Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Closer Look: Studying Books You Love

By Ann Meier

I had an article planned on studying your favorite books, and as luck would have it, one of my critique partners just did this very thing to help her with her current novel. 

I thought her approach was great, and the way she explained what she did was fantastic, so I asked her to write it up so I could share it with you guys. She graciously agreed, so I'm happy to introduce you all to Ann Meier and her very cool approach to studying your favorite novel to help you improve yours.

Take it away Ann...

How I Analyzed the Differences Between My First Chapter and My Favorite Best-Selling Author’s

I’m a firm believer that when you’re ready for the answer, it will be there for you. On May 5, 2011, Janice posted All the World’s a Stage: The Stages of a Writer. I wasn’t looking for THE ANSWER, but it was looking for me. I found it in Stage 5 - Okay, Maybe I Wasn’t as Ready as I Thought.

My query letter worked. I received requests for partials, but they weren’t turning into requests for a full. Janice’s advice was to study the good rejections. I did. They told me what was working – the premise, (whew –‘cause that would be a bear to change at this point) the writing, (thought so – everything had been through multiple revisions with my crit group and the best in the world crit partners. One of them has the initials JH) the plot, the dialogue, the characters - but something wasn’t working. The initially interested agents weren’t ‘falling in love’. A puzzler, for sure.

Janice’s second suggestion was to look at the first chapter of a favorite book and to analyze how it was different from mine. I chose the first book in a long-running, best-selling series that I think is the best in my genre. And I knew it was a best seller how? Every other person reading at the pool deck on a cruise one summer was reading this series.

Since I know I’m a kinesthetic learner, I took the time to type the author’s first chapter out in manuscript form. This forced me to pay attention to every word. My first comparison revealed that both first chapters were close in word count and pages. Cool. The best-seller’s first chapter had three sections and mine had two. That was my first clue I’d missed something. I zeroed in and saw that both first chapters included two scenes. It was the initial four pages of the best seller that made the difference. It wasn’t a scene or technically a sequel. I scratched my head and kept at it.

I looked closely at both first sentences. We both had cool opening sentences that created an intriguing story hook. Both related to the key story elements and hinted at theme. (Pats self on back)

Time for a bigger picture look—the first paragraph. Ms. Best Seller used just two perfect sentences. Full of impact, they intrigued and focused on the novel’s dilemma. They also introduced the wry voice. So what about mine? I had five sentences. More definitely wasn’t better.

But I needed the material in those other three sentences, didn’t I? Turns out, I did. But not in that first paragraph and not in glib summary. I rewrote my opening paragraph. It now has three sentences that I’m thinking and wishing, hoping and praying, really do intrigue and go right to the heart of the novel’s dilemma.

The light came on when I moved on to my next step where I wrote in the margin the function each paragraph served:
  • Give setting details
  • Create atmosphere
  • Describe characters
  • Introduce a goal
  • Present an obstacle
  • Ask a question
  • Provoke laughter
  • Set up tension
  • Show the character’s take on the world and her place in it
Once I’d done this, I tried to determine what Ms. Best Seller accomplished and how she did it. Boy did that prove enlightening. Looking at these paragraph functions, I noticed I came nowhere close to doing a decent job of showing the character’s take on the world and her place in it. Big aha moment. My extra sentences from my original first paragraph were supposed to fill that function – Ugh. I’m embarrassed to share them, but if it helps anyone here they are:
When Land of Oz, the theme park, banished me from my dream job, I hit bottom hard and fast. The final attraction on my job search list was Bungee Jump Orlando—for me, the theme park equivalent to Kansas.
I skill kind of like the juxtaposition of hitting bottom with bungee jumping (I do write mysteries), but the paragraph needed to go.

Ms. Best Seller used three recalled episodes from her character’s past to clearly present the POV—her voice, her character, and the key relationship that will be the heart of the story. Then I had the kick-self-around-the desk moment. It was so beautifully simple. The episodes – just a couple of lines of recalled events and dialogue showed the reader who the POV was and set the stage for what she will do in the story.

My glib, summarized extra sentences from paragraph one? They diluted the impact of the hook and they TOLD the reader who the character was. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Although I had an interesting character, the reader wasn’t connecting with her – didn’t understand why she acted the way she did. And so, I rewrote. I spent time crafting telling episodes that showed her world and what she cared about. When I finished, I had four pages that just may work to help interested readers ‘fall in love’.

