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One of the skills that few discuss is how to study fiction writing. Most tend to gravitate back to what they learned in school, or probably their MFA degree (the goal of which is not to teach you how to write professionally, but to teach writing).
That “study” shows up in writing circles as writers squint line by line at a book—usually a best-selling writer—and pick out what they think are flaws like lint.
Most flaws are perceived. The writers look at lint like grammar and punctuation and how sentences are structured. They think, because the writer put a comma there and it wasn’t exactly grammatically correct according to their English teacher, then that book is a failure. I suppose this might stem from our school culture of being graded.
From there, the writers often veer off, mistaking personal preference for flaws. For example, I picked up Twilight, but couldn’t get past the first page. I also had the same reaction when I tried to reread Nancy Drew several years ago, a series that I enjoyed when I was growing up. But they were books for a very specific audience and I wasn’t it any longer.
This personal preference viewpoint often turns into foaming at the mouth and anger: How dare this writer become a best seller with so many flaws? (Often with the not-so-subtle emphasis, “How dare they get published with these huge problems while I can’t be published.”).
It also can turn reading—something that should be enjoyable—into a bad experience. Suddenly everything looks terrible and there’s no joy in what inspired us to write in the first place. I fell into this myself, believing that the quality of books had gone downhill. When I found some old books from when I “thought” writing was better, I read them to prove my point.
Instead, I discovered how I was reading was the problem.
Studying fiction writing is NOT about looking for flaws. You might learn something from identifying flaws, but you won’t learn much that will make you better.
Studying fiction writing is about identifying a skill you want to know more about and working out how the other writer did it.
I was surprised searching online to see what other writers were saying about how to do it. Turned out, not much. Most recommended studying by reading the generic craft books or focusing on plot. Some recommended simply read, read, read.
Not much about how, or even what you would do with it.
The first thing I did when I discovered the impact of how I was reading was to pick up a roller-coaster bestseller, The DaVinci Code. I read it through, then asked myself what drew readers to it. While I’ve seen discussions about how Dan Brown ended each scene on a hook, I don’t think that was all. He plugged into myths and legends that we all are drawn to. But he also picked up on a public wave of disgruntlement at church secrets that was starting to show up in the news. Cryptic mysteries were far more interesting than the real-life events with denials and coverups.
The DaVinci Code was bumped out of top-selling by the Harry Potter series, which also had writers foaming about the dialogue tags and other flaws. No one noticed how J.K. Rowling hid information in plain sight.
But how would you be able to start seeing the craft to study?
The first step is to read the book. It should be a book that you want to read and think you might enjoy. Not a book you feel like you’re “supposed” to read (it will feel like it’s a chore. Did you enjoy assigned books in school?)
You want to read the entire book because the familiarity will help you when you reread it for studying. If it’s a series, you may want to read more of the books first. I did this with J.D. Robb’s In Depth series (I was hardcore; I read the entire series over 6 months. There are 55 books. But now, after rereading them, I have a better understanding of tags simply because I saw them over and over).
Now pick a skill the author used that you want to study. Begin rereading. You may want to mark up the book.
For J.D. Robb, I went back to the first book, Naked in Depth. I wanted to figure out how to include food—the sense of taste—more in my books. So I marked every time food or drink occurred, which was a lot. Characters not only gulp coffee, they talk about food, they smell it, it’s part of the setting as they’re driving around. It’s even part of the characterization and sometimes the characters argue over it.
Then, since I had read the book and knew who the murderer was, I hunted down his first appearance so I could see how he came into the story. Did he do something to flag himself to the main character? This is often fairly subtle, but they’re enough I pick up on it so I’m not surprised about the reveal but trying to figure out how I missed it. I’ve read other mysteries where the author didn’t understand that and gave very little page time to the murderer to “hide” it from the reader.
After that, I read Golden in Death, to see how to do a prologue where the character dies. A friend always has trouble with the character who dies in the opening chapter because she bonds with them. That might not be her reading, but how the writer wrote it. There is a very subtle shift in how the scene is written that puts a little distance in. (I also wanted to learn how to do prologues because all those writers say, “Don’t do prologues!”)
Now I’m currently rereading Elizabeth Moon’s Paladin series, which comes in two parts and a prequel. The first three books were written more than 20 years ago. Then she wrote the prequels. About 2010 timeframe, she wrote the rest of the series, as if there hadn’t been a break in time (though her skills had improved).
The series is one long book that becomes more intricate as it unwinds toward the end. I’d don’t think I’d want to write an epic fantasy, but I enjoyed all the different stories and characters.
I went back to the first book, knowing what was going to happen as the series progresses. As a result, I’m picking out subtle bits of information that come into play later (in some cases, much later) in the story. There are a lot of little things that get mentioned in passing that show up later in the series. Or a passing character that appears unimportant…now.
Another method of study is to take an opening chapter of a novel and work through it, sentence by sentence, and rewrite it the way you think it should be. It’s intimidating, but it forces you to start asking why the author did this instead of that. I did that on Naked in Death. I’m still working out what I thought about the process. That’s okay, too. Sometimes the learning is so deep that it takes a long time to process it.
You can also follow an artist’s practice. Whenever I visit the National Art Gallery in downtown DC, there’s always an artist with an easel duplicating one of the masters like Renoir or Sargent. They’re practicing the strokes, and other skills like color choice with this. You can do this by typing up a scene from a book. It puts you at ground level with the words.
I used it for one of James Patterson’s books. He’s a master at pacing, so I wanted to see something pretty basic: Were his paragraphs any longer than what I was doing? The answer was no. I discovered that he often put a higher emotion near the end of the paragraphs.
I also did this for one of Michael Connelly’s books to question the discussion on scene length. During the pulp era, Lester Dent, a prolific writer under many pen names, wrote about scene length: 1500 words. But when the topic came up on message boards, most writers noted their scenes were at 3K. When mine ran that long, I’d lost my focus and started rambling as I tried to figure out how to end it.
But 1500 words? The scenes in books felt so much longer when I read them.
The first scene in that book hit at 2K, but it was an important, information-packed scene that launched the rest of the story. So I typed in the next few and discovered those all hit right around 1500 words.
Everything you try here is information, whether it’s highlighting a particular sense or typing out what someone else wrote. And it’s so much better for learning than nitpicking punctuation.
Do you have any other study methods for fiction?
Mistaking personal preference for bad (or vice versa?) is something I figured out while watching, of all things, home makeover shows on HGTV.
The designers clearly did a good job technically (with the exception of one designer who loved sticking things to walls – like fake flowers or *shudder* hay), but about half the time I would think, oh, that’s awful.
No, not awful – just not my taste. (Fake flowers and hay stuck to walls excepted.)
Sigh. My big lovable Lab distracted me, and I hit post before actually addressing the substance of the topic.
I’ve never typed in scenes, mostly because a big chunk of my books (and especially the ones I really love) are in mass market paperback, and I really don’t like cracking the spine on them. They’re also old enough that there’s no “look inside” available on Amazon.
It’s something I’ve wanted to do, though, and if anyone has any suggestions on how to do so without damaging the spines of my books, I’d be grateful!
What about buying a duplicate copy? Or you can mark them up in an e copy? I have an e copy of Naked in Death that I read, but I bought a trade paperback for marking up.