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[personal profile] amergina
Sometimes life is synchronous.

On the same day, I saw a topic over on the Absolute Write Forums about Francine Prose's Reading like a Writer and Nicole Peeler asked two questions on twitter:

Do you think it's important for readers of genre fiction to be proficient at reading, especially close reading?

Kay, do you think people who want to be WRITERS of genre fiction should be proficient readers?

During my last term in Seton Hill's MFA for Popular Fiction, I read Reading Like a Writer as part of a class I took on reading YA literature.

Prose's book is pretty much all about close reading.

What is close reading? Simply put, its reading and considering a text word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. Close reading is what we do when we were learning to read, for we don't yet know all the cadences of language or the tropes of stories. "Once upon a time..." was new then. We didn't know that heroes had a tendency to overcome the bad guys yet. So we weren't expecting it.

As we got older, we became more proficient at reading, both in terms of speed and in identifying tropes. We don't need to read so closely any more to understand a story or a book. Most readers, I think, still read at a reasonable closeness.

Some don't. Or some map a certain set of expectations onto a book because they think it fits in category A when it actually doesn't, and completely ignore what the author is doing with the story.

For example, not all Urban Fantasy follows romance tropes. Therefore, there may not be a happy ever after for the protagonist and his/her significant other of the first novel. I know readers who have gotten bent out of shape over this.

Novels are complex things (when done well). They're often even more complex than their authors might intend, for there's the story and all the twists and turns the author sticks in, there's that particular author's theme (which they might not even be aware of), and then there's everything the reader brings to the table--their preferences, their experiences, likes, and dislikes.

You can miss a lot. You can miss the little hint the author dropped in the first chapter. You can miss the point the author is trying to make (consciously or subconsciously), and you can even miss why you react to something the way you do.

It's why second readings of a book often are still interesting. Yes, you know the story, but you didn't see all that stuff there before. Or, in my case, when I went back to read (adult) books I read in elementary school, all the sexual tension and innuendo, for my perception of the world changed when I hit puberty.

So why is it important as a reader to read closely? Well, if you like/love the author and book, it's worth it to get as much enjoyment out of the novel as you can. Savor it, like fine wine or chocolate, rather than munching it down like potato chips.

(I'll admit, sometimes potato chip reading is exactly what I want... but even then, I still can't quite get away from close reading--but then I'm a writer.)

Some readers annotate books. And online, you can find a bunch of blogs of people re-reading favorite books or series and posting those annotations and discussing the books--what they see, what other's see. Disagreements, etc. It's essentially a book club discussion, but with books read before.

That's close reading.

For writers, I believe close reading is a must. Because those authors who you love, especially those published in the genre in which you want to write, are the masters of their craft.1 Yes, I used genre and masters in the same sentence. Deal. Genre books can be and often are as complex reads as literary fiction. Who works harder, the steelworker or the computer scientist? Yeah, the literary fiction/genre fiction debate is like that.

It used to be that artists learned the techniques of painting by studying the works of the masters--and indeed, even copying them--to see and feel the nuances of their art. Then, they went out and found their own style and bent or broke rules. But they knew what came before, intimately.

Writer's should do this, too. Is there a passage from a book that sends shivers up your spine whenever you read it? Type it out. Feel the language, how the author put the words together, formed the images. What tropes are they using? Past images? What is it invoking in you? Why?

How do you start a book so the reader cannot put it down? What five books could you not put down when you picked them up? Look at the first page. What grabs you? What moves you? Why?

It's from this intimate knowledge that a writer can learn to craft--in their own way--fiction that folks will want to read.

When a book sweeps me off my feet, my first thought is "Wow!" My second thought is "How did they do that?" I'm a writer. I want to know how other people evoke the feelings I want to evoke. So I go back and see. Sometime it's a small thing:

She tried to speak Nightshade's name, his true name.

She stopped, because she couldn't recall it. At this moment, it was too slight.

He said something in short in Barrani that she didn't understand. But she understood what she heard next: the sound, the familiar sound, of a sword leaving its sheath.

Meliannos blazed in the evening sky.

And Kaylin understood then why someone would name their weapon.

--from Cast in Fury by Michelle Sagara

This moved me. Still does. And I know why. Part of it is the repetition--different types of understanding. First, not being able to understand a language she should know (and not being able to remember a name she should remember), then absolutely understanding a sound she knew so well, and then her coming to an understanding of why Nightshade's sword was named. And that he was about to use it.

It also harkens back to named swords of power in other fantasy works. For me its Moorcock's Elric and Stormbringer and Brust's Morrolan and Blackwand. I know what swords of power are. I know, what they can cost the wielders. Now, whether Michelle meant to invoke that or not--I don't know. But it did in me, because I know the genre.

So that's quite a lot packed into a very small portion of a book.


Here's another way of packing a lot into a small amount of a book:

On my seventh birthday, my father swore, for the first of many times, that I would die face down in a cesspool. On that same occasion, my mother, with all the accompanying mystery and elevated language appropriate for a prominent diviner, turned her cards, screamed delicately, and proclaimed that my doom was written in water and blood and ice. As for me, from about that time and for twenty years since, I spat on my middle finger and slapped the rump of every aingerou I noticed, murmuring the sincerest, devoutest prayer that I might prove my parents' predictions wrong. Not so much that I feared the doom itself--doom is just the hind end of living, after all--but to see the two who birthed me confounded.

--Opening paragraph of Flesh and Spirit by Carol Berg

A very different set of words that sets a very different tone and drops the reader right into a story and a character. It's also chock full of information: the speaker is 27 years old and he's estranged from his parents. He's also from the upper crust of society from his speech, but is a birthright of which he's not fond... and that the world is not ours--we don't know what an aingerou is, other than some soft of statue (it seems). Careful study of each word shows how Ms. Berg dropped so much information, world building, and voice into four sentences. Four. There's not a word there that doesn't belong.

It makes me want to read more, mostly because the voice is so strong. And then there's the mystery of water and blood and ice. But the voice and the language... it's rich and evocative. A gentleman, but also a rogue of some kind. Who is this person? That's what makes a reader turn the page.

As a writer, I want to evoke a reader response--hopefully one of the reader desiring to turn the page because they must find out what happens next. The best way to learn to do that is to see how other writers do it, and then do it in my own way. It's like the painter who studies how others use color--to discover how she wishes to use it.

So: Close reading. Live it, love it, learn it. Especially if you write.

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April 2012

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