• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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Pools Of sorrow Waves of Joy

While I was on vacation, I read a few screenplays. Reading screenplays for me is like taking a watch apart. I love figuring out how it all fits together. I love tracking the movement of the three acts. I scrutinize every description. Every action. Weirdly, the dialogue is the least of it. Or rather the least interesting to  analyze. I don’t just read these motherfuckers, I get my gloves on and reach into the chest cavity. I used to do this with poems, but now I find I can enjoy them, sip or drink deeply. I think it comes from years of study, a certain comfort level with the form,  and the fact that I no longer write poems. But these screenplays, they have me by the short hairs. And I love it. Every move, every lick, a screenwriter makes that reveals his craft blows me away. The concision, which reminds me of poetry, is like some brilliant morse code to me.

How do you read the kinds of books you’re trying to write: competitively? As a student? A voyeur? A spy in the house of love?

32 Responses

  1. student and spy!

  2. All of the above.

  3. If you haven’t read this yet, you’re gonna owe me big. The bible for The Wire:

    Click to access The_Wire_-_Bible.pdf

  4. i don’t.

    they all scare me now. (how did they ever get to that perfectly polished place??? how does that happen? i look at them sitting so pretty on the bookstore shelf in the same way i look at women in the pages of every magazine spread across my office floor. i’ll never look like that.)

    before i got serious about my writing, i gobbled them up like my grandpa used to chain-smoke his marlboro reds, starting one before finishing another. i wrote in margins, highlighted perfect lines, left notes in the back of books about what to do and not do.

    now i can’t even flirt with my genre. forget the quiet girl on the side of the dance floor watching everybody else. i’m the one puking in the bathroom because the entire scene has has my anxiety at maximum capacity.

    • Great image in that last paragraph: I’ll be the plain-looking girl (the one no one would dream to ask to dance), offering you a damp towel.

      • yes, a damp towel. and a cigarette if you have one, to get the vomit taste out of my mouth. (not that i smoke anymore, but i used to thoroughly enjoy camel lights in high school bathrooms.)

      • No cigs, but I think there’s a new pack of gum in my purse…

  5. I’d like to think I’m a student, but that may be overstating it. But for all but the very finest books, it has affected the way I read. If the book is oh-so-average, I keep reading while I try to figure out what about it obviously attracted an agent and an editor (all the while thinking ‘I could SO write this book’). Or I critique as I go along – too long, too wordy, too simplistic, too wonderful. And then there are those exceptional books that grab me and pull me in and I never give a thought to a critique or opinion or analysis. I just gulp down the words and feel sad when they are done. Those are the ones I learn from.

  6. I’ve read Eat, Pray, Love three times and I can hardly remember anything about the food, scenery, or characters because I am so thrilled with the structure, pacing, and vocabulary. Elizabeth Gilbert took the huge, messy raw material of a year in the life and found a way to make it coherent and meaningful. A lot of readers overlook this narrative achievement because the book seems to hold together so effortlessly as a linear story of travel and love, but that effortlessness takes a ton of skill. If you’ve ever tried to make sense of a road trip or a broken heart or a week, month, or year of your life you could learn a lot about control, timing, and getting over yourself by taking very careful notes on the composition of this book. And the title is killer.

    I used Eat, Pray, Love as a blue print to help me write about a long journey that didn’t have any real core to it — it wasn’t a quest (and I don’t think Eat, Pray, Love started out as one, either — nice device!) or anything. Just a 208-page story about a pleasant ramble, with great scenery. And when I got the copy edit back I realized I’d plagerized one of Elizabeth Gilbert’s best lines, a nice pivot in mood that I really admire at the end of Chapter 41. I hated to delete it but of course I did because I’m not a TOTAL hack.

    • Eat, Pray, Love is such an amazingly terrible book! Wow. Good to know. Of course it was a journey, not a trip. A journey! Do you also owe a debt to Chicken Soup for the Soul? Is Shel Silverstein your lodestar?

