How and Why Reading Improves Writing

To master the art of writing we need to read. Whenever the words won’t flow, I grab my Kindle. Reading someone else’s story kickstarts my creativity, and like magic, I know exactly what I need to do in my WIP.

“Read” is the easiest writing tip, yet one of the most powerful. And here’s why.

 

READING BENEFITS OUR WRITING 

  • Reading strengthens our skills and storytelling abilities.
  • Reading helps us become more persuasive, which is an essential skill when pitching a book to an agent, editor, producer, etc.
  • Fiction reading helps us hone the skills to draw the reader into the story and engage the reader.
  • Nonfiction reading helps us learn how to condense research into an authoritative proposal. And ultimately, into a storyline.
  • Reading expands our vocabulary, improves grammar, and shows how to use words in context.
  • Reading helps us find the right word!

READING IMPROVES BRAIN HEALTH 

Narratives activate many parts of our brains. In a 2006 study published in the journal NeuroImage, researchers in Spain asked participants to read words with strong odor associations, along with neutral words, while their brains were being scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.

Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life. — New York Times

Whenever participants read words like “perfume” and “coffee,” their primary olfactory cortex (the part of the brain that processes smell) lit up the fMRI machine. Words like “velvet” activated the sensory cortex, the emotional center of the brain. Researchers concluded that in certain cases, the brain can make no distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life. Pretty cool, right?

4 TIPS TO READ WITH A WRITER’S EYE

1. Look for the author’s persuasion tactics.

How does s/he draw you in?

How does s/he keep you focused and flipping pages?

What’s the author’s style, fast-pace or slow but intriguing?

Does the author have beautiful imagery or sparse, powerful description that rockets an image into your mind?

2. Take note of metaphors and analogies.

How did the metaphor enhance the image in your mind?

How often did the author use an analogy?

Where in the scene did the author use a metaphor/analogy?

Why did the author use a metaphor/analogy? Reread the scene without it. Did it strengthen or weaken the scene?

In a 2012 study, researchers from Emory University discovered how metaphors can access different regions of the brain.

New brain imaging research reveals that a region of the brain important for sensing texture through touch, the parietal operculum, is also activated when someone listens to a sentence with a textural metaphor. The same region is not activated when a similar sentence expressing the meaning of the metaphor is heard.

A metaphor like “he had leathery hands” activated the participants’ sensory cortex, while “he had strong hands” did nothing at all.

“We see that metaphors are engaging the areas of the cerebral cortex involved in sensory responses even though the metaphors are quite familiar,” says senior author Krish Sathian, MD, PhD, professor of neurology, rehabilitation medicine, and psychology at Emory University. “This result illustrates how we draw upon sensory experiences to achieve understanding of metaphorical language.”

 

3. Read with purpose.

As you read, study the different ways some writers tackle subjects, how they craft their sentences and employ story structure, and how they handle dialogue.

4. Recognize the author’s strengths (and weaknesses, but focus on strengths).

Other writers are unintentional mentors. When we read their work, they’re showing us a different way to tell a story—their way.

Ask, why am I drawn to this author? What’s the magic sauce that compels me to buy everything they write?

Is it how they string sentences together?

Story rhythm?

Snappy dialogue?

How they world-build?

Or all of the above?

I don’t know about you but I’m dying to jump back into the book I’m devouring. 🙂 What’s your favorite tip?

Wishing you a safe and happy Memorial Day! In between cookouts and family get-togethers, squeeze in time to read!

Looking for a new series to love?

FOR TODAY ONLY, all four Grafton County thrillers are on sale!

MARRED 99c
CLEAVED 99c
SCATHED $1.99
RACKED $1.99

 

Your Reading Habits

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I was an early adopter of the Kindle. Like everyone else, I was amazed that I could have, say, the complete works of Charles Dickens—for 99¢ yet!—sitting inside this little device. And I could keep adding books to it, many of which came via deals in the Amazon store. Why else would I have downloaded Cybill Shepherd’s autobiography if it hadn’t been free?

The Kindle was my constant companion when I traveled by plane. In those early years it was a great conversation starter. People in adjoining seats would say things like, “Is that one of them Kandles?” I would happily expound on the volume and cost of my electronic library.

