I find there are three layers that I analyze whenever I read a piece of fiction. And while it’s difficult to take in all three layers at once, with practice and awareness, it becomes feasible.
A writing teacher once told me to reread any book that I thought was really good immediately again, after finishing it. When I’d asked why I should bother since there were so many great books to go through, the teacher said that the first time you read a book, you’re too engrossed on the journey of the character(s) and eager for the outcome, to really bother about appreciating things like diction, structure, style, subtext and so on.
Although this made a lot of sense, it took me a while to actually do this. I later attributed it to the fact that the right book which I could immediately reread had not yet landed on my hands. Until I read The Old Man and the Sea. If I like something or if a piece of art speakes to me, then I’m more susceptible to indulge in it. This feeling sets a necessary mood which makes me want to take the time and effort to learn form the masters (in this case, my favorite literary works).
When reading a book the second time, the appreciation I derive from the first reading remains. But more importantly, the nuances that I as a writer can learn from are now better visible to my critical eye.
I noticed there were three layers in a piece of fiction:
-The first layer was at the word and sentence level such as diction, onomatopoeia , alliteration, metaphor, grammatical structure, vocabulary and so on.
-The second layer was at the paragraph and chapter level such as structure, pace, plot, character development, suspense and so on.
-The third layer was at the book level itself where the genre and overall story helped to make sense of the entire piece of fiction.
The second and third layers were the easiest to identify with as a reader, since these were primarily what I focused on when I read a book for the first time. But the first layer was harder to pay attention to while processing the information from the other layers. And for this reason, the advice to reread was both important and rewarding.
It’s at this first layer that writers make all kinds of choices, whether conscious or subconscious, when working through their later drafts. These are the choices that spawn a writer’s voice such as active, tense and exciting versus passive, slow and boring. These are the choices that create a writer’s unique style, think of Hemingway, Twain, Faulkner or Dostoevsky. These are the choices that sustain an epic like War & Peace or empower a novella like Of Mice and Men or reinforce a narrative like Odyssey.
When I look at a piece of fiction, I see a collection of choices made by the writer and I know that the more I like it then the more I agree with the writer’s choices, and vice versa. To strive to achieve what the great masters have achieved, I believe it’s crucial to study this first layer by analyzing their choices and making sense of it all. It’s important to practice and emulate the styles I like, for only in doing this can I experience the difficulties and obstacles, and learn my limitations.
After much practice, I’m able to read a book once to both enjoy it for the sake of reading and to learn from it. There are, and always will be, exceptions to this, of course. I continue to read, learn, write and emulate. And when I’m tired, the writer and editor in me overcomes the pure reader… sadly, I then focus on the first layer rather than the second and third. The teacher was right, I can never read as a regular reader anymore.