened when I read Housekeeping. I’d been reading critically for a while and although I initially found the description of the glacial lake, the isolated mountain town and the gloomy town somewhat heavy, I got into them as the story progressed. My last post has an excerpt from the book that is all description and through the reading and the discussion, I learned just how effective this can be, when done as well as Marilynne Robinson and to name one of many, Annie Proulx does it.

It had an impact on my writing. Until the retreat, I’d acknowledged the use of this type of description as something writers use to varying degrees, depending on their personal style. I tend to read novels heavy on character, with a lot of internal dialogue, so of course I tend to write in a similar style (I think). The night before I had to do my own reading at the retreat, I wrote a paragraph of description of place at the beginning of the scene I planned to read. It works (I like to think) and it is consistent with my voice and style.

Not every book I read is necessarily one that I’d choose myself, but the longer I read critically, the easier it is to evaluate work on how well it’s written and to admire how a writer handles scene or dialogue or plotting in a genre that’s not my personal favorite. Had I not been reading critically and studying the techniques and styles of writers I might not read for my own pleasure, I wouldn’t have discovered this and improved my own writing.

It’s very likely, I’ll return to Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose. I read it last year, but I suspect it will be quite a different book when I read it again.

I know most people don’t read this way. I know that when I finish writing my story, no matter how well it's written, it won’t be one that most people will want to read; no story appeals to everyone. I may be consciously making a decision to write in a way that makes the already slim chances of publication even slimmer.

That’s OK. My eyes are open.

Who do you write for? How wide or limited do you imagine your audience to be, and how does that make you feel?


reality said...

Lisa, you mentioned in a comment on the last post a line about the 'balancing of art with the marketing of it.'

I decided to read this post before sending in a response.

Art is such a subjective issue that for me to make the quick link between my writing and 'is this marketable?' is impossible.

I guess it is easy for successful authors to say these things. But I am sure, when they were writing that debut novel, they were treading water with the same fear, as we unpublished authors do.

I have often wondered about marketing of my WIP: as you know I write about a culture that is alien to the majority of Americans. Will it make it there? Shall American publishing houses declare my book, unsaleable, even with good writing? Should the context of my novel change to accommodate an international audience. And how? That is a big fear I carry with me.

At the end of the day, I have come to the conclusion that
a) I have to write for myself, to get the best out of me. And perhaps I have the right story at the right time.

b) markets , people are a fad. Don't trust them, don't follow them.

c) Learn how to break the rules; if you are by nature a rule breaker. if that is what the story wants.

As to your question; I feel I am writing to a tighter audience than say American writers. My novels have to cross cultural and social barriers to be accepted and that might limit my audience.
Or so I think.

Lisa said...

Reality, I didn’t mean to imply that anyone should write in an attempt to satisfy a fad or market trend. My use of the word, market, is intended toward the segments of the book buying public that buy the type of book you’re writing. I believe each writer should write the stories they love, and whether we think about it or not, the type of book, assuming it is eventually published, will have a finite audience. Every book does.

Two authors I admire a lot have published multiple novels. Both write in a categorically literary style, are somewhat regional, use lots of descriptive narrative and have achieved a certain amount of critical acclaim. Both teach to supplement their income and I suspect each knows he probably will always have to do so because there will probably never be a huge audience for his work. There is a finite, although very large audience for romance writers, sci-fi writers, and all genre writers. This is a good thing for people writing genre because lots of titles are published each year in these areas. Writers of these books are probably aware that it’s unlikely they will see a review of their work in the New York Times Book Review. There is nothing wrong with that and if critical acclaim is part of a genre writer’s dream, s/he is not being realistic (disclaimer: I’m talking about what is true, not what’s fair). Based on facts, no debut writer should ever anticipate being able to quit his or her day job and live on income from writing alone, unless their standard of living is very meager.

When I asked who you write for, I was literally thinking of that one person Kurt Vonnegut wrote about writing to please. It is said he wrote for a sister, who had died. Stephen King writes for his wife. I have a person in mind when I read my writing and I think about writing something he would like to read because I know I can’t expect everyone to like it, but I do want to strive to please this one person. The person we write to please (even if it is only ourselves) I think is the most important and it should be someone who buys the type of book we are trying to write.

