Writing Tools- Active Reading

This week’s theme at PLC is about reading.


I just finished reading Tehanu, by Ursula Le Guin, last night. I’ve read Tehanu before, but decided to revisit it. I’m a big believer in rereading  books. My reason in doing so is twofold. First, there are the books that I read to enjoy a nostalgic comfort, like Little Women or Watership Down, Harry Potter, or the Little House on the Prairie series. Those books, mostly classics and young adult fare, I turn to on cold, rainy days, or when I’m feeling out of sorts with the world.  Other books I reread not just for my own enjoyment, but to study the techniques of other writers. That’s not to say that Alcott or Rowling aren’t worth studying, or that I don’t learn anything from them, but simply that I still read their works passively, as opposed to reading actively, with a critical eye.

Active reading means never losing oneself entirely in the story, but always watching, listening, analyzing, dissecting each page as one goes. This is an invaluable technique for writers, because any actively-read author can be your instructor. Personally, I look to Le Guin for the deft way she weaves social commentary into her plots, as well as for her clean, lyric prose. If I want a crash course on page-turners, I pick up pretty much anything by Stephen King. If I want to study how to handle a multiple-pov novel, I read George R. R. Martin.

Sometimes I read books that I don’t fully enjoy, to see if I can figure out why I am not enjoying them. That way I don’t make the same mistakes in my own work. Don’t get me wrong, if it’s torturous I toss it aside, but if it’s merely bad I’ll finish it. Recently I read a novel, Title Redacted, with a heroine and plot similar to my own work in progress. I found the book boring, and this alarmed me, for obvious reasons. I thought about it for a while and realized the heroine of Title Redacted, while powerful, was still passive. Things happened to her, rather than her doing things. I realized I had made the same mistake in my own book and am working now on addressing it. So in the end, reading a poor book has helped to make me a better writer, or at least a more aware one.

If you want to learn to write, you have to read. Read everything! And like any avid reader, I am always hunting for recommendations, always hungry for new authors. Who do you like to read for fun? Who do you turn to when you are trying to learn how it is done?

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