Friday, February 10, 2017

How to Learn From Other Authors

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

This week's Refresher Friday is an updated look at studying the works of other authors to help us improve our own writing. Enjoy! 

I have a beat up copy of Dave Duncan's The Gilded Chain that was my “writer’s textbook” for several months many years ago. The book is heavily highlighted with notes in the margins, and elements are underlined in different colors. It's a real mess, but it was an important exercise for me, because I love Dave Duncan's prose. I love the way he writes, and I was studying how he put his sentences together to understand how to write prose as smooth as his. To learn from it, I had to dig and and understand what he did.

Great advice can come from multiple sources, but if we’re not ready for it, it doesn't always sink in. Sometimes it doesn't click in our minds, or we still need a missing piece for it all to make sense. For me, I needed to pick apart good prose and analyze it to finally get some of the things I'd been reading about for so long.

If you're at a similar point in your writing where you know what you should be doing, but can't quite do it all the time, here's an trick that might help:

Study your favorite book.

And not just any favorite book, but someone whose work your admire, who writes in a way that you wish you could, and whose style is similar to yours. You're not trying to copy them, just understand why what they do works so well. Knowing what to do is never as effective as knowing why it should be done that way.

Think about the aspects of writing you're having trouble with—is it how to use tags, show versus tell, point of view, too many uses of that or was? Now pick your study book and look for those problems in the first scene or chapter. Highlight the aspect that you're studying. Make notes of what you admire about it in the margins. Really think about it and how that author used it.

(Here's more on spotting bad writing and how to avoid it)

I used a different chapter for each issues I studied, which made it easier to keep track of what I was looking for and focus on the problem. For example, one scene might be studying how many times the author used the word was. Seeing it highlighted across pages and pages of text made me realize it’s an often invisible word, and getting rid of it completely wasn’t such a good bit of advice. Another scene focused on adverbs. Another on dialogue tags.

You can also study the larger aspects of the writing. For me, I loved the sense of closeness in the prologue of The Gilded Chain. I felt like I was right there in the protagonist's head, even though it was third person (at this point in my writing, I hadn’t fully understood point of view). It sounded like a young boy who was a little more worldly than he probably should have been at that age because of his life. It had the right mix of internalization and description. I wanted to achieve that same feeling in my own writing. I wanted a sense of the world without stopping to describe the world, because I dislike heavy description.

Another chapter was all about "to be" verbs. Common advice said I shouldn't use them, but here was someone whose work I enjoyed who used them and it worked. I wanted to see how, and why he could do it when everyone said I couldn't. Eventually I learned that it's how you use a word that matters, not the type of word it is. Some word types are more prone to flat writing than others, which is why those "rules" exist.

I analyzed how he used adverbs. Gerunds. Exposition. Some of it I'm sure I got wrong, but the act of studying it put me in the right mindset to understand what was under the text.

(Here's more on breaking the rules of writing) 

Things we like in a novel tell us a lot about what works in a novel. If our favorite scenes are dialogue heavy, then we probably like lots of dialogue, and probably write scenes with lots of dialogue. But "lots of dialogue" isn't why we like that scene, it's what the dialogue is doing. Maybe it's picking up the pace, maybe it's mixing action and dialogue and world building so the story flows smoothly. Maybe it's characterizing. Until we study it, we won't always know.

Good writing is effortless to read, so the pieces that create that writing are often invisible. This makes it harder to spot why its working. But when we study how our favorite writers do it, it becomes easier to achieve those same skills in our own writing.

What authors would you study? Have you studied any like this before?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series (and Amazon bestseller), Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, the Amazon bestseller, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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  1. This is a great idea. Thanks, Janice. :D

    Of course, now I have to stop cringing at the idea of marking up my precious book(s). Especially the hardbacks. I guess I could always photo copy the chapters instead. (I've done that before).

  2. ^I don't want to mark up books either, and I never thought about photo copying, so thanks for the idea! :)

    I've done this before, sort of. I have trouble with description for place and characters. I made a MS Word document with examples of description from some of my favorite books, and someday I'll analyze it to see how it works.

    I would love to do this with The Hunger Games, because I love everything about it. I wouldn't be able to handle writing on it though, so I'd have to photo copy pages.

  3. Good suggestion! I did a similar thing when I was trying to ground my prose style on a scale of "simple" to "florid" - read a couple of my favorite books and marked them up to figure out how to place myself on that scale in a spot I liked. It's also the reason why I occasionally do my Ridiculously Close Look pieces on my own blog.

  4. You can always buy a second copy of the book just to mark up :) Good for you and the author! hehe.

  5. Shortly after I started writing, I found a Christian sci-fi author I really liked (Kathy Tyers). I've collected all her (non-Star Wars) books, and she even has original and revised versions of some of them. That was handy, because I got to compare the original to the revised (Main thing learned: Keep what you like; ditch and don't worry about the rest.)

    The weird thing was that, in reading her work, I found things that paralleled, lines that matched things I'd written BEFORE I'd ever read anything by her. Each of her books has at least one plot element and name that I had already used elsewhere before my exposure to that book.

    Nowadays, I'm fairly certain that nobody can read what I write and call me a Kathy Tyers wannabe. That took a lot of work, though--learning to use writing techniques without sounding even more like her.

    All that to say: A goal of what to AVOID can help you develop as a writer, too.

  6. I have studied books but I haven't marked them up. I've found it helpful too to study books for the areas I struggle with.

  7. Wonderful post! I've heard someone say something like this before but they never actually explained it or why/how it works, so thank you! May have to take a closer look at some of my favorites now! :)

  8. Going to college, I learned to mark up my books and make notes. I love going through a novel I like and studying sentence structure, dialogue, and plot. Good to know I'm not the only one. :)

  9. I'm really glad for all these posts on suggestions on ways to learn as well as the how-to's. Very useful.

  10. This is a valuable lesson. I've been marking up my favorite books for years but my thoughts have not been as structured or as enlightening to gain such a valuable understanding. I'm going back to review those books and follow your advise. Thank you for setting me straight to a focused study.

  11. Hello. I've been looking for information about reinterpreting a passage written by an ancient greek poet. If it is considered plagiarizing to reuse a few of his sentences among my own to create a new perspective on an archaic idea about creation.
    It has been a while since I've been able to get online and do anything other than research for my projects. I would appreciate it immensely if someone could point me in the right direction or has advice about the subject.

    Thank you

    1. If it's in the public domain and out of copyright, you can use it. So anything written by a Greek poet falls into that category.

      Jane Friedman has a nice article on her blog that covers the basics of fair use and copyright that should help you better understand the options:

    2. Thank you so much! I have 13 novels going and they all hinge on how I handled describing the Prequel. I will definitely take a look at that blog.

  12. I have recently had some trouble with emotional description but had no idea what was wrong or why and so I studied my favourite author in how he described his character's emotions and how he used internalization and now everything makes sense for me :)

    Studying from your favourite books is a fun way to improve your craft and I plan to use this more often now with other areas I struggled with like description and action scenes