The Reading Checklist
And also false.
It turned out that I had already given myself a huge head start. I'd read hundreds of books by the time I ever sat down to write one, and I knew a lot more about plot structure, character development, emotional reactions, theme, and story than I realized. While I still had (and have) a lot to learn, reading gave me a framework for writing my own novels. It taught me some rules and gave me a framework to start from.
Now that I've spent the last five years studying writing craft and written four novels, it's harder to read for pure pleasure, harder to get lost in the characters and completely taken out of my own world. But I try to do it anyway. I try to read the books I want to read as a consumer and not necessarily the books I should read as a writer And, I try to read a book straight through for the pure fun of it, before I put on my writer hat and start to deconstruct it.
But I also think I've always been the type of reader who analyzes stories. When I finish a book, I have an immediate reaction. I can always finds things I loved or enjoyed, and usually finds things I didn't like as much, and then I try to figure out why. I've learned as much from the things that I didn't like so well as the parts I loved, so I definitely look at both. And because I love to deconstruct and analyze things, I have a mental checklist I go through.
1. How do I feel? This is the gut check. Did the story move me emotionally? The emotion can come from the characters or story, but sometimes, I just have feelings about the book itself (I love it or hate it). A book that gets an emotional reaction from me is a book that I want to figure out, because if I have strong feelings, it usually means that the book succeeded in taking me out of my analytical box while I was reading. Just as important though, is a book that I enjoyed enough to finish, but don't have strong feelings about one way or another. Why not? Asking the rest of the questions will usually help me figure out why.
2. How was the plot structured? I'm really interested in plot structures, so I like to break the book into acts and see where in the story certain plot points were introduced. What was the inciting incident? What steps did the character take to solve the primary story problem? What obstacles did the character face? How were those obstacles overcome? Were there any logical inconsistencies or nagging questions? Sometimes open plot threads are thought provoking, and I like trying to work them out on my own, but there is an important difference between an open question and a plot hole or logical inconsistency that just doesn't work.
3. Did the characters feel real to me? Why or why not? If I have an emotional reaction to a book, this question is almost always answered in the positive. And if I really love a character, I try to figure out why? Is it because I could relate to the character's struggles? Because the character made me smile or laugh? What made the character stand out from other books I've read? If I don't like a character, it's usually because they make choices that seem unrealistic or contrived, or because they are just plain mean, but sometimes it's harder to pin down.
4. How did the characters work with the plot? Here, I like to explore the dynamic between the main characters' inner conflict and the external pressures that drive the plot. How did the character's inner conflict complicate or inform the external plot points? How did the character's external pressures impact the external conflict?
5. What about the writing? Was it smooth and deceptively simple? Overwrought? Poetic? Beautiful or choppy? What made it this way? How did the character's voice impact the way the story is told?
6. What was the primary theme of the story? What did the story have to say on the topic? Did the book make me think about the topic in a different way?
I've found that the best stories make me feel something for the characters, keep me turning the pages, and leave me thinking long after I've closed the last page. I want to write books that do all of those things, and while knowing what works for me as a reader is not the same as making those things happen in my writing, it maybe brings me a little closer to achieving my goal.