A Year of Critical Reading – What I’ve Learned so Far

Psychologist and expert in experts Dr. Anders Eriksson explains in his book, Peak (one of the few self-help books actually worth reading, if you ask me), that the single best indicator of how good a chess player is going to be isn’t how many hours of chess they’ve played but how many hours they’ve spent studying the games and moves of already expert players.

So in an effort to become a professional writer, I’ve tried turning my spare time reading into something more in line with the principles of deliberate practice. Essentially, what this means is that I’ve started thinking a lot more about the stories I read, what made them great/not so great in my opinion, what did the author do to change the pace, induce a certain tone, make me root for the protagonist, etc. And, since I’m a writer and because I want these thoughts to stick, I’ve jotted them down. You can read some of them here and here if you’re interested.

Having focused so much on improving my writing through reading during the last nine months, the question becomes: what have I actually learned?

The below is my attempt to answer that question. Some of it might be specific to my taste in fiction, but much of it will, hopefully, be useful for other journeyman writers as well.

Premise:
I’ve always considered the premise to be one of the least important aspects of a good book. It was the characters and how the book was written that counted not what the basic “big idea” was. Plus, I’d heard the story of how Jim Butcher was challenged to write a book using a crappy premise like mixing Pokemon with the lost Roman legion and ended up with Codex Alera (look it up, it’s a pretty awesome story).

While I still think this is true to some degree, I’ve also come to realize that a good, original premise, at least for me, can be difference between a book being just “meh” and putting it down and it being interesting enough for me to read through it. And if you’re an author, I think that’s a pretty big difference.

Sentence level writing:
A large part of the novels and short stories I’ve enjoyed the most have one thing in common, truly excellent sentence level writing.

What constitutes good sentence level writing is to some extent a matter of taste, but these were stories where the author managed to set the tone in one brief sentence, create powerful yet easily understandable metaphors, and basically just made me go, “wow, I wish I could write like that.”

That said, I’ve also realized that just being well written wasn’t nearly enough to make me enjoy a story, and once I’ve reached a passable level of sentence level writing myself, it’s probably one of the last skills I should focus on. Plot, character, and basic premise seems way more important in determining if I enjoy a story, and sentence level writing is just the sprinkle on the top.

Besides, it also seems that while excellent prose is nice, purple prose is an ever present danger. A story being a bit under written and base in its language is a negative, but I can’t remember it ever making me put down a book. Over written books on the other hand, reading those just felt like watching a movie with terrible acting and directing, which can ruing even the best of stories.

Story structure:
I know there are writers who feel that conforming to story structures makes your stories boring and predictable (just like I know musicians who think practicing scales makes you a worse musician). Usually, these people never make it as a pro or only when they accidentally write something that conforms to the normal story structures anyway.

First of all, learning the common story structures doesn’t just let you build a basic plot frame that’s familiar to your readers. It also teaches you when following a specific structure to the point will weaken your story.

Secondly, (there’s a spoiler coming up if you haven’t read Harry Potter or Something Wicked This Way Comes) conforming to common plot structures lets you create a story that is at once familiar and resonates with your readers while also letting you be creative and surprise them (at least if you’ve written a good story).

To me, it seems that the best stories conform to the common plot structures but are original in the way they pull off the specific beats. (And here comes the spoilers) Of course Dumbledore had to be taken out of the picture somehow (this doesn’t necessarily mean dying; he could’ve been trapped or put in a coma, etc.). Otherwise he would be the one to defeat Voldemort and the ending to Harry Potter would’ve been kind of meh. But by letting Snape be the murderer and using it as a major plot twist later and by letting the knowledge of Snape’s betrayal fuel Harry’s anger, J. K. Rowling created something unique out of an extremely common story trope: the removal of the mentor before the big showdown. On the other hand, the ending of Something Wicked This Way Comes suffers greatly because it’s not actually the two protagonists who defeats he villains but rather Will’s father.

Knowing when to conform and when not to and creating unique story moments from common beats seems like one of the most important skills for any fiction writer to learn.

Humor:
I learned two things about humor.

One, it’s a whole skill on it’s own, and even seasoned comedic writers doesn’t always managed it well. So mastering it will require tons of practice.

Two, when it works, it can save almost any book. Funny books always seems like they take no time at all to get through, and even just adding in a few well timed jokes can really make a book way more interesting to read.

 

If you have any comments, especially regarding what narrative techniques or inside tips you’ve learned from reading fiction, I would love to hear from you in the comments below.

 

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