Reading to Write

by Joe Novara


When I did technical writing for a living, I would make a point of surfing the printed copy a company put out about itself. I was looking for definitions, key words, pacing, tone, and corporate culture. It never hurt to have clients recognize themselves and feel at home in a brochure, training manual, or videoscript.

Now that I’m retired and writing fiction, I get to choose my own voice which is much more fun…if less lucrative. Instead of reading annual reports and brochures and SOPs [standing operating procedures], I’m rumbling through my rag-bag of memories for scraps and bits to piece together into stories and books. But then, in the middle of long sections of story flow I find my characters repeating the same body language over and over—he winked, she grimaced, he glared back. Or I find my plot line advancing but going very fast. As someone in my writing group once remarked, “Lean prose is good but this is anorexic.”

So when I’m looking for a way to put some meat on the bones of the story, I’m back to surfing other people’s writing. This time I’m reading well-crafted fiction. These books don’t have to be great, classical literature or best-seller titles I’d find in a rack at an airport. But I know when an author is talking to me beyond the story. I’m learning from the writing itself. I’ll make a point of reading Daniel Woodrell or Julia Spencer-Fleming’s backlist or Donna Leon’s fine eye for Italian body language for ways to round out my story arc.

I find myself noticing references to location and tell myself to let the readers get somewhere and be somewhere specific whether they actually know the juncture of 131 and M43 or not. I look for the hundred different ways to describe facial reactions and gestures then borrow or rephrase them—he lifted his chin in assent.And, oh yeah, I’m reminded to include smells, sounds, tastes. Not to mention the work of clearly picturing a room and taking a few sentences to describe it as a character enters. I love to be startled by a powerful metaphor and challenged to create my own, to look for historical anchor points with references to cars and music and movies, to include the weather and how it impacts action. Basically, I’m being reminded that a novel is not a series of flash fiction episodes.

I suppose I could buy Writing for Dummies or take a creative writing class, but I don’t go to school anymore, and I find it much more enjoyable to learn as I read a well written book.





Joe Novara, a retired corporate trainer and writing instructor, has published his nine-book My First Horse young adult series through Story Shares. You can read the first of these books here.

In addition, his adult novel, Come Saturday…Come Sunday, is available through Amazon.

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