Reading Out of Left Field

A while back I posted about self-imposed deadlines and my experience with the Goodreads Reading Challenge for 2011. One of the problems I’ve had since then was a shortage of time and a lot of books left to read.

This has turned out to be a mixed blessing/curse in itself. I read a lot of books and I’m a very fast reader, but if I want to finish the challenge on time, I have to read 15 more books in 10 more days. To do that, I’m being forced to read some VERY short books. Right now I’m going through a whole pile of R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps books.

I’m totally okay with going outside my comfort zone to read books I normally wouldn’t consider, so the fact that these are aimed primarily at younger kids doesn’t bother me. In fact, I’m finding it to be incredibly worth while as a source of writing lessons.

Some takeaways I’m finding as I go through them:

  • Don’t waste a lot of time describing things your audience is already familiar with.

I write in a make-believe universe, so I have to describe a lot, but these books take place in what is arguably the real world, or at least one that’s supposed to convincingly look like it. Detail is kept to a minimum so that kids reading these books can easily substitute images from their own minds and make the experience more invovling and more personal, all the more important since these are horror stories for kids. Making it personal makes it VERY effective.

  • Give characters some strong, easily identifiable traits.

Usually this is done through dialogue; maybe a character has a catch phrase they repeat a lot, or yells a lot, or speaks largely in questions. Maybe it’s something done outside of dialogue, such as a character with a sprained ankle who has to walk with a limp constantly. These traits help the reader immediately latch on to the character and help make him, her or it memorable.

  • Keep the action moving.

I’d estimate these books come in at roughly 20,000 to 25,000 words apiece. That’s NOT a lot of words for an entire book - NaNoWriMo books are typically 50,000 words, and those are very short for a finished novel. A more typical length for a book for adult readers is roughly 100,000 words. 

This means the Goosebumps series have to be very tight and concise, almost more like a long short story or novella. No time is wasted on trivial details. If something is described at all, you can be sure it’s going to play into the story somehow.

The more I read outside my usual stomping grounds of science fiction, science fact and fantasy, the more determined I am to read even more widely. It’s amazing how much you can pick up from a kid’s book.