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Author of the Night Angel trilogy and The Black Prism

New Writing Advice

(new for May 2015)

What are three key writing tools you learned reading other authors? Who were they?

I think this is a valuable exercise for any reader who’s serious about writing fiction. People often tell you if you’re going to write, you have to read, read, read. This is true, but limited. And quite honestly, it’s inefficient. Reading tons of work, especially when you’re young, helps give you an intuition about how books should work. This intuition is invaluable and irreplaceable. However, as you start becoming more serious about writing, I think it’s really valuable to bring your analytical senses to the table too. Now an English degree might help you do this, depending on how you study. But far too many classes analyze literature through a critical lens, rather than through a creative one. They ask, “What does this mean?” rather than “How was the author solving her problems with this scene? How did she make this interesting? How did she make me care for this character?”

So the analytical exercise that I suggest is any time you read a great scene in a book, or notice something that was really awesome, go back and study how the author built that experience for you. Here are three examples:

1. Dean Koontz. I don’t usually read many thrillers, but I went through a few Dean Koontz books, and what I recognized was every book had a fantastic beginning. So I simply picked up one of his books and started asking how he did it. Look at that first line. The very first line, it leaves you with a question! By the time you get to the end of the paragraph, you’ve got another question. By the time you get to the end of the first page, you’re kind of creeped out, but you have even more questions. Look at how Mr. Koontz is giving just enough detail, but never too much to slow the pace of that first page. He’s giving you just enough for you to ask more questions, and for the questions to be meaningful.

2. Dan Brown. Everyone loves to criticize Dan Brown, but you don’t sell millions upon millions of books without doing something really well. And I would actually say that it’s a good exercise to read very popular books in genres you don’t usually touch, and have no interest in, just to see what it is that that work does well. Dan Brown does tension. Every page, there’s more tension, there’s more conflicts, there’s more questions. He sacrifices everything to that. (Too much, one might say!) But what he does, he does really well.

3. George R.R. Martin. (Two things, because he’s one of my favorites, and he does a lot well.)

a.    He handles a huge cast really well. How? The answer is, George uses what Faulkner termed “grotesques”. That is, your cast is filled not with five tall, bearded white men who are all brawny and all carry swords and wear furs. Instead, one character is monstrously tall and wears a bearskin. The next guy is a greasy weasel who carries a rapier. The next guy is a cripple. The next guy is also huge, but he had a lesion in his brain in Broca’s Area, and can only say one word. The next guy has no nose. The next guy’s a eunuch.  And so forth. All these characters are memorable. Now, the challenge when you use grotesques is that they can become caricatures. So the rest of your writing needs to be strong enough to differentiate these characters from each other so that they feel larger than life, rather than simply ludicrous.

b.    George handles buttons on scenes really well. Using “hooks” and “buttons” is a well-known technique, but many writers who use the technique, use it in a redundant fashion. That is, the closing line of the scene shows the character getting into some new sort of physical danger. This simply gets old. George shows that you can use a button to send the plot in a new direction – Oh, I really have to get back to Jon Snow! – in all sorts of different ways. The button can be physical danger, but other times it can be a new social complication, a surprise visit from a relative, or a king, basically any kind of danger, be it physical, social, political, or moral, can be used in a button. And it makes you want to come back and see the character you’re leaving, as soon as possible. The use of that helps make the pages of his huge tomes fly past.

I’ve used this same technique to examine all sorts of fiction, like the Bluford High series (which is a series of immensely popular young adult verging on middle grade fiction). You don’t read the Bluford High books for their artful descriptions. In fact, you – most of the readers reading this blog post – don’t read the Bluford High books at all. But a lot of young people do. Why? My answer is that these books are blunt and honest about the issues young people face: big ugly issues like messy divorces and abandonment and heartbreak and failure. It manages this honesty, though, without being gratuitous or grimdark. There’s no wallowing in the tough issues its characters face. This isn’t done for shock value, it’s just honest about where its characters live. And I’m sure a lot of the readers find that really refreshing. There’s no irony in these books, no pretend detachment. They’re sincere, beginning to end.

Next, the books show kids struggling to do better, and to be better, despite the temptations and setbacks that beset them. Reading them as they are intended, and with an understanding of the audience to which they’re addressed, I found these books to be moving.

I’ve done the same with the Sookie Stackhouse books, with the Hunger Games books, and so forth, and I intend to continue to read other vastly popular works in all sorts of genres just to see why they work for the readers who read them. I highly suggest the exercise.