  7. I’m reading such books with a studious eye – almost as distracting as those nifty, fondant icing-draped cupcakes.

  8. Definitely a student. I am going through a DH Lawrence and Barbara Kingsolver binge and in readin them they have taught me so much about character development.

    • I just finished The Lacuna, which was excellent — original story, beautiful sentences, and complex structure. Loved it.

  9. AbFab’s daughter Saffy, voice of conscience, diligent, not dazzling, is an overlooked protagonist in literature. And why not, she isn’t glamourous, doesn’t die young, isn’t famously gifted, quotably catty. She’s small potatoes, not romantic, weak voice in the back of the room. Jane Eyre without the orphanage without a Rochester.

    Can I do it? Does it matter? Is it essential? Do I even care?

    So, I read the boy’s stories, the David’s and the John’s, the drunkalogs and the careening rants, the bad boys and the bad girls too with all their attractive overcoming and their lousy realizations half way through. Then its back to my book one more time. In the thick of it I think this doesn’t suck, this is where I need to be. No matter how long it takes. This is the voice in me.

  10. When I read them, I read as a student. But I usually do not read the kinds of books I write. i am not a big fan of contemporary women’s fiction. But every book I read, I do so as a student. I am reading my second Mike Carey, and I don’t usually like paranormal, but I love his style and I love Felix Castor. The ghost and succubus stuff is a stretch for me, tho I am kinda liking the succubus stuff. Who wouldn’t?

    I think I am always looking for style insight cuz I kinda ramble.

  11. What are those cute little things in the pic? Can I eat them?

  12. I read for the adventure, for the experience. to be swept away. If I find that I’m collecting crumbs or pebbles along the way, it’s a clear sign I want out.

  13. Through the eyes of people I know, or would like to know.

  14. obsessively.

  15. I read them as a voyeur, utterly.

    I try to be a student studying why and how something works, but my god! when it works. All I can do is peer in feeling like I’m getting away with something, a kid and a flashlight under the covers, a clandestine book on my knees.

    I was over on The Guardian website and saw that the Booker longlist came out. There is a slideshow of the covers and a couple of sentences about the story. I had a co-worker see my face and ask me what I was reading…he thought it was porn. My reaction to all of the wonderful books that exist in the world that I have yet to read…how embarrassing.
    Boom Chicka Boom Boom.

  16. I read as a student and competitively. I write crime fiction. Envy at a master’s story well written, engagingly told, provides a certain impetus to up my game. I strive to perfect my craft and I hold those writers of my genre that I admire as examples of what can be achieved. While I find these talents dauntingly brilliant, fortunately I have a healthy ego so that I feel comfortable laboring in their company. Now all that remains is to prove I’m as good as I think I am and get a book published. So far I gotta admit, I ain’t exactly knockin’em dead.

  17. I read for the story AND the writing guidance. When I see a flawless, flowing structure, all of my fireworks shoot off and stuff starts blowing up. What’s better than that?

  18. As a thief. A few days ago, I read a scene in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy — the one where Smiley learns the identity of the mole he’s been chasing the entire book — and spent quite some time trying to figure out how I could “adapt” it for my own purposes.

  19. As a thief. I love Ivan Doig’s “Dancing at the Rascal Fair.”

  20. For several years I read only critically acclaimed Indie books, and my experience alternated between amazed and jealous. The sleight of hand! The gorgeous language! The “I want to hang out in the bathroom with Amy G and puke” of it all.

    So I decided to read only shit for awhile. Page-turners riddled with received text.

    Then I thought, fuck books, and just streamed Netflix instead.

    But this summer I turned 50. I’m too old to really play in those sandboxes anyway. Tick-tock, y’know?

    I’m back to reading books fueled by fabulous sentences. No microscope. No self-loathing. I’m just hungrier and hungrier for the good stuff. An absolute glutton, am I.

  21. As a sponge.

  22. Before I wrote my memoir, I read others’. But your story is your own and your voice is your own. It will either attract (or repel) your own readers — and mine does both. Which means I must doing something right.

    I am sometimes amazed at how shitty these best-sellers are. Studying them only proves that a lot of people like crappy work. That’s not much help.

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