22 April 2013

Reading To Learn


Jan Grapeby Jan Grape

Like most writers I love reading. I guess I could be perfectly happy reading all day every day. I loved reading so much that my late husband, Elmer and I opened a bookstore in Austin in 1990. We titled it Mysteries and More. The "more" part was because we also had science-fiction, western, and general fiction. But all of those genre were used books. The new books were all mysteries and we had a huge number of used mysteries. I used to say we had 75% used and 25% new books. That was probably accurate. M & M was only the second mystery bookstore in Texas. Murder by the Book was the first and I think it's the only one currently still in business.

It wasn't too long that I realized that we had more books than I could ever read even if I live to be a hundred. That was a sad realization. When we liquidated the store in 1999 we had had nine years of great fun and great adventures, met a large number of mystery authors and had read a great number of books. However, we had decided to realize our dream of traveling the USA and my husband was ready to retire. We took a lot of books with us to read in the late evenings when we couldn't go sight seeing. Both of us loved to read.

I learned a lot about writing by reading. I read books about how-to-write and books about how to market and how to find an agent. I had reference books galore when I still had my house. But after three summers of RV traveling we decided to live full-time in our fifth-wheel, RV. That meant I had to give up about three thousand books I had kept from the store. It was sad to leave "good" friends and I do mean friends because books have always been my friend.

Books took me to far-away places that I'd never be able to travel to and I learned how to do so many neat things from my friends. Besides how to write, I learned how to collect depression glass, old mason fruit jars, stamps and coins. I learned how to make quilts, make cookies & candies, how to make jelly and jam and how to make a Better Than Sex Cake. I learned how to identify wildflowers, how to look for constellations in the stars and the capitols of every state in the union. As Elmer used to always say, "You can learn how to do almost anything, if you can read."

The intriguing thing to me is how you can learn many things about writing from reading other writer's books. I often stop and marvel at a well-turned sentence that somehow seems to say so much. It might be a character description or the way a place looks that immediately puts you there. I don't copy them down but I know they park themselves in the file cabinet in my mind. Not to plagiarize but to remember that there are way to construct a sentence or to construct the character who always lies or the construction of the faded dress worn by the mother of your suspect.

To remember "good" writing especially when you think yours is lacking. I remember a writer friend who wrote children's mysteries telling me once that you must engage the senses on every page. Sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste because that will capture a child's imagination. It will also capture the imagination of anyone, no matter their age.

When I first saw the Mississippi River, I was in my thirties and my mind went back to reading Huckleberry Finn. That mighty old river had been so strong in my mind, the sound, the sight, the smell that Mark Twain brought to the pages of his book made me catch my breath. That old river was familiar because I had read so much about it.

Another way to learn from reading is to volunteer to read for awards or contests. The Edgars and the Shamus nominees and winners are books read by writers who themselves have been published. By a jury of peers as it were. There are contests given by the Private Eye Writers, by the Agatha writers, by the Thriller writers and probably even by the Romance writers. Those contests often offer a prize of publication. If you belong to one of these organizations, volunteer to read for the awards or contest. You might be surprised at how much you learn.

Another opportunity might offer a chance for a writer to help an aspiring writer. Our local Sisters-in-Crime chapter has a mentoring program for aspiring writers. This program is to honor Barbara Burnett Smith, who was tragically killed in 2005. She often mentored aspiring writers and each year aspiring writers can turn in a couple of chapters and a synopsis. These partial manuscripts are read by published authors from our chapter and critiqued. Then after our May Mystery Month meeting the author and aspiring writer have a chance to talk and sometimes the mentor will continue to help the aspiring writer complete their work. No prizes are given but just having your work critiqued by a published author is priceless.

Through the years I've read for awards, contest and for our mentoring program. You read the opening of a book and realize how a writer has "hooked you." Right from the first paragraph. Suddenly you realize what's wrong with your own work in progress. You haven't hooked anyone in the first paragraph or even the first page. Wow. I've always known this, but somehow forgot it when I started this manuscript, you tell yourself.

More likely you'll read a character description that blows you away. Maybe it's short but, so pointed, so precise that you can actually see that character walking down the street. And you see what you need to do to a character who moves the plot along. Maybe a fight scene comes to life and helps you understand your own scene.

There is so much to learn from reading. In fact, I'm going to sign off and get back to the book I'm currently reading, one that I'm sure will help me with my own. I suggest y'all go and do likewise.

2 comments:

Fran Rizer said...

Ah, Jan, I remember the Better Than Sex Cake--it wasn't.
I know you do a lot of reading for contests and are involved in anthologies, but you closed with "help me with my own" in reference to a book you're reading. Are you currently working on a new mystery?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Jan, the New York chapter of Mystery Writers of America has a robust mentoring program: entrants submit 50 pages to be read by published writers, and the top manuscript, sometimes two or three, gets read by an agent or editor. The published writers who read the work and provide not only scores but substantive comments are anonymous, though they can reveal themselves if they find the ms promising and actually want to mentor the writer in an ongoing relationship. As a learning process, reading bad writing and having to critique it constructively can be as illuminating as reading good writing.