Friday, February 19, 2010

ON READING GUIDES, WRITING, AND HIDDEN SNOW: Some "Reading Guide Questions" for Writers

A couple of months ago, my husband made the mistake of doing some back-country skiing with a friendly old guy who'd been living on our ski hill for years (note random ski photo of me and husband to right). When my husband took his inevitable tumble, the guy told him that this had happened because he'd failed to look at "the snow beneath the snow." Go ahead, laugh at the expression. But, in the context of analyzing manuscripts and writing reading guides, I think it may have some merit. Seeing the author's craft, hopefully artfully concealed beneath a breathlessly wonderful story, is kind of like looking at the snow beneath the snow. And it can teach you a lot about writing and revising your own work.

An example. Recently, I read a highly-recommended, much-lauded book. I have to admit, I didn't love it. Usually I read books in one sitting and this one took me almost a week. Back in my pre-writing-guide days, I might not even have finished the book. But, as a writer and guide-writer, I WANTED TO KNOW what made the book work for so many people. This is important because, if you work for hire, you will from time-to-time find yourself working on a manuscript that is out of your comfort range. It is also helpful to look at your own work this way if you find yourself feeling disconnected from your story or its characters.

Here are 4 question bundles to help you keep reading and learning from both beloved and challenging manuscripts--to spot that underlying snow!

1. Is the book's point-of-view typical or unusual? Do I generally like books written from this POV? Why do I think the author chose this POV to explore the plot and themes of this story? Do I feel they made the right choice? Why or why not?

2. What are the three most interesting attributes the author has given to the main character? What is fresh about this mc? Do I like or dislike the mc, and why? How do I think middle grade, YA, or other age-level readers will connect with this mc?

3. Whether fantasy, historical, realistic fiction or even non-fiction, how does the author create a world for his/her reader? Does the world feel complete, fleshed-out? If so, why?  If not, what feels like it is missing (specifics, like plant life or smells are fine)?  Would I want to be a character in this world? Where would I fit in?

4. What do I think the author is trying to accomplish, show, or explore in this book (this is kind of that snow-beneath thing)? Does he or she achieve these goals, entirely or partially? What do I think is the strongest accomplishment (e.g., writing style, characterizations, plot twists, imagery) of this book?

In the end, by asking the questions above, I learned a lot from reading the aforementioned much-lauded book. I was impressed by the uniqueness, clarity and consistency of the point-of-view, as well as the work the author put into creating such an authentic world. The book, despite everything, has stuck with me. Because of my analytical read, I was able to find a lot to appreciate. Who knows, maybe it'll marinate awhile and wind up on my favorites list one day after all!

All the same, I am not taking up back-country skiing :)

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