What Reading can Teach you about Writing

I’ve been binge reading this January. I’ve read nine books so far: seven fantasy, one historical romance, and one romantic suspense (which I originally thought was mystery/suspense).

You can check me out on Goodreads and be my friend if you want to know the titles of the books I read. I only plan to mention one of them by name in this post because I don’t want to be a jerk. Six of the nine books only got three stars from me, and several of them really deserved worse. I was on a bit of a junk-fantasy binge if you couldn’t tell, so it’s partly my fault for choosing ridiculous books.

Alright, on to what I learned from this reading binge. Some of these things may seem obvious, but a surprising number of the books I read, even the traditionally published ones, flubbed in these areas:

  • Edit your manuscript
    • I found typos, comma errors, and horrible HORRIBLE incomplete and run on sentences in a book that listed four different professional editor’s names in the thanks section.
    • When your book is polished and done, be sure to send it out to a group of beta readers who will check for small errors.
  • Keep your pace steady
    • Nothing is worse than a book that seems to promise excitement during its first pages but then falls flat. One book in particular I read, went completely limp until 90% of the way through, when the author FINALLY decided to throw in a climax, which turned out to be incredibly short and lame.
  • Having two climaxes is sort of neat
    • Three of the books I read had two climaxes in a way. In all three, I expected the climax to be over (there were slower scenes and dialogue or reflection afterwards) and then suddenly the action was back on.
    • In two of those books, the heroine failed miserably during the first climax, losing to the bad guy, before finally overcoming him in the second part of the climax. This worked really well in one of the books, but was cliche in the other due to poor writing.
  • Keep the action going in new and exciting ways
    • Really, I am only talking about The Hobbit here. I was blown away at how interesting and creative the story was. Trolls, goblins, wargs and wolves, giant spiders, enchanted water and woods, a dragon, and a war. The fun never ends! By the time the eagles came into the story, I was already blown away by the cleverness of the Tolkien. If you’ve never read The Hobbit, I highly recommend it.
  • Don’t have too FEW characters
    • I knew who the bad guy was right away in one of the books I read, despite his seemingly benign nature, simply because no other characters had been introduced. So when the set up for the climax came I was like, “don’t follow him, he’s the bad guy. Why are you flirting with him and following him? How can you not see he is about to attack you? And now you are magically paralyzed, BECAUSE HE IS THE BAD GUY, you stupid idiot.” Which makes me think of another point:
  • Don’t make your protagonist too dumb
    • Specifically, don’t let them be the ONLY person who doesn’t suspect the bad guy. Sure the reader has the advantage sometimes of knowing more information or having time to stop and draw their own conclusions (come up with theories) about who the bad guy is. But if you make it TOO easy for the reader, especially in mystery/suspense genres, your protagonist will just come across as dumb. In the case where the reader knows who the bad guy is right from the start, you should still make sure to give your characters good reasons for not guessing who the bad guy is or falling into their trap (lack of information, misleading information, confounding charms, etc).
  • Don’t info bomb us and be careful how you relate specific details
    • I get that sometimes a lot of information needs to be shared in order for things to make sense. Try putting this information into conversations instead of stringing together paragraph after paragraph of heavy information. Even in conversation, though, you need to be careful. Make sure to keep the dialogue natural and not too encyclopedia-like. Even if the character speaking is an astro physicist with three separate doctorate degrees, he/she is still a human (probably). They are allowed to forget things, stumble over words, and dumb it down for their audience. History lessons given in dialogue are always the worst in books. Authors can never do it well. I’m especially aware of this fact because I have a graduate degree in history and sat through many lectures, classes, and discussions with incredibly intelligent professors who were well-read and caught up in their fields. A character who ISN’T an academic will not have minute details, such as specific names, dates, and locations, fresh on their minds. They will generalize more: “in the mediterranean, around 700 BC, in Northern France;” for example. They won’t drop specific facts (Scarlet, with the candlestick, on the Aegean Sea, in early fall of 1193 AD)!
  • Explain why the hot throb is in love with your protagonist
    • In SIX of the books I read, I wasn’t sure why the male hot throb was so interested in the female lead. THREE of these books relied on a magical “spark/electricity” and NOTHING MORE between the love birds. It was terrible. In another book, the male was surprisingly persistent and kept returning to/saving/worrying about the protagonist for no apparent reason. In four of these books, the protagonist herself was confused by the male’s attention/attraction/infatuation with her. None of the six females were described as drop dead gorgeous (because who, of course, wants to read about a beautiful girl who KNOWS she is beautiful) so the kindling of the relationships made even less sense. At the heart of it is, why is your protagonist so special? Is it really only because her blood smells especially delectable to the vampire? Is it really only because of her good looks that she isn’t even aware of? Don’t rely on magic alone to be the reason behind a new romance.
  • Think about point of view and tense
