Whatcha Readin’?

Open bookWhat are you reading right now? — well, aside from this post, smarty-pants. What’s on your nightstand, or wherever you keep your open book? What’s your preferred genre? Do you ever read outside your genre?

If you’re a writer, you should.

I write Contemporary Women’s Fiction and Romance primarily, but I read Mystery, in all its subcategories, including Suspense/Thriller, Literary, Fantasy, and Historical. I learn something from everything I read, every author, even if it’s as simple as how not to do something.

I was thinking about this the other day while I was preparing for one of my speaking engagements coming up in a couple of weeks. Despite the fact that I tend to write light-weight comedy/dramas, some of the elements of what I’ve learned from others can be found in my writing style, incorporated into my technique and as second-nature now as breathing. Other things I’ve learned, I’m still trying to master. But I always learn.

From the mystery/suspense novels I’ve read, I’ve learned how to build tension, how to plant ideas and red herrings, and how to create effective, realistic bad guys (my favorite of my “bad guys” is the journalist in The Cat Lady’s Secret). In a more direct, practical lesson, I discovered how to write a great fist-fight scene when I read The Black Dahlia, a noir Police Procedural by James Ellroy, and used what I learned in The Simulacrum.

I learn how to elevate my writing by reading literary novels. Most of the time in comedy/drama, you’re not looking for “elevated.” But there are times in my novels when I want poignancy, which I’ve learned from reading Literary more than any other genre. I can see what works, how to get away from not just naming the emotion, not just describing it in common terms, but truly illustrating it. My favorite example comes from America, America in which the author Ethan Canin illustrated how a character would do things just as his beloved wife did before she died, and how he’d brush a hand across the apron she’d left draped over the oven handle. All action. No wavering sighs, no solitary tear. Pure, poignant action.

Fantasy, my newest love, teaches me to stretch my imagination, think outside the box, bring in the improbable and make it possible. I love this — still learning it, but love it.

Historical teaches me creative ways to describe setting, because to put the reader into the era, setting is more important than in contemporary. I read one recently that was so effective at this, I expected to go to town and see women in Oxford shoes and poodle skirts. The techniques used by these writers can be used in any genre. You’d think I’d learn more about this in Fantasy, but often the fantasy world — and the Sci-Fi world — is so fantastical that the scene requires far more description than what would be required in more “earthly” settings.

Authors who capture my imagination most are those who excel in some aspect of writing. William Landay, in his Court Procedural/Mystery Defending Jacob, created the most effective “unreliable narrator” you’ll ever see. I don’t think even he realized it. In our interview, he indicated he didn’t understand why I called his character unreliable, because the character was honest in everything he presented. Honest with everyone, that is, except himself. And since the entire story is told in his POV, that’s a major point.

Searching for Grace Kelly, a recent WF Historical release, provided me with the most exemplary multi-female characterization example to date — and it’s written by a guy! Michael Callahan presented three women, totally different from each other, and he nailed the personalities. I’ve seen great characterization before — like in Lisa Gardner’s thriller The Survivors Club and others, but this guy surpassed everyone. I’m anxious to read his again.

Billy Coffey, in his Literary, In the Heart of the Dark Wood, illustrated a POV no one uses anymore — omniscient. I analyzed his technique in “A Study in Omniscient POV, Part One” and “Part Two.” It’s tricky. There are rules involved. There’s a difference between deliberate “head-hopping” because of the POV rules and “head-hopping” because the newbie author hasn’t learned the rules yet.

I don’t know how many times I’ve used Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic The Road as an example of writing technique and rule breaking. Truly masterful.

Okay, I could go on and on, but you get the point. When a novel captures the “writer” in you and says “This is how you do it!”–listen. Pay attention. Take notes. Try to emulate. Many techniques employed by authors of other genres can be tailored to match your genre. Don’t be afraid of them. And don’t be afraid to explore those other genres. If you read only the genre you write in, soon you’ll sound like all the other authors of that genre. Dare to be different. Dare to learn.

About Linda W. Yezak

Author/Freelance Editor/Speaker (writing and editing topics).
This entry was posted in Authors, Reading, write tips, Writing, Writing Tips and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Whatcha Readin’?

  1. skstewart says:

    I’m an eclectic reader. Right now I have a future apocalyptic novel on my nightstand and a book of devotions and prayers by my chair. Fiction before bed and time with God at the start of my day. In between, I have a couple of books I’m reviewing, two business books in progress, and a stack of magazines. I think I’m obsessed with reading.

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  2. I’ve got three open-actives right now. The first is FAREWELL, MY LOVELY by Raymond Chandler. I think I’ve read it before, but it’s a nice re-read. It’s in a collection of four Raymond Chandler books. I think I’ll continue on and read THE HIGH WINDOW next (which is next consecutively in this edition.) It’s good to immerse myself in some noir since my protag in my sci-fi suspense trilogy is a P.I. and has a bit of a noir feel from time-to-time.

    My next book I’m reading is THE PHYSICS OF SUPERHEROES by James Kakalios. It’s basically a physics textbook that uses comics and superheroes as examples. As I’ve never taken a physics course, it’s interesting. I know I’m learning a lot, even if I don’t get the math.

    And finally, CRACKING THE COMMUNICATION CODE by Dr. Emerson Eggerichs.

    I don’t think I read on all of these yesterday, but yesterday was pretty busy. Probably try to read a chapter or two in each later today if the day cooperates…

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  3. I agree, Linda. Reading is as important to a writer as writing. Stephen King claims he carries a book with him wherever he goes, and has stated that if you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write. I read all over the board: non-fiction, history, biographies, memoirs, fantasy, thrillers, suspense, mystery, and historical fiction. And just recently, added light-hearted, romantic comedies to my list. ;). I have always loved reading. At one point, not having anything else on hand to read, I did, I admit, start reading the encyclopedia.

    I read on average a book every two to three days, and I do the same as you. I have my devotions in the morning, work during the day, and then fiction at night. Some of my all time favorites: Places in the Heart by Robert Benton, To Kill a Mockingbird, Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts, Joshua and Joshua and the Children by Joseph F. Grizone, Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurty, James Herriot’s series: All Creatures Great and Small, Odd Thomas series by Dean Koontz, Five Days in May by Ninie Hammon, and of course, Tolkien. Then I must add in The Princess Bride by William Goldman. These are only a few, of course.

    I just finished an English mystery, The Murder at Sissingham Hall (An Angela Marchmont Mystery) by Clara Benson, and recently: Pittfall by Cameron Bane, Aaro by Dana Patrola, Lynnette Bonner’s new series set in Africa, The Badge and the Bible by Terry Burns, and Force of Habit by James Scott Bell. Oh, and Give the Lady a Ride and it’s upcoming sequel by another well loved author. 😉

    I raise my coffee to the joyful world of books. “Here, here!”

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