Why You Should Study Novels

Sometimes reading passively is not enough, and a little bit of homework is required.

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Many successful authors often reflect that avid reading played a large part in their writing. It makes sense to delve into the field of what you want to make into a career, as an astronomer would study the stars. Yet, it isn’t always that easy to understand the mechanics just by reading passively, as not everyone can absorb this information and articulate it into a useful tool.

You may, for example, enjoy reading Nicholas Eames’ debut novel Kings of the Wyld, but if asked why you might struggle to express it into a fully-fledged review. You may have moments you enjoyed and payoffs that, as you read, simmer down contently as a whole experience. This is perfectly normal. There are many times I’ve convinced myself that I’ll remember a key moment and, by the book’s end, there are too many to keep count of, let alone revise.

This is why I’ve started studying novels, short stories, poems, and sometimes essays. It sounds tedious, but hopefully I can write it in a way that pours love onto the page – a devotion of the art form, if you will. Firstly, I enjoy the book as a reader, meaning I try not to critique anything as I wander through the story. I take in what I enjoy and what I dislike, but I try not to hold onto it until the end. I may decide to clean my pallet with another book, or I may take a break and do some writing, but I always return to the book, this time with a professional hat on.

This is the part that probably sounds less fun, but I assure you that it’s been very rewarding. With the eyes of a writer, I read a chapter and take notes – not mental notes, but actual notes on paper. It could be that I particularly enjoyed the dialogue, or that it was unusually clunky and full of exposition. It may be that I enjoyed the gradual revelation or the drops of foreshadowing (that I can now see as I’ve previously read the book), or maybe there’s too much info-dumping. Whatever it is, from character development to world building to plot reveal, it all goes into my notes.

This technique actively asks the reader to work out and articulate what it is that they enjoyed about the book, can be later used to ask the writer how they would implement the knowledge they have learned, and to ask the important questions. What was it about the dialogue in Chapter 7 that made you laugh? What aspect of this character’s death really absorbed you?

There may be weaknesses in your own writing that you’re trying to develop, such as engaging dialogue, and you may decide to focus on that aspect. Or you may be trying to uncover the mystery of what makes a bestseller tick, and compare notes to other books on your shelf. There are many ways that studying can be modified to help you engage with not only another author’s work, but your own.

It could be that there are fundamental issues with a book that you particularly dislike, and want to avoid in your own work. This technique can help you pin-point key moments that alienated you – and why. That’s what it has done for me. For example, in Lila Bowen’s Conspiracy of Ravens, there was an aspect of the plot that I felt had been overlooked, but had a very dark implication beyond its pages. This has made me more aware of how I approach relationships in my writing, and what kind of messages I want to convey.

There are two other applications to this technique as well, such as helping me write book reviews. It may seem like an arbitrary use, but writing book reviews can be a great exercise in writing skills. Reviews aren’t necessarily for the author, but for potential audiences. As such, they can be used to develop a little bit of marketing for works you like and, maybe, your own one day.

And finally, this technique can be applied to your own work when applying edits. Read it as a reader first, and then go through it (after a break) chapter by chapter, taking notes of what you like and what needs changing. It can be easy for writers to lament what they perceive as issues within their work, which is why I believe it’s important to stress the areas of your work that you personally enjoyed. This technique can also be used to deal with stagnant projects, not just complete ones, by working out where in the work the issues developed – and possibly help you fall in love with the work again.

Studying may not sound fun, and this may not be the technique for you, but it may also be the exact thing you’re looking for. It’s always worth a try.

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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