For example, I wanted the reader to understand why my character considered working in Land of Oz theme park her dream job. And also learn that this is a character who’s used to being disappointed, but she’s optimistic and keeps trying. See what you think.
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated with Oz. Dorothy’s adventures there were so different from anything I experienced growing up in Indiana in a small town surrounded by cornfields. When the wind blew wrong, it carried the stench from the hog farms, but the homegrown tomatoes were the tastiest anywhere. High school basketball players ruled, and the town’s reputation rose and fell with their success or failure. During an embarrassing three year span when our team only won five lousy games, I learned to cope with disappointment. With no interest in watching bad basketball, I discovered the library. But that created a new issue—my yearning for Oz. Once I devoured Frank Baum’s Oz books, I ached to leave ordinary behind.
For me, analyzing a best seller was a good approach to help me improve my manuscript. Since I was looking for an intangible, I focused on structure and how the best selling author got me to ‘fall in love’ with her story. My approach would have looked very different if the feedback I received from agents had pointed to flawed dialogue or pacing, but I think the exercise is well worth trying and can be adapted to any issue a writer is struggling with. Thanks, Janice.

And thank you Ann.


  1. Thank you Ann and Janice. That was very helpful. I'm in the process of studying several fiction novels for analysis with my own.

  2. Very, very interesting! I've done this a few times myself and ironically, the first book I used was Janice's :) It is a really great way to learn, and to help you pinpoint where you're going wrong. Thanks for this post!

  3. Excellent! I love your break down of the process. I know I need to re-work my opening so I think I'll give this a go. Thank you.

  4. Excellent post. I am enjoying Suzanne Collins at the moment on my Kindle and have been meaning to go back and analyze the first chapter. Guess what? You can't flick back to chapter one from chapter 25. I guess it's one of the things Mr Kindle should think about in his new generation reader.(or am I just missing a button?)

  5. Interesting post.

    I'm doing that too, I analyze the books I've read, the ones which I consider excellently written. It is a great help regarding writing techniques.

    Thank you for sharing Ann and thanks Janice for hosting. :)

  6. Actually, it's Ann - (no blog accounts) to anonymous with a Kindle. You can go back to chapter one if you're in a book. From any page use the menu button. One of your options is to go to the beginning. That will take you to chapter one. If you choose go to table of content it will give you a list of chapters to choose.

    Thank you all for comments about my post.

  7. I try to do this and it just makes me uncomfortable.

    How can I do this without being hard on myself or too jealous, there I said it.

    Am I the only one who finds this both humbling more than helpful. How can you learn from the best in your genre without being a slave to how others did before you?

    This next question isn't related to the topic of this posr but one I must ask if only to get this out of my head. Why do millions of boys love Wimpy Kid so much? How can these plot free books be so absirbing?

    Is it because of the drawings? Or that most books now are more willing to use gross humor than I can stomach? Even when I was a kid myself.

    if Twilight is so badly written why did it sell so well?

    Was it just for the guilt free lust? I bought a copy but I just couldn't embrace it and yes I'm a guy, but unlike whar most writing. books say otherwise, I love books that have real heart and I didn't shy away from that as most articles claim.

    After 14 I never again can watch the evening news without crying or hating the world's leaders who care more about taxation than real communication and unification.

    On top of that, I feel like the meanest son on Earth because I can deal with her cruel, insensitive three year old ways, but I can never take care of anyone who treats me like a child I can never be anymore.

    I couldn't stay in school, and while I was no Type A genius, but I wanted to do well, but bullies and sollitude finally took their toll.

    it took four years before I finally acepted that the GED is the only to go from dropout to college, even though I still have no idea what I can do that will suppoort me until someone in publishing can just look beyond these God forsaking queries and see the potential of the REAL story.

    That you can have awesome stories even if you'can't go toe to with Hollywood branding gurus.

  8. God, I went all Baebrs Walters on myself again.

    If I wasn't deathly shy and too much of east cry, maybe i could've anchored 20/20 ror 60 minutrs, or something as goid all my own.

    I do love and respect the few non lechetous and hoborable journalists still alive in this world, they're braver than I can neverbe. I don't want to go into journalism, but I'd do anything in my power to gave at least a tenth of their endyrance, for my family's sake as much as mine, they're like "This."

    Janice, I just want you to know I'll never give up. To me、you have have that same courage as those repoters brave enough to keep the world as honedt as humanly possible, you may not risk your life in the same way as them, but you risk what any writer must to get better, your heart, and I strive to do better every day.

    Take care,

    P.S, I hope to have a computer again soon. I miss doing my blog. it's not just a marketing tool for me, it's something I want to have fun with' It's not just a place to rant, but to share the joys writing and reading bring me.

