By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
I have a beat up copy of Dave Duncan's The Gilded Chain. The book is highlighted all over the place and I have notes in the margins. Things are underlined. Different colors. It's a real mess.
But it was a very 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.
Someone can tell you what you ought to do or should do and should avoid doing in your writing til the cows come home, but it doesn't always sink in. You might not be ready for the information, or it just didn't click in your mind. 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 that point in your writing where you know what you should be doing, but can't quite get there all the time, here's an idea 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 things you're having trouble with, be it how to use tags, show vs tell, POV, too many uses of that or was, whatever. I used different chapters for the various issues I was studying. It made it easier to keep track of things and focus on the problem.
Next, read through and highlight the things that you're studying. Make notes of what you admire about it in the margins. Really think about it.
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. 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 really dislike heavy description.
Another chapter was all about "to be" verbs. "They" all 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 realized/learned that it's how you use a word that matters, not the type of word it is. And that some types are more prone to flat writing than others, which is why those "rules" exist)
I did 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.
Things we like in a book tell us a lot about what works in a book. If our favorite scenes are dialog heavy, then we probably like lots of dialog, and probably write scenes with lots of dialog. But "lots of dialog" isn't why we like that scene, it's what the dialog is doing. Maybe it's picking up the pace, maybe it's mixing action and dialog 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, and the pieces that put it together are often invisible. This makes it harder to spot why its working. But with a little study, you can see why you love it so much, and then you'll be able to understand how to achieve that in your own work.