I finished the Harry Potter series last night for my first full read-through ever. I've been meaning to for years, but I just never got around to it. Finally, a few weeks ago, I got the whole series for my Kindle and I've spent the last week and a half doing nothing but devouring them. By the end of it, I've found myself back in full-fledge Potter Mania, a Potterhead reborn.
Aside from experiencing the story in one fell-swoop finally, I was also reading them for the first time as a writer. Yes, I had been writing while reading them before (1-5 were all out before I finished high school), but I read them from the perspective of a fan, devouring the story for all it was worth. Now I read them, enjoying the story while trying to get as much out of it as I possibly could. After all, reading is just as important to improving as a writer as actually writing. You see what works and what doesn't; what succeeds and what falls flat; what your teachers told you to do that gets ignored, and what they told you NOT to do that also gets ignored.
I've been trying to pay attention while reading to the use of the word "said". It's one of the bigger debates in creative writing I've found: is it okay to use "said", or should you stick to the countless other words you can use, or use movement and action to designate the talker instead of anything?
1. "Oh, stop it," she said, rolling her eyes.
2. "Oh, stop it," she groaned as she rolled her eyes.
3. "Oh, stop it." She rolled her eyes.
I tried to spend my time reading Harry Potter trying to pay attention to how JK Rowling did it, as well as her repitition when conversations were held between two people. (I.E., did she continue to write X said, Y said after the speakers were established, or did she leave it to the reader to follow the speech). What I noticed when I dragged myself out of the books long enough to pay attention to the details was that Rowling frequently uses #1, while occasionally using #2 when needed. I was surprised at some of the instances she used "said", moments that were heated or clearly yelling, but then I realized that she expressed the situation well enough to not NEED to use "yelled" or "shouted" or anything like that. Likewise, some of the cases where she used something other than "said" seemed unnecessary and broke up the flow. I didn't make out any instances #3, but that's not to say they weren't there. I just didn't notice them.
It's hard to draw yourself out a book when the movie's already playing in your head. Not as simple as pressing pause. People tend to say that your eyes skim over "said", leaving you in the book while stranger words will bring them out. It's true, really. I was more likely to stop and remember "Oh wait, that wasn't a 'said'" after a "mumbled" or "whispered" than I ever did with a single 'said'. I also noted that she didn't have many long conversations without description of motion or scenery in them to break them up.
Along with the "said" study, I was also trying to pay attention to the action scenes. It's one of my own weaknesses, and I've always been told to be more succinct in action. Short, "this happens" sentences to match the fast pace of the events. I'm not sure, having finished the series, if Harry Potter was the best choice to look into this. Magic is...detailed. Especially, the magic of Harry Potter. It NEEDS details and longer, more descriptive sentences, but it manages to put them in without breaking the pace. While I now have a better idea of how to handle magical combat, it doesn't help me for the stories I'm currently working on.
After I finish the other book I'm working on right now (Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury) I'm planning on rereading The Hunger Games, at least the first one if not the whole series. A few short stories I'm working on are 1st person present, and the combat is more along the lines of what I need to know. As long as I can remember to pay attention and come out of the book at the important parts, it should be useful.