Friday, June 25

Study Hall: Learning From Other Authors

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.


  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.