Write about what you read – Laurie Frankel

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By Laurie Frankel

Everyone’s advice for writers is to read as much and as widely as possible, and that’s good advice. Everyone’s follow-up bit of advice is to write as much as possible: Write every day. Write even if what you’re writing isn’t good. Write even if you’re not sure where it’s going yet. And that’s good advice too. But my best piece of advice for writers and would-be writers is a combination of the two: write about what you read.

Reading like a writer, writing about what you read, is a practice. Think yoga. Think meditation. When I finish reading a book — every book, every time, all plays I see, most movies, lots of TV — I write about it afterwards. I write what was good about the book, what worked, and, crucially, how. I write about what aspects of the book didn’t work and why.

I write about what I admire. I write about what I’d have done differently. I write somewhere between a term paper and a watch repair manual, keen to figure out what exactly makes the book tick. My initial reaction to good books is breathless wonder. But breathless wonder isn’t useful to me as a writer. Instead, I try to work out how the author pulled it off. And when I step back and look closely and thoughtfully, I can usually answer that question.

At the end of each term paper/watch repair manual entry, I write a numbered list of things I’ve learnedisbn9781472241603 from this book that I can apply to my own writing. What are the practical, applicable lessons? I write about how this book made really short chapters work, what it withheld to maintain the tension until the end, how it used an unreliable narrator to drive the story, what the twist ending needed early on to succeed, how relationship development took the place of character development.

I’m as specific as possible. It’s no good if my advice to myself when I read is something vague like, “Write better prose.” Or “I liked the bit on the beach.” Or “Make the story more exciting.” That’s not useful advice. It’s overwhelming. It’s impractical. It’s too wide. Instead, I write down concretes and specifics, what I can implement and undertake, what I can avoid, what will work for me and how.

I keep my reading diary online, in part because I type faster than I handwrite, but mostly because it’s searchable so when I have a question later about something I vaguely remember reading years ago, I can find it again. But I see the appeal of keeping it in hand-bound journals with creamy paper and pretty covers and then designating a special shelf of your library to hold everything the printed word has taught you.

Laurie Frankel is the author of three novels, including her latest, This Is How It Always Is. She lives and writes with her family in Seattle.


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