“Read like a writer.” It’s a common piece of advice given to writers, dished out by writers, repeated by writers. The trick is allowing yourself to learn from what you’re reading, to examine the craft while enjoying the prose. It’s like watching a street magician and noticing his sleight of hand — you say to yourself, “I saw what you did there!” Once you’re in on the tricks, you can’t stop. Some might say that the magic is ruined forever.
Personally, I don’t think “reading like a writer” ruins reading for pleasure. I do think there is no going back. There are moments when you can still lose yourself in good prose, but you still want to go back to dissect the illusion, to figure out how each little word was stitched into the fabric that blindfolded you.
Without much effort, a writer will find that each book is teeming with lessons. Good books, bad books, page-turners, works of literary genius, guilty pleasures — there’s something to learn on each page, and we each have different lessons to learn. So, I was thinking, since what I got out of a book might be different from what another person got — maybe I should share?
I can’t possibly tell you what I’ve learned from every book, but I’ll be sharing one or two tidbits from time to time here. And here’s the first one.
So, I recently read Succubus Blues by Richelle Mead. I would definitely characterize this book as a page-turner, maybe even a guilty pleasure. It’s about a succubus who feels guilty about stealing people’s energy by having sex with them, so she avoids sex as much as possible. She tries not to date and ends up dating anyway, while also getting roped into solving the mystery of why local immortals are getting killed and injured. It’s a funny, sassy urban fantasy that’s really hard to put down.
I feel like a lot of people don’t give page-turners enough credit on the sentence-to-sentence level, and I think part of the reason is because they’re too busy turning pages. Another reason is because the writing in some page-turners isn’t terribly well-constructed at this level (in Twilight, for example). But sometimes it is. In Succubus Blues, Mead accomplishes compulsive readability in at least two ways:
First, she throws the reader into a scene. The book is written in first-person, and we’re inside the head of Georgina the saucy succubus the whole time. When Georgina walks into a room, she not only describes the room, but how she feels about it, giving the reader an emotional connection to the setting.
Second, Georgina’s inner dialogue is believable without being distracting. Sentence fragments, jokes and asides give us glimpses into her immediate thoughts, but not too often as to be distracting. Sometimes we’re really in her head, and sometimes we’re a little further out, witnessing the scene from a few steps back. This balance works — snippets of Georgina’s thoughts help us jump ahead and read faster, but if there were too many of them, the writing would be choppy.
Those are two lessons I picked up from Succubus Blues on improving readability. I have a few more observations about the stakes and motivation, but this post is pretty long, so I think I’ll leave it there for now. If you have any thoughts on this, feel free to share!