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Writing Excuses Season Two Episode 27: Reading Critically

Writing Excuses Season Two Episode 27: Reading Critically


Key points: questions for reading: "How could I do that? How could I do it better? How could I make it my own?" Writing is not something that people on a pedestal do, you can do it. Look at things that are successful, use those formulas, and show yourself, "Yeah, I can do that, too." Learn techniques from other authors and apply them to your own work, like concrete flowing over pancakes. Identify archetypes or structures. Look for what works and what doesn't.

[Brandon] We are going to talk today about reading as a writer. It's kind of an interesting different topic for us, but I've noticed that as I've become a writer, the way I look at writing that I read has changed dramatically. Dan, has it changed for you, and how?
[Dan] It has. First of all, reading for me changed drastically when I became an English major and started taking editing classes, because then I started noticing all of the grammatical and punctuation and spelling problems much more than I ever did before. Now that I'm a professional storyteller, I start noticing all of those elements more than I did before. I pick up on things. "Oh, this is how he did that. That was very clever the way he introduced this thing and then paid it off later." Or, on the other hand, this was very not clever, the way he totally screwed this up.
[Brandon] Howard, how about you?
[Howard] Absolutely. What Dan's described has happened to me. I also noticed sloppy prose where adjectives...
[Brandon] Purple prose?
[Howard] Purple prose is another category altogether. But just sloppy prose where the same adjective gets used over and over. I was reading the Hordes Metamorphosis game book and one of the character descriptions... it described his character as now having an unprecedented connection to dire trolls which gave him unprecedented power over his enemies. And I realized, you just used that same adjective in two... and you weren't being silly when you did it. It's a very sloppy mistake.
[Dan] Character description is one that I see a lot. There's a series that I won't name where the guy describes almost every woman in that series the same way. And I can tell, every time, it's so obvious. And that just really starts to get to me.

[Brandon] So it does happen. It happens to you.
[Howard] Absolutely.
[Brandon] Does this make you enjoy reading less?
[Howard] Nope.
[Dan] No. It changes what I read, though.
[Brandon] Tell me more about this.
[Dan] I am right now between projects, which means I'm starting a new one, working on a new book, so I have selected a specific reading list of... this is a style I like and so I want to get the flow of it into my head. This is an author that I want to emulate in some way and so I want to read more of his stuff...
[Brandon] Who is it?
[Dan] Philip K. Dick, right now, actually.
[Brandon] I've noticed that when I became a writer there was a period where I didn't like reading as much. For me, it was very hard to read. I didn't like reading much -- that's the wrong way to phrase it. Every time I sat down to read, I would notice the mistakes so much it would make me so anxious to go work on my own books and not have those mistakes that I was never able to finish anything. This stretched for a period of a number of years where all these things were happening to me. I was noticing flaws and errors or I was noticing how good something was or I was... it just made me anxious to go write and I actually read much less. I think this was a problem because I think that it's good to keep up on what's happening, what people are doing that is very good and I'm wondering how authors...
[Howard] I'm going to argue about that. Brandon, it wasn't a problem because what you are doing is... that was a discovery process for you where you were finding things in published prose, in published fiction, that you didn't like and that was exciting you about sitting down and practicing your own writing and making sure it didn't happen. You went through that phase, you became a better writer as a result, and now you read a lot more, right?
[Brandon] Yes, I do. I read quite a bit.
[Howard] So there's nothing wrong with it. It's not that it's a mistake.
[Dan] I think that's a very common thing. I'm going to bet that a ton of our listeners have this same thing, because I think it's just an aspect of being a creative person. You cannot read or experience something without thinking, "How could I do that? How could I do it better? How could I make it my own?"

[Brandon] I want this podcast to be about channeling that. Not letting it interfere with your writing, letting it help your writing. Howard, you were going to say something else?
[Howard] I was going to say it happens in other fields. I graduated as a music major, and for four years after that, I couldn't go to the movies without listening to the soundtrack and identifying all the things that they did wrong, the things that they did right, what I liked, what I didn't.
[Brandon] Why our type of person is so annoying to everyone else.
[Dan] I can't play a board game without wanting to suddenly design a board game.
[Brandon] Or pointing out to your friends, "Oh, they did this, they did that." It can destroy the experience for people. My father just loves to go and experience a movie. It really bothers him if you sit there and pick apart what's happening. One thing you mentioned that I think is really poignant. I was seeing all these things in published writing that people were doing that I didn't agree with. I think that's a process writers go through when they realize I can do this. There's that moment that it opens up and becomes not something that people on a pedestal do but that you can do. I think that issue alone knocks the pedestal out a little bit.
[Howard] I took a songwriting class in which one of the assignments we were given was to pick a song that you wish you had written and write something that uses the formulas in that song. We had some studio time, we produced them for the class. The point of that exercise was to look at things that are making it big and to show yourself, "Yeah, I can do that too."
[Brandon] How do you not become cynical, though? Because I think that's a problem. When you start to hate everything you read, I think that's a problem.
[Howard] That's just a personality flaw. Eat some cake, have a pie, take a hot bath.
[Dan] Deep-fried cake.

