Friday, February 18, 2011

Writing Life: Reading to "Learn"

As I've said before, reading all the time is essential for writers. My problem is I read very slowly and I wasn't getting much out of it. I was enjoying the stories but not really learning anything.

Recently, I came up with a way to read and "learn" at the same time. This grew out of my penchant for taking notes in the margins while reading difficult books. I started reading Paradise Lost by John Milton this way. Since it was taking me so long to read, I started summarizing the story in the margins so it would be easy to do a quick review if necessary. I started underlining parts that I liked and putting boxes around unknown words. Soon, however, I was making commentary as I went along such as keeping track of Milton's names for Satan, musing about the story questions, adding cuneiform numbers (for fun), and giving my completely unwarranted opinions about the action such as "Damn, Book X is long," "I'm sure God sounds just like John Cleese," and "Okay, Satan has been out of this story for far too long a time."

Since I'm writing a historical mystery, I need to read historical mystery novels so I decided to try a similar idea for my current book The Name of the Rose by Umberto Ecco, a book about a series of murders that place in a monastery in 1327 in Northern Italy. I read this book years ago when I was in my late teens. I remember enjoying it and thinking the plot was very well done so I was mostly interesting in mapping it out so I could learn to create better plots. Mapping out the plot is where you do a sort of summary of each scene (or chapter or whatever) so you can look at the story as a whole. The classic way to do this is with 3x5 index cards but I'm going to do my map in Scrivener. I'm primarily focused on the plot of the book but I'm also looking out for other useful things to note. Here's a summary of the process so far:
  • On the first page I created a place to note the two main characters' tags. A tag is something that makes the character unique such as their age, their background, what they look like, their personality, likes and dislikes, etc. For this book, I'm keeping track of tags for Adso (the narrator and young novice) and William (the monk and former inquisitor charged with solving the mystery). William (of Baskerville, no less) is modeled after Sherlock Holmes and Adso sort of functions as his Watson.
  • Next, I make notes in the margins summarizing the action. Time is very important in this story since it takes place over seven days so I pay close attention to how time unfolds. Umberto does a great job of building up the tension in several different ways which I make note of.
  • I look out for other instructive and wonderful things to note. This story has a lot of early church history. In fact, Umberto goes into deeply into this history, probably more than is necessary, and seamlessly incorporates it into the story and makes it personal to the characters.
  • Also, the story world is detailed and obviously well researched. Umberto really only has to concentrate his efforts on the monastery itself. The heart of the story takes place in the Library, a mysterious place full of dangers and secrets. This Library is a literally a maze: if you go in, you may not find your way out again.
These are the things I'm concentrating on for this book. For another book I might concentrate on the characters if they're particularly vivid or the language or settings. When I'm done with my notes, I'll map out the plot in Scrivener and will likely do an write-up of the other aspects of the book I liked and why I think they worked so well.

This is a time consuming process but very worthwhile. I wrote a story not too long ago based on characters that already exist and I felt it was important to re-read the source material. Well, that process took almost two months and I took extensive notes. It was a very useful exercise because I learned that it was necessary to invest that kind of research into my own characters.

I plan to go back to certain books to figure out why certain parts work so well. For example, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon has a GREAT ending. I'm going to try to figure out what makes it so moving and wonderful. Also, the short story Honey Pie by Haruki Murakami is one of the sweetest love stories I've ever read but it's not overly sentimental or cliched, and I want to figure out how he did it.

I do enjoy this process. When I was younger the thought of writing in my books made me shudder and I still won't write in hardcover books, but I have to say going to the shelf and opening up that marked copy of Paradise Lost gives me a great deal of pleasure.

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