One of the many things I talked about in my writing classes is “reading as a writer.” I know there are some authors who won’t read any books while they are writing one, or choose books outside their genre so their own experience can be completely pure. I applaud that and can appreciate it.
But for me, reading books that are in my genre has made me a better writer. If you’ve read about my saga with my current novel–working title: Fade Away–you know I took an eighth month hiatus from it because I was stuck on a plot point. Only by reading another book was I able to see what was wrong and jump back in to fix it.
So today I wanted to explore the process of reading like a writer. I decided to go back to a novel I loved today. It’s Rats Saw God by Rob Thomas (1996) which, to my delight, is being re-released with new editions very soon (see the various covers to the right). This was one of my “bibles” early in my career. I read it several times, looking at character and plot, learning as much as I could from the book and trying to apply what I learned to my own work.
Rob is a master at character. We see immediately that Steve York is a smart ass pothead:
“Though I tried to clear my head of the effects of the fat, resiny doobie I’d polished off an hour before thing were still fuzzy as I stumbled…” (p. 1, opening line). “Fat, resiny doobie” not only tells us what he’s had, but how much he likes it. The description is fantastic. When he’s sent to the counselor’s office: “I braced for descent into a touchy-feely hell presided over by a lisping sage who would suggest I give myself a big hug.” Smart ass. So why do we like him? Because he’s a smart ass or because, as we find out just a page later, that he’s got family problems. How do we know? He refers to his father as “the astronaut” and notes the regimented schedule and expectations “the astronaut” had for him after Steve’s parents divorced and Steve stayed with him. But not for long. One day he walked out of class, got in his car, and drove to California to live with his mom and sister.
I could go on and on about the things I learned from reading Rats Saw God, but I don’t have the time or space. These two examples are wonderful examples of character and developing sympathy. We feel for Steve and we, too, want the answer to the counselor’s question: “What happened in Texas?”
The most important questions I ask myself are always “Why?” and “How do I know?”:
What’s the character like? How do I know? (what has the author done)
What am I feeling right now (about the character and/or story?) Why? (what has the author done)
And just because if this post, I’m going to read the book again. I’m sure in doing so, I’ll get some inspiration for my work-in-progress.