Wednesday, August 21, 2013

5 Focal Points for Writers Reading Books

I always get a good laugh when, invariably, my writers come back to me and say, “How on earth can you read for pleasure?  You’ve ruined reading for me!  Now all I see are major flaws.”  Yes, that does happen, at least in the beginning, after your eyes are opened to the elements of great writing.  I always do assure them that that will pass, and they’ll be able to read for pleasure again without picking a book to death.  Yep, I’m more attuned to the flaws as well, although when a book is too chock-full of them, I quit it.  But, oh, the joys of experiencing a story and characters written by a master of the craft! 

We can all learn from the pitfalls and brilliance of other writers—learn what not to do, what didn’t work, and what did.  I’m not talking copy-edit stuff, not grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc., and not even really stylistic issues (wordiness vs. tightness, show vs. tell, etc.), but rather the deeper elements that go into a great book. 

| First off, what about the author’s voice is appealing?  (If it’s not, you won’t still be reading).  Is it that the voice fits the genre?  For example, taking you back to a long-lost time in a historical novel, where the language is fuller and slower, rounder through the edges?  Even sometimes when the prose borders on purple, we’ll forgive it if it “fits.”  Or is it harsh and flat, as in edgier fiction, where that fits as well?  Is it the way the author changes the cadence, becoming staccato in the action scenes, and slowing to a denouement waltz on a mellifluous river of words? 

| Does the story start off with characters in conflict, or is the “real-life” part too easy?   Does the beginning story-question knock the hero’s socks off in some way, while showing life as he knows it up until now?  Book after book after book (unedited) these days start with folks enjoying parties, cocktails, dinner, etc., and even if the repartee is witty, you start to lose interest.  Where did the beginning fall apart?  Can you pinpoint the exact place?  Or, did the story begin with teasers in the scene, implying more going on under the surface than meets the eye? 

“Locking my office, exhausted from working late, I stepped down the marble hallway thinking of dumping my boyfriend and soaking in a nice hot bath.  Light shone from under my legal partner’s door.  He never stayed this late.” 

Now, this character can act from here in myriad ways, but the questions linger—why is her partner staying late?  And what’s wrong with the boyfriend?   

| Does the story keep moving?  Or does it have a sagging middle, scenes with no point, and you find your mind wandering?  Where, exactly, did the storyline lose you?  Find the place.  It’s not difficult.  What would you have done to shoot it forward again?  What’s the missing plot point, and where, specifically, would you have put it?  How would you have then built on that? 

| Could you predict where the story was going?  The ending?  As writers, we should always be trying to do so.  Always asking ourselves: Is this going to happen or that?   Not just, will he master his fear and win the day, whatever the day is, but also, how is this going to happen?   I confess—I’m disheartened when I figure it out.  But I’m blown away when the author takes me across a mountaintop I didn’t know existed but nonetheless fits.  Ah, such unpredictable heaven! 

| Does the hero end up being who we thought he was?  Did he change and grow?  If yes to the former and no to the latter, you were probably bored enough to not finish the book.  And while contrived character traits are just as tedious, when a protagonist is quirky enough, real enough, with foibles and strengths that we can relate to, but in the end masters something within himself that saves the day and does it with unexpected growth, then we feel satisfied.  But if he was changeless, what situations would you have put him in to force him to grow?  If he was predictable, how could you have dug deeper and found the unique aspects to him?  What does your creativity say that those unique aspects are? 

As writers we must read for so many reasons.  Finding what works and what doesn’t is just part of why we do so.  But as Samuel Johnson said, “The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent reading in order to write.  A man will turn over half a library to make a book.”  

Award-winning author and editor Susan Mary Malone has five traditionally-published books to her credit (fiction and nonfiction) and many published short stories. A freelance editor, forty-plus Malone-edited books have now sold to traditional publishers. You can see more about her, and what authors say about working with her, at:


  1. Susan, you've delved headlong into a topic that has frustrated me for years. As a writer-turned-editor, I have to a great extent lost the joy of reading because my hyper-critical editor within focuses more on the errors in a book than on the storyline. Even traditionally published books contain far more errors today than they did a few decades ago.

    Bottom line: the mixed blessing of independent publishing (aka self-publishing) has opened doors to myriads of writers whose works would never have otherwise seen a press. This opportunity has allowed many the joy of seeing their works in print. It has also given voice to countless others who, while possibly great storytellers, fall far short of qualifying as great writers. The majority of these also fail to employ competent editors to polish their fantastic stories into fantastic reads. The end result has been a steady decline in the overall quality of many books that hit the marketplace — whether hard copy or e-books.

    Solution: send my editor within on a long vacation. OR...allow myself the luxury of employing your excellent advice to look past the errors to the nitty-gritty of the story and learn from an in-depth analysis of its strengths and weaknesses. Benefit: the writer within may well learn something that will make her next book better.

    Well said, Susan. Thank you for sharing. :-)

    1. I hear ya, Linda. It really is frustrating these days. And honestly, when published books don't grab me, I quit 'em. Not enough time in this world to read bad books!
      But I love the idea of sending your editor within on a long vacation :)

  2. Before I understood the craft of writing, I could sense something in a book wasn't working. Once I studied the craft of writing I could identify the problems. A really good book drags me under on page one and keeps me submerged until the end; the craft is seamless. I live for those book experiences. Anyone who says they don't need to learn craft will never achieve that level of reader satisfaction.

    1. I live for those book experiences too, Diana. And isn't it fabulous that so many authors really DO work to improve the craft--no matter how long they've been doing this!

  3. I have been Newsletter Editor for some computer user groups for years, yet read for pleasure too.

    At first I had a hard time ignoring errors when reading for pleasure.

    Unless things are extremely bad, I find the story is my main focus, and I gloss over errors.

    1. I think it's just inherent in being an editor, Steve--tough to ignore the errors! But in a good book, we can also be so forgiving.

  4. My reading habits changed once I gained command of writing craft and story structure as well—for the first time in my life, I started to set books down without finishing them. It could be age-related as well, because life's too short and a creative mind is too precious to waste on drivel.

    I can still get swept away, but it takes a higher level of literature to pull that off. I always have a book going and if I'm lucky I'll get a good handful of those reading experiences per year—and I'm the richer for seeking them out.

    1. We are on the same track, Kathryn. Couldn't have said that better!

  5. Ditto, Kathryn, and your book is one of those (that sweep you away!) For a long time I read with my inner red pen at the ready and I still do to a certain extent if I see a lot of errors. But for the most part I can "ignore" them if it's a good, engaging story.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...