Read to Learn

Most writers have heard, “Write what you love to read.” Good advice since writing in the same genre as you read gives you the advantage of learning the standard, accepted form for that genre. When I was writing romances, I read hundreds of romance novels. In fact, when I started submitting romance stories, an editor sent me four paperbacks they had recently published that she felt would best give me a flavor of what she was looking for.

I learned from reading those books, and she purchased the next ms I submitted.

What I learned were plotting ideas, common chapter lengths, the amount of sensuality that was acceptable (for that line), and ways to express romantic tension. I learned how to write a love scene without it turning into an anatomy lesson, how to use metaphors, analogies, and similes, and how to handle point-of-view.

I also love to read mysteries and suspense stories, and after writing 25 romances—sweet romances, sexy romances, and suspenseful romances—I finally decided I wanted to try writing for the mystery genre.

My initial attempts were terrible; I was still writing romances. Even though I might kill a person here or there or include some suspense, the language I was using, the sentence structure, even the chapter length was what a reader would find in a romance (or romantic suspense).

It was only after I started reading mystery and suspense novels with the idea of learning from them, not simply for the enjoyment of the story, that I began to absorb the differences between the two genres. The flowery words disappeared, and/or were replaced with more gritty words. Sentences, on the whole, were shorter. Chapters were shorter. Characterization was still important, but plot and subplots became more important. Rather than focusing on the main characters’ emotions, especially their emotional responses to each other, the process of discovering the solution to the crime became more important. Attention to detail (how law enforcement worked) became critical.

Even within a genre, it’s important to study the differences with each of the sub-genres. A cozy mystery is very different from a police procedural. A thriller from detective novel.

Let’s take how writers of  (1) a literary novel, (2) a mystery, (3) a thriller, and (4) a romance describe a character’s eyes

In a literary novel, complex and convoluted sentences are not only common, they’re expected. Lengthy narratives, including descriptions and interior thoughts, are desired. Theme or subject matter are expected to make the reader “think.”

During the reading of the editorial page or of some long rigmarole about what the Russians said and what the Americans said at the United Nations, his eyelids would droop—or, rather, the eyelid over his better eye would droop almost all the way and the one over his bad, darkened eye would droop slightly—and the movements of his chest would become more noticeable, so that I might pause for a moment to see if he had gone to sleep.
 “Cortes Island,” from The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro

With the mystery genre, long sentences can and do appear, but generally blocks of narrative are at a minimum, dialogue and shorter sentences are used to develop the suspense. The choice of words is different.

Geraldine Graham herself produced a blistering look from her clouded eyes.
Blacklist by Sara Paretsky

With a thriller the stakes are high and the tension grows as the story progresses. Pacing is very important. There’s lots of dialogue. Generally multi povs. Sometimes a narrator’s pov. Lots of simple direct sentences near the conclusion.

Adelphia also had deeply set, brooding eyes and a mouth that was usually cast into a snarl, though Stone had sometimes found her to be kindhearted in a grudging sort of way.
The Camel Club by David Baldacci

And a romance? It’s the relationship between the two main characters that’s important. The words used in the narrative are more sensual and flowery (which can lead into purple prose if carried too far). A close point-of-view gives insight to the character’s thoughts, expressing both internal conflicts and emotions.

Between the thick dark hair, the slow slide of a grin, and the liquid brown eyes, there wasn’t a girl in the class who hadn’t lusted after him.
Where Is He Now by Jennifer Green

There are, of course, many more differences between the genres than what I’ve mentioned. The best way to discover these differences is to read…read what you want to write.

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10 Responses to Read to Learn

  1. Maris,

    This is such great advice! As a fellow writer of both romance and mystery, the two genres I enjoy reading most, I must agree with your analysis. There are times when the interconnection becomes complicated such as when I’m writing romantic mystery thrillers like Death Legacy.

    • Maris Soule says:

      It took me a lot of tries, Jacqueline, before I was able absorb what I was reading. I think A Killer Past is a true suspense, and I have one more story out, being considered, that is even closer to the suspense genre form.

  2. You may have answered my rejection questions in one blog. Thank you.

    • Maris Soule says:

      You are welcome, Rohn, but don’t forget, there are a lot of reasons a ms might be rejected: too close to another one they just published; editor you picked to send the ms to hates that type of story; editor just had a fight with her husband; and so on. Do read to learn, but don’t give up.

  3. Melissa Keir says:

    I was just in a class tonight and this was brought up. It’s important to read what you are writing. There are so many subtle differences between genres that teach us about the style. 🙂

  4. Diane Burton says:

    I’m such an eclectic reader that it’s been hard settling on a genre to write. Although I enjoy reading military suspense, no way could I write it. I don’t have the experience. I do read a LOT of science fiction romance, which is what I love to write. Then there’s romantic suspense, mysteries, and . . . well, you get the picture. 🙂

    • Maris Soule says:

      I’d say one thing you learned, Diane, is there is no way you could write military suspense. I’ve learned that about several types of books. I may love the story, but I know I’m not the person to write in that genre.

  5. ann bennett says:

    Excellent information. I’m a retired science teacher so the term purple prose is especially neat to learn. So much to learn, at least I’ve chosen a hobby to keep my mind alert.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Ann, writing is an excellent way to keep your mind alert. I started writing because I love to learn and in order to write more than “what you know,” which would limit me in subject matter, I have to do research, listen, observe, and make sure I keep up with the times. Today, at yoga, while doing a finger exercise, I also realized writing has helped keep up the dexterity in my hands.