One of our longstanding pieces of advice for aspiring writers is this – read lots of great books.
That’s solid bit of guidance, but perhaps it doesn’t quite go far enough. After all, reading is typically a passive activity, and it’s not readily obvious how to extract writing wisdom simply from reading another’s work.
So let’s go a step further, and give you some concrete ways of turning an hour or two spent reading into a master class on writing children’s books. Here’s how to do it, step by step:
1. Go to your local library and ask the children’s librarian for two or three books in the category you wish to write (picture book, middle grade, etc.) that he or she considers the absolute best. For best results, they should be books you’ve never read before.
2. Take them home and start reading. Have a pad and pencil ready.
3. As you read through each book the first time, make a mental note of each time you are in some way affected by the work. Jot them down. You might write something like this:
page 7 – giggled. felt happy
page 13 – suspensful feel. Got worried for the character’s safety
page 31 – angry. I really hate that bad guy!
4. After you’ve finished reading the book all the way through, go back to the pages you took note of and try to determine exactly why you felt those feelings. Was there a word that the bad guy said on page 31 that got you peeved? Was it something about his physical description? The way another character reacted to him?
Find the trigger points for your emotional reactions and make note of them. You’re building a catalog of techniques that will help you impact readers the same way!
5. Now it’s time to re-read the book. This time, divorce yourself from the story. You already know what happens, so no need to get sucked into the narrative. What you’re doing now is deconstructing the writing. Pick an element of writing that most interests you — sentence structure, pacing, dialogue or whatever — and read the book paying exclusive attention to that and only that. Nothing else matters.
6. By the time you’re done with your re-read, you’ll have gained a powerful glimpse into how a top author utilizes a particular tool of the trade. (If it helps you too have a visual analogy, think about watching The Godfather and paying attention only to the way the film is edited. You’ll know more about editing a film by the time you’re done than 99% of humanity.)
7. Keep re-reading the book, focusing on a different element of writing.
Do this with a handful of great books and you’ll have had a true master class in the craft of writing.