Reading leads to better writing for many reasons, and National Book Month is the perfect time to highlight some of them! We would argue that books are both the means and the end for writers.
When we read, we engage in a shared culture with our readers. Whether we are reading what is popular on the market, discussed among our peers, or sitting at the top of our genre, we are forming connections that will enrich our writing imagination and our bond with our target audience. In other words, when we read, we grow.
But is all reading equally beneficial?
You may have heard Stephen King famously say that often “the bad books have more to teach than the good ones,” so you probably already understand that it’s not a waste of time to give a mediocre book a chance, or allow yourself to enjoy a book that isn’t going to win any awards. But there is a way to make the most of your time spent reading.
Read like a writer.
When you read with intention, keeping your eyes open for opportunities to apply what you are learning to your own writing, you may find that the novel on your night stand is as good a writing teacher as they come. This doesn’t mean that you can no longer read for pleasure, but do consider trying some of the following ideas:
Take advantage of your resources. Reading is market research, it’s professional development, and it is good intellectual exercise. If that’s not enough motivation to pick up the next book on your TBR pile, consider the fact that there is scientific proof that people who read live longer than those who don't!
So read widely and often. It makes for better writing!
by Anjanette Barr
Drive provokes curiosity in readers. “And then what happened?” is the question readers ask to find out what comes next in a story. A story with a lot of drive keeps readers turning pages.
Curiosity is such a strong force that people cannot resist. It killed the cat, right? But, despite the sayings, it doesn’t always lead to a bad place. Readers enjoy diving into a book head first to satisfy their curiosity. The more readers want to find out, the more glued to pages they are to find out what happens next.
Drive is usually connected to action and events rather than thoughts and feelings. When readers talk about stories, they say “then what happened?” not “then how did she feel?” This doesn’t mean that readers don’t want to know how she felt, it means that first readers need to know what happens and when they do, they expect to find out what she thought and felt as part of the details of what happened.
Remember above when I said curiosity doesn’t always lead to a bad place? Well, inside the book, it usually doesn’t lead to good places. Which is precisely why it’s interesting for readers. Characters need to face considerable adversity almost to the point that readers are glad not to experience it first hand.
Commercial style books have a lot of drive by definition, hence the term “plot-driven.” A story’s drive relates to the events and actions in the story. Frequently, what happens next isn’t the typical action that readers expect because the joy of finding out what happens next is to be surprised at the unexpected. When a firefighter bursts through the door, readers want to know what happens next. Does the firefighter start putting out the fire? Or, does the firefighter look for trapped people? Or, “Surprise!” is that just Dad dressed in a fireman’s outfit to celebrate a child’s birthday? Surprise indeed.
Literary books, which are character-driven, also have drive, but they usually have different types of questions that readers want to find out chiefly related to character exploration. In other words, the reader wants to know not just what happened next but why the character did something seemingly incomprehensible.
If a book doesn’t have enough drive, readers stop reading. Loss of engagement means no longer feeling connected to the characters and the story to find out more. In other words, losing curiosity. Because of that, it’s the author’s job to keep the drive going in a story so that readers will want to find out what happens next. If the characters and predicaments aren’t interesting enough, readers won’t care about finding out what happens next.
One way to heighten drive is to make sure that the end of each chapter contains a question that makes readers want to turn the page immediately and continue with the next chapter. While chapter endings usually stop at the end of a scene or something wraps up, they must also contain the seed for the next step in the story so that readers have an urge to keep going. And stating a question is a good way to get readers thinking about possible answers.
The climax should hold the answer to one of the central questions that has been driving the story. Finally, as the protagonist experiences the biggest challenge of the story, readers find out answers to key questions that have contributed to the mounting tension. The resolution, then, ties up loose ends by explaining unanswered questions related to various characters and subplots. The sense of an ending in part comes from the drive winding down as questions are answered.
