Writing Lessons From Reading

vlcsnap-2019-12-27-14h53m24s094

It is good to read books. 

They broaden your perspective by showing how different but still similar the people living on this Earth are. It broadens your perspective. Reading also improves your vocabulary, fantasy and helps you feel empathy towards other people. Books test your attention span, your patience and analytical skills. You learn new things, even new skills by reading books.

But for a writer, books are even more helpful than that. Reading books can help you find your own voice and learn what you like and don’t like in books. Last year, I wrote about the importance of reading and how I had trouble finding good books. Now, I have changed my perspective a little and I’m reading books even if they weren’t that good

It seems like there’s much to learn from less appealing literature as well. One can even see it as a mood-booster – reading a book you don’t like and thinking to yourself I certainly wouldn’t describe my character like that. This, of course, should be balanced with very good writing to have something to aim for to keep on developing your writing skills.

So today, referencing to my book list from 2019 I published last week, I will tell you what I’ve learned this year about my preferences in writing… by reading.

Creating Good Characters

Some of the books I read last year had many characters in them. One of them was Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, another was Victor Dixen’s Ascension. But how the characters were presented and when made the books very different experiences.

I like books that have only a few characters in them or where the many characters are presented slowly, one by one, instead of presenting them all in the process of 15 to 20 pages.

In The Goldfinch, the characters come along very slowly (partly because of the length of the book) as the main characters life takes him to new places and to new people. For me, it felt like I got to know one character before being introduced to another and it helped me create an understanding for them.

In Ascension, however, there are more than ten characters presented almost at once. It’s when the six girls and boys are starting their journey into space and are supposed to start speed-dating. Although I really enjoyed the book, I had so much trouble getting to know the characters – only the main character we get to meet alone during the first few chapters becomes a bit more important compared to the others who I don’t really care about. When presenting characters like this, all in one, for me they lose their value. I barely care about what happens to them – and that’s a bad thing for the book.

In addition to this, for me, characters become good when they get some depth. This doesn’t happen when the character’s looks are described to me in detail from hair color to weird toe nails (especially if they don’t have an effect on the plot) – it happens when I’m allowed to follow along the character’s thought processes and opinions, when I learn to know his or her personality and how the character interacts with other people. I’m looking for the depth, to really get to know the person. This, I believe, happens in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and in a way, also in Ready Player One

Action Heavy? Too Heavy.

The other thing I have learned from reading books this year is that an action heavy plot gives very little to the reader. I refer to my experiences with The Maze Runner trilogy by James Dashner which is three books of almost only action.

When watching an action movie or even something like The Lord of the Rings, there is a balance between action scenes and calmer scenes. By balancing the tempo, the viewer or reader gets to pause for a moment, breath out and relax all the nerves that have been tingling and excited for the past few pages or minutes. After some calm it’s easier to get excited for the action again.

However, if the whole movie is only action from beginning to end, we never have the time to reflect on what’s happening – and neither do the characters.

In Maze Runner, the page-after-page action, that kept on going from halfway of the first book until the epilogue in the third, didn’t leave any room for character development. This way, one never learnt to feel anything for the characters who died along the way. Sure, there were scenes where the main character was wondering about his past or his motivations but if I haven’t learnt to know the character, why should I care? 

Action scenes are a good way to keep up the tempo and make things happen plotwise but if that’s the only thing that happens in the book, it kind of turns against itself. Is action still action if that’s the only thing that ever happens in the book? I definitely enjoy good action scenes and understand their value, but I don’t think they are an absolutely necessary part of a novel.

One other thing when it comes to plot is that I’m okay with not-so-happy-endings. Sure, I don’t like miserable, gritty endings but I don’t like overly happy-happy-joy-joy kind of endings either. There is a silver lining to every cloud but that’s it: there’s the silver lining and there’s the cloud. The Fountainhead like The Goldfinch were excellent examples of this kind of endings while Eleanor Oliphant was too happy for me – and in that way, unrealistic.

Some Personal Preferences

The last thing I’ll get into detail about in this post is the other stuff that comes with writing a novel. Things like the length of chapters, third-person or first-person point-of-view and present versus past tense. These things might not make a difference if the book is good and the style goes well with the author’s choices but they are still things to consider.

This year, I read books that had either very short chapters or very long chapters. The Fountainhead and The Goldfinch had probably the longest chapters while Ascension, Maze Runner Trilogy and One of Us Is Lying had very short chapters. You can find the pattern: YA books tend to have shorter chapters while books for adults seem to be able to take the time and space for theirs. And who knows, maybe it’s even a question about attention spans?

Short chapters are good page-turners. They make reading the next chapter very easy – I mean, it’s just a couple of pages more. Or like in One of Us Is Lying, the chapters were ten pages or so but the point of view changed twice in every chapter. These are good things, especially if the reader gets bored easily or has trouble finding reading routines – but in the long run, I think this can turn against the novel. Too short chapters make the reading experience more… halting instead of creating long, beautiful waves of scenes. You never seem to get into the events before the chapter is already over – if you know what I mean?

Then again very long chapters can become too long and exhausting to take on. I for instance, am a reader who doesn’t like to leave a chapter halfway. But if the chapter is over 30 pages long, I might opt to not read another chapter before I have the time to get through a long chapter like that. That’s not optimal either.

Looking at things this way, I think I prefer best long chapters that are divided into parts. At the moment, I’m reading Stephen King’s It, a book that has very long chapters – but they are divided into 3-12 scenes depending on the length of the chapter. That way, we get to those long chapters with depth, character development and even some action but it doesn’t become exhausting to read them because you can always pause before the next scene begins.

When it comes to writing in past or present tense or in first person or third person, I really have no preference when it comes to reading. I like them all if they are done well. However, I do find that I personally like to write in present tense rather than past and in third person if it feels natural, more “right”. It’s just something I’ve noticed when writing: how I feel like I’m more in the moment, in the midst of action, when writing in present tense.

These are things that come from experience, both in reading and writing and is up to oneself to reflect upon.

Read and Learn Even More

This year, this is what I learnt from the books I read. Much about characters and character development, about the value of action scenes and the pros and cons about long versus short chapters. What I will learn from the books I read in 2020, I’m eager to find out. Maybe in a year from now, I’ll tell you what I learnt this upcoming year?

As I wrote last week, in 2020 I aim to read more of all sorts of books. Different genres, different authors, different settings. I’ll try to read through books that don’t please me as much as I’d like and try my best to learn from them. However, to balance those books I’ll also read some good books just to keep myself developing and strengthening my writerly skills. We’ll see where I end up in twelve months!

Until next post, I wish that you, dear reader, have had a relaxing Christmas and have a Happy New Year!