    • It seems like every YA and NA fantasy novel is written in first person these days. Every single one of the “junk-fantasy” novels I read, as well as the historical romance, were all written in first person (7 out of 9 books!) In most of them, the POV choice seemed irrelevant to the story to me. I really only saw the need for first person in ONE of the books, and its usage blew me away. The book was written in first person, present tense and switched between multiple characters perspectives-both male and female-keeping with the first person POV. It immediately made for a captivating read and kept up the excitement throughout the story, all the while giving an in-depth view of the thoughts and feelings behind the main characters actions (even one of the bad guys). It was magnificent.
    • Don’t just go with the flow of your genre or stick with what you are used to when choosing POV and tense. Here are some things to keep in mind:
      • First person is best for fun, quirky language
      • First person is best for in-depth rumination and self-anyzation
      • Third person is best when you don’t want the reader to know everything your characters are thinking
      • To bring the reader closer to your protagonist, first person or close third person is best
      • Third person has always felt more mature to me. This opinion is reinforced by the fact that YA seems only to be written in first person
      • It is totally possible to get into your characters’ minds and describe their emotions when writing in third person
      • DON’T MIX POV! It drives me nuts when a book is written in close-third (follows only the protagonist throughout the story) but then suddenly reveals what another character is thinking. It is either third person omniscient or it isn’t! Also, it somewhat bothers me when books are written in first person for the female lead and then third person for the male lead’s chapters. WHY?! This only worked in ONE book I read, and it was because the husband murders his wife at the very end and the reader wasn’t supposed to know what he was thinking the whole time 😀 sneaky, right?
  • Don’t bore the reader with long rumination and self-analyzation
    • This can get really repetitive and dull, really quick.
    • If you choose to write in first person, we don’t have to know EVERYTHING the protagonist is thinking ALL THE TIME. Get on with the story.
  • Don’t choose generic titles for your masterpiece
    • Unless you know you are writing junk-fantasy and don’t care about the novel you are putting out there, it doesn’t make sense to choose a bland name for your manuscript. If the title could fit any number of other books, it probably isn’t very good. Maybe don’t put “Magic” in the title. Titles of three of the fantasy books I read: Magic Born, Ancient Magic, Burned by Magic (no joke).
  • Don’t choose awful/generic covers for your books
    • The three “Magic” books I just mentioned all have the same cover: a pretty dark-haired girl, holding a ball of light (magic), at night with blue/greenish clouds in the background behind her. The vampire book I read is only slightly different in that there is no extra color, but a bright white moon behind the girl. It should come as no surprise that since I downloaded these books all at once, I was confused by which book was which when I went to read them.
  • Don’t bore the reader with details and then leave the resolution up in the air
    • The historical romance I read was incredibly frustrating. The content of the book takes place over just a few short months, giving minute details about EVERYDAY that goes by, but then fails to deliver in the epilogue. The MC actually speculates in the epilogue: “maybe we’ll live here or there, maybe we’ll have kids, etc.,” leaving it feeling very UNresolved. Even though the book takes place in 1945, we don’t get a “and they lived happily ever after” or a look at the characters in the future. The book simply ends, after detailing so much nonsense that I didn’t care about, it just ends.
  • Watch out for repetitive words and phrases
    • Who says “vandals?” People talking about a high school sports team, maybe. So who vandalizes houses? Punk kids, deviants, hooligans. There are way more words than simply “vandals.” It isn’t a good idea to only use ONE word over and over again, especially when it is spoken by different characters. But that is what one of the authors I read did.
    • Small words and big words alike can be overused while writing. I think most of us are already conscious of this (for example I know I used minute [mi-noot] twice in this post already). It is a good idea to have beta readers comb through your manuscripts for repetitive words and phrases that might have gone unnoticed by you.
  • The climax shouldn’t be too short or easy for the protagonist
    • Because that is incredibly unsatisfying for a reader

I’m sure I’ll think of more things I learned from my reading binge, but this post is already long enough 😀 In general, I believe reading is a good way to improve your writing. It was reading that made me finally commit to completing my first full-length novel. It was this January binge reading session that made me decide to write a novel in first person for the first time ever (I’ll have to toss out what I already had started, but that’s okay). So when you aren’t busy writing, brainstorming, plot mapping, editing, and revising, pick up a book and read!

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10 thoughts on “What Reading can Teach you about Writing

  1. I totally agree with most of your gripes. Protagonists who make stupid decisions (out of character) drive me nuts, especially when it’s clear the author does it on purpose to make the plot work. Love for no reason is another pet peeve for me. Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. GREAT post. Really, every point you make is fantastic. I particularly agree with your take on point of view. YA tends to overuse 1st person to the point where it’s a needless genre convention. 1st person can be effective, no doubt, but why is it the default? Third person can work just as well in many cases.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree 100%! I’ve always enjoyed reading third person better. I don’t like how narrow the first person world view is; it makes it more difficult to spot the bad guy, and he always seems to appear out of nowhere (with absolutely no backstory) because of it.

      Liked by 1 person

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