Reading like a Writer and Writing like a Reader

Something I’ve mentioned offhand before is the concept of reading like a writer.

It’s a skill I started picking up, very informally, during my teens. This was when I first started writing in earnest, cranking out absolute garbage urban fantasy pieces about dueling clans of vampires from two different bloodlines, one of which was a berserker strain that could turn into twist on the classic Nosferatu type but hulking and capable of tearing cars apart while their cousins inherited kind of an otherworldly beauty and powers somewhere between telekinesis and telepathy. For the story itself, well, if you swapped the berserker vamps out for lycanthropes you would basically have the plot of the first two Underworld movies crammed together.

As I was writing this, I really immersed myself in vampire fiction. I was already a huge Buffy fan, I played Vampire: The Masquerade on and off, Interview With the Vampire and Blade were two of the first R-rated films I managed to sneak past my parents by hiding the VHS tapes inside boxes for PG13 ones at the rental store. Retroactive apologies to anyone from rural Maine who may have rented Blade and found Flight of the Navigator or Indiana Jones in the box instead. But I digress, I started realizing that many of these stories contained core components. I cobbled together a primitive version of what university creative writing workshops would later emphasize, which is taking those core components and not just remixing them but asking why each one works the way that it does.

That, I think, is one of the problems with sites like TVTropes where these components are compiled and categorized. It doesn’t do a deep enough look under the skin of why the tropes are effective. When you dig down far and start asking why a thing exists, it allows you to backwards-engineer it and create something far more unique. To go back to vampires as an example, why the blood fixation? Why does it crop up in practically every culture across the planet, even prior to contact between those cultures and the cross-pollination of different pieces of folklore? See the different permutations and how it straddles the line between a fear of cannibalism and a combined reverence/cautionary tale for immortality. Pick it apart strand by strand and see if you can find the lowest level of why it works, and then build something new on that level, that feeling.

I believe that reading like a writer is taking a critical look at the elements of a book you’re enjoying and asking why you’re enjoying it and how it ties into your own personal canon of most enjoyed literature. This is a good habit to be in, even if you don’t write! It allows you to identify what works for you and then you can ask yourself why it works and how it works. It allows for a deeper understanding of the story and of yourself, and in the future it’ll allow you to pick out other stories that will evoke similar feelings in you.

And for writing like a reader? If you are a writer it gives you an enormous toolbox to play around with, because instead of just thinking “vampires” as a whole thing in the back of your head, you have a dozen categories and subcategories to play around with. If I wanted to write a vampire story in a fantasy world now I would look at the DNA of the monster from a folklore perspective and see which cultures in the real world made similar creatures, and then try to figure out how one culture could come up with something made of such disparate elements. Boom, I set out to create an antagonist for a story and I not only got it but I potentially got an entire civilization from the region where that antagonist originated, and all of a sudden I don’t just want to explore the vampire, I want to use it as one of many hazards in the background while I write about this new place. That’s exactly the kind of stuff I would want to buy and read myself. Vampires are hypersaturated and arguably have been since the 90s, but using them as a lens through which to view a new culture? That’s something I’d drop my hard earned money on.

51ytp7qbd7L.jpgTying into the reading as a writer rather than the vampire aspect of this post, Promise of Blood is a pretty good example for me. It’s something I would not have picked up unless I spent a lot of time asking what I was looking for in books and doing research for similar things. At the time I picked it up I was very much on a kick of stories about intergenerational clashes and it’s a fantasy novel that really focuses that thematically. The gist of it is that the divine right of kings is real and the bloodline of the royal family made a pact with a literal god in ages long past that he would become their state religion and they would be allowed to rule forever. Until their increasingly corrupt descendants run the kingdom into the ground and create such a wellspring of suffering and malice that revolution finally happens, at the hands of their own working class powder mages, and this revolution results in an extremely pissed off god that no one thought existed descending from the heavens to wreak havoc across the countryside. That’s it on the surface. Underneath though, it’s about new school versus old school fantasy. The protagonists of the trilogy, the powder mages, are weak on an individual basis but work extremely well in militarized units. They can control the trajectory of projectiles and snort a special gunpowder snuff to supercharge their bodies for brief periods of time, and they’re up against very traditional old-school elemental mages who had previously held all the power in the kingdom. You can read it on multiple levels: clash of fantasy types, working class versus privileged elite, straight up Napoleonic war era military thriller. The narrative prose is a bit workmanlike (that’s not a criticism, just a warning since I know some people have a dislike of that style) and reminiscent of Brandon Sanderson’s earliest work, which is not particularly surprising consider McClellan is a disciple and student of Sanderson. The magic isn’t quite as deeply explored as a Cosmere novel and the story is much more about the characters and the magic as a metaphorical stand in for class warfare. Which, you know, kind of floats my boat.

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