Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Journey with Gillian: Reading as a Writer

Gillian Adams blogs over at Of Battles, Dragons, and Swords of Adamant where she writes about anything relating to books, fantasy, villains, and costumes. Her book Out of Darkness Rising will be published fall 2013. She loves interacting with other writers and readers on her blog or facebook page.

The number one writing tip most authors will give you is to first, write a lot, and second, read a lot.

It sounds somewhat obvious, but it’s very true. Though I’m afraid I take the second one far too literally.

I go to the library frequently, because—let’s be frank—as much as I try to support authors by buying their books, I have yet to discover a secret pirate treasure buried in my backyard. (Though I have looked!) And my “help a starving bookworm fund” never took off like I anticipated.

So, each time I go to the library, I stagger out with a stack of at least ten books tucked under my chin. And that’s in addition to the books I do buy or get free for reviewing.

Needless to say, I read a lot.

When I started studying the writing craft, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy books anymore. But I found that it’s just the opposite.

Sure I may notice more of the imperfections, and now I can actually pinpoint why I don’t particularly like a certain book, but as a writer, I can appreciate books on a much deeper level than I could before.

I understand the blood, sweat, and tears that goes into crafting a novel. I know what it's like to write a three or four hundred page book. I understand the writing process, so I can be more patient when I have to wait a year for the next book in the series. (Um, so that might be stretching the truth a bit.)

But most of all, I can learn from all the incredible writers who’ve gone before me. And sometimes, even learn from the mistakes they've made as well.

When I read, I try to keep a notebook handy to keep track of the things I love about the story. Whether it is the author’s writing style, character development, voice, or just the way the plot keeps me guessing, I’ll take note of it so I know what I want to emulate in my novels.

Not exactly imitate, since I do want to maintain my own distinct voice and style, of course. But there's nothing wrong with intentionally honing my craft through learning from other authors' strengths and weaknesses. It's the best way to learn.

Here are just a couple of the novels I've taken notes from in the past:

The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson

I love his humorous, simplistic style. Where else can you read about “the Nameless Evil (named Gnag)” and the “Fangs of Dang.” The themes of his novels aren’t lightweight, though. And his novels aren’t afraid to wander through the darkest caves, yet the light is never absent.

 The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet by Stephanie Morrill

I just read this one, so it’s a new favorite! Ellie’s voice is so clear and unique and witty. And somehow Stephanie managed to make me root for both guys at once … which was a first for me. I still don’t know how she did that.

The Mistborn Trilogy and The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

Sanderson is an expert at crafting complex fantasy worlds and plots that are deep and full of surprises. He is also great at keeping you completely in the character’s head so that you’re often just as confused as they are about what’s really going on—it makes the story that much more real and exciting!

Starflower by Anne Elisabeth Stengl

Beautiful writing—I think that’s the first thing that struck me when I opened Starflower and started reading. Other than that, Anne Elisabeth Stengl is quite adept at penning unique dialogue from the POV of otherworldly creatures and nonhuman narrators.

The New Recruit, by Jill Williamson

If you’ve read this, then you know that Spencer’s voice is awesome. He sounds so real. Like you could just bump into him one day at school. Also, Jill is an expert at crafting novels that keep my attention glued to the page.

With each element that I note, I try to figure out the principle behind it and apply that principle to my writing in a unique way. So, although I enjoyed Spencer's voice in The New Recruit, I'm not going to try and write a Spencer-esque character in my next novel. I may however, experiment with ways to create a character with a voice as clear and realistic as Spencer's.

Likewise, I love the way Brandon Sanderson constructs such elaborate fantasy worlds that the reader becomes wholly immersed in the culture, setting, and mindset of the characters. But rather than trying to create Sanderson-esque (or Tolkien-esque) fantasy worlds, I hope to figure out unique ways to deepen my own fantasy world until it is just as real and believable as Sanderson's.

Of course, you can learn from poorly written books, too. Whenever I have a hard time getting into a novel, or even when I discover a difficult passage in a novel I really like, I try to dissect it and indentify what it was that distracted me from the story and caused my attention to wander.

It’s a great way to learn what not to do. And sometimes learning what not to do is just as helpful as learning what you should do.

What are some books/authors you’ve learned from in the past? (The lovely Gillian Adams is out of town, but Jill and I are excited to chat with you all about great books!)


  1. Unless the book is really, really, really good, I try and learn while I read (if the book is too good, yeah, forget everything and just disappear into the story :P). I just finished Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley. It was really good, but I tried to take note of what I liked about the characters (such good characters). I think the fact that they were super flawed but wanted more then screwing up their lives really drew me into their stories. Sounds weird. Dimension. I love dimension in books.

  2. I was also rooting for both guys at once in Ellie Sweet! My favourite book (I think. It's very hard to pick one) is Dreaming Anastasia by Joy Preble, because of a combination of funny voice, adorable characters, and throat-gripping plot. I love that book :)

    And (serendipity) I'm doing an interview with her on my blog today to publicise her new book! There's also a giveaway do please come down:

  3. OHHHHHHHHHHHH yes. I've been thinking about this lately. I noticed that I'm more likely to let the book last longer, because now that I know how much work goes into those stories, it seemed a little...well, disrespectful to just rush through it. Not really savor it, if you know what I mean. I actually wrote a blog post about it...but that blog is private, sooo. Sadly that won't work exactly.