The awareness of the potential readership is a second, larger, uncontrollable question that provides a reality check. You are obviously and wisely concerned about the cross cultural aspect of your novel and of course that limits your audience, but probably no more than the audience for many other books is limited. I imagine you are probably tracking novels that cross cultural boundaries to gauge the size of the niche that exists. You mention having the right story at the right time and I agree with you and sadly, that’s something no one has any control over at all, so we can only be aware of it and do our best and hope the timing is right. I absolutely agree that we should ignore fads. The only exception would be that it would be unwise to ignore the fact that lots of books have already been published about what we want to write about. If that’s the case, a smart writer would do well to reconsider.

Breaking rules – that’s purely a personal choice. For me and only me, I believe breaking the rules is only possible if I’ve mastered them first, but each writer has to make his or her own choices.

The only statement I would dare to make about any of this with confidence is that the more we know, the better informed we are about the realities of this business, the better prepared we’ll be to face whatever comes with realistic expectations.

Patti said...

I write for the story, for the characters, for the damn thing to get out of my head!

I have never imagined an audience, and perhaps that speaks volumes for my work and lack of publishing, but here, even in this moment of no exchange of words for money, i know i could have it no other way.

what runs through me is what is. maybe nothing more. my satisfaction comes at completion, and then, at long last, i take my deep breath and am happy to be finally done, oh happy day!...only to hear others knocking at the door wanting to be freed.

it seems ridiculous to those who can't imagine why i do what i do, but to me it as natural, and at times heart breaking, as living.

Greg said...

lisa are you going to write a movie script? how about a play? i want to read a script by you or a longer kinda story. i saw "live free or die hard" recently and it kicked ass surprisingly. i thought it was gonna be lame but it kept me going. i saw "sicko," and i think moore has matured as a documentary director-- less injecting himself in the movie (at least in the beginning). he also did a good job of making it non-partisan.

ummm, so yea i want to read something longer that you've written or are working on. do i get the VIP pass cuz i'm your cousin? :)

Greg said...

oh also-- have you read anything by philip k. dick? i really wanted to tell you about him if you haven't. he's written a lot of stories that have been turned into movies. i think the only good adaptation of one of his books was a movie called "blade runner" from 1981 starring harrison ford (based off the book "do androids dream of electric sheep"). its classic. check out some of his short stories in a book called "the eye of the sibyl." really fantastic stuff. some of the stories take no more than 20 minutes to read (i know you've got a massive reading list to get to).

Greg said...

check out the short stories "the little black box" and "the electric ant."

what book should i read? any suggestions? i just finished al gore's new book "the assault on reason" so i'm leaning fiction...

Lisa said...

Patti, it doesn't sound ridiculous at all to me. I think the concept of who we write for and who would hypothetically buy and read a book we've written is at the forefront of my mind because we talked so much about what would keep a reader turning the pages when I was in the workshops last week (or the week before). On top of that, the book discussions really amplified the notion that people are so different and read such different things -- and also won't read things that aren't their thing. I don't think any of us should ever let that knowledge creep into our writing and our expression of who we are in that writing. I guess it's just a reality that's there whether we choose to think about it or not. In a way, it's a bit of a comfort to recognize that what drives the publishing industry really isn't necessarily a reflection on the talents of writers. I believe some of the books written 25 or 50 years ago wouldn't have a chance as debut novels today because they don't have a great hook or because they don't have enough action. I'm sure your approach is fine and it's the one that works for you (Puh-leeze -- I sure as hell am not the voice of experience by any stretch, just a student and an observer of what I see so I hope I'm not coming across in any way like I think I know what I'm talking about). Maybe some of our published author mentors out here on the blogosphere will have something more concrete to say about how they were able to visualize or not visualize audience and whether it matters or not.

