10 Reading Exercises for Fiction Writers

by Suzannah Windsor Freeman

Woman stack of books

I always find it exciting when I discover a book that in some way echoes whatever I happen to be writing at the time.

It might share a similarity of style, story, or structure, or any combination of the three. Whatever the similarity, I find it helpful to delve into the writing to see what lessons I can glean.

After reading several duds recently, I finally came across such a book–The China Garden by Kristina Olsson. While the story isn’t similar to my current work, the prose captured me from the very first page. All I could think was,”That is exactly what I imagine for my finished manuscript.”

When I find a book like this, there are several things I do while reading it. They are:

  1. Analyze the story’s structure. If you don’t know much about four-part story structure, visit Storyfix for some excellent resources.
  2. Note the book’s structure. Does the story feature one narrator or multiple/alternating narrators? How are chapters/sections put together? Is there a prologue and/or epilogue?
  3. Keep a running list of interesting words. I like to note words–especially adjectives and verbs–that strike a chord with me. Sometimes referring back to the same list later can trigger great ideas for your own writing.
  4. List particularly interesting phrases. I love when a writer describes something in a totally unique and fresh way, especially when I would never think of it myself.
  5. Analyze the book blurb. How much of the plot is given away? What techniques are used to entice the reader?How much are we told about the characters?
  6. Identify the intended audience. Who was this book written for, and how do you know? Conversely, who wouldn’t enjoy this book? Would it appeal to a broad audience, or a niche market?
  7. Note things that distract you. Are there any awkward bits of prose? Any moments where you find the plot unbelievable?
  8. Describe the writer’s voice. How do the author’s words sound on the page? What makes them unique?
  9. Note the type of research involved. Does the plot rely heavily on historic events, a different culture, or a highly specialized topic the writer would have spent a great deal of time researching prior to writing the book?
  10. Describe what makes the book special. What makes it different to other books you’ve read lately? Why would you recommend it to someone?

These activities really help me focus on what makes an book outstanding, as opposed to simply reading it and saying, “Ooh, good read.” I haven’t finished The China Garden, so I can’t yet comment on many of these aspects, but I am definitely keeping notes as I go.

What books have you found helpful to analyze? Are there other things you look for as you read?

{ 14 comments }

Walter March 15, 2010 at 10:53 pm

I remember reading a novel where a senile villain (always carrying an oxygen tank about) in a sophisticated wheelchair almost drowned the hero with a little help from his assistant who was a scrawny woman and equally old.

Were I an agent, and were this part of a query letter, I’d definitely be curious.
But owing to the agony of listening to the hero talk about his dead wife through the first four to five chapters of the book, I was utterly pissed about him flailing in the lake. Honestly, I wish he drowned.

I want to believe my reaction was because the story was flawed. But then the writer is a bestseller and other people, I think, enjoyed that same book of his.
That leaves me wondering if I had analyzed the book the proper way. Or is anyone else seeing what I’m seeing?

suzannah March 16, 2010 at 11:16 am

Ha ha. That’s happened to me, as well. I’ve thought a book was utter rubbish, only to go online and find raving reviews. I guess it all comes down to personal taste!

Kelly March 16, 2010 at 1:33 am

Equally helpful can be applying these same exercises to a book you are not enjoying. I usually must finish a book no matter how bad it is. This way, I feel like I’ve gotten something out of it in the end, if not an enjoyable read!
.-= Read Kelly´s last article ..Alone in Lyon =-.

suzannah March 16, 2010 at 11:15 am

You’re right, Kelly. Looking critically at books you don’t enjoy helps you define what you do enjoy. I commend you for finishing books you don’t really like–I have to really push myself to do the same, and more than not, I fail :)

Sarah March 16, 2010 at 5:42 am

Those are some good bits of reading practice…especially love the idea of listing interesting words and phrases. I do this in my head, but never log them so I intend on doing that–especially since I’m revising my second draft and need the language to do more for me.
The last book I read that I loved was The Hunger Games, so I may have another read through to look for the things you listed. Thanks!
.-= Read Sarah´s last article ..This means something! =-.

suzannah March 16, 2010 at 11:14 am

Listing the interesting words and phrases is something I only started doing recently, but I find it really helpful. Hope it helps you too!

Paulo Campos March 16, 2010 at 7:12 am

It takes determination on my part, but occasionally I’ll go through a story line by line for a while. Diagramming sentences. I hated hated hated hated this task in school, but it’s a good way of forcing myself to think about grammar.

There are some writers whose use of grammar doesn’t appear (on the surface) as complicated as a diagram will reveal it to be. Like looking through a microscope at everything moving and alive inside the clear dollop of glop on a cell in Biology class. Flannery O’Connor, and John Updike are two examples. I’m not always interested in what Updike writes about, but he knew how to craft a sentence.

A great example of this is his story “At a Bar in Charlotte Amalie.” A bunch of people are at a bar in the Caribbean thinking about one another but minimally interacting. The sentences are structured in gorgeous circuits reflecting the way people notice things and come to conclusions. Conclusions that then lead to more thoughts that eventually result in a few actions etc.

All that stuff’s completely clear in the story; the language structure isn’t distracting at all. What you don’t realize is that his subtle use of subordinate clauses and interjections, etc creates a great pacing and shows in a super neato way how people think and how their thoughts can lead to actions.

A side effect of doing this is that it can lead to a sense of despair and intimidation. Unless you force yourself to remember that it takes work to write really great prose but it is an achievable goal.

Thanks for this post I wish more fiction bloggers would write about how reading exercises can help their writing.
.-= Read Paulo Campos´s last article ..Prompt: Woman on Log Among Sticks =-.

suzannah March 16, 2010 at 11:13 am

Ha, yes, despair and intimidation. I know what you mean. But you’re right, great prose doesn’t just come out in a first draft, and that’s a comforting thought!

Southpaw March 16, 2010 at 7:17 am

I like to analyze the best sellers. I try to look for patterns between books too. The one thing I haven’t done that you suggested with to analyze the blurb. I’ll start doing that too.
.-= Read Southpaw´s last article ..Much Ado About Nothing and I’m Adoing Much of Nothing =-.

suzannah March 16, 2010 at 11:12 am

Bestsellers are a great place to start if you’re looking for what elements make for mass appeal!

Stina March 16, 2010 at 10:11 pm

I’ve tried to do these things when I read books again that I love. Problem is I get sucked into the story every time and that’s the end of the analysis.
.-= Read Stina´s last article ..Tip # 65: Playing Mother Nature =-.

suzannah March 17, 2010 at 3:06 am

That’s okay, Stina. Just pick a book you absolutely love and read it a second time, noting these elements :)
.-= Read suzannah´s last article ..10 Reading Exercises for Fiction Writers =-.

dirtywhitecandy March 18, 2010 at 9:52 am

I’ve just thoroughly enjoyed George Orwell’s 1984. Although I don’t usually analyse books in great detail because my critical faculties are buzzing the whole time when I read, right alongside enjoying the text. But I enjoyed this one so much that I couldn’t critique at the same time, so I’ll have to go back and read it again analytically.

suzannah March 18, 2010 at 8:39 pm

I did that with Jane Eyre when I was in university. I read it in high school a couple of times, but when it came to my second year Victorian Lit course, I felt I needed to read it through once more before looking at it critically. I ended up getting A+ on my final essay, so I guess it was all worth it in the end!
.-= Read suzannah´s last article ..10 Reading Exercises for Fiction Writers =-.

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