Conversations in My Head: Things I’ve Learnt from Reading

Whenever I’m reading a book, I have this silent conversation with the author in my head. This is particularly true for indie authors I’m reviewing, but most authors are ‘targeted’. Sometimes, there are more people in my head. So if you’re feeling like someone is walking on your grave, it might be me, reading your works.

Anyway. What, you might ask, am I talking to them about?

A plethora of subjects. From complimenting on a nice turn of phrase, to constructing the review. From an “I see what you did there”, to “Oh no you didn’t”. It’s somewhere between a silent (or silently screaming) editor, to a rabid (but shy) fan.

A more pertinent question is why. Why am I constantly talking over the book I’m reading?

The answer isn’t the squirrels in my head (they’re still there, don’t worry). It’s a learning tool for me as an author. I’m sure I’m not the only one with a constant chatter between the ears, so you might find it beneficial too. Here are a few points about how to be a critical reader, and what you can learn from it.


You all should be familiar with the best advice to writers, because not only have I been spouting it often, it comes from pretty much any single big name author you’ll encounter:

If you want to write, write.

If you want to write good stories, read.

There’s a corollary I need to start adding:

“If you want to write well, learn to work with an editor”

That’s half the point here. The main gist, besides that you can learn to be an editor (for free) by continually and analysing what you read, is that by critically reading both good and bad books, you’ll learn. And in learning, we become better authors.

So. I promised something more practical than a philosophical treatise. The way to become a critical reader that works for me, is to have those conversation. When my feverish mind, busy empathising with the heroine as she chastises the dragon who kidnapped her about their atrocious table manners, spots something odd — I analyse it. And to do that, I discuss and explain it to some hapless victim. And who better than the author of that oddity?

You might have heard that teaching is the best way to learn about something. (This is partly what I’m doing in this and similar articles, in a self-referential meta kind of way). By forcing myself to identify what made my mind snag during reading, and to coherently explain the issue and possible resolution, I am strengthening the neural pathways required to learn from it and apply it to my own writing.

Other things I do, besides conversing with the author, is to constantly check the dictionary even for words I’m fairly certain I know the definition (gotta love the in-build one in Kindles), and chase Wikipedia articles down the rabbit hole of further education. I do these to to double check myself, to fact-check the author, and to learn new things — all aspects that cement my knowledge when I come to write.

Anyway, here are a few things I’ve discovered while doing it.

Commas are a matter of taste and opinion

Go ahead and flame me. I’m fairly retardant 😉

But, in all seriousness, after starting to pay attention to such matters, from reading novels in multiple genres, in both US and UK English, published over the past three decades — I can safely say that 90% of commas are stylistic rather than a hard rule.

Yeah, yeah, Chicago style — just breathe. As long as you’re clear and consistent, I bet I can find you a polished work from a reputable publisher that will match. So worry less (despite what everyone says), and ensure clarity and depth of story. Let your final publishing house or proofreader apply their rules and lose sleep on commas — you have better things to worry about.

Show vs Tell

There are literally a bagzillion pixels and ink droplets spent on this subject every year, and just like commas there is more hyperbole than actual need.

Showing things is good (really good) for your writing, but it often comes with excessive verbiage which you might not desire. Knowing when to show and when to tell is far more important. Here’ s a couple of quick tips, that come under the 80/20 rule — 80% improvement for 20% effort. (But see note at the end!)

Naming emotions

This is a simple rule of thumb, that’s easy to spot and change for easy gains. What’s more intimate with the character:

“You shouldn’t have done that,” she said sadly.

vs

“You shouldn’t have done that,” she said, casting her eyes down and breathing out softly.

That’s a classic example to show both how getting more descriptive gets you more empathetic to the character, and how it costs more words on the page. Figure out the places where eliciting an emotional response is important vs. where it might slow the story. It’s easy to scan the page for spelled-out emotions, and expand where appropriate by describing the reaction rather than naming it. (But don’t just use the thesaurus — ‘chagrin’ is as bad as ‘sad’ in this case).

BTW, you’ll still find readers that will complain that now characters are more opaque. Suddenly they can’t ‘read’ that character as clearly as before. Like everything else (see below), it’s a matter of taste and probabilities.

Hedging

We, as authors, are often afraid to come across as melodramatic and therefore gently couch emotional expression:

She felt a little sad.

Compared with a more direct:

She was sad.

No prize for guessing which one impacts the reader more, and raises more empathy and sympathy. When we hedge, we distance the reader. It’s just like other filtering terms (felt, saw, thought, etc.)

Scan your work for “a bit”, “a little”, “rather”, “quite”, “seemed” and all similar expressions and remove them. It may feel a little over-dramatic — but that’s exactly where you want to be. What feels to us as authors as just the other side of over-the-top, is exactly what makes the reader feel more. So scan your writing for any filtering and hedging language, and remove it with confident. Make your writing immediate and active.

Here’s my full list:

saw, heard, thought, wondered, realized, watched, looked, seemed, felt, decided, sounded, noticed, was able to, noted, experienced, a bit, a little, rather, quite.