The Kindle has evolved, of course, and now comes in several styles and sizes, including a tablet. The coolest, and therefore most expensive, model is the Oasis. I’ve been toying with buying this for over a year…but then noticed something. I’ve been spending more and more of my reading time with the following:

1. The Kindle app on my phone. I rarely use my old Kindle now because the phone is always with me and I can easily access my library that way. The downside is I’m not reading e-ink, and therefore can’t read in sunlight. But I don’t do that much reading outside anyway. When I read on my phone I make sure I have my blue-light filter on and the screen a bit dimmer than normal, so my peepers don’t get overtaxed.

2. Audio books. Great for the treadmill or a long drive. The way I get most of these titles is via the Libby app on my phone.

3. Actual, honest-to-goodness physical books, with paper pages and everything! This has been the most surprising development for me. When I first got the Kindle I thought that’s how I—and everybody else—would be reading books from now on. But I’ve rediscovered the pleasure of holding a physical book in a comfortable chair. And so have younger readers. Millennials, for example, overwhelmingly prefer print books, and make healthy use of the local library. Imagine that.

So…how do you do most of your reading on these days? Do you use a dedicated e-reader (e.g., Kindle, Nook, Kobo)? A reading app on your phone? Or do you still like to crack open a physical book?

How much of your reading time is with audio books?

Are you mostly a book buyer or book borrower?

I am going to be on the road—literally, driving a car on a long strip of asphalt—most of the day. So please, talk amongst yourselves! I will try to check in later.

On Curling Up With a Good Book

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

One of my favorite comedies from the 1940s Is The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer. This little gem (with an Academy Award-winning screenplay by Sidney Sheldon) stars Cary Grant as the bachelor, Shirley Temple as the bobby-soxer, and Myrna Loy as a judge who happens to be Shirley’s big sister.

The plot is simple. Grant gives a speech at Shirley’s high school, and Shirley becomes infatuated with him. Grant has to fight her off even as her suspicious sister brings the arm of the law down upon him. I’ll bet you can guess who Grant ends up romancing. It’s all great fun, especially a scene where Grant takes on the persona of a teenager for a little bit of payback.

There’s one scene I’ve always found of quaint historical interest. Grant is alone in his apartment. It’s evening, he has on a comfortable robe. He mixes himself a highball and turns the radio to soft music. Then he happily settles into a chair and takes up… a book! He has looked forward to this all day—an uninterrupted hour or two of reading pleasure. Of course, that’s when Shirley interrupts things, having sneaked into his apartment to be near him!

There used to be a time when an evening’s entertainment was sitting in a chair with a drink or a cup of tea and reading a book. The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer came out in 1947, just before the explosion of television. How many people even think of a book as an option for prime time anymore?

These thoughts came to me recently when I was knocked flat by a 24-hour bug. It was a nasty sucker. I spent an entire day in bed doing absolutely nothing but moaning and drifting in and out of sleep. There was a junkyard tire fire in my stomach. My head felt like a mastiff’s chew toy.

The next day I was marginally better, but certainly not ready for Irish folk dancing. I managed to get a little writing done, but then just wanted to go back to bed. Only I didn’t want another day of pitiful do-nothingness. What about reading a book?

I’d recently purchased the massive biography of Cornell Woolrich, First You Dream, Then You Die. I considered it a sign of recuperation that I could lift it. And actually open it and begin to read. Ah! I’d forgotten what a pleasure it is to read a physical book in bed when it isn’t nighttime. (When I try this at night I can manage only three or four pages before the sandman does his thing.)

This time I was into a book for a couple of hours, occasionally closing my eyes and dozing, but waking to read again.

These days I (and, I suspect, most of you) have to snatch time to read a book. Too many other things demand our attention. Speed and the false god Multitask have killed contemplation. We have sacrificed the aesthetic on the altar of the frenetic.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate (and still with awe) the magnificence of the ebook. Having innumerable electronic volumes available on my phone (via Kindle app and Overdrive) means I can read anything I want at a moment’s notice. No more flipping through last May’s issue of Working Woman in the waiting room! No, let’s see how big a bite I can take out of Martin Chuzzlewit…just open the complete works of Dickens!

Yet I still like holding a physical book, and my recent indisposition reminded me how much I miss a good, long stretch of pure reading time. It’s my fault, of course. Almost always my first choice in the evening is something on the flat screen.

But do I really need an hour of what used to be called “news” but is now little more than an oral version of Friday Night SmackDown? How much of must is really there in “must-see TV” (not much!). How many hours of my life are unredeemed by tuning into the latest “can’t miss” series which, once I’ve taken in an episode or two, I wish I’d actually missed?

