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Monday, August 30, 2010

Learning From the Masters

Ever read a book by a favorite author and find yourself awestruck by the way she executed a particular turn of phrase, or a description, or a plot point?  Most of us have. And a lot of writers are immediately crushed, wondering how they could ever write half as well.

It's time to stop feeling crushed and start using those moments to hone your own skills.  Here's your step-by-step guide to doing just that.

1. Dog-Ear Your Books

Every time you read a line that brings you to a breathless halt, fold the page down (or up, if you're near the bottom of the page) to the line where the passage begins.  Dog-earring lets you fold and keep reading, and if you get into the habit of doing it, it won't break your reading stride at all.

(Note to people who are horrified by the suggestion that you should dog-ear your books: I suppose you could use post-it flags, but that takes more time and effort.)

2. Write It Out

You'll need a dedicated spiral-bound notebook, so if you don't have one, put it on your list!  After you finish the book, sit down and write out the passages that struck you into your spiral-bound notebook.  Leave your margins intact, and a couple of blank lines between each passage.  Be sure to put a note at the end indicating which book the passages came from in case you ever want to read it again.

3. Analyze This

Third, spend some time with each passage.  What makes it so amazing?  Strong verbs?  Unusual adjectives?  Alliteration? Short, choppy sentences? A unique metaphor?  Make notes, underline, whatever will help you break each sentence down into its components.  Your job is to deconstruct the passage, to understand how the parts were put together, to appreciate the nuances.

Do this with each and every passage you loved.  If you had a lot, this could take you quite a while.  Don't feel you have to do it all at once.  Work on a few passages and then set them aside.  Come back later.

4. Pattern Seeking

When you've finished all the passages for a book, go back over them, looking for patterns.  What is the writer doing over and over that's speaking to you so much?   How can you begin to consciously add those tricks to your repertoire?


One of my favorite writers is Dean Koontz.  When I collect pieces of his writing in the manner described above, I end up with passages like this:
In a green polyester suit...and a tie that might have been the national flag of a third-world country famous for nothing but a lack of design sense, he looked like Dr. Frankenstein's beast gussied up for an evening of barhopping in Transylvania.
[He] had the teeth of a god and a face so unfortunate that it argued convincingly against the existence of a benign deity.
So what's Koontz doing that's working for me?  Well, first of all he's focusing on details in his descriptions, details that bring the characters to life.  Even more than that, though, what stands out is his flamboyant, unexpected use of metaphor and hyperbole.

5. Try It Out

Once you've identified what's working for you, to play with the techniques in your own writing.  Make them your own.


The kind of hyperbole and humor Koontz is using above doesn't often work in my writing, but I have gotten pretty good at a) finding details to bring a scene to life and b) using metaphor and its close cousin simile.  Here's a sample I'm pleased with:
He swerved, and a traffic light flashed by on their right, larger than she’d have thought traffic lights would be. The wire that had once held it aloft eddied across the road in a black tangle. Green and red and gold chips were spattered across the asphalt like misplaced casino currency.
Your turn!  What do you love about you favorite authors' writing?  How can you make their techniques your own?

Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD writes fantasy, scifi, and nonfiction. She loves helping writers "get their psych right" in their stories, and her book on the same topic, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO PSYCHOLOGY: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment, and Human Behavior is now available for pre-order. Learn more about the book at the WGTP website or ask your own psychology and fiction question here.


Stina said...

I love this idea. I've analyszed sentences I like, before, but have never written them down. I'm going to try out these suggestions so I actually remember all that I've learned.

Dolly said...

Excellent suggestion. I have tried this in the past, keeping page number and book in excel, but haven't maintained it. I think keeping a notebook for it (YAY - new notebook) would work better.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I knew I liked Koontz for a reason.

GREAT POST!!!!! Fantastic tips!

Erinn said...

GREAT post! I love the suggestion about looking at each section carefully. That's so important.

Anonymous said...

I've kept a notebook like this for years, but haven't known what to do with the information in it. Thanks for the advice!

Stephanie, PQW said...

Thank you so much. I love this idea!

Chuck said...

I'm a big fan of studying what you read. Good column topic!

Jil said...

I think if one reads beautiful writing from childhood on, it becomes one's way of thinking and will come out naturally.I don't like the idea of consciously copying another writer's style, but one can certainly be influenced by it.

Christine said...

This is such an awesome idea. I'm off to get that notebook.

Shannon said...

I will most certainly endeavor to do this! Now I'll just go chuck this blog post's link up on my blog so I know where to find the article.

Janice said...

WOW! What a great idea. I love it.

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

Thank you for all your wonderful comments (and Shannon, thanks so much for sharing the link on your blog)!

Jil, I agree, I don't think we want to necessarily copy someone else's style, but rather to appreciate how they do what they do, and find ways to incorporate the same techniques into your own writing.

For example, I suspect that some people will find that when they do this exercise, what they're loving is active voice with strong verbs and nouns. By analyzing an admired writer's approach to active voice, they can better learn to choose strong verbs and nouns for their own writing.

Let me know how this works out for those of you who try it! You can always send me an email -- my address is to the right on the main QTB page.