One of the best ways to improve your writing is to read widely. People say you should read at least 100 books in your genre and age category, and it's great advice. I love reading as a reader, but here are some ways to read as a writer, to actively analyze and learn from the books you love.
1. Copy the Great Ones
In traditional painting, students learn by copying the masters. By replicating the colors, compositions, and brushwork, artists learn what works. The same thing holds true for authors. Whether you write picture books or novels, a great exercise is to open a blank document and re-type a picture book, or in the case of a novel, the first chapter (or at least 500-1000 words).
When I was learning children's illustration, I thumbnailed existing books. Here's my thumbnail of a super cute 2008 picture book, Jumpy Jack and Googily, by Meg Rosoff, illustrated by Sophie Blackall:
I've copied the beginnings of many middle grade novels, and it really helps me understand how different authors construct their sentences and the rhythm of their voices. One insight I learned, for example, was sentences can be more sophisticated than I was writing. I also add information like chapter word-count and POV. Here's the beginning of a re-type of Tae Keller's The Science of Breakable Things (Tae is my Author Mentor Match mentor who just won the Newbery Medal for her amazing book When You Trap a Tiger!)
(To find the word count of most books, check out Accelerated Reader Bookfinder)
2. Pinpoint the Midpoint
When plotting, it's helpful to know the midpoint scene. In Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing, Larry Brooks describes the midpoint as the point when new information changes the understanding of the reader or the character. It shifts the context or the story, giving the MC new impetus to solve their problem.
Something I like to do is take books and literally open them to the halfway mark (e.g. in a 280-page book, open to page 140, on a Kindle, slide to 50%). Read the scene and see if you can identify how it's the midpoint of the story. Nine times out of ten, that scene is a key one: in a YA romance, it might be the first kiss (e.g. When Dimple Met Rishi), in a thriller, it can reveal important information (e.g. in Scott Westerfeld's Uglies, Tally learns there are people who grew up outside of her civilized world. In this book, there's an even bigger reveal at the 60% mark, which is probably the true midpoint, which shows that you don't have to be rigid about it).
3. Reverse Outline your Favorite Book
Take a favorite book and summarize each chapter. See if you can identify key plot points, the purpose of each chapter, and how the chapters work to construct the story. Here's part of my reverse outline of a favorite MG, City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau:
By engaging with books as a writer instead of a reader, you can figure out more easily how a story works.
Giveaway: A Stack of ARCs
To keep you reading like a writer, I'm giving away this stack of ARCs (to U.S. addresses only): Amina's Voice (2020) and Amina's Song (2021) by Hena Khan, Leaving Lymon by Lesa Cline-Ransome (2020), Gloomtown by Ronald L. Smith (2020), and Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko (2020).
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2) reply to this email with a song you're enjoying. In late 2020, "Congregation" by Low was in heavy rotation, and now I'm enjoying "I'm Not Your Hero" by Tegan and Sarah.
3) Bonus entry: add my MG sci-fi Hana Hsu and the Ghost Crab Nation to your Goodreads To Read list (it's a story about a 12-year-old girl who fights a high tech conspiracy with the help of hackers, bird bots, and a qi gong master).
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