Wrought-Iron Words: How to read like a writer

Wrought iron words are carefully selected, soft but tough, malleable, forged to the scalding point in the writer’s mind, then poured onto the page. With tong and hammer he rolls, stretches, shapes, and orders the words into snippets, sentences, and paragraphs. Meaning fused into life, just waiting to be discovered.

Richard L. Fricks

This morning’s reading session was fruitful. In the following article, author Jessica Lourey asks us to read written words and life like a writer. This is great advice and I encourage you to read it through, take good notes, and feed your narrative detective some PIE.

“Learning to read like a writer is a practice in self-awareness and critical analysis. You need to be mindful when you really like a book/ movie/ song, or, even more telling, when you are actively turned off by one. Reading like a writer requires you to get in touch with that self-awareness and hone it by asking questions. I’m going to call that piece your narrative detective—its job is to solve the mystery of the narrative, looking at the ways it is and isn’t succeeding—and I’m going to encourage you to feed it PIE every time you read anything: a menu, a short story, the interpretive plaque next to the world’s biggest redwood tree. A book.

Here are the ingredients to the PIE:

Prepare with pen and paper. Always have your notebook and something to write with nearby when you read. Your goal is to be prepared for insight. In addition to reading for pleasure, you will now use words as research and write down what you learn. If you prefer, you can dictate into a recorder or type into the Notes section of your phone.

Get inside the words, the sentences, the story arc. Don’t simply stay on the surface of what you’re reading, no matter how shallow it seems. Go deep.

Examine. If that cereal box makes you excited to eat the sugar doodles, ask yourself what it is about the words and their formatting is doing that for you. If you read that redwood plaque and walk away feeling smart, ask yourself how it pierced your busy mind.

If—especially if—you’re reading a novel, and you connect with a character, or you find yourself yanked out of the story, or you read a sentence twice to savor the citrus taste of it, or anything else of note happens, study that situation like a lover’s face. Write down what you think is happening (“main character makes stupid choices,” “too many adverbs,” “lots of smells make me feel like I’m right there,” “each chapter ends with a hook,” etc.) because transcribing information flips a switch in our brain, waking up the records guy who then goes over to pick up what you wrote and file it somewhere so you can access it later.

When you feed your narrative detective PIE, she begins to internalize the language and rhythm of story. This level of observation is how most novelists learned to craft their stories. They didn’t go to college to learn to be writers. They read to learn to be writers. In fact, the first MFA in Creative Writing wasn’t offered until 1936, five years after the New York Times Bestseller List premiered. Agatha Christie, Mark Twain, and Jane Austen wrote their masterpieces well before that. And most of the current New York Times best-selling authors didn’t go to college for creative writing. J. K. Rowling’s degree is in French. Robert Ludlum studied acting. Ray Bradbury barely graduated high school. The amazing Maya Angelou earned fifty honorary degrees in her lifetime, but she gave birth three weeks after graduating high school and never attended college.

When it came to writing books, all of these writers learned by reading. You read like a writer to notice how good writing happens so you can emulate it and how bad writing happens so you can avoid it. You learn to understand how a story is strung together, how one particular scene leads to another, to observe how characters are built. I particularly encourage reading in the genre you wish to write in because those stories will have their own unique seasonings. Also, if you have the time and interest, I encourage you to check out Francine Prose’s exquisite Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them for a deeper guided practice on the art of reading like a writer.

It’s not only words that you need to pay more attention to on this healing odyssey. You should also start to read life like a writer. This is a little bit of a cheat, conflating reading words with reading people, but only a little because when it comes to writing well, inviting your narrative detective to real-life situations and feeding her PIE is just as important as bringing her to written words.

You can’t take a person you know, whole cloth, and shove them into a story. One, they’ll struggle. Two, real people are too big and clumsy for stories. They’re inconsistent and often dull if rendered whole. You can—and must—instead take pieces of people, settings, situations and transform them into a story.

So walk this world with a pen and notebook in hand, immerse yourself in life, examine why people make the choices they make. Consider what parts work, and which don’t, and what you can take away from that to write a compelling novel. Eavesdrop. Hang out with people who think differently than you do. Seek art, particularly art that makes you uncomfortable. Ask yourself “why” a lot, and then ask yourself “what if.” Start answering both questions.
And most importantly, read as if your life depends on it.”

Rewrite Your Life: Discover Your Truth through the Healing Power of Fiction by Jessica Lourey

Author: Richard L. Fricks

Former CPA, attorney, and lifelong wanderer. I'm now a full-time skeptic and part-time novelist. The rest of my time I spend biking, gardening, meditating, photographing, reading, writing, and encouraging others to adopt The Pencil Driven Life.

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