Thursday 5 July 2012

Reading With An Agenda

There are probably some books you feel like you should read but you don’t really want to. 

They’re great books—you know this because everyone says they are. They win awards and feature on Best Of lists and when you look at the photo of the author on the back, they seem to be saying: “This is what a real writer looks like.”

But your heart sinks if you even think about picking the book up. It’s not your style, it’s not your genre, it’s too long, it’s too boring.

Well, there’s a way around this problem.

First, you need a notebook and pen.

You have to approach the book like a research project. You’re the scientist, the book is the alien artefact that’s fallen out of the sky. The future of the world is at stake.

However, if you read a book hoping the secrets of the universe will be revealed to you, you’re going to end up disappointed. You need a specific agenda.

You find this agenda by listening to what people say about your own book. Perhaps you need to work out how to make characters feel present and active during long conversations. Instead of lots of he said/she said talking heads, you need to keep the reader aware of who is where and doing what.

Pick up a good book you’ve been meaning to read; start reading. If it catches your interest, great. If it doesn’t, skim. When you get to dialogue, slow down and see how they do what you want to do better.

If readers tell you your characters get mixed up, study sections where new characters are introduced. If your endings are rushed and convoluted, go straight to the end chapters.

Obviously there’s no point reading a 19th century novel if people are telling you your descriptions are too long and flowery, you have to use a little common sense and choose your test subjects wisely. But the good thing about great books is that it’s pretty easy to find out what people think are its strong points.

What you’re looking for isn’t a mechanic’s logical understanding of a machine, you want something to literally jump out at you (okay, maybe not literally—although are 3D books that far away?). Something that strikes a chord with you on more than a intellectual level. Make a note of it, keep going. Get a bunch of them from a selection of books and you’ll have a feel for how to do it yourself.

You may come up empty, of course. That’s okay. If you find yourself into the book, keep reading. If not, bail. You don’t have to read a book you aren’t enjoying and that isn’t teaching you anything. Even if it is teaching you stuff, once you’ve got what you need and the story still isn’t engaging you, move onto another book.

You aren't there to force yourself to read against your will, you're a treasure hunter looking for loot. Sometimes you'll get caught up in the story and want to find out what happens next—think of it as a bonus. Sometimes you'll want to get out of there as soons as—so be it.

There are many aspects of writing you can investigate. The more people comment on your WIP, the more material you’ll have to work with. And it will make what you read more exciting just for the possibilities it offers up.

By the way, this method also works in real life. If you find yourself having to go places you really don’t want to, because of parents or spouses or children, then having a notebook and a specific agenda turns it into an expedition, rather than a six year old’s birthday you’re stuck chaperoning. The agenda still needs to be specific (What do six year olds talk about when they’re alone?) and you may not want to whip out the notebook in public, but once you have your own reason for being there (whether it’s your third cousins wedding or a two hundred year old book), things get much more interesting.
If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Karen Jones Gowen said...

I like this! What excellent advice to help stave off boredom while reading or stuck at an event where you don't want to be.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I'm not bored, I'm conducting research. Great slogan for a t-shirt!
God forbid I ever find myself trapped in a room for of six-year-olds though.

mooderino said...

@Karen-obviously I enjoy all functions I'm forced, er, invited to attend.

@Alex-It works, I tell you!

PT Dilloway said...

I prefer making mental notes. No bulky notebooks or messy ink that way.

mooderino said...

@PT-sadly, some of us no longer have that facility. I can barely make it to the kitchen and remember what I went in there for.

L.J. Kentowski said...

Great advice! I was just deciding on a book to read today from my bookshelf. I passed over all of the books that I knew I "should" read, of course. This is a great way to look at it now. Maybe I will pick up one of them :) Thanks!

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

I already try to observe and make notes during events and scenarios where I don't want to be but I never really thought of setting more of an agenda, something more specific, beforehand. Thanks!

mooderino said...


@Madeline-it's the specific agenda that makes it exciting!

Veronica Sicoe said...

3D books!!

Great tips, mood. Reading with an agenda is all I can do currently, there's just so little time for reading! So if I read - I try to pick out things that do double duty, entice & teach.

Luckily, there's a great many really awesome books out there! :)

Anonymous said...

Great post! This summer my TBR list includes Francine Prose's 'Reading like a Writer'. I don't do enough of this with the classics (because I love being swept away by the story)... but I definitely should. Hmmm... the notebook at the birthday parties or family reunions sounds dangerous. : )

mooderino said...

@vero-3D glasses really help make the subtext standout.

@kimberly-writers live for danger!

Anonymous said...

Here is how I read which seems to work for me.

1) I use Kindle Apps on PC
2) I will do some research on Google. Amazon and Goodreads before even starting to read
3) Will also look at Spark Notes and Cliff Notes, if needed
4) Skim each chapter and highlight parts
5) Read the chapter and highlight, make notes, etc.
6) Look up Google and Wikipedia
7) After finishing the book, go back and review the highlighted portions of the book to see if I want to read the book again.

This is lot of work, but if I Am going to read, I am All In.

mooderino said...

@anon-I think if you've got the energy and focus to do it that way, that's awesome. I start off thinking I can do it like that, but fate conspires against me. Damn you fate!

Rachna Chhabria said...

Another wonderful post from you.

LD Masterson said...

Ah, finally. A way to get through my library monthly reading group when the story's just not doing it for me...and get something useful at the same time.


Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

This is totally true. It's how I can get through so many books that don't really appeal to me genre wise. I pick up a pen and take notes. I often find that a good book teaches me things that I never knew before.

mooderino said...

@Rachna-thank you.

@LD-glad to be of help.

@Michael-I think there's something to learn from most books (although with some it's just not to read any more books by that author).

Darlyn (Your Move, Dickens) said...

Most of the time, I decide to stop reading books, because there's something jarring about the writing. So, maybe, we can also look for things we should avoid. If we can spot mistakes like paper-thin characters, then we can also figure out ways to avoid making the same mistakes...

Charmaine Clancy said...

I'm doing a lot of writing-related reading at the moment, mostly I'm enjoying it, but yes, there are some that are just hard work and a big part of my brain whines 'whyyyyy???' every time I pick up a book with the work literary and award on the cover.

cleemckenzie said...

This is probably the best advice I've read about improving your own writing in a long time.

I gave it a Tweet and I'll post on fb. It deserves more readers who are serious about their writing.

mooderino said...

@Darlyn-given enough time I think what doesn't work becomes apparent, no tleast of all because others will point it out. How to fix it is much more of a problem.

@Charmaine-a lot of very successful blockbusters can also have that effect on me.

@clee-thank you.

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