I regularly say this, but I’ll repeat myself: every author should be an avid reader. Years ago, I began writing out of desperation. I read exceedingly fast, and in those days, the library couldn’t stock new books in my favorite genres fast enough to keep up with my habit.
Even though I haunted the secondhand bookstores, I couldn’t afford to buy even used books in that quantity. Besides going to the library, I was limited to one new paperback book and two used ones a payday in those days. Every book I bought was money taken from the food budget to spend on something we couldn’t eat.
Nowadays, I am incredibly fortunate to be in a position to be able to read as much as I want, whenever I want.
It is the deep yearning for a good tale that fires my imagination and drives me write novels.
Every now and then, I can’t find the right book to read. When that happens, I consider what kind of story I’m craving. Books are food for the mind, and we all have different tastes. Sometimes we want a specific type of flavor, like when we crave chocolate or something spicy.
Usually, I feel that desire because a seed is growing, an idea for either a short story or a novel.
Because I gravitate to character-driven stories for my reading, I want to write about people striving to overcome forces greater than themselves. It might be fantasy, or it might not be. Several stories I’ve had accepted into anthologies recently were fantasy only in that they take place in the 1950s. I was a very young child then, so I have little memory of those days.
I love reading about characters who aren’t always the most well-behaved people. This means they are approachable, possessed of a flaw that resonates with me. It wouldn’t be a story if there weren’t a hero lurking deep within, waiting for some catastrophe to bring out that courageous side of them.
When I open the book, I want the first paragraphs to hook me. Those opening sentences establish three vital things:
- They set the tone of what is to follow, so if you want to snare the reader, don’t waste those precious sentences on “throat clearing” and backstory.
- They tell us who the story is about and how they see themselves.
- They establish the general narrative perspective.
I say ‘general’ because the authors whose work I like best tend to vary the narrative perspective/distance as the story progresses. I enjoy work where the pacing of a scene is shaped by the perspective of the characters and the narrative distance.
Imagine a scene where a woman empties the wastebaskets in the house, tidying up before she leaves for work. A crumpled note falls from the one beside her husband’s computer. She picks it up and automatically looks at it, not intending to pry, but just as a matter of habit.
They might bring us into the protagonist’s head, with free indirect discourse, taking us inside the character’s thoughts. What does Jake need a lawyer for?
Then we see what the author wants you to know about the character’s circumstances. His odd behavior suddenly made sense. Anger blinded her as Jake’s plan revealed itself.
And then they might move out to the external view. Sarah held the note, thinking, then pulled out her cell phone.
Good stories told from the protagonist’s point of view bring you in close, letting you feel the emotional intensity. Then the narrative perspective steps back a bit so you can process it at the same time as the protagonist does before you are brought in close again.
Perspective and pacing are the two areas I am looking closely at in my own work as I make revisions. I keep hoping that reading critically will improve the way I write prose.
So, all those books I plowed through last week weren’t just me avoiding housework. They were for research.