Do you remember? Not just the title, but the lines that made you stop, that made you smile, that made you marvel at the author’s style? Do you remember tricky pivots in the plot, moments in a paragraph where the author did something that swept you up in the moment, something that needed a bit of time to untangle its greatness? What about your favourite bit of dialogue – how did you know a character by her words only?
Writers should be readers, I think that’s on every one of those “Top Tips for Writers” lists. But not all of us can carry the finer details of everything we’ve read around in our heads! If you’re like me, you need a little help to really focus in on what makes the writing.
That’s where a reading journal comes in. A paragraph or two about what worked or didn’t can do wonders, in terms of forcing you to take a breath after you’ve turned the last page, and really meditate for a moment on what made the book enjoyable, fall flat, build toward an unexpected twist, lose tension and so on. That should then send you on the hunt for why that particular part, passage or paragraph stands out as so memorable to you. Taking a second look can help understand what happened there – did the dialogue swell or falter? Did the author get bogged down in description? Did a moment for potential conflict or crisis veer into safer territory? (I find the ways a story doesn’t work are usually easier to spot. The magic of great writing is that it’s often so seamless, you lose sight of it and just get caught up in the story itself.)
You can keep your observations on your own hard drive, something that’s there only for you. You can blog them out. Or you could jot it down on a site like Goodreads, the massive online bookshelf where you can mark what you’d like to read, what you’ve read and what you thought about it. I’ve been trying to do this since January, as I like that it quickly shows me what books I’ve read and which are on my “to read” list. These are public, which is why my parsing out a book’s best paragraphs, character traits, tricks for hiding exposition or plot points will likely never earn my reviews a vote as “helpful” by other readers. But who cares? They’re useful to me!
I just finished The Sympathizer, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, for good reason. It’s a really deftly written book, full of humour, rich detail and sharp observations about life on the outside. The book roams from Viet Nam to California to the Philippines and on to Thailand, walking us back through the aftermath of the war in Vietnam, from the perspective of a man whose allegiances are slippery. I highly recommend it! And I recommend chasing it with this interview between its author, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Writers & Company host Eleanor Wachtel, which delves deeply into the author’s influences.
(photo courtesy of Unsplash)