A true writer is always aware and perceptive when reading, especially with fiction. While conferences and classes can help a writer grow, observant reading—the most basic and invaluable route to better your craft—shouldn't be overlooked.
Good writing can reveal how an author develops characters, nudges the plot, blends transitions, creates suspense and opens our heart.
Sometimes writers feel guilty when reading instead of writing, but both are integral parts of a successful scribe's daily life. Bestselling author Tom Clancy has said, "If you're a writer, you're also a priori a reader. You have your favorites; we all do. Examine the way your favorite writer uses language—because this is the key to communicating your characters and your scenes to the reader."
To learn how an author masters plot, keep a stack of notecards beside you as you read a novel by one of your favorite storytellers. Make a card for every plot point the writer introduces.
If the book is a detective story, police procedural or legal thriller, you may find not only a major plot but numerous subplots running throughout the book. Use the notecards to document shifts in plot as well as subplots throughout the story. Don't forget to include page numbers from the book on each card so you can go back and study exactly how elements are woven into the fabric of the story line.
Another method of studying plots and subplots is using highlighters to track the shifts directly on the pages of the novel: a sky blue for the main plot, hot pink for the first subplot, lime green for the second subplot and so forth.
In this way, you can easily follow the development of each plot element throughout the novel. Because the main story line and the subplots are color-coded, you can isolate any one of the plot lines to examine the development in greater detail.
Don't forget to study transition sentences the author uses to connect elements of plot together. How does the author shift from one scene to another? The mark of a skilled writer is how seamlessly the total story is pieced together from plots and subplots into a unified story line.
A talented writer will use smooth transition sentences that you may miss on the first look. While reading, you suddenly realize that the writer has introduced a new subplot or has shifted in time or place.
How did the author do that? Go back and locate the transition sentence. Study it. Once you see how experienced authors use transitions to shift plot, setting or time, you'll have a new tool with which to craft your own work.
While reading, study character in a similar manner. How does the writer reveal the character's personality, appearance, relationships and thought process? Notecards or highlighters can work here as well.
Underscore every passage that allows you as a reader to visualize a particular character; jot down sentences that reveal a character's personality on notecards. What you're likely to see is that the writer has numerous techniques for putting flesh on a character's bones. These might include the following:
• descriptive passages
• seeing the character through the eyes of another character
• the repetition of idiosyncratic mannerisms
• revealing interior thoughts.
When you're doing a careful read, it's best to study a novel for only one aspect of craft at a time. Attempting to track plot elements and character development at the same time, for example, may overload the reading process.
Reading can be entertainment for the writer, and when done carefully, it's also a lesson. "Look at that beautiful metaphor!" "Wow, that transition is elegant!" "Now I have a clear picture of that character—how did the writer do that?"
A good writer is an observant reader. Abandon any notions that reading is a luxury—the writer reads in order to write.