Last night, P and I were watching Flash Forward, a sort of police procedural meets sci-fi drama. The show tells the story of FBI agents investigating a world-wide blackout where everyone on earth loses consciousness for 2 minutes and 17 seconds.  The concept fascinates me because I love stories that bring fantasy into our existing reality, and so I keep watching . . . but the show makes me nuts as a writer.

There are two problems as I see it.  First, the pace is too slow. They aren’t making progress through the storyline fast enough, so while I want to know what happens, I’m not getting enough new information to satisfy me.  Secondly, the show keeps using flashbacks (or in this case, flashbacks of flash forwards) to remind me who people are to each other.  I’m so tired of seeing those images because they slow the show down and because, honestly, they make me feel like the writers thought I was stupid and wouldn’t remember.  I REMEMBER.

All that said, I’ll keep watching because I LOVE figuring out how stories work and figuring out how I, as a writer, might write them better.*

For many years of my life, I was a passive story reader. I would read a book, disappear into it, and come out the other side a little breathless, or I’d watch Knight Rider and find myself clenching my fist to see if Kit made it in time.  Total passive entertainment.

But then, I started to study literature, to break down how it worked, to look at the choices the writer made about narrator and plot and setting, and I resisted. Hard. I just wanted to enjoy what I was reading, not break it up into parts.

Then, I began to take writing classes, and in those classes, we studied stories for HOW they were put together.  We looked at the choices the writers made about the opening sentence and at the way they closed off the piece. We studied how the writer slowed dialogue down with physical action and how giving backstory in dialogue feels pedantic and false (like too many flashbacks of the same thing).  And I found that this analysis was not only really intellectually intriguing but also absolutely essential to my growth as a writer. 

So I learned to read with two minds – the reader’s mind who slips into the story and the writer’s mind who analyzes it.

When I read as a writer, with an eye to the choices the writer made, I gain so much for my own craft:

  • a close look at the strong points of someone’s work – the way C.M. Mayo‘s paragraphs close up with a lift that gives insight and an emotional pluck or how Barbara Kingsolver can reveal so much about a character just by the way he pulls strings from his jeans.
  • a close look at what doesn’t work in a piece – how Elizabeth Wurtzel’s unshaped spewing of her mental chatter makes for a tedious read or the way that Laurence Sterne‘s VERY thorough depiction of Tristram’s life can feel oh-so-tedious to a modern reader.
  • and an awareness that these are pieces of artifice, works that come from choices the writers make, not from some indelible form that the piece has from inception.

When I read like a writer, to steal Francine Prose’s book title, I learn as well as experience.  I wouldn’t go back to simple experience for the world.

Yet, I see a lot of us writers resisting this kind of analysis. We want to keep the stories intact and talk about what we like or didn’t like without figuring out why we liked it or didn’t like it or why the writer might have made that choice.  Our writing is suffering because we want to be entertained more than we want to learn sometimes.

When we don’t learn from other writers, we run the risk of being shallow or unoriginal. We can become mimics of their work instead of students. We take on the most blatant of other writers’ choices – point of view or setting or content even – and we don’t learn the nuance of HOW those things work in that writer’s piece and how they might differ in our own.

I get it. I do. I sometimes just want to read a book without seeing the seams. I want to shut down my writer’s mind, but I can’t, and even if I could, I wouldn’t because I know that it’s this ability to break something down that lets me put my work together more soundly and with more depth. 

Be forewarned, then. If you start to read like a writer, you will never quite slip your head under into story all the way again . . . but trust me, it’s worth it because you will learn to write stories that people dive into head-first.

How do you feel about reading with an eye to figuring out HOW a piece it put together? 

*It is, of course, always easier to pick something apart than it is to create it from scratch.

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