…in the year leading up to signing with my agent:
Read slower. When you’re in grad school, you’re expected to read an average of 500 pages a week, so by necessity you learn to skim. After a while, it becomes habit for your eye to glide over the page and gather the gist while letting the details slide. Instead, I started reading every word on a page. Every word. This is harder than it sounds, but it’s absolutely necessary to read fiction this way. Which leads into the second change…
Read more closely. This is a close sibling of reading slower, and a direct result of it. When you read slower, you see things. How details work. How word-choice nudges readers in a given direction without the need for clunky blocks of prose. How to erase scaffolding and still keep the plot intact. When you only get the gist, you understand that a book works or doesn’t work, but you don’t always see why.
This is hard to do when the writer does her job well. Ideally, I’m pulled so thoroughly into the story that it doesn’t occur to me to stop and reflect on why that reveal worked so effortlessly. But these moments are important to dissect, because I sure as hell want to duplicate them.
Read diversely. This is a bit challenging, as the struggling library in my dumpy blue-collar town works hard to keep the lights on, much less maintain a diverse collection. However, to build diversity into my reading, I began to keep lists and choose books before I even walk into the library. I read new things and old things, praised things and panned things, award-winning things and obscure things, and I read them in every genre.
The big takeaway: I don’t always like these books, but often I learn more from books that don’t work than books that do.
Keep a log. This is perhaps the most profound of the changes I made to my writing process, as keeping a log crystallized and formalized the other three changes I made. In January, I dug out a spare composition notebook left over from September’s school-supply orgy and began to record every book I read over the year – plot, character, hook, detail, setup, resolution. What worked, what didn’t, and why. When I stopped reading and why. I’ve been keeping it on paper, so I’m completely honest. Brutal, even.
Honestly assessing someone else’s work tends to highlight challenges and strengths in a way that plain ol’ reading doesn’t. And a lot of the stuff about what worked and didn’t wasn’t really new to me, but writing it down made it stick. Writing it down made it useful.
I bought another composition notebook in September. I’m ready for another year of books.