The illustrious Nathan Bransford wrote an awesome blog post recently. Well, he often writes awesome blog posts, but this one was about how a writer should never ask himself a certain question while reading someone else’s story: Did I like it? Nathan shared some great insight as to why writers shouldn’t ask this, and there’s some interesting thoughts in the comments. So, if you haven’t read this yet, you should.
I loved Nathan’s post so much that I wanted to leave a comment saying so, but words failed me. The best I could come up with was ‘yeah, high five!’ Um...<blushing>...I think I’ve been heavily influenced by my two boys running around the house all summer. :) Anyway, it’s been several days, and I’ve had the chance to think over his post and articulate some thoughts. Rather than put them in the comments section on Nathan’s blog, I decided to write them here.
I actually slightly disagree with Nathan. I think it’s okay to ask yourself ‘did I like this?’ because liking or not liking a book is a big part of the industry. That said, a writer should never stop there. If you do, then you’re not learning anything. Nathan says that a writer should always ask this question: did the author accomplish what he set out to accomplish? Nathan, you are a genius. :)
To properly answer this question, two things much happen. 1) The reader must attempt to put himself in the author’s shoes and figure out what he intended to accomplish with his story. 2) The reader must look at the story itself and figure out what it actually accomplished. Both of these are extremely difficult to do, but I think a good writer needs to be able to do this.
For me, reading is as much a part of learning as taking classes on craft, going to conferences, actual writing, etc. I do book reviews on my blog every week, and I always attempt to answer Nathan's question. The books I choose to review are ones that gave me a strong reaction, positive or negative, and have much to explore in the way of craft. Even if my reaction was strongly negative, I will examine and analyze the good parts, because they’re always there (granted, some books have more than others). If there was nothing good, then it never would have gotten published in the first place. An astute writer will be able to find the good things, even if she didn’t love the book. Even if she hated the book.
An easy reaction to a book one hates is ‘how did this crap get published?’ I hear this often, and have been guilty of saying it (in private) myself. You know what? It doesn’t matter how it got published. What matters is that it did get published, and there’s nothing you or I can do about it...except maybe one thing: we can learn from it. Someone, somewhere, connected with this book, and figuring out what sparked that connection can only add to an writer’s toolbox.
As writers, I think it’s imperative to read everything we can get our hands on, and then pick apart each story. What worked well? What could have been done better? What would we have done differently? Asking these questions is a good start toward dissecting a story and creating a good learning experience. You can spend as much or as little time on the pieces as you like, and you might be surprised at how much you see once you pull it apart.