Reading Like a Writer

Another writer posted a question the other day to a loop I follow about chapter lengths.  It got me to thinking about how I’d learned where to break chapters from Elizabeth Daly, a fabulous mystery writer, who wrote back in the 40’s (you really have to love stories where everyone stops for civilized cocktails at five).  And that started me thinking about other writers I’ve learned from.

From Georgette Heyer and Catherine Coulter, they taught me about writing dialogue that has the same sharp sparkle as champagne (we’re talking the good stuff, not Cold Duck).

Jayne Ann Krentz and Nora Roberts taught me the importance of likeable main characters. Nora also taught me how to handle viewpoint transitions, and a dozen other things.

Dick Frances gave me great lessons in fast openings with strong hooks that pull you into empathy with the main character and a story that never lets up.

Dan Brown taught me about pacing–and that you really can make all that research into facinating stuff.

Loretta Chase taught me how great narrative can be, that if you work at your writing, you can hold the reader’s attention for anything.

From Susan Elizabeth Phillips I have great lessons on making even unlikeable characters into sympathetic characters–a very hard trick to pull off. And Jane Austen taught me that character flaws can make the entire story.

Connie Brockway taught me that funny is good, a lesson I keep forgetting until I go back to re-read her books.

From CJ Barry I learned about how good SF and Romance are when you mix them with a skilled hand and keep the tension going in both.

There’s lessons from Tate Hallaway and Libby Bray and Melissa Marr and Mary Stewart in how to mix magic and story and make it wonderful and not too complicated (or so crazy it makes no sense). And Jessica Davis Stein taught me in Coyote Dream how all the work to make a good book great is worth it (she wrote and rewrote that book six times from scratch and it shows in all the beautiful craft).

Fantasy writers Ray Bradbury taught me about lyrical prose, and Edgar Rice Burroughs taught how to keep a reader turning the page no matter what–and that writers improve as they write. While western writer Ernest Haycox taught me about strong characters and even stronger, clean, lean prose.

The list goes on and on and on–so does the bookshelves. I’ve learned from the books I don’t like as well–taking them apart has taught me to edit my own work, and it’s shown me mistakes I want to avoid.

Which all goes to show you need to be a reader to be a writer. And it all goes into the pot to influence your work.

All this means, too, that once you start writing, you start reading differently. You stop at great prose and take it apart. You find a passage and you ask, “How did she do that?” and so you study it and figure it out so you can use that trick, too. You become a critical reader, but the very best still make you stop reading and become part of the story so that you have to go back later and figure it out.

So who are you reading today who is giving you new lessons and ideas?


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