Drive is the force that compels readers to turn pages. With plenty of drive, readers will wish the book wouldn’t end.
by Jennie Dunham
The Promises An Author Makes: 5 unspoken promises an author fulfills in a story
Have you ever heard someone say the book didn’t fulfill its promise? Coming from a publishing professional, these can be difficult words to hear. But this feedback can be invaluable in understanding how a manuscript needs to improve in order to be marketable.
No author writes “I promise to….” on the back of the book. But in every book the author makes an implicit pact with the reader about the story ahead.
It’s as if the author and reader are going on a journey together although the author is present only as the words on the page, like a soul that has traversed this trail previously guiding someone for the first time. Without explicitly using the words “I promise,” the reader knows that the author has made promises about what will happen in the story based on the type of book, premise, and opening pages. But, what are those promises?
The author’s promise about new places is: I will take you somewhere you have never been. A new place will be enticing to readers. Readers wonder what it’s really like there, and they want more than a tourist view. In order to make it worth the time and effort of reading a story in a particular setting, the author needs to depict a place that the author believes and can construct fully in the imagination. When the author fulfills the promise of going to new places, readers come away feeling as if they were in a specific place, different from anywhere they’ve been before the story.
The author’s promise about new experiences is: I will guide you through experiences you’ve never had. Readers enjoy stories because they imagine facing an obstacle or living through a situation that they haven’t or can’t have. Readers want to know the details of the experience at each step as the tension mounts to the climax, not just the end result of what happened. When an author has fulfilled the promise of new experiences, readers come away with a nuanced understanding of the experience despite going through it vicariously.
The author’s promise about familiar places is: I will show you a familiar place so you see it with fresh eyes. If a reader picks up a book set in a place they’ve lived or visited, they want to revisit that place. The author’s depiction of that place allows the reader to recognize it and to remember the good and the bad about being there. But, the author’s promise goes beyond that. No matter how much the reader knows about the place, after reading the story, the reader will know even more details about the flora and fauna, architecture, history, and people. If the author has fulfilled the promise of returning to a familiar place, the reader reframes their own understanding of that place to include this new knowledge and vicarious experience of being there.
The author’s promise about familiar experiences is: I will help you relive a familiar experience in a new way. When a reader picks up a book that includes an experience they’ve been through already, they’re looking to relive it all over again and to be in each moment along the way. When readers put themselves in familiar situations, they can face them with 20/20 hindsight (and no risk). After riding a roller coaster, the immediate response is to do it again and relive the thrill. But, after having the same experience a few times, the thrill feels ordinary and the search begins for a roller coaster that is faster, goes higher, falls harder, and spends more time upside down. In a story the outcome might be the same like riding a roller coaster again, but the reader might also find out that story’s the outcome is different than it was in real life which might feel like a more intense roller coaster ride. The author facilitates the reader going through the emotional ups and downs of the experience and helps them to contextualize the experience. The author fulfills the promise of revisiting familiar experiences by allowing the reader to remember past experiences and be prepared to think and act in new and different ways when faced with them again.
The author’s promise about the people readers will meet on the page is: I will introduce you to new, intriguing characters, and I will help you understand why they act the way they do. Why do people do what they do? What makes us human? Readers choose books to meet unique characters who enrich a connection to people and the world. Some characters do things exactly the way the reader would and some would face the same challenge in completely unexpected ways. If done well, a character’s culture, heritage, upbringing, environment, and identity all make the reader’s experience of identifying with the character unique. The author fulfills the promise of introducing new characters if the reader comes away from the story having internalized a new understanding or perspective usually from the protagonist and perhaps from the narrator or other characters in the story too.
For an author to fulfill the promise of a book, the story must provide an immersive journey for readers emotionally and intellectually. The elements must fit together so that the story belongs to the protagonist in a way that would be different with any other character. And, the story must present something unexpected or fresh and different so that readers reflect about what they’ve read, something that makes the characters, the places, the events, and the voice memorable long after the last page.