Okay, there’s football three or four nights a week, but that’s what the DVR and pause button are for (I can skip time outs, commercials, and halftimes—with apologies to Phil, Curt, Michael, Terry, Howie, Coach, Boomer, Jimmy, Tony, Spanky, Fozzie, Gonzo and whoever else expands time with erudite comments like, “The defense really needs to step up.”)

So, dear friends, why don’t I just get into the habit of reading a book after dinner?

If it was good enough for Cary Grant, it should be good enough for me!

When was the last time you curled up with a good (physical) book for at least an hour? How have your reading habits changed over the last couple of decades? Do you have a favorite “curl-up-with” book?

***

BTW, if your preferred method of curling up these days is audio, and you’re a writer, you might be interested to know that I have another of my writing books available through Audible. Narrated, natch, by me. The Last Fifty Pages: The Art and Craft of Unforgettable Endings.

Open Forum on Reading Habits

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

The Kindle turns ten years old this year. A good time to ponder the question, What hath Bezos wrought?

The question comes on the heels of a controversial article from The Guardian UK, which posits that the downturn in e-book sales in 2016 may be related to “screen fatigue.” We simply spend too much time on our phones, computers, tablets, and TVs that the printed page is kind of a relief, says the author.

Another article in The Guardian proclaims that the Kindle is now unhip:

“[The Kindle] was new and exciting,” says Cathryn Summerhayes, a literary agent at Curtis Brown. “But now they look so clunky and unhip, don’t they? I guess everyone wants a piece of trendy tech and, unfortunately, there aren’t trendy tech reading devices and I don’t think people are reading long-form fiction on their phones. I think your average reader would say that one of the great pleasures of reading is the physical turning of the page. It slows you down and makes you think.”

There are a couple of assumptions baked into these articles which, upon closer inspection, do not hold flour. First of all, ebook sales outside of the traditional publishing system are doing just fine. According to the latest Author Earnings Report, between early 2016 and early 2017, overall Amazon US ebook sales grew 4%. “While that’s not the kind of double-digit (or triple-digit) growth we had seen in the earlier days of the ebook era, it’s still more than enough to offset the ongoing shrinkage at Barnes & Noble’s Nook. In other words, albeit slowly now, the overall US ebook market is still growing.”

Still, one might ask if reading habits are changing or morphing back into pre-Kindle practices. So I’d like to throw this open to the TKZ community and visitors.

What are your reading habits like today as opposed to ten years ago? Has anything changed more recently, say in the past five years?

Here’s my answer. When I got my Kindle as a Christmas present in 2010, I was giddy. You mean I can carry around the complete works of Dickens? For 99¢? And Jack London? All in this nifty little device? Cool! And then there is the massive Project Gutenberg library, with so many public domain works — fiction and non-fiction — available for free.

I did continue to frequent my local Barnes & Noble, however, where I would purchase the occasional new release from a favorite author.

But my nearby B&N is no more. The last time I was in a B&N was out of town, about six months ago. The last new print book I purchased, at full price, was on that day. It was a mass market paperback called Nick of Time by a guy named Gilstrap.

I’ve pretty much stopped buying physical books, in no small part because my bookshelves are stuffed. There are volumes stacked on the floor. I’m in the slow process of trying to weed these out, though I find parting to be of such sweet sorrow I often end up reading rather than weeding. My wife has to get me back on task. At least I don’t add to the glut by buying new books. I’m using the L.A. Public Library system more than at any time since I was a kid.

I’m also listening to more library-loaned audio books via OverDrive. 

As far as ebook purchases go, I find myself resistant to prices above $7.99. When I see that a publisher is pricing the ebook the same (and sometimes higher) than the hardcover, I actually snort, shake my head, and go light a candle for the poor author.

So how does all this shake out?

  1. I still love having a massive Kindle library.
  2. I also love having a dedicated Kindle. Not a tablet. I don’t want to multi-task. When I’m on a plane, or waiting somewhere, I just want to read.
  3. I like the ability to highlight books on the Kindle, especially nonfiction. That way, I can print out a 2-5 page précis of the salient points for review and study.
  4. I’ll read on my phone via the Kindle app, but only on occasion. My eyes favor the E ink of my 2nd Gen. Kindle, the one I got for Christmas. (Though I’ve heard the Kindle Oasis absolutely rocks, so that may be in my future).
  5. I have heard reports, however, that among the youngsters they do virtually everything on their phones now, including reading.
  6. I download a lot of samples. So if you want to sell me, make those first pages stunning (see why TKZ does those first page critiques?)
  7. Very rarely do I buy new printed books anymore.
  8. Though I do still like the feel of reading a physical book—laying it open across my chest if I begin to snooze, or throwing it across the room when I get disgusted. As Dorothy Parker once remarked,“This is not a novel to be lightly tossed aside. It should be thrown with great force.”

