Let’s just subtitle this post, “Reading With Your Writing Brain,” which might sound like fun (putting to use the sorts of things you’re learning; being the one to stand in judgment of what you read with a critical eye), but in fact can be an onerous proposition. Reading with your writing brain can truly interfere with your ability to read for simple enjoyment. I am not saying that gone are the days when you could breathlessly turn page after page only to look up and realize that you’ve spent an hour of your day–maybe even an hour of your allotted writing block–reading.
Let me underscore that point just for a moment. I still find my best, early indication of a book’s quality to be the number of pages I read before I have the overwhelming urge to check my page number. That, to me, is a sign that I’m ready to put the book down, at least temporarily, and do other important things. Braid the lawn. Neologize portmandeaus like literendorph. Wonder if I should use that as my blog name.
You know, important stuff.
That can still happen. You can still find yourself in the place where you’re justifying another page… or two… even though the light has changed to green… or the doctor has asked you for the scalpel for the second time. But just as sure as those times are to come, it is equally sure (and unavoidable) that you are going to find those stinkers that make you wonder how this crap got published and your gleaming NOvel (so great it required two initial capitals) sits unpublished, perchance collecting rejection slips. It is a natural outgrowth of becoming a better writer, I think, that extends what was already your critical eye: there were always books that hit (with you) and books that missed; now you just have more tools that let you diagnose what is working (or, perhaps more painfully, what is not working) in this CtgP (Crap that got Published) you hold.
Chances are, CtgP would never have given you that breathless “can someone put the diaper on the dog and play fetch with the baby ’cause I’m reading over here” moment, anyway. Now, though, you’ll notice more splinters. Unmistakable, sharp, and hard as hell to ignore once they poke you.
On the other hand, you can get better at your own writing if you engage that side of your brain even when the literendorphs flow.
See that? Callback.
When you’re turning pages so fast you are (much like a rocket reentering the earth’s atmosphere) setting them afire, good stuff is happening. The words are flying by, yes, but beneath the mechanics are humming. Go ahead, chase the dragon. Ride your literendorphs. The author has your back.
After the seatbelt light gets extinguished and the plane has come to a complete stop at the terminal, though, consider thinking back (or plain just going back) to see what the author did that made a passage so good. It might seem like magic… like a perfect balance of flavors that makes you check the label to learn the ingredients and make the dish yourself only to see written there, “…and other spices.” But the more tools you have, the more you learn and practice in your own writing, the more you’ll be able to pick out the flavors even without the ingredient list.
So, perhaps some examples?
I just recently finished Neil Gaman’s Neverwhere, and highly recommend it to all. Gaiman’s work would undoubtedly make any sort of speculative fiction primer, and Neverwhere is full of lovely little moments where the prose is perfectly shaped to the characters and/or emotion of the scene. Remember when I wrote about writing the self-aware? Gaiman’s writing is a great place to look for that sort of thing, if you’re ready to engage your writing mind while you read. Here’s just one:
"But I looked there. I did. I looked there. When I was cleaning up the body..." And she began to cry, in low, raging sobs, that sounded like they were being tugged from inside her."There. There," said the marquis de Carabas, awkwardly, patting her shoulder. And he added, for good measure, "There." He did not comfort well.
There is some good detail in that passage, and quite a bit of color for the characters. The underlying tension carries to its natural, uncomfortable conclusion. The last bit, “He did not comfort well,” much like a caption beneath a photo, provides a humorous summary of what we’ve just seen. It manages to avoid feeling like an elbow in the ribs (“Did you get it? Did you?”) because of how wonderfully (British-ly) understated it is.
What about as an example of self-aware writing? Two things stand out to me about that. First, the third “there” in the comforting de Carabas gives the other character (a girl named Door) is an afterthought, as if “there, there” should be enough. An afterthought. Now look where it’s placed: as a rare post-speaker-attribution speech. After. The structure underscores the meaning.
Second, in support of the awkwardness of this sort of moment, we get a juxtaposition of what de Carabas would consider “good measure,” against the declaration that he does not “comfort well.” The natural structural tension inherent to such a juxtaposition works as a foil against the awkwardness built into the scene (and mentioned in the narrative).
Dry stuff, I know. All this talk of mechanics and structure. As is the way of this sort of textual dissection, the more we cut, the more we kill. The more I talk about the magic of the passage, the less magical it becomes. The good news is that nothing this cerebral need go on while you’re reading Gaiman. The more you notice these sorts of things, the less needful this sort of cookbook will become. You’ll just notice… oregano. Cumin. Sea salt. Structural echoes.
Another example of what you can learn if you read with your writing brain, this time from the novel Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay:
And her handsome, silken-smooth cousin, he had learned today, was now first minister of the empire. Had been since autumn.
Kay does this fairly regularly in the book. Where there is a shared subject between two sentences, Kay affects something of a colloquial voice in his sentence breaks. This mechanic takes two forms. The first is when the verb tense remains the same between the two phrases. In that case Kay joins the two phrases in a single sentence by the use of a comma (non-Kay examples follow):
Lorna studied the symbols as she passed, went inside to pray.
Thad rubbed his hands together, shoved his foot in a boot.
Geoff worked at his sore leg, made a mental note to visit the apothecary.
The phrases are not joined with a conjunction, nor is the second rendered as a past participle:
Lorna studied the symbols as she passed and went inside to pray.
Lorna studied the symbols as she passed, going inside to pray.
The second form of this mechanic is when the verb tense is different between the two verb phrases, typically with the second phrase being in the past perfect. In that case (as in the quote from Under Heaven, above), Kay breaks the new tense into its own sentence, but still removes the subject.
Jonny was the one to worry about. Had been all along.
Nola was going to Hong Kong. Had gone many times.
It’s easy to pick out the effect. One of the things that Kay gets from this mechanic is the lack of repetition of his subjects from sentence to sentence, but certainly there is more going on than just evidence of Kay attempting to avoid repetitive subjects or sentence structures.
For one thing, this sort of sentence structure tends to be more punchy. Sentences (or comma concatenated phrases) fall immediately forward to their verb, giving the passages their colloquial quality. That, too, contributes to the speed of the passage. The end result, for me anyway, is something like listening to a cowboy tell a story around a campfire. Conversational, but orative at the same time. Noble and common.
“I went into Pecadillo, found the man I was looking for. The sun was setting. Had been for about three days.”
So, when you find yourself really, really enjoying a scene, keep an eye out for what is going on structurally. Mechanically. You might be surprised what you learn. You might even find a tool to add to your own toolbox. Something to make your reader’s literendorphs flow.