The author’s overall promise is that the story will take a reader somewhere dark or uncomfortable. But, that’s ok because the corollary to this promise is that the author is the guide who will bring the reader out safely at the end. This promise creates the reader’s trust in the author.
by Jennie Dunham
A writer is rarely at a loss for words which makes writer’s block the bane of the writing life. At any time in the writing process, a writer can be derailed by not knowing what comes next. A blank page at the start of a new project can make a writer stumble for how to begin. A complicated middle can make an author freeze without a clear path to the climax. And figuring out how to nail a story’s ending can stymie a writer.
Here are six ways to get back on track.
#1 Go outside – refresh with a change of scenery and getting active
If you are truly stuck with your writing project, staring at a blank screen is not going to get you unstuck. Writing is solitary and sedentary which itself doesn’t lead to generating actions and events in the story. Both the change of scenery and getting active will renew your creativity. The feeling of fresh air on your face will translate to a breath of fresh air on the page.
#2 Change format – take a break from prose
Sometimes sentences just don’t seem to flow. Try a sideways approach to getting back on track by writing part of a scene in a very different mode. Write a scene only with dialog. Or, replace the prose with a poem. Don’t get stuck on rhyme because poetry is more than that. Maybe alliteration or a rhythm could be the change in texture that helps you get on track. Afterwards, you can replace these sections with prose that’s consistent with the rest of your story. Sometimes, getting your brain to work with words in a different way does the trick so you can find your way back to your story.
#3 Brainstorm again – switch to generating ideas
Bring fast energy to your scratch pad by writing ideas without stopping. You’ll switch from storytelling mode to brainstorming. Try giving yourself topics related to your characters or events happening in the story and brainstorm various possibilities. You could try ordering some of the ideas into lists, and then switch them in unusual ways to see if that jogs your storytelling brain. You can throw out the crazy and wacky ideas, but often they help you find an unexpected answer for what comes next.
#4 Research your audience – find out what your readers crave
If you dive into your audience’s experience of reading, you’ll find what keeps them coming back to read more of the type of book you’re writing. Consider what you can do to amp up that experience for them. Can you add something that was missing before? All books have readers turning pages to find out what comes next or what information the author has to share, but categories and genres do this in different ways. When writer’s block stops you, go back to the reason readers will pick up your book; you’ll be able to dive in again to add what readers will enjoy most about your story.
#5 Switch to a different project – shifting gears can recharge your creativity
It’s always easier to pick up where you left off with a project than to start a new one. Have you ever cheated on one writing project with another? If you’re like most writers, you’ve got a stash of ideas and half-finished projects waiting for you to get inspired to continue working on them. Sometimes getting into a groove with a different project that is in process can jog your brain into productivity on the one that is your main focus.
#6 Take a shower – the Hail Mary
This is the writer’s version of Murphy’s Law: you’ll get your best ideas when you're wet because you can’t get to a pen (or computer). There is something about immersing oneself in water that helps with going back to the well of creativity. Just try it.
When writer’s block challenges you, try sideways tactics to get the flow of words going again. Give yourself permission to get a draft that’s in rough shape; don’t expect your most amazing prose to come with the first sentences you get on the page. The main concern is to beat the block by getting back to writing.
by Jennie Dunham
Some writing shortcuts are gimmicks, and generally, if it sounds too good to be true, it is. Nothing allows a writer to bypass the work involved in writing a book. One of the best and most well-known supports is to work with a mentor or teacher who is already an established writer. Getting in-person critiques can make a big difference to writer of any age who’s starting out. But, not everyone has access to an established writer willing to help, and editorial services can be costly.
Instead of working with a mentor, consider using a mentor text. This means foregoing a coach who guides you by prompting you to write or who responds to what you've written. A mentor text itself acts as your guide.