Your turn. What are your reading and buying habits now in the age of the Kindle? I’m asking that you chat this up amongst yourselves, as I am currently in an undisclosed research location and may not get to comment. So dive in!

The First Conundrum

Nancy J. Cohen

Often people will start reading a series with book number one. “You can begin with any story,” I’ll tell folks interested in reading my Bad Hair Day series. But they insist on starting at the beginning. “That’s fine,” I’ll say, but is it really?

coverPTD

I am thinking how that first book is not the best example of my writing skills today. How long ago was it published? In 1999. And the book had probably been in production for a year before. So that means I wrote it sixteen or more years ago. Don’t you think my writing has improved since then? Yet here is this potential fan evaluating my entire series based on that one book. You’d hope she would cut me some slack.

At least I got the rights back to my early futuristics. I revised those stories before making them available in ebook formats. No problems there.

I do not have the same opportunity with my mysteries. But even if I did, would it be a good use of my time to revise all of my earlier stories? Or is it best to leave them in their pristine state, an example of my earlier writing style? If so, let’s hope that the readers out there coming to my series for the first time will approve and understand.

Sometimes the opposite is true. A writer’s early works are his best efforts, before he gets rushed to meet deadlines or to quicken production. In such cases, the later writing might suffer. I’ve seen this happen with some favorite authors.

So what do you think? If you want to read a new series, do you begin with book one or with the latest title?
 
<><><> 

Now for some BSP. My new book, Warrior Lord (Drift Lords Series #3) is being released on Friday, August 1.
http://www.wildrosepublishing.com/maincatalog_v151/index.php?main_page=index&manufacturers_id=831
August 1, Friday, Book Launch Party for Warrior Lord, 10 am – 4 pm EDT. Join the fun. Giveaways all day! https://www.facebook.com/NewReleaseParty

Rereading the Same Book

Nancy J. Cohen

Recently, I’ve returned to reading The Lost Prince by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I like his other stories as well: A Little Princess, Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Secret Garden. These historical novels have tropes that appeal to me, and I could read them many times over. But who wants to reread something you’ve already perused when you have a wealth of new books on your shelves and on your ebook reader?

Bookshelf

I feel guilty rereading a volume when I “should” be reading a friend’s work to give a review, a book I’ve obtained at a conference, a freebie on my Kindle, or the books sitting on my shelves for years begging for attention. How about the newest books by my favorite authors? Shouldn’t they get priority? Why am I wasting time reading something I’ve already enjoyed when authors who are alive and well clamor for my reading hours?

I don’t even reread my own books, although I’d like to return to my original Light-Years trilogy and immerse myself in that world again. At least I had the chance to do so when I revised these titles for their digital editions.

How about you? Do you ever go back and pick a book off your dusty shelves or buy the digital version of a book you’ve already read? Does it make you feel guilty that you’re not sitting with a current novel whose author can use your customer review?

Bench Sml (244x241)

Do you have a system to prioritize the books you read? For newer books, I’ll read the next installment by a favorite author or a book by a friend before titles by an unknown writer. The beauty of the digital age is that when you discover a writer you like, you can order the next book in a series right away on your Kindle or Nook. So the historical novel I bought at SleuthFest and am reading now, by an author previously unknown to me, is number one in a series. I’m not even halfway through it, and I know I’ll want the next two books.

This points out two issues about our current age that are both troublesome and exciting. The next books in a series are literally at your fingertips. Push a few buttons, and they are yours. That’s the good thing.

However, I discovered this book as it lay out for display at the on-site conference bookstore. Discoverability is the hot issue today. Most of us with small press or who are indie published do not see our books in bookstores, thus browsing readers will never discover us that way. If I hadn’t spotted this intriguing cover, I’d never have known about this writer. And that’s sad. We have to turn to free books online or book group recommendations to discover new authors whose series we might decide to follow.

Is there room for the older volumes sitting on your shelves, for those books you’d love to read again if only you had the time?

Putting A Book Down

Nancy J. Cohen

Do you ever put a book down if you’ve read a few chapters and can’t go farther? This rarely happens with me, but I can recall a couple of instances where I gave up. Normally, I’ll slog through and scan pages until the end, if the story holds any appeal at all. But sometimes it’s too tedious to continue and a waste of precious time. What are some of the reasons why we might stop reading? 
 
