Read Like a Writer

by Rachel McMillan, @rachkmc

Like most scribblers, I am a voracious reader. I read obsessively in several genres of fiction and non-fiction.  I can be as dazzled by a high fantasy novel with an arresting voice as I am by a biography on Theodore Roosevelt.   I am a writer whose world is shaped by words.

There are many writers who cannot read while writing a book: zeroing in on their novel and leave the books until after. As the last four years of my life have found me facing constant deadlines, taking away my reading life would be an extensive sacrifice and one I cannot fathom making.   As important as it is for writers to carve out time in their schedules to write and brainstorm and plot, so it is important to carve time out to read.

Like most writers, writing is my secondary job—not the one that supports me.   Jugging a full-time career while writing novels can be intense— however, leaving reading out of it would, to me, be tragic.  I will fit in reading while on my subway commute or even just 20 minutes before bed.  I will re-read a favourite scene or sequence of a novel if my brain cannot wrap around stepping into a new creative world.  But, I must read.  It is the only writer’s class I have ever attended and I believe, the most important.

But how do you read like a writer?  Does this mean trading enjoyment for story with the analytical eye akin to the one I used in a graduate seminar on Dickens in University?  I don’t think so. As I don’t believe that writers can ever write or begrudge a wasted word, so I believe that every piece of writing a writer comes across has the potential to stick — like Velcro.   It can inspire you, elate you, exhaust you and challenge you in the same mental way that your personal creation of words can.

Here are some tips to read like a writer:

 Leave Comparison on the Shelf:

Some writers worry about reading in their genre because they will forever feel less than a writer whose book has challenged, moved and awed them.    Reading good writing can only strengthen you as a writer—and as a lover of words. My mom always told me growing up that no matter how good I was at something, there would always be someone better. We NEED the someone better in order to up our game and teach us how we can approach our writing.

Assess Your Favourite Books and Authors:

What commonalities do you find? Is there a book that makes you giddy just thinking about it? An author whose books you automatically pre-order in hardcover from several different online sources, vowing to cancel multiple orders but ensuring one gets there on release date (guilty on this front). What is it about their writing that attracts you?  What stands out?  Is it that they have created a fantastic world with a setting that envelops you from page one? Is it the fresh and engaging voice that reaches out and grabs you, pulling you in with the first few sentences? Is it the ease of pacing? The intricate plotting? The historical verisimilitude? The adorkable hero? The winsome heroine? The twist at the end?    What ways are you achieving what you enjoy about their work in your own writing? How can you ensure you are pursuing your creativity to strengthen these things?

And when you are finished a book that is gobsmackingly jaw-droppingly awesome, tell others about it.  Who knows what readers you will find who share a common interest and may start following you—and your writing—because of this shared love.

Read Outside of Your Preference and Comfort Zone:

I truly believe that the most well-rounded, genre-stretching authors are ones who will read and devour everything they can get their hands on.  I really love fiction in the vein of Patrick O’Brian: weighty descriptive books set in the Napoleonic Wars. For some people, this is not their regular cup of tea.  For me, falling into a Science Fiction book is not my immediate go-to.  But I feel it is important to stretch our minds and read in all manner of subject and genre.  As we challenge ourselves as writers, so should we challenge ourselves as readers.

 Read Widely to Snag that Elusive Contract:

 My writing history is one of straight historical books.   I love writing historicals. But no one was buying them.  My agent returned from a conference telling me that there was a gap in mystery and romantic suspense and encouraged me to try a different genre, while keeping my passion for historical settings.  Because I was so widely-read in mystery books (classic and contemporary), I was able to easily craft historical romance with mysterious twists and tropes.  To add, because my first passion is history, I am able to create a world based on the words I have read, informing my stories with the research of others.  I was more prepared than I ever thought possible to write in a new-to-me genre because I had the reading history to help me

Never Stop Reading as if it is the Great Romance of Your Life:

I know some people swear that they have an internal editor whenever they approach a book; but if you can, at all, switch it off. If your internal editor keeps breaking in and taking you out of the book’s world—then perhaps that book isn’t for you.  Never stop finding books that will sweep you up and remind you why you pursued this crazy writing business in the first place.  If it isn’t a deep-rooted, irreplaceable, giddy, joyful, jubilant, obsessive love of books then it will never translate into the stories you tell.

Murder at the Flamingo

If Hamish DeLuca spent less time with his nose in a history book or studying for the bar exam, he might finally have the courage to ask a girl to dance at the Palais Royale. But despite his romantic nature, Hamish has always been shy and lacking the confidence of his friend and cousin, Luca Valari, who has invited Hamish to join him in Boston for the summer. Luca has just purchased a new dance club, The Flamingo, and could use Hamish’s math and accounting skills to keep the books alongside Luca’s “right hand man” Reggie Van Buren.

Regina “Reggie” Van Buren, daughter of a wealthy pastor and heir to a New Haven fortune, is determined to make a life as the self-sufficient city girl she sees in her favorite Jean Arthur and Katharine Hepburn pictures. After a humiliating tea party, Reggie bids goodbye to fine china and the man her parents expect her to marry and escapes to Boston. Finding an easy secretarial job with the suave Luca Valari and a room at Miss Clara’s Boarding house in the North End, Reggie soon adapts to a world beyond servants and ironed linens. Her romantic prospects alight, too, when she sets eyes on Luca’s cousin Hamish.

When a corpse is discovered at The Flamingo, Hamish and Reggie trade ledgers and book-keeping for sleuthing skills. But the truth comes at a high price for Hamish who discovers a dark side to his beloved cousin and is forced to choose between loyalty and his conscience.

Rachel McMillan lives in Toronto, Canada where she works in Educational Publishing and reads when she should be writing.  She is the author of the Herringford and Watts series (Harvest House) and the upcoming Van Buren and DeLuca series (Thomas Nelson/Harper Collins). She likes to travel near and far and talk people’s ears off about her favourite books.  You can visit Rachel at her website, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.