Listening to Famous Writers’ Advice? Try This Instead

GoodReads has a whole section on quotes about writing from household names like Stephen King and Annie Dillard and Mark Twain.  Hemingway and Faulkner and Salinger jump in, too. Some quotes are wise, like Sylvia Plath’s assertion that “the worst enemy of creativity is self-doubt” and some are blunt like Wendig’s “try very hard not to suck.” Elizabeth George, prolific author of detective mysteries, has written a book where she outlines how she takes the germ of an idea and turns it into a finished novel. Jane Smiley takes us through one hundred titles as she explores the power of the long-form narrative. But when faced with a blank page, all that advice blurs together for me and I’m left wondering what in the world am I actually supposed to do?

One thing that helps me is to dissect an actual text  

I pick a book that has stayed with me, one I particularly liked. Then I buy a used copy of it, one I won’t mind tearing apart, underlining, and generally turning into a complete mess. What I do next depends on where I’m stuck.

If the feedback I’m getting from my editor is to amp up my settings, I’ll pick a book which created a strong sense of place for me when I read it, like Kristin Hannah’s “The Great Alone.” Then I switch into research mode.  I go through the first fifty pages and highlight all the phrases where Hannah sets the mood of the narrative through describing the Alaskan wilderness or the compound where the Allbright family make their home.  I note actual words and phrases she uses, sometimes delving into minutiae like how often in each chapter is there any mention of setting.  This gives me clues about how much or how little description I’ll need to add to my own novel. Often it’s much less than I imagine. The trick is using strong descriptors rather than a lot of verbiage.

If I’m having trouble writing dialogue in different voices, I’ll pick a book rich with human interactions, like Celeste Ng’s “Little Fires Everywhere” with its two mother protagonists and a host of teenage characters.  On a typical page of 325-350 words, I count how many are devoted to dialogue and how many sentences does each person speak before the other responds or even interrupts. That’s how I learned the most effective and natural-sounding exchanges are often short and pointed.

Pacing is another area where examining an actual book can help. Several years ago I read Allen Esken’s “The Life We Bury” and was struck with how quickly the story unfolded.  When I combed through the pages to figure out why, I saw the chapters were extremely short (some no more than 4 pages) and each ended with a hook that sped me on to the next page.  While this type of quick read isn’t advisable for every genre, it worked here because of the central mystery the hero needed to unravel. Esken taught me a good lesson on pacing not by offering up advice, but by writing actual words on a page that illustrated what fast-paced looked like.

I’m a fan of twists or surprises and often make a point of noticing when they occur. “I Let You Go” by Clare Macintosh has a doozy on page 75 which, as it turns out, is one-fourth of the way through the book, and the end to Act I. Others like Lucy Foley’s “The Guest List” start dropping hints and questions within the first five pages and keep seeding them throughout the novel. Which do I prefer in the novel I’m writing? Again, I’m able to learn how two masters handled this by delving into their actual pages.

Delving even deeper

Remember that used book I mentioned earlier? I don’t just examine it from a global viewpoint; nope, I dig into it at a granular level as well. Grabbing different highlighters, I mark it up or tear out pages and put them in a stack.  I start with back story.  How much time does the author spend working in memories of the past as the protagonist shares his thoughts? Do these past memories flow naturally or do they seem intrusive? What page am I on before I encounter an honest-to-goodness flashback (if I ever do?)

How does the author start each chapter—with an orientating device like “the next morning” or do they plunge into dialogue? Do they use that first paragraph to insert commentary or instead describe the setting?  And did this work for me as a reader because if so, I can try that out in my own novel.

Finally I do an actual detailed analysis of the following: how many chapters are there? How long is the average chapter? How many scenes are in each chapter? What’s the average numbers of characters in each scene?  What’s the mix (yes, figure out the actual percentage) of dialogue, description, back-story, “musing” or commentary, and action? All of these metrics give me useful information about how to formulate my own structure as I write.

Does all this sound like homework?

Yep, it does because it is. But I find it much more helpful to dive into Stephen King’s actual novels than to read about what he says about writing.  It’s like hearing someone describe what being in love feels like vs. actually falling in love. I’ll take the real thing every time.

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