Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Reading as a writer

A guest post  by Carmela Martino - from the VCFA Summer Blog Initiative

The fifth and last in a series of guest posts to be featured here Tuesdays in August -- by students and graduates of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

Most writers I know are avid readers. I have been for as long as I can remember. I read so much as a child that my mother often scolded me, saying things like, "You spend too much time sitting around with your nose in a book. Get up and DO SOMETHING!"

But I WAS doing something. I was learning how to be a writer. Without even realizing it, I was studying how writers use language, create tension, bring characters to life, etc. All that reading expanded my vocabulary, refined my literary tastes, and taught me genre-specific conventions. And the best part? My education-by-osmosis was not only painless, it was pleasurable.

When I eventually went to the Vermont College of Fine Arts (then called simply Vermont College) to work on an MFA in Writing, I learned a more direct approach to my education as a writer. At the beginning of each semester in the program, I was required to create a personal reading list pertinent to my writing goals. The list included books on craft as well as children's/young adult books in the genre I was writing. Each month, I then had to write two critical essays discussing what I had learned from my reading.

Often, it wasn't until I sat down to write those essays that I recognized what I had absorbed. I know the essays were the bane of some of my fellow students. But for me, the process of organizing my thoughts about a book I'd read and then putting those thoughts into writing led me to new insights-insights I might never have discovered by osmosis alone. (For an example of how this works, see the Writing Workout below.) Perhaps this is one of the reasons so many writers are also bloggers-the web has become a place to organize our thoughts and share our insights about both reading and writing.

Since graduating from VCFA, "Reading as a writer" has become second nature to me, even when I'm reading "for fun." I also continue to choose books that will help me learn specific techniques. I recently read the young-adult novel The Vanishing Point: A Story of Lavinia Fontana by Louise Hawes, one of my teachers at VCFA. Fontana was a Renaissance artist who lived in 16th-century Bologna, and the novel is a fictionalized account of her adolescence. My current writing project is a historical novel set in 18th-century Italy, and is also based on the life of a real woman of the time. While reading Hawes's novel, I studied how she wove in setting details specific to the time period along with known facts from Lavinia Fontana's life. The book taught me a great deal!

Next time you practice "reading as a writer," consider trying the following Writing Workout to deepen your experience:

Writing Workout: Reading as a Writer

In preparation for "reading as a writer," decide what aspect of writing you will study. For example, you may choose to focus on characterization, dialogue, description, plot, setting, use of flashbacks, etc. When I started at VCFA, I knew one of the shortcomings in my own writing was a lack of specific detail. So, in my first two semesters, I read to study how authors incorporated details into their writing.

Ideally, you will read the book you are studying more than once. The first time is to simply enjoy the story. However, if you're pressed for time, you can read for pleasure and analyze at the same time.
If you are able, purchase a paperback copy of the book you've chosen. With a highlighting pen, mark occurrences of the technique you are studying. For example, while studying the use of details, I highlighted every use of sensory detail that I found. (If you're working with a borrowed book, then take notes describing each occurrence of the technique. Make sure to include the corresponding page numbers.)

Doing the above alone will likely be an eye-opening experience. But to take this exercise a step further, write a 300-800 word essay or blog post discussing what you learned from your reading. Your essay should include some of the examples you highlighted in the text. Important: be sure to discuss how you will apply what you learned to your own writing. And don't forget-you can learn as much, if not more, from a book you don't like as from one you do.

Carmela Martino writes fiction, non-fiction, and poetry for readers of all ages. She also teaches writing classes for children and adults. Her first published novel for children, Rosa, Sola (Candlewick Press) , began as her creative thesis while pursuing an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults at Vermont College. Over ten years after graduating from the program, Carmela remains close to her classmates from VCFA. (Her class was nicknamed "The Hive" and they continue to "buzz" via daily emails and periodic reunions.) She blogs regularly with three of those classmates at www.TeachingAuthors.com, a blog by six children's authors who also teach writing. To read more about Carmela and her work, visit her website, carmelamartino.com. You can also contact her there if you have any questions or comments about her post or Vermont College.

For all the writers out there, how does reading inform your writing? 


Caroline Starr Rose said...

I love this idea of creating a reading list with the intentional plan to work through and apply what you've learned.

Thanks for this!

The Pen and Ink Blogspot said...

Whenever I read YA or Middle grade fiction, I classify them into three categories.

1. Ugh, I can't believe this got published.
2. Yeah, I could have written that.
3. I'm not worthy! I'm not worthy!

Modest in Modesto

Frances Sackett said...

This is a great post. I think that being able to read thoughtfully is critical to becoming a stronger writer. Thanks for sharing!

Laurie L Young said...

Thanks, Megan, for these posts. I feel like I am benefiting from a MFA program without having to actually be in one.

This one was especially interesting to me since I always stock up on a pile of books to read while I am working on a first draft. I usually read a couple dozen in the genre, starting each day reading 2 or 3 (I am writing younger MG, so the books are very short, quick reads.) This gets me all energized and excited to work. When I get stuck, I pick up another book from the pile and read. This has also helped my critical thinking because I might have a different goal for my reading that day—whether I need to focus on character, plot, setting, etc. I sometimes re-read a book looking for examples of different things each time. And it's fun because I can use reading as a way to procrastinate, but still feel like I am working on my book!

Carmela Martino said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. So glad you enjoyed this post. Modest in Modesto, your comment made me laugh out loud! Whenever I have a reaction like what you describe in #1, I go online to search for reviewer comments. While I don't always agree with the other comments, they help me see why the book was published. :-)
Laurie, glad you found a productive way to procrastinate. :-)
By the way, I recently downloaded Kindle for PC and I love having the ability to highlight and comment on sections right on my screen. The comments are so easy to read through later, too.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

I love what her Mom said...I say the same thing to my kiddo and have for many years. She's thinking about going to school to become a literature professor.

I love using goodreads to keep track of what I've read and what I want to read. Linda Sue Parks said that you should read at least 100 books in your genre before you start writing your story.

Barbara Watson said...

I learn so much about writing by reading - and I don't mean reading books on the craft of writing because, quite honestly, I'm not good at reading those - because studying how someone else does it (writing) through what they've written really brings it all home for me.

iza said...

Great post! I keep a notebook beside me as I read and jot down phrases that I find especially beautiful, powerful or clever. When I need a boost of inspiration, I open the notebook and read the various authors' quotes and it often sets the mood for my own writing. Although there are days, when I look through them and get depressed and feel like #3 in Modest in Modesto's comment: "I'm not worthy!"

Megan Frances Abrahams said...

Thanks for all your insightful comments, Caroline, Modest, Frances, Laurie, Carmela, Sharon, Barbara and Iza.

I agree, there is so much to learn from thoughtful and strategic reading.

I feel like I had a sneak peek inside an MFA for writing program the last few weeks too, Laurie. And, I know what you mean, Modest in Modesto. I think we all alternate between feeling confident and frustrated about our writing.

Now that the VCFA guest posts are wrapped up, it's time for me to resume writing my own blog posts. Stay tuned...