Too Many Characters
The book I’m reading now is one I really want to like. It’s science fiction with a strong female lead and starts off on a spaceship. I know her mission is about to go terribly wrong. The woman’s lover is an alien, and I can understand his race’s characteristics. But then we meet other crew members and a diplomatic contingent from another world. Numerous other races are introduced, and the author segues into multiple viewpoints. Now I’m getting lost. I can’t keep track of all the aliens with weird sounding names. If the story doesn’t focus on the protagonist and her human emotions, I may put this book aside.

My own first published novel employed multiple viewpoints and alien races. But since the story stayed mostly inside the heads of my hero/heroine and focused on their romance, the world building seemed to work. I won the HOLT Medallion Award with Circle of Light, so I wasn’t alone in my assessment.

Yet the current book I’m reading is just too confusing. I’m losing interest in the story because it’s too hard to keep the alien characters straight.

A mystery can have similar problems when too many suspects are introduced at the same time. I’ve been guilty of this myself, whether it is a dinner party or cocktail event or other affair which all of the suspects attend together. One chapter might contain a blast of characters, whereas the sleuth’s subsequent investigation focuses on one at a time. It’s hard to avoid this dilemma when all of the important characters appear together in a scene toward the book’s beginning.

Book Doesn’t Stand Alone
I picked up a book mid-series by a popular author whose work I wanted to read. The opening scenes left me totally lost. If you hadn’t read the previous books, you were clueless. A writer should never assume readers have followed along with her series. Each book should stand alone with enough explanations to cover previous subplots. On the other hand, this requires a delicate balance. You don’t want to bore your fans with repetitious material. Nor do you want to repeat what happened in previous installments unless it’s relevant to the current story.

Genre Lacks Appeal
I’ve judged contests where I have to read entries in a genre other than ones I prefer. I do my best to be fair, but if the story is peppered every paragraph with naughty words, for example, that’s going to turn me off. At that point, I’ll skim through the book. That’s why in my leisure reading choices, I stick to genres I know and love.

Story Meanders
Too many boring scenes where conversation acts as filler or the plot fails to advance will make me lose interest. Here I might skip ahead to get to the scenes where something happens.

Incomprehensible Language
If I am reading science fiction or fantasy and the world building includes too many made up words, I might get lost and lose interest. Every other noun doesn’t have to sound futuristic. Ditto for historical novels where the dialects are so strong as to be annoying.

Unlikeable Characters
I’ll rarely give up on a book because I don’t like the characters. These stories I might skim through to see if there’s a redeeming factor. But if I really don’t like the people, that might be cause to put the book down.

As a writer, keep these points in mind so you don’t make the same mistakes in your work. No doubt we’re all guilty to some extent, but try to avoid these pitfalls whenever possible.

So what are some reasons why you might not continue reading a story?

 

The Future of Reading…and Everything Else

James Scott Bell

The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t. – Mark Twain

Twain’s words remind me of one of the formative movies of my youth, The Time Machine. In this version of the H. G. Wells story, the narrator (Wells himself, played by Rod Taylor) goes far into the future where he discovers the Eloi. They are placid people, living without passion or curiosity–and therefore powerless victims of the Morlocks, who reside underground.

What disgusts Wells is the discovery that the Eloi have given up reading. Their books have crumbled into dust. They have no repository of collective knowledge, except in a museum they don’t frequent.

Thousands of years of building up civilization, gone! So that they can become what they are, virtually mindless beings who spend their days seeking pleasure (only to be enslaved, and eventually eaten, by the Morlocks)

In an essay in the L.A. Times entitled “The Lost Art of Reading,” Times book editor David L. Ulin reflects on the increasing difficulty people are having focusing on, and “inhabiting,” the world of a book:

Such a state is increasingly elusive in our over-networked culture, in which every rumor and mundanity is blogged and tweeted. Today, it seems it is not contemplation we seek but an odd sort of distraction masquerading as being in the know. Why? Because of the illusion that illumination is based on speed, that it is more important to react than to think, that we live in a culture in which something is attached to every bit of time.”

We know this to be true. With a smartphone and/or an iPad or iTouch, or any other similar item to come down the pike, one never has to face a moment of silence or contemplation again.

So what does this portend for the future of reading? And writing long form narrative fiction? What, in fact, does it portend for the future, period?

I’m asking you. What do you think?