Friday, February 1, 2013

Why Studying Other Authors Helps You Practice Your Book-Building Skills

This week I am finishing yet another round of edits on my revision of Breathing Room, my next novel.  My wonderful editor, a flight expert, and a screenwriter friend have given me their feedback, and I have a pile of notes to think about, incorporate, and make changes from.

The solution to manuscript problems isn't always easy to see.  That's why I turn to other authors.

For instance, my screenwriter--who has a wonderful eye for the cinematic--recommended I boost the character visuals:  She couldn't always see the characters in each scene.  We writers internalize our characters easily, so we sometimes forget that readers outside our heads can't do this. 

Clues are needed--a quirk, a way of moving, a physical characteristic.  Not too much, but enough to be able to set the person onstage in front of us.

This is especially important, my friend said, in the opening pages.

I agree--but I also hate when the opening scene is loaded with too much description.  It slows things way down.


Two Steps to Study and Research
First I began with a list of visual and character traits I could use for each of the seven or eight main players.  Of these, I chose the three most interesting characteristics for each person.

Then I went to some of my favorite books to see how these authors presented their characters in opening chapters.  How did we get to know someone, how they looked or moved?

It was a fascinating study. 

I am reading a variety of books at the moment, all by authors very different in style.  One is Italian Shoes, a novel by Swedish writer Henning Markell.  Studying his first five pages, I saw that he mostly let us visualize the first-person narrator through his profession (a physician), the postman who visits his island, and his cramped living quarters.

Michael Crummey, author of the novel River Thieves, introduced his characters through another character's eyes.  He is writing in third person limited, so this worked well. 

B.A. Shapiro, author of the mystery The Art Forger, has a narrator in first person, so we get to know her through her self-conscious observations of herself.  She's young; this works. 

I went back to my first chapters and saw how sparsely my characters were depicted, compared to these writers.  And I began layering in the details.  Sometimes I used Markell's method--character defined by space