Greg! I was wondering how you were doing :) For now screenplays or plays aren't in my mind. I'm just trying to get my brain around the novel idea I'm scribbling away at. Scott took me to Live Free or Die Hard (Harder?) and I felt the same way -- it would be a good film to deconstruct because it certainly started quickly and kept my attention. I'll wait for Sicko to hit DVD, but I definitely want to see it. Love M.M.

I have not read Philip K. Dick but am very familiar with his name and some of his work -- Matter of fact in a post I did recently I talked about a workshop where we deconstructed the opening scene of Minority Report, which was another film adaptation of a short story he wrote.

I have LOTS of book suggestions -- why don't you send me an email so I can get your email address and I'll make a list for you since I'm not sure what you like. lisa dot eudaemonia at gmail dot com.

reality said...


Allow me to clarify:

I write only for myself. Patti gave the response for me.

By breaking rules. I meant: that we shouldn't go out of our way to break them. However we should not be afraid to break them. Through writer's forums, I have come across this phenomenon where you are advised that such and such rule exists.
I even changed the story and plot of my first MS due to a similar piece of advice. and now i regret it.
I question the validity of rules and who made them.
I believe good writing , good idea trumps all.
Perhaps I am naive and idealistic. and need a few rejection kicks (slips) to put me on the straight and narrow. :)

reality said...


May I make a suggestion; you might want to read "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" by Mohsin Hamid.

From the books you mention reading , I have a feeling you like political tones. And this is a pretty good novel that I just finished reading.

Lisa said...

Gosh -- I feel like I'm throwing a pall over everyone's enthusiasm. Keep in mind, I don't know anything about publishing or even finishing a book from my own experience so I'm not trying to give advice, just revealing my own idiosyncrasies. I'm also totally obsessive about rules -- my family thinks it's hysterical that I get heart palpitations at the idea of crossing the street against traffic lights. It comes as no surprise to note that as in everything else, other people (probably most) are much more adventurous than I am. When it comes right down to it, no rule applies all the time and you never know what will fly and what won't. It's part of the joy and the heartbreak of all of this, isn't it? :)

Shauna Roberts said...

I have a lot of trouble reading like a writer. I've tried, but after a few pages, I'm sucked into the story and stop paying attention to anything else.

I bought Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose (apt name!) recently and hope to read it this week.

How can you enjoy the book and analyze it at the same time? Or do you do two reads of each book?

Thanks for posting Vonnegut's 10 rules of writing.

Lisa said...

Shauna, I suspect that I'm much more focused on reading analytically because of the retreat workshops and book discussions I've recently been part of. Unfortunately, it is preventing me from reading purely for pleasure to some degree, because I am acutely aware of how a book is written while I'm reading it now. For now, that's OK because the next few books on my TBR pile are titles I'm specifically reading in order to study them. Once I get past them, I'll let you know if I can forget about the analysis and just read for the pure enjoyment of it.

Denis said...

I read most of your blogs. And I've noticed that, to me, your writing and your thinking was really good from the start. I wish you would get a couple of short stories out there so that I can prepare myself to start reading your novels. I'm ready!!

Patti said...

lisa...ias i was reading "the art of fiction" by john gardner today, i came across this: "but if the writer writes only of what honestly interests him, and if he thinks of his work not simply as thoughtful exploration, as it should be, but also as entertainment, he cannot fail to have, of least for some group of serious, devoted readers, both immediate and lasting interest."

i thought,"and there you have it..."

and i feel no pall on my enthusiasm. on the contrary, i am dancing on rainbows and unicorns (blame the late afternoon iced sweet tea!).

Lisa said...

Denis, thank you so much for the encouragement and I'm thinking of possibly submitting some short stories to a few journals to see what happens. If I do, I'll send them to you too. I'm glad you're ready to read -- although you know, despite the fact you are a discerning reader, I can't take any of your praise without a huge grain of salt since you are my uncle :)

Patti, That says it all. Anything John Gardner has to say about writing works for me. Glad you are having a rainbow and unicorn day and I hope the sun will shine for you down there finally! My colleagues in San Antonio tell me it's rained every day for eight weeks straight. Yikes!

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon

Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf