I have probably over 2,500 books in my house. Something around 1,500 of them are on the shelves my husband built for me in my office. And most of those books I’ve read—many of them multiple times.
I really, really, really love reading.
Here’s how to get the most out of it:
Read once for sheer pleasure. That’s the joy of every serious reader.
Then, right away, skim once more for structure.
Find the 1/2, 1/4, and 3/4 marks and jot down notes on what occurs there or in the immediate vicinity. Find the 1/3 and 2/3 marks and do the same. Then find the 1/8 and 7/8 marks and the 1/6 and 5/6 marks—one of those pairs is the pair of lintels holding this entire novel up.
You will be absolutely astounded to discover how concretely a well-written novel is structured. The Hook ends just about 1/8-1/6 of the way in. The ‘spin’ at the end of Act I occurs around either the 1/4 or the 1/3 mark. The shift of focus from Hook to Climax occurs at the halfway mark. The ‘spin’ at the end of Act II occurs around either the 2/3 or the 3/4 mark. And the beginning of the end—the build-up to the Climax—starts just about 1/8-1/6 of the way from the last page, 5/6-7/8 of the way in.
While you’re at it, check out the 1/5, 2/5, 3/5, and 4/5 marks. Find out exactly what this author had in mind.
It’ll give you chills when you see just how deftly you’ve been lead.
Could you ever get tired of hanging out with your favorite characters? That’s why they exist—to add depth and texture to your life.
When you re-read for character, you don’t have to read chronologically. Browse for your favorite scenes. Stumble accidentally on ones you loved but forgot about. Let the novel fall open in your lap and pick up reading wherever it catches your eye.
Sink all the way into those scenes, soaking up the dozens of little, telling details with which the author has sketched these people for you. Finger them like beads. Copy out your favorite sentences.
“In vain I have struggled. It will not do. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” That line has been a part of my internal world since I was twelve years old. The marvelous, adroit encapsulation of Darcy’s dignity, pomposity, internal struggle, and genuine, simple passion are all there.
Memorize your favorite sentences in which your favorite characters come fully to life, and you will be richly rewarded later when your own sentences about your own characters roll out of you in similar detail and rhythm.
Nobody ever gets everything there is out of a single reading of a great novel. Read lightly for pleasure and then read the whole thing through again for the deeper meanings. . .consciously, slowly, luxuriously, paying attention to every little development as it unfolds. Follow closely the trajectory of scenes this author has created. Notice how each scene leads inevitably to the next, how they build on each other, shaping the characters and aiming them where they need to go. Notice what’s essential. Notice what the author left out.
The obvious layers of the story sink into your subconscious as the subtle layers rise to the surface.
Tom Stoppard said, “Talking to intelligent grad students about one’s own work is like getting caught in customs. ‘Yes, officer, I can see it there in my bags, but I honestly do not remember packing it.'”
Find even those layers that came out of the author without their knowledge.
And realize, with the greatest works, why they’re great: because they are packed in all directions with not just a single, high-flying, breath-taking epiphany off the end of the novel, but with hundreds of wonderful, indirect little epiphanies all the way.
Just yesterday I paused in an early chapter of Nicolas Freeling’s Criminal Conversation at the lovely, hilarious line, “‘There are times, Chief Inspector, when I should like to take a fast run of about a hundred yards at you doing up your shoelace.'”
A few chapters later, casual commentary on police interrogation technique leaped out at me as advice on great writing:
“The well-known raid technique: the amiable little domestic pleasantry and the bomb in the same breath. . .After the flash, the burn cream.”
And I laughed out loud at the 1960s London slang, “fearfully twee!”
Oh, the utter joy of fiction. You’d better believe—somewhere, sometime, somehow—somebody in one of my novels is going to one day say, “How fearfully twee!”