There are probably some books you feel like you should read but you don’t really want to.
They’re great books—you know this because everyone says they are. They win awards and feature on Best Of lists and when you look at the photo of the author on the back, they seem to be saying: “This is what a real writer looks like.”
But your heart sinks if you even think about picking the book up. It’s not your style, it’s not your genre, it’s too long, it’s too boring.
Well, there’s a way around this problem.
First, you need a notebook and pen.
You have to approach the book like a research project. You’re the scientist, the book is the alien artefact that’s fallen out of the sky. The future of the world is at stake.
However, if you read a book hoping the secrets of the universe will be revealed to you, you’re going to end up disappointed. You need a specific agenda.
You find this agenda by listening to what people say about your own book. Perhaps you need to work out how to make characters feel present and active during long conversations. Instead of lots of he said/she said talking heads, you need to keep the reader aware of who is where and doing what.
Pick up a good book you’ve been meaning to read; start reading. If it catches your interest, great. If it doesn’t, skim. When you get to dialogue, slow down and see how they do what you want to do better.
If readers tell you your characters get mixed up, study sections where new characters are introduced. If your endings are rushed and convoluted, go straight to the end chapters.
Obviously there’s no point reading a 19th century novel if people are telling you your descriptions are too long and flowery, you have to use a little common sense and choose your test subjects wisely. But the good thing about great books is that it’s pretty easy to find out what people think are its strong points.
What you’re looking for isn’t a mechanic’s logical understanding of a machine, you want something to literally jump out at you (okay, maybe not literally—although are 3D books that far away?). Something that strikes a chord with you on more than a intellectual level. Make a note of it, keep going. Get a bunch of them from a selection of books and you’ll have a feel for how to do it yourself.
You may come up empty, of course. That’s okay. If you find yourself into the book, keep reading. If not, bail. You don’t have to read a book you aren’t enjoying and that isn’t teaching you anything. Even if it is teaching you stuff, once you’ve got what you need and the story still isn’t engaging you, move onto another book.
You aren't there to force yourself to read against your will, you're a treasure hunter looking for loot. Sometimes you'll get caught up in the story and want to find out what happens next—think of it as a bonus. Sometimes you'll want to get out of there as soons as—so be it.
There are many aspects of writing you can investigate. The more people comment on your WIP, the more material you’ll have to work with. And it will make what you read more exciting just for the possibilities it offers up.
By the way, this method also works in real life. If you find yourself having to go places you really don’t want to, because of parents or spouses or children, then having a notebook and a specific agenda turns it into an expedition, rather than a six year old’s birthday you’re stuck chaperoning. The agenda still needs to be specific (What do six year olds talk about when they’re alone?) and you may not want to whip out the notebook in public, but once you have your own reason for being there (whether it’s your third cousins wedding or a two hundred year old book), things get much more interesting.
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