[Dan] I think one of the ways to do that is... we get this a lot with Stephenie Meyer. A lot of people will complain about how she... they don't like her books or whatever, but they're very popular. I think the thing you do as a writer is you look at that and say even if I don't personally like it, it's obviously very successful. That means there's something good about it. I need to find out what that is. Then you can learn that lesson. You can learn a lesson like that from any successful book.
[Brandon] I think that's a good point.
[Howard] The uber-successful books are a different can of worms altogether because if you look at Stephenie Meyer and JK Rowling and Dan Brown... we look at that and the lessons you could learn as a writer are kind of limited. Those are people whose stories were in the right place at the right time for the right market -- they got incredibly lucky -- and then they capitalized on it correctly. They're not bad writers, but they're by no means the best writers out there.
[Dan] No, but there are still good things you can learn from analyzing what they've done.
[Howard] Don't sit down and try to learn from it and expect to become that.

[Brandon] What we have to separate out here, is we have to exploit between looking at something and saying what can I learn from this and looking at it and saying I want to emulate this. Because that's a very big difference. In fact, maybe that's what we should talk about next. What is the difference and how do you distinguish that in your mind? Dan?
[Dan] Um...
[Brandon] I would say that for me, when I'm reading, picking out an element... saying this author is really good at this specific thing is what I'm looking to do nowadays. I read a lot and I enjoy what I read. I can't read terrible books anymore. I just can't. There used to be a time where I could read a book and even if I wasn't enjoying it that much, I could finish it because I wanted to find out what was happening. Now, if I don't enjoy a book, I put it down. In fact, in the last couple of months, I've put down more books by chapter three or four than I've finished. Because I say I don't have time for this. But in those books that I finish, not all of them are perfect, in fact many of them aren't. But there are often things that the author is doing specifically... this author is good at this... or sometimes what really helps me is when the author almost gets it because then I can say, "Wow, if this had worked... if I can figure out how to make this work, then I can do this." It comes in that issue of when are you plagiarizing and when are you learning from someone? Authors steal all the time. We steal in the right way. We learn from someone or we learn a plot archetype and we make it our own. What is the difference there between just plagiarizing them or just mimicking them and doing it your way?
[Howard] Plagiarizing is where you take somebody's metaphor... use Douglas Adams' "they hovered in the air much in the way that bricks don't." If you use that metaphor in your own book, that's plagiarism.
[Brandon] [garble]
[Howard] I see what you're saying, but if you look at that and say, "Wow, this is a metaphor that works well because it conjures up an impossible image. I want to conjure an impossible image, what can I do to describe this? The magic water flowed downhill like concrete over pancakes..." Something. I don't know. That makes you laugh. But you're doing the same sort of thing by looking at what that author did, exploring the technique, and trying to apply it to your own work. That's not plagiarism, that's learning from somebody else.
[Brandon] Or taking a plot archetype. Saying, "I love heist stories. Heist stories are fun. Let's look at what the successful pieces of a heist story are, and let's use the pieces that I like and not use the ones I don't like." Dan, did you have something you were saying?
[Dan] I was just going to make the same point that Howard made, so he's already made it.
[Brandon] He did a very good job of it.
[Dan] He did a fine job. He made that point like concrete flowing over pancakes.

[Brandon] Dan, you said that you read author's work that you want to be like. How do you keep yourself from being unduly influenced by the authors? Is that a worry for you?
[Dan] It is somewhat of a worry. I don't think it's a huge worry for me, though, because I am far enough along in my writing life that I already have a pretty good sense of who I am. So I know what I want to do, and I know what my own style is like. So I don't think that I'm going to end up writing exactly what these other people are doing, but I want to get a sense of how they do what they do and apply that to my own thing.

