dissecting a book

Dissecting Books: Reading as a Writer Part 4

Read Like a Writer Part 4By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Welcome back to my series on how to dissect books to understand how and why they work. In other words, how to “read as a writer.” (Here’s where to find Part 1 [openings], Part 2 [plot], and Part 3 [characters and theme].)

This week we’re going to dig down into the nuts and bolts of how the writing comes together on a line-by-line basis.

I’d recommend you stick with the books you selected last time because you’ve already vetted them, you’re familiar with the content, and you’ll already have an idea of what some of the best passages are.

Pick a passage from one of the books (select about 1000 words) and type it into a document.

The exercise I’m going to suggest might seem a little strange at first, and it can easily be misunderstood. I’m not saying you should copy someone else’s work. I’m not saying you should try to mimic someone else’s voice. You’re simply trying to see how a well-written book works and feels on a sentence-by-sentence level. These are books you love, so they should be books you can learn from.

One of the best ways to develop a feel for how accomplished authors write is to type out their words. You’re not going to stop there, though. Once you’ve typed out the passage, you can print it out and highlight the different elements. Choose whatever colors you want, but you’ll need five.

Here are the elements to highlight:

  • Dialogue (externally spoken, not internal dialogue)
  • Body language and action (e.g., shaking hands, a facial tick, running across the room)
  • Setting and description
  • Visceral reactions (the internal sensations our body experiences when we feel emotion)
  • Character thoughts (often called internal dialogue or internalizations, this can include narrative and bits of backstory)

Now lay the pages out in front of you. Look for patterns.

Do you see any large chunks of color? Probably not. If you do, how has the writer kept your interest? Or why did they lose it?

How have they woven the elements together?

Do you see any colors that tend to pair together? You’ll probably see visceral reactions and characters thoughts often show up side by side.

How has the writer used the elements to build on each other? When an author wants to bring out a strong emotional reaction, they’ll often combine many of the elements and use them to enhance the emotions they want the reader to feel. Notice which moments are considered important enough to be developed using multiple techniques.  

If you spotted a passage that felt slow, can you now see what might be causing that? If a passage felt rushed, can you now see what might have caused that? It’s not always about learning from the good. We can also learn from mistakes.

To take this to the next level, print 1000 words of your current project, highlight them, and compare. Make sure you’ve chosen similar sections. For example, don’t compare an action scene with an emotional reaction scene.

This can be an eye opener.

That brings us to the end of the series. If you want a copy of this series that you can download, sign up for my newsletter. I’ll be making it available to my newsletter subscribers as a PDF in the near future.

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out my Busy Writer’s Guides such as Description, Deep Point of View, or Internal Dialogue.

Image Credit: Lynn Lopez/freeimages.com

Dissecting Books: Reading as a Writer Part 3

Read Like a Writer Part 3By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Welcome back to my series on how to dissect books to understand how and why they work. In other words, how to “read as a writer.” (Here’s where to find Part 1 and Part 2.)

Last time we looked at plot. This week we’re going to think about characters and theme.

I’d suggest sticking with the same three books we selected last time. Just as a reminder, they were three of your favorites in your chosen genre, and they were recently written, highly rated, first in series or standalone books.

(1) How does the writer make you care about what happens to the main character?

Notice I didn’t say like the main character. Likeable main characters are easier to sell, but successful fiction has been written with unlikeable main characters.

So look at the techniques the writer uses to make you sympathize with or like the main character. Look at what makes the main character interesting or compelling. Think carefully about why you’re willing to keep reading about this character.

Does the writer use the character’s actions to gain your sympathy? Do they use hints of backstory? Do they use dialogue by other characters or other character’s internal perceptions of the character?

Create a practical list of techniques that you can use in your stories. This should be a list of techniques, not a list of things to copy.

So if the main character in the story you’re analyzing gains your sympathy by helping an old lady cross the street, that doesn’t mean you need to have your character help someone across the street. It means you write down “show the main character doing something nice for someone else.” You want to deduce general principles from specific examples.

(2) How did the writer show the importance of the story goal to the main character?

If the main character cares about the goal and has a strong motivation for pursuing it, the reader will also care. Study how the writer brought out the main character’s goals and motivations in each scene as well as in terms of the overall plot.

How did they show the importance of the goal? Did they use physical symbols? Did they use conversations with other characters? Did they use internal dialogue? How much of each did they use?

In other words, how did they make you care about the story goal?

(3) Does the character grow over the course of the book?

Not every story will have a character that grows and changes over the course of the book, and this can be genre-specific at times. For example, James Bond is basically the same in every book.

Take note of how the writer shows the character’s internal state at the beginning. If the main character is afraid of a committed relationship, for example, how has the writer shown that?

How has the writer woven that internal growth in with the external conflict? Look at the ways that each major external challenge also forced internal change. 

(4) If the book had a theme (and most books do), what helped you see that theme?

Themes in fiction can be broad—for example, justice will prevail. They can also be narrower—for example, being a parent is worth the cost.

Could you identify the theme in the book? If so, how did the author make it clear to you? Themes aren’t usually stated explicitly. They’re generally woven in through action and through the growth of the character.

If you want a copy of this series that you can download, sign up for my newsletter. I’ll be making it available to my newsletter subscribers as a PDF in the near future.

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out my Busy Writer’s Guides such as Showing and Telling in Fiction, Deep Point of View, or Internal Dialogue.