    I forget that sometimes, or just flat out fail, but I won't stop striving for that.

  9. This is awesome. After just finishing Save the Cat, I am more aware of structure more than ever, and what elements must be in place for the book to succeed at each step of the way.

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  10. Thank you for this post Ann (and Janice, of course). I am nearing the end of my first full first draft and starting to make a plan for my revisions so this is very timely advice for me.

    One of the things on my revision list is analyzing some of my favorite books to see why they are working and hopefully discover some ways I can improve mine.

    That's so interesting that you mention typing out the author's chapter yourself. I have done this (with shorter sections) in the past and so many light bulbs went off for me. It was amazing the details I caught and aspects of the story and paragraphs I noticed when I was interacting with the story this way.

  11. Thank you for this thorough plan. I'm adding the idea to my revision stage notes!

  12. Is this headline supposed to say "Study Books YOU love?"

  13. That is perfect. I actually have been trying to do this. My WIP has two POV and I've having a hard time staying in them. Finally I remembered reading Rick Riordan's 'The Lost Hero' last year and loving how he alternated with three POV's sequential chapters. I went back and reread how he set up the voice for each one; how easy it was to know who's head you were in.

    Watching the pro's do it- and do it well- is a big help!

  14. I'm with you 110% Ameilia!

    Oh, and Ann, i'm also at stage 5, I wasn't as ready as I thought.

    After all I've struggled to learn these last nine years it was hard to admit this to myself. But it's the bitter truth.

    I'm glad you don't let envy take over when study the best in your genre.

    I'm giving another try today and over the next week. It was still be hard to keep envy at bay, but my quitter days are over!

    I just have to remember, the best writers alice today had to face the same hardships as I dif, and still do. Still, I feel just getting noticed by anyone inside the business is a full time job in and of itself.

    Even it doesn't get you an agent or contract from a publisher, just going from an unkown to something more is just as nervewracking as working on deadline, to me anyway.

    Wish me luck everyone, I'll need it!

    With (platonic) Love,

    To all writers stubborn to make it someday,

    Taurean (A high-strung but hopeful literary rat)

  15. While it's great to analyze books by authors you love, it's also a good idea to do close readings of recently published DEBUT novels that are similar to what you're writing to observe and learn what is being published now. :-)

  16. MDK: Good luck! Hope it goes well for you.

    Wen: Aw, cool :) Thanks for that

    Raelyn: Her breakdown what was I loved as well.

    Irene: Most welcome. As soon as Ann told me what she had done I knew I had to have her write about it for us.

    Taurean: I wish I could tell you how to study books without getting jealous, but I can't. But try to understand that other books are not competition for yours.

    Books that do well resonate with their readers in some way. It actually makes me angry when I hear folks bashing writers and asking why X book did so well when it was so bad. It might be bad to you, but other people loved it. I haven't read Wimpy Kid so I can't say why boys love it do much, but I assume it taps into something that connects with boys. Twilight taps into the fantasy probably everyone has at some point. That some larger than life person who everyone fawns over will see you and think you're special.

    Not all books are for all people. Just because someone doesn't like it doesn't make it bad. You don't sell millions of books by being a crappy writer. SOMETHING about that book touches the readers that book was aimed at. (Which is why knowing your reader is quite helpful) It's actually a good idea to study books like that to see why they did so well and what about them touched so many people. Sometimes it's a cheap thrill but it usually deeper than that if it keeps selling and selling. Thrills wear off pretty fast.

    Angela: Studying structure was a big turning point in my writing journey. There's so much that goes into a great story that you don't even see if it's done well. But you feel it.

    Jessica: The typing thing was my other favorite piece of Ann's article. I've also heard you can do something similar if you retype your own work. You naturally edit as you go and get rid f stuff that isn't critical. Maybe cause you don't want to retype it, LOL.

    Barbara: Good luck on your revisions.

    Jarvis: It absolutely should and I've fixed it now. I hate those typos, but they keep getting in there. Thanks for pointing it out ;) Just my luck it happened on a post when I was away from computer for two days and couldn't fix it right away.

    Amelia: Awesome!

    Wendy: Definitely a good idea. Things published even ten years ago might be different in style than what's out now. But you can also still get good tips from some older books. Just watch out for anything that breaks "known rules" or feels like an exception to what you're "supposed" to do. Make sure you either understand how and why the rule was broken or check to see if that style is out of fashion now. Doesn't mean you can do it, but you want to make sure it's the right thing for your book.

