On Reading and Learning from Books

Photo credit: JKim1 on Flickr
After writing about reading so-called "bad books" last week, I noticed a theme cropping up in the following discussion, namely, learning from what we read.

When you're a writer, reading is more than just a hobby to pass the time— books are our bread and butter and they provide us with an arsenal of tools to use in our writing. Reading is about as optional to the writer as watching movies is to a Hollywood director or studying the brain and nervous system is to the neurosurgeon.

The great thing about reading is that especially for the writer, it's never a waste of time— whether you like the book or not, there's something to be learned.

You see, when you don't like whatever you're reading, the writer asks why— what is it about the book that you don't like? Does the pacing feel off? Are the characters not connecting with you? Does the dialogue feel forced? Once you've figured out what aspect (or aspects) feel off to you, push harder— what is it about the dialogue that makes it feel flat? How would you make it better? Why aren't the characters connecting? Is it a particular character that isn't working? Why?

On the other hand, when you love whatever you're reading, the writer asks why again— what is it about the book that really resonates with you? Is it the voice? The characters? Something about the plot itself? What exactly is working and how could you incorporate something like it into your writing?

Here are two examples from books I really enjoyed:

From Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi (page 22):

"I take a sharp hit of oxygen. 'Funny. So did I.'



3 seconds pass.

He cracks a grin so wide, so amused, so refreshingly sincere it's like a clap of thunder through my body."

Honestly, you can't open to a page in Shatter Me without finding at least one poetic line full of refreshing imagery and voice. Shatter Me taught me about putting poetry back into the novel and not being afraid to break the rules.

From The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (page 53):

"When I got out of the movie, I had four text messages from Augustus.

        Tell me my copy is missing the last twenty pages or something.

        Hazel Grace, tell me I have not reached the end of this book.


        I guess Anna died and so it just ends? CRUEL. Call me when you can. Hope all's okay."

Something I absolutely loved about The Fault in Our Stars was that both Augustus and Hazel sounded like actual teenagers I could meet at my local mall. Everything from the witty (and hysterical) dialogue, to the text messages like the ones I quoted screamed authentic teenager, and I loved how genuine it felt. The Fault in Our Stars reminded me about the importance of authenticity in dialogue and narration.

Lessons like these are best absorbed when we see them in action—that is, when we see them working in a book. So go pick up a book and read. You never know what you might learn that will help your writing in the future.

Now it's your turn: What have you learned about writing from reading a book?


Daphne Gray-Grant said...

I really enjoyed The Fault in Our Stars by John Green as well. I think the most outstanding attribute of the book was its complete unsentimentality -- not an easy thing to pull off in a book about a young person having cancer. So many writers fall back on sentimentality or cliche. It's good to read work by writers who an avoid these pitfalls.

Ava Jae said...

That's a great point. The Fault in Our Stars was extremely well done--it leaped onto my list of favorite books before I'd even finished reading it.

J. A. Bennett said...

I felt the exact same way about Shatter Me. I totally want to be her! I have The Fault in Our Stars sitting on my shelf waiting to be read next :) As far as something I learned, right now I'm read the last Artemis Fowl book and I've learned that a little humor can really take a story a long way.

Ava Jae said...

I loved both Shatter Me and The Fault in Our Stars. They're entirely different books, but equally amazing (IMO). I'm also a huge Artemis Fowl fan. I just recently found out the final book has been released and I can't wait to get my hands on a copy!

Daniel Swensen said...

I will admit, a lot of my lessons end up being what NOT to do. I'm a picky reader and I tend to seek out flaws like a homing missile sometimes. But a beautiful sensory appeal or turn of phrase will remind me that telling a story isn't all about brutal efficiency and stark utility -- it's about storytelling, dammit.

Yesenia Vargas said...

Both of those books sound absolutely awesome, Ava! They have definitely moved up on the never-ending reading list :) That's one thing I've learned to do recently. Read (and even reread) books to see why I loved them. There's so much to learn!

Yesenia Vargas said...

I was also a huge Artemis Fowl fan growing up! I didn't finish the series, though. Really need to reread and finish!

Ava Jae said...

Definitely do! I love the series. :D

Ava Jae said...

Learning what not to do can be just as helpful as learning what to do. In the end, though, you're absolutely right--it all comes down to storytelling.

Ava Jae said...

Both Shatter Me and The Fault in Our Stars earned their spots on my favorite books list. They're truly fantastic reads and I couldn't recommend them enough.

And agreed! There's tons to learn, and sometimes the lessons are picked up during a second or third reading. :)

Adam C said...

I have learned that you should take risks to develop the plot, even if they are painful for you. The mass murderess J.K. Rowling must've cried a bunch after killing off some of her favorite characters, but she knew she had to do it to develop the plot. Suzanne Collins also probably went through this. She said she was fearful of writing the violent scenes, but she knew it was necessary to develop the plot.

I also have an idea for your blogpost: the controversy of ( dun, dun, dun, dun!) THE PROLOGUE. I always hear that writing a prologue is a no-no because not many people can pull it off. I also hear that publishing companies hate prologues and people skip them. This really bugs me. It's like saying "We're not going to publish you because you're blonde." I'm going to use the stereotypical "dumb" blondes for this (no offense intended.). I find it like saying that you're automatically rejected because you're a blonde. People don't look at you and just ignore you because you're blonde. Even if there is a such thing as "dumb" blond, there are still some that stick out. I feel like people are prejudice against books. "I'm not going to read this just because it has a prologue." It's also disrespectful to the writers. I know writers can't usually pull off prologues, but I don't like when people and publishers and editors judge a book just because it starts with a prologue. Sorry for the huge wall of text. What do you think, Ava?

Peter Reynard said...

I'm learning that it is a lot harder than it looks. :)

Ava Jae said...

What is? Writing?

Nickie McCall said...

Yes -- the one thing I've really gotten from my recent reading is that
what separates the wheat from the chaff is a good story. Beautiful
writing will only get you so far if you don't have something compelling
to say.

Ava Jae said...

Very true!

Peter Reynard said...


Emily said...

And that is why The Fault in Our Stars is my favourite book - and John Green my favourite author. As a teenager, I can really relate to it. Also, as a teenager, I can write YA fiction with a lot more ease than adults probably can - not because adults don't remember being a teenager but because they're not being teenagers at the current time. Books are, more often than not, about creating the right characters rather than brilliant prose.

Ava Jae said...

Ah yes. It most certainly is--but in my opinion, the whole process is worth the difficulty. :)

Ava Jae said...

I absolutely love The Fault in Our Stars. I have to confess I haven't read John Green's other works (yet!), but I intend to.

Creating characters that feel real and are right for the story is hugely important. If readers have trouble connecting with the characters, chances are they won't enjoy the book very much.

Robin Red said...

I found that I can't stand misplaced passivity in a book. In reality, I am a sneaky, manipulative person that knows his way around, so when I read a character choosing passivity over a chance to further his/her knowledge or power, it kills me. Harry Potter? I love the guy, but if I was an orphan, endured misery the first decade of my life, and suddenly discovered I was a wizard, I would be right in that library with Hermione learning everything I could about magic. I think that's the difference between Tom Riddle and Harry Potter. Harry's reality is the reaction of Tom's reality. Thus, when I write conflicts and moving dialogue into my stories, I try not to make the characters meek for the sake of mystery.

Ava Jae said...

Interesting lesson to learn, Robin. Can't say I really thought much about passivity while reading Harry Potter. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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