Our goal as writers is to craft a story so interesting that strangers will pay money to hear it.
Do you appreciate the craft of writing? Like professional footballers, writing celebrities make it look easy. James Patterson is one of the most deceptive writers of our era. You can read his books but you cannot write them. He makes words flow like melted butter from a warm urn. He has millions of fans. I want to write like that. But I know I can’t. And I won’t try because, frankly, I don’t like his books. I appreciate his accomplishments. He is the smoothest storyteller in publishing today. But he has no depth of character, no
firm scenery, no real emotional connections—all things I like. Nonetheless, his writing is so good that he creates the illusion of these things. He excites the reader’s imagination. And that is something I find awesome. So I examine his works rather than read them. I pick them apart, sentence structure, tense, point of view, character introduction, gestures, dialogue, everything. I use a highlighter and post-it flags. I take notes. I do the same with virtually every book I read. I no longer read for pleasure. I read to deconstruct. Why?
Ten years ago I said to myself: Hey, I should write a book! I did. Not even my mother could find anything nice to say about it. And I put a lot of work into it too. Heartbreaking. One encouraging friend told me to keep working on it. I took that advice. I read a lot of books in my genre, attended a few seminars, checked out some conferences, read a bunch of books on how to write, and then I wrote. My first discovery was: the most lucrative form of writing is the ‘how to write’ scam. Lots of people want to charge money for seminars and classes. Very few career authors went to those. (Note: This blog is FREE.) There are plenty of books by famous authors that are little more than memoirs. There are many books by famous agents that are little more than fan-zines. (I will cover learning tools in an upcoming post.) There are boatloads of seminars and conferences that charge impressive amounts of money. Every one learns differently, and I know I’m an experience based learner not an academic, but I noticed that very few career authors attended these sessions prior to their publishing success.
So I went back to my inspirations: James Rollins, Preston & Child, Robert Louis Stevenson, Lee Child, Jeffery Deaver… and so on. While I admired their works, when I took an objective look at my work, it was obvious I was not producing the same quality of craftsmanship. It was a lot harder than I thought. Reading a lot does not make you a better writer. It helps you appreciate great writing, but you still need to have your own vision and your own voice. And most important, you need to have your own grasp of how words should follow one another. So how do you get that?
The first step is to understand and appreciate what writers do. Go to your bookshelf, take out three books you admire most. Not your favorite books. The books you admire. For me, that would be Jeffery Deaver’s Bodies Left Behind, Nora Robert’s Angel Falls, and Lee Child’s The Hard Way. Why did I pick these? The first one defines ‘thriller’ by having a creepy feel from page one and it includes suspense, surprise and mystery. The second because a highly successful romance novelist wrote a mystery with a fresh and feminine look at what is truly scary. The third, because it demonstrates purity in thriller writing: every word written is directly related to the mystery unfolding in the story. Have your books picked?
First, write a short story.
Now, take your most admired books, grab a highlighter, a pad and pen, and those little sticky flags. First, write down the book’s concept. The Da Vinci Code’s concept was that Jesus had a daughter and generations of women followed all kept safe by a secret society. Then write down the book’s strategy. Da Vinci Code’s strategy was that a ‘symbologist’ would crack codes to unveil the mystery. Then we look at tactics. How did the author introduce characters, places, significant events? Every time we enter a new time and place, highlight the passage. Every time we encounter a new character, highlight the passage. Every time we encounter tensions between two people, highlight the passage. How did your author introduce the main character, with looks? Spoken words? Narrative? And how did he/she change locations, did we walk there or magically appear? In any of those cases, did you like how they did that? And finally, how do they reveal plot points? Tensions between characters? How did he/she portray character attributes like challenges, defiance, courage, cowardice, intellect? Find these important passages and you should have highlighter on nearly every page.
Why did we do that? Now that we have our own ideas on how our most admired works were written, we can read a tome like The Writer’s Journey and have a better grasp of what he’s talking about. But the real test of what we’ve learned is when we write our next story.
Without looking at the short story you wrote before you deconstructed three novels, re-write your short story. Is it better?
Peace, Seeley James
Category: On Writing