    So, yes! GREAT POST!

    1. I know, right? Knowing what it takes to write a book definitely changes your perspective as a reader. :)

  4. I take notes while I read (the rest of the world probably thinks we're crazy for studying books out of school ;). Once in a while I'll find a writer did something really annoying. And then I realize I do that too (sigh). When I read, I also scan closely for new words and then put them all in a document on my computer.
    Thank you for the post! It was great!

  5. Wow, I thought I was the only one who read books in this's refreshing to know that other writers as well read them differently. I like to read a variety of authors, but I really love to read Rick Riordan just because he never fails to surprise me

  6. This is awesome! Most good books just make me forget everything and fall into the story, but with books I didn't like, I dissect them a lot! I don't want to repeat the authors' mistakes...I'm sure most of you agree! :)

    Plus, all of the fantastic comments about Ellie Sweet just make me more eager to read the book!

  7. This is an awesome post!!! I can relate to it so much, being a hopeless bookworm myself. I'm so glad to hear more about 'The Mistborn Trilogy', because I've had my eye on it, but was uncertain if it was appropriate or not.

    'The Tales of Goldstone Wood' always inspires me to a higher level in my writing. I'm also interested to read 'Ellie Sweet' and one of the novels by Jill Williamson!

  8. I've been thinking about this a lot, too. Over the past six months or so, especially, I've really started digging in to books, and it's been LOVELY. It adds to the bookish experience, and I don't know how I survived without having this eyeglass to the writing world. Except... Recently, a book I was looking forward to released, and I didn't love it nearly as much as I wanted to. (I won't tell you what it is, 'cause apparently it's been getting a bad rep in the book-blogging world, and I liked it enough to not want to add to that). It was Good, but it could have been So Much Better. And I KNOW I would have loved it if I read it a year and a half ago. The pacing problems would have been totally beyond me.

    I don't regret getting more into the writing world, and learning about writing via reading; I just wish I could still enjoy mediocre books with the same intensity I did before. Cue nostalgia, I guess...

    1. I understand what you're saying. There are a lot of books that I really want to like, but I end up frustrated at the characters or telling problems or the pacing. :( Still, sometimes the story is good enough that I can forget about those other issues!

  9. Gillian, thank you for the compliment. :-)

    I just bought the Mistborn trilogy! I had a B&N coupon that I needed to use before it expired. Can't wait to read it.

  10. I learn from every book I read. What worked well, and what didn't. And I try to make sure I never do the "what didn't work well" stuff. Key word: try.

  11. When you read the Mistborn trilogy, please tell us more about it, Ms. Williamson. They look like epic books, but I'd like to know if they're personally encouraging as well as literately edifying.

    1. I will most definitely write a blog post about them, Hannah. I think it's a fun new thing for me to blog about some of the general market books I read.

  12. Like Jill mentioned, I learn (or at least try to) from every book I read. And, no, it doesn't detract from the enjoyment of reading, it just changes the way I enjoy reading.

    After reading Replications, I remember telling my mom that I would love to be able to combine, "Jill's character development, John Flanagan's humor, Randy Alcorn's lessons/themes, and a couple of other author's plot twist skills."

    1. *blushes* Thanks, Leah.

      I found out that Randy Alcorn read By Darkness Hid and it made my day. I love him! LOL

    2. From Amo Libros:
      One of the things I enjoyed most about John Flanagan's books was his character interplay. It was excellent and very, very funny. Also his ability to switch points of view without confusing the reader.

  13. When I read books I take notes of new words to improve my vocabulary (and to use in my own writing!). I am currently reading Pride and Prejudice. By the time you have read the first two pages, you already have SCRUPULOUS, SOLACE, CAPRICE and CIRCUMSPECT. Awesome!

    1. Jane Austen will certainly improve your vocab!

    2. Haha! I remember Jane Austen was so confusing at first. I didn't understand at all why disinterested love was good and indifferent love was bad... but haha I got the hang of the weird vocab after a while :)

  14. I actually never tried dissecting books like this, I only read for enjoyment.

    Every once in a while I'll find a book that I don't like, but I'll continue reading to see if the plot gets better or the characters improve or learn from their mistakes.

    Others I gave up on because I couldn't stand where it was going. I'll definitely try this out though. : )


  15. That's a really good idea. As Cait said, dimension is good. I'll have to start doing this. This will really help my plots.
    Thanks for the posts!

  16. I know, I really pay close attention to the books I read now, since I began writing seriously. If I could choose, I wish I had Kelly Armstrong's flair for characters, J.K. Rowling's imagination, L.J. Smith's voice and perhaps the ideas of everyone in the group lol

  17. Hmmmm... I wish I could combine Charles Dickens amazing plots, T. A. Barron's vivid yet not overdone description, Suzanne Collins cliffhanger endings and as Leah said, Jill's character development!!

  18. Okay, loooooooove this. I had the same fears. I even thought maybe reading was ruined for me forever when I started pointing out the flaws in books and struggled to actually lose myself in reading (Ellie Sweet makes a comment like this, too, at one point, I think).

    Gillian, I can't wait for your book to come out. Your way with words (even in a blog post) is lovely.

    AND I have no idea how Stephanie did that, either, but, yes, I was totally straddling the Palmer and Chase clubs at different points. :)

    1. Aw, thanks, Rachelle. So sweet of you to say! :)