What is a mentor text? A mentor text is a book that is already published which you use as a blueprint for the book you're writing. This means that it's not a book about writing which is essentially a self-help book with advice for writers. It's an already-published book that you choose and use in your own process as a successful example of what you’re trying to do.
Think of a mentor text as blueprint. It can be especially helpful as a guide for the plot, the tone, the characters, character arcs, and themes. There are so many different elements in a story that even a veteran writer can benefit looking at their current project with a different lens.
When looking for a mentor text, think about what you need most from the book that will serve as your guide. Do you struggle with plot? Do you want to keep the tone consistent? Would it help you to look deeply at defining characters and depicting their thoughts and emotions? Do you get caught up in the plot and forget what’s going on with the various characters’ arcs?
If plot is your main reason for using a mentor text, likely, you're going to want a book in the same genre. If you're writing a mystery or a romance, the plots will have similar "beats" in the three-act structure. Even a character-driven story needs a narrative backbone. This means you'll head to a particular bookshelf for that genre to find a mentor text. Start at the bookshelves that have the type of book you’re writing.
If keeping a consistent tone in your story is your reason for finding a mentor text, think about what tone you want. Are you writing a white-knuckled survival? An edge-of-your-seat thriller? A hysterical rom-com? You’re keying in to how the reader feels, so consider reaching out to friends and asking for recommendations. You may need to do more research to find the right mentor text, but a personal recommendation is a good start.
Characters are essential in every story. As a writer you need to know your characters and describe them internally and externally and all of their actions so that the reader understands them. It’s a challenge to write a protagonist so that the reader relates to them. Since virtually every story has characters, it can be harder to find a mentor text because there are so many choices. Hone in on the right text by thinking about attributes of your character that may be unusual or challenges the character may face. See if there are similar stories you can find based on these aspects of your character.
Character arcs are important because stories show characters over time interacting with other characters and overcoming obstacles. By mapping out each character’s arc in the story, a writer looks at the rise in tension towards the climax as characters’ motivations, mistakes, and mishaps propel them to the climax. If you want to find a mentor text to look closely at character arcs, try to find a book in which characters have similar relationships to the ones in your book. Look for buddies, siblings, co-workers, parents and children? While it's easy to focus on the protagonist, don’t forget the antagonist and key supporting characters. An online search for books with these types of relationships can be fruitful.
You don't want your book to be an exact copy of your mentor text. Your book needs to be your own and to stand as a "fresh and new" story. If you've done it right, nobody who reads your book will know which book you used for a mentor text.
Once you’ve chosen a mentor text, read it several times. First and foremost, a book should be enjoyable, so start out doing just that when you read a book for the first time. The plot twists will surprise you, and you’ll feel all the highs and lows of the emotions the protagonist feels. During a second read, you can look more closely to see what you missed the first time. With later reads, you already know the plot which makes the emotions less intense because you know what to expect. You can focus in on the mechanics of how the author crafted the various elements to make an engaging story. That’s when you can use it as a guide.
Mentor texts can be especially helpful because of how long it takes to write a book. Somewhere along the line, you might get derailed in terms of where the story is going or change the tone of your book. Referring back to your mentor text can help you connect with the elements of your story that are challenging for you.
A mentor text can be helpful at any stage in the writing process. If you’re just starting out writing, or if you have a solid draft, consider using a book that’s already published to help make yours ready for a wide audience and everything you want it to be.
November is here! It's NaNoWriMo time!
Since 1999 the people behind National Novel Writing Month have been encouraging authors to meet their creative goals by challenging participants to write 50,000 words of a new novel in just 30 days. That's 1,667 words a day!
At the end of the the month, writers who "win" NaNoWriMo will have the rough draft of their project and a huge boost of self-esteem to show for their hard work and persistence. It's a great way to supercharge your creativity and have a lot of fun with like-minded people.
It is also legitimately difficult to write 50k words in such a short amount of time! So we have some tips for surviving and making the most of NaNo this year!
Keep an eye on this page for agency news, author interviews, and more!