Of course, there instances where those term are the focus of the sentence and it’s important to leave them in. But usually, unless it’s a mannerism of speech for a character, this is an area you need to be bold. Remove it, and as long as the sentence still makes sense err on the side of less is more.

Dialogue tags vs Beats

We get tired of writing “he said, she said”, to we add a bit of colour to our dialogue tags. “She asked, he replied,” or “he exclaimed, she snarled.” It’s easy to get carried away, to either extreme.

Here’s the thing about the readers’ minds. Parsing ‘said’ or ‘asked’ takes almost no effort. Parsing (understanding) ‘replied’, exclaimed’ and the like takes a little. Words like ‘snarled’, ‘scolded’, ‘reassured’, ‘teased’ tax our brains more, and can therefore slow down the reader.

You can find online easy references to which words to use at which frequency, but a better way is to use ‘beats’. You already know to put the dialogue tag at the start of the paragraph, right? (If you have a long bit of speech, break it in the first or second line to inset the “she said”.) Beats are simply a short action that goes at the start, to orient the reader about who’s acting and speaking.

Compare:

“Blah blah,” Dana gushed cheerfully, “blah blah blah blah…”

To:

Dana’s face lit up. “Blah blah blah blah…”

See what I mean? You’ve eliminated a harder-to-parse dialogue tag, avoided naming an emotion, and established who’s talking cleanly while adding colour in one fell swoop.

This technique is particularly useful to break long monologues, or when there are multiple participants. Heck, it’s very useful to break any long stretch of ‘he said, she said’, and is much better than your readers snarling at your characters obtuse dialogue tags. Let the emotion come through character speech and the actions surrounding it — which is the essence of “show vs. tell” in any case.

Sensory input

Another observation, related both to reader tastes (below) and the ‘show vs tell’ debate: we’re often told that we need to involve more senses, dammit! Well, yes and no. I’ve seen plenty of great authors who can paint an amazingly lively scene with just a few words, and others (who probably blindly followed advice given) that have added many words to describe the smell of every room, the feel of every couch fabric, the taste of every old woman. Err… you know what I mean.

We get over 80% of our sensory input from sight (actually, it’s probably 80% memory — but sight is the main one), and so it’s natural that the quickest impressions come from visual cues. So, by all means, use other senses — but don’t go heavy handed on it. Find the places where a particular noise or smell would make an impact, and expand a bit. e.g My character (miser that he is), describes a lot of his meals, particularly the free ones. In Murder In Absentia, he had occasion to visit a fish-sauce factory (oh, the smells!) and a gladiatorial combat (oh, the noise!). By working it where appropriate, even those who hated the novel agreed that the city was absolutely alive and immersive.

So, in a final note of this ‘show vs tell’ section, I’d like to leave you with this: Remember, it’s the overall feel that stays with the reader, not the amount of words. Adding extra words can make readers understand the character’s emotional state better, and may even, paradoxically, make the story pace feel faster. But, like everything else in life, it’s a matter of balance, probabilities, and personal tastes. You’re in charge here, so make sure you are happy with your stories first and foremost.

It’s all a matter of opinion anyway

No book, ever, will satisfy all readers. Most of it, contrary to what literary critics and self-appointed judges may think, is a matter of personal taste. Just like you’re not friends with every person you meet, you won’t ‘dig’ every character. In the same sense that you don’t like every dish, every painting, every song you hear — but that there are others who swear by it — than neither will every reader.

Take any book you like — from classic masterpieces, to your favourite novels that impacted your childhood — and check the reviews. Wear something that can easily be washed afterwards.

One you realise that there’s a lot less to it, you can relax and see a lot more in it — more enjoyment in reading, more enjoyment in writing. So read critically, but do it because you like it. Have a pleasant conversation with the author over coffee in your head. Learn from them, or from teaching those invisible students sitting with you. Let it sink in, until it comes naturally in your writing, and you can focus on what really matters — your stories.


In summary: keep writing, keep reading, and worry less. Read for enjoyment, but also read critically. Learn from it, and see ho you can apply it to your own writing — while keeping true to your stories, your voice, your readership. Don’t lose focus in trying to run after every advice and nugget of wisdom. Cheat-sheet type advice like the above is useful at the right place and time, but, like I started this article, it comes not from overly conscious effort on my part but from my love of reading. Do it because you love and enjoy it, and wisdom will come from experience.

That’s it. Hope you found this useful — both the quick advice and the urging to relax and enjoy the journey. What kind of things have you learnt from reading, and how does it affect your writing? I’d love to know!

3 Comments

  1. Excellent post! I concur on many of your points. I like that list of words that don’t wuite make it across the finish line, I call them weasel words. They dilute the impact. Sometimes that is good and sometimes it is bad. I will be sharing this. WordPress still won’t let me “like” your post, but I do.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yup on all points. There are great writing rules out there, but they all can be broken to make the writing better (and that’s more art than science, or feels over rules).

    Liked by 1 person

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