[Brandon] How can we do this? How can our listeners better read critically and learn from what they're reading? Any tips for them?
[Howard] Reading and trying to identify archetypes or identify structure...
[Brandon] Breaking [garble] into smaller pieces. Break it down. That's an excellent point.
[Dan?] Deconstruct it as you read.
[Howard] Reading it and trying to determine when was the change between act one and act two. When did we introduce the turning point for this character? Or if you have a strong emotional reaction to something in a book, going back and rereading that passage and trying to figure out why it happened.
[Brandon] Why? What happened? Finding out which things... when you're reading a book, if a certain element just makes you go, "Whoa!" That also helps identify who you are as a writer. If you're writing scenes like that, you're probably going to be more passionate about it and you probably can do a good job of it because there are times in books that are going to affect you differently from other people. One thing I'd also say is look for what works and what doesn't. Try and figure out why. What works and what doesn't. What we should probably do is, do a podcast where we do this, or we break down something and we look at what worked and what didn't, like what we did with the Dark Knight. We should probably do one of those. Show you how to do it.
[Dan] That's a good idea. Can of worms that. Another suggestion I'm going to make is specifically look at something that you don't like or don't think you're going to like, and yet is successful, such as Harry Potter or Twilight. Figure out why. Force yourself to actually find all the good parts that you don't think are there, because then you are going to learn a lot more.
[Howard] I listened to a lot of country music shortly after graduation.
[Dan] This is not a confessional, Howard.
[Howard] I'm sorry, I thought that was what we were... you just said you read Twilight.
[Dan] Sorry, Stephenie Meyer.

[Brandon] How do you separate, when you're reading... this is going to be a weird question, because it's one that's coming...
[Dan] Brace yourself, readers.
[Brandon] right out of my mind. How do you separate what a book is doing poorly and what a book just isn't good at doing? For instance, when I'm reading a book, sometimes a given book just has an element of how that book is constructed that it couldn't have been done better. But... how do you separate...
[Howard] Not just couldn't have been done better. You're saying it couldn't be done better, and it couldn't be done really all that well because of the nature of the book.
[Brandon] Some books... for instance, Mistborn 2 has this big cliffhanger. The book needed it. There was no way to plot the series without it. That's an issue of the book and not a flaw, I think, on the author's part. Maybe if I'd been better at it, I could've done it without it. I guess I'm not asking a question. Maybe what I'm doing is saying to you listeners is to understand that sometimes the things you don't like about a book have less to do with the author being flawed, and more saying this aspect of this genre just works that way.
[Howard] I brought up this example before, the Hordes Metamorphosis book has story running through it. I'm guessing there's a novella length story. And in this novella length story, there have got to be 30 characters. And the reason there are 30 characters is because we have to explore all of the named characters that people are going to be playing as part of this game. It is a game book. There is limited character depth. What is there is done brilliantly well. It can't be done any better without turning it into what it is not.
[Brandon] Exactly. That's a perfect example. The other thing that I think people need to be aware of is understanding what things you personally don't like rather than calling them flaws of the book if that makes sense. Sometimes you just don't like a genre. You are not going to like a teen girl vampire romance no matter how well it is written.
[Howard] I also don't like country music -- but I made myself listen to it.
[Brandon] That is different from saying what did the author do wrong. Learning to do that is a skill I think of reading critically. I think critics who review material have to learn this. Many of them don't, I think. They don't like that type of movie, so they bash it.

[Howard] I want to touch on something. I realize were running low on time. Through all this discussion, I think we've established that we are probably well positioned to act as critics because we understand the form, we understand what goes into it, but we don't want to be critics. We want to use the critical reading skills in order to make our writing better, or in order to make our other arts better.
[Dan] Well said.
[Howard] We still criticize stuff.
[Dan] A lot, when the mics are turned off.
[Howard] Especially when the mics are turned off.
[Brandon] We ought to record all that stuff, you know?

[Brandon] We should end. I'm going to give a writing prompt. I want you to write a story about a critic, but a critic who criticizes something abnormal. Such as they are a critic of kitchen paint colors, or they are a critic...
[Howard] That's just an interior designer.
[Dan] Cement mixers?
[Brandon] Or cement mixers. Something wildly original that they are a critic of. This has been Writing Excuses. Thank you.
Tags: archetypes, concrete flowing over pancakes, journal, learn, reading, structures

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