Write It Sideways

10 Reading Exercises for Fiction Writers

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?