Image Credit: Lynn Lopez/freeimages.com

Dissecting Books: Reading as a Writer Part 1

Dissecting a NovelBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

One of the pieces of advice that every writer hears until it makes us sick is “you need to read.” And that’s true and valid advice. (And if you don’t love to read, why are you writing?)

Here’s the piece that most people miss though. It’s not enough to just read, as if the knowledge we need will be magically absorbed into us. The truly great books make us forget we’re reading, which also means…you guessed it, we’re not paying attention to how they made that book awesome.

We need to read mindfully.

So I decided to create a mini-series to take the “writers need to read” advice deeper and show you ways you can dig into published books to learn and grow as a writer. Dissecting a book to understand how and why it works is a skill in itself. It doesn’t come naturally to everyone.

This week, we’re going to do it for free using Amazon’s preview feature to explore the opening hooks of books in our genre.

Head over to Amazon. (I’m using Amazon because it’s the easiest tool for this exercise.) And my apologies to my international readers, but it’s also best to use Amazon.com for this one.

Select BOOKS, then KINDLE BOOKS, and then the category that you’re writing in. Each genre category has slightly different conventions, and it’s important that you study what you’ll be writing. I’ll use Mystery, Thriller & Suspense as our example for today.

Now pick Best Sellers. For this particular exercise, we want to learn from the books that are grabbing enough readers to hit the lists.

Now we’ll need to dig a little more into the sub-category we’re writing in. Let’s go to Suspense > Psychological. (You don’t want to go any deeper into the categories than that, even if given the choice. We want books that are moving a lot of copies every day.)

Here’s what I found for Psychological Suspense.

Psychological Suspense Bestsellers

We want to collect a sample of at least five books out of the top 10.

Out of the top 10, cross off all books that aren’t a standalone or the first in a series. Mid-series books sometimes start differently because, ostensibly, readers are coming in already familiar with the characters and what’s happened before.

Now cross off any duplicate authors. You want a diverse sample, so if an author has more than one book in the top 10, pick just one of theirs.

Eliminate any obviously cross-genre books. For example, #6 in my screenshot failed the test because it’s more horror.

Also, eliminate books that seem to be at a promotional price compared to the others on the list. We can’t be sure whether they ranked because they’re great or because of the price. For example, the #1 book in my screenshot is priced at 99 cents compared to a $2.99-$5.99 average price.

Here’s the list I came up with:

  • The Girl You Lost by Kathryn Croft
  • The Light of the Fireflies by Paul Pen
  • The Good Girl by Mary Kubica
  • Orchids and Stone by Lisa Preston
  • Kill Me Again by Rachel Abbot

Once you have your list, it’s time to read the samples.

When you finish each one, ask yourself these questions.

(1) Did the first line hook me? Why or why not? How did they hook me?

The why is important. I’m going to be writing a whole series of posts on openings later this year, but for now, let’s look at the opening lines of the five books above.

On the night I asked my father the question, my family had been five years in the basement – The Light of the Fireflies by Paul Pen

Daphne didn’t quit college to become a roofer – Orchids and Stone by Lisa Preston

It had been easy to get him alone – The Girl You Lost by Kathryn Croft

It was raining when they came for me – Kill Me Again by Rachel Abbot

I’m sitting at the breakfast nook sipping from a mug of cocoa when the phone rings – The Good Girl by Mary Kubica

The first four opening lines all hook the reader by making them ask a question. What question did he ask his father and why had their family been in the basement that long? Why did Daphne quit college? Why did she want to get him alone? Why did they come for her and who are they?

The final three opening lines hook by creating fear and suspense as well.

The Good Girl does it in a subtle way. We’re primed to expect that phone call will bring bad news. (She also builds on this in the rest of the paragraph with images of dead leaves, clinging lifelessly and an overcast sky.)

(2) Did I want to keep reading? If I did, what made me want to keep going? If not, why not?

Again, the why is important. Why did we want to keep reading? Was it an interesting premise? A setting you wanted to explore more? A quirky character whose voice you wanted to keep listening to?

Don’t just stop there. Think about the specifics. If it was an interesting setting, how did they bring it to life? What types of details did they use? What made it interesting to you?

If you didn’t want to keep reading, what made you want to stop? Sometimes this can be personal preference—for example, we don’t like that particular writer’s voice. I’ll personally stop if a book contains too much profanity.

Sometimes it can be something specific that they did—for example, did you lose interest because nothing seemed to be happening (i.e., the story was taking too long to get rolling)? Were you turned away because the viewpoint character was too unsympathetic?

(3) What was the viewpoint character doing? How did you feel about them? Why?

You’ve probably noticed the why again there. In that sense, writers need to be like children. Asking why is how we learn.

Openings are tricky because we need our characters to be doing something interesting, while also making the reader care enough about them to read on. (Don’t confuse that with being likeable. Readers will stick with an unlikeable character pursuing an intriguing goal that matters to the character.)

What’s important here is to see what works and what doesn’t and then figure out how the writer made it so.

Now apply all of this to your opening.

If you have a finished book or even a work-in-progress, read approximately the same amount as you saw in the samples.

Does your book do any of the things that made you stop reading? Can you incorporate some of the elements that made you want to keep reading those other books?

What other things would you suggest fellow writers analyze in those samples? Anyone brave enough to share how their book’s opening compared to the bestsellers in their category?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Deep Point of View is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue, Description, or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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Image Credit: Lynn Lopez/freeimages.com