  17. Janice,

    I know other writers also tell me we have no competition, but frankly a lot of agent blogs and editor chats I took part say the exact opposite.

    Yet once you go from writing to ttying to sell what you've wrutten (Rewritten 20 times or MORE!) other books and veteran writers in your field are your rivals.

    Publishing csn't be a business without rivals、unless it's a nonprofit, and again, I must say I'm not pathetically obsessed with making money.

    But writing great stories is no less an art like painting or illustrators who bring a face and soul to picture book texts, and for those writers/ilustrators I know it must a great feeling.

    Regardless of the fact that for most people, writing won't be the sole source of their income, we still want to earn some kind of income, and I fear this is hardest on writers who don't have the innate knack for writing short fiction.

    Many of my favorite writers started selling short fiction to magazines before they got their first book deal, and though the I course took at ICL (Institute of Children's Literature) made me feel less hopeless about writing my own short fiction, I still produce plot-free fragments most of the time, simply because I try to keep word count in mind.

    I agree with you about books I don't like are not necessarily bad, we just don't like them, and since writers are readers first, we must remember that have just as much right to not click with some books or writers.

    But I honestly feel writers who are passionate about books, and storytelling who want to have a career of some sort, we can't always run away from books and writers we either feel envy toward, or ashamed for not getting why you can't get why what makes the books work for so many, but not you.

    Readers who aren't also writers don't have to face this the same way writers do.

    Still, I'm glad I'm not the only writer who hasn't read a Wimpy Kid book. Since you focus on YA, since you're most comfortable there, you probably don't feel as pressured to read one as I do, since YA is hard for me.

    But I don't hate YA books in general. If that's what came across in my last reply I really didn't mean it that way.

    Jealousy is a terrible demon to deal with, and sometimes you can't always stop it, and every person feels and defeats this demon differently, but it only wins if we give up, and I refuse to let it happen!

    To be continued...

  18. Wendy: Janice is right about what she said to you in her last reply, I speak from personal experience on this issue I still face more often than I like admitting.

    That said, I agree with you that we need to be mindful of what makes books fun to read now that didn't exist when you or I were kids, something I was unable to get a sassy 30 something writer to understand.

    She basically told me me "A compelling book is a compelling book, period." and like many before her, makes me feel like a dunce for saying pretty much what you said, though I'm not a master of brevity like most bloggers are, as you can fairly surmise in my last few replies to this post alone.

    Some of my favorite books were originally published well before even my mother was born let alone me, and styles do change over time, but I think breaking this down in smaller steps would help writers, but especially newcomers who either aren't fortunate enough to find or start a critique group or a writing partner of some sort for guidance and solace.

    I started to break this down here, but I'm better off making it a blog post for this week, during my offline downtime due to the laptop being repaired, and hold up in my house a lot, I learned a lot of things about myself as a writer that I knew were challenges I had to meet head on, but didn't know how, but know I'm starting to find if not answers, solace I haven't had in a long time where writing is concerned.

    Hopefully what I share on T.A.A. will help you and others who had no less easy a time grasping this as you, Janice, or me.


  19. Taurean: There's competition, but not in the "me or you" way. It's not like there are only 100 slots a year for books and only the top 100 writers get them. Readers buy multiple books in the same genre and even on the same topic. If you write a great, marketable book, there's a decent chance you can sell it.

    There is competition from a sales and business standpoint, but that has little to do with the writers. It's the business aspect of publishing and we have zero control over that. And honestly, if you think that way you'll never be successful because you'll always be reasons why you can win. Publishing is hard enough without an attitude created to make it harder on you.

    Helping a fellow writer isn't going to cause you to lose your change at publishing. It's the connections and friendships that often help make a writer successful.

    Veteran books are not your rivals. Debut authors sell books every single day. Veteran authors are actually the reason publishers can take chances on new authors. The big moneymakers allow for risk on unknowns.

    Publishing is not easy. There are no formulas for success or even templates for what's right or what's good. There are common elements, typical styles, trends and favorites, but even those can change on a whim. All a writer can do it write the very best book they can and hope for the best.

  20. Sorry, but that's really not what I meant to imply, so I'm truly sorry for giving that impression as I don't think that way anymore than I think you do.

    Maybe these videos speak these feelings better and less mean than I can right now-

    I'm really sorry if I hurt you Janice, or offended anyone else, honesty without anger doesn't come easy to me, but I'm really trying.

    Take care,

  21. This helped so much! I had done the same thing - not enough about the mc and his place in the world. Thanks for posting this.

  22. Glad to hear it! I'm so glad Ann shared her story with us.