Saturday, September 6, 2014

Reading Like A Writer

A few weeks ago, I was in Boone, North Carolina visiting my son who attends Appalachian State University there. If you have never been there or never heard of it - you must go. There is nowhere like it in the world. The mountains of North Carolina with the artsy, eccentric little town of Boone nestled in them are stunning. The university, which is just big enough and just small enough, has dorm rooms with views that rival 5 star hotel views, not to mention great academics. But I digress.

While visiting my son, we went to the university book store, natch. I picked up The Bookman's Tale, A Novel of Obsession by Charlie Lovett. It is about a young antiquarian bookseller whose wife dies. He relocates from North Carolina to the English countryside where he finds a mysterious painting from hundreds of years ago with a portrait that bears an uncanny resemblance to his dead wife. The chapters alternate between the 'present', the not too distant past when the bookseller and his wife met and married and the far distant past (Shakespeare's time).

A Shakespearean mystery is just my speed, so I purchased it with anticipation. As a beginning writer trying to hone my skills, I also wanted to do as I have read suggested in books about writing: read like a writer. I dutifully brought out my sticky notes and pen to use as I read; since The Bookman's Tale is a New York Times Bestseller, obviously I should note what the author did and how he did it. I dove in.

More properly, I should say, I slogged away. I stickied when and how new characters and settings were introduced, I stickied when and how the author maintained tension at the beginning, and each time the plot deepened in a notable way. I noted when the chapters ended in particularly cliff-hanging ways, when the mystery and tension was particularly good, how secondary characters were handled. I noted structure of the time period changes in the chapters and when the ending of the book began. I now have a book that looks like a porcupine with dozens of bright pink sticky notes protruding from the top and side. But I also have a reference example of how these things were done.

I did this because I think it will be good for me as a writer. It darn well better be, because it very clearly dampened my enjoyment of the book as a reader. Noting what the author did when and how interrupted my flow of story as a reader. And for that, I apologize to Mr. Lovett, whose book I didn't thoroughly enjoy as a reader (although I'm sure I would have if I hadn't been doing my level best to read like a writer).

I hope to get better at this reading as a writer business. If not, I will have a lot of apologizing to do to many fine authors. Either that or every now and then I will forget the stickies and reading like a writer and just dive in with readerly abandon.

Note to my professional self working with teachers and students: When we tell students to 'read like a writer', we need to make sure we say and mean RE-read like a writer. I don't want to dampen any student's enthusiasm for a book. Students can, and should, do a first reading like a reader. Then re-read like a writer. Choice of book or section will be important - short enough book that they will actually read it twice, or limit reading like a writer to a chapter or section at a time.


  1. Love that reread rather than just read like a writer.

  2. Carolyn,
    I love this image: I now have a book that looks like a porcupine with dozens of bright pink sticky notes protruding from the top and side.

    Your efforts will pay off!

  3. My apologies for writing the wrong name your photography, Kara.


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