Sunday, March 8, 2009

Reading Like a Writer

When I taught elementary school, one of my students' favorite subjects was always "Writers' Workshop". (No surprise considering my own passion for writing. :o)) And, as part of Writers' Workshop, I used to give my students mini-lessons on how to "read like a writer". In these mini lessons, I would share with my students carefully collected story openings or story closings or snippets of dialogue. In these lessons, I tried to make my students aware of how these wonderful authors whose craft I was sharing with them could be their actual writing teachers. They (and I) could learn so many wonderful techniques from such careful reading of children's literature.

I continue to learn a great deal from other writers. But, now that I'm a much more serious children's writer, reading like a writer has come to have an expanded meaning for me.

Yes. I now experience another emotion when I read a perfect book.


Okay, envy doesn't adequately describe it. (We writers must always search for the perfect word, mustn't we?) It's more like a combination of exquisite appreciation for the perfection of what the author has accomplished... combined with absolute despair of ever being able to accomplish anything anywhere close to that good in my own writing!

Books that have given me this wonderful/awful feeling include Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, Rules by Cynthia Lord, Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen, Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo, The Giver by Lois Lowry, Dragon Slayers Academy by Kate McMullan and Art by Patrick McDonnell. These are books that have hooked me so totally and completely that I can't "read like a writer". Not on the first reading (or two) anyway. I am just completely swept up in a perfectly told story. And when I go back to see why the story was so perfect... I usually end up swept up totally and completely once again. These stories are that good!

And then I wish that I could create something like the book I just read. Something serious or thought provoking or hysterically funny (depending on what the last book I read was). Oh how I wish that I could!

But I can't. Because I write my own stories with their own unique voice and they're different from all my favorite authors. (Oh how I wish I could write thought provoking adventures like Margaret Peterson Haddix!)

Yet I know the reading of these wonderful books must expand me as a writer. They encourage me to expand my horizons and to shoot for perfection in my own writing. To try to create a book someday that will give some other writer that wonderful mingling of joy and despair. To create a book that will leave that type of lasting impression on my own future young readers.

So, I'm curious, how has being a writer changed your reading? And are there any "perfect" books that give you the feeling I've described?


  1. I have thrown down the reading gauntlet!

    I have been ripping through YAs this year, reading every book I see mentioned on Verla Kay or in our group, or anywhere. But I am not the best writer-reader. I still read like a reader. I have to slow myself down and pause before I turn the page to consider the writing and what it is that makes me WANT to turn the page. Sometimes it's easy, if the story doesn't grab me or if I'm not in love with the characters. Unfortunately, it's when I really, really love a book that I have the hardest time. Makes sense. I get so wrapped up in it that I don't care why I'm turning the page! I'm turning it because I can't wait to find out what's going to happen next.

    Those books I return to - when my heart has stopped racing and I can ponder the writing without hyperventilating.

    And that's not to say that I don't learn something from the books I don't fall in love with. They are well written books, but I do find myself wondering what our group would say about them if we got them to critique!

  2. I can so relate to this post. A lot of things that stand out to me now are comparrisons and thru-lines. I most recently finished Paper Towns by John Green and loved his use of comparisons with strings/circles and mirrors/windows. Brilliant use of comparison and contrast.

    I also tend to pick out clever ways that things are described. If I find something that I particularly like then I will copy it into a special journal.

    Last year I read The Hunger Games and flew through it like a reader. But I loved it so much I've had to go over it again and again and I've even started highlighting, graphing and discecting for pacing and plot.

    fun post!


  3. My fits of jealousy and despair nearly always hit after reading a picture book by Kevin Henkes. I immediately fall into what Paula Danziger called "pencil envy."

    Admittedly, he's one of those fortunate few who can write AND illustrate, but hey, I'd be happy to feel I could claim a bleacher seat in the same writers' ballpark.

  4. "Pencil envy"!! That's hysterical!

  5. I don't have pencil envy, I have Frindle envy.

    I also got that wonderful-horrible feeling after reading Holes, The Lightning Thief, the Gregor books, An Abundance of Katherines, Coraline, Unwind, and name a few.

    Come to think of it, I get that same stir of emotions from most children's books I read these days. Sigh.

  6. I recently finished Paper Towns by John Green. I shut the book and sighed. And sat. And sighed. And sat. And sighed some more.

    The next book I read was What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell. Finishing that led to more sitting and sighing.

    But after reading Brianna's post, I've removed Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose from my nightstand. I think I need to do less sighing and more examining. This is a book to be studied by day, eyes wide pen, highlighter in hand.

  7. "exquisite appreciation" - I like that Brianna! I'm feeling that right now for The Book Thief. I'm not racing through it as I have other books. I'm savoring it, and I'm actually able to put my "read like a writer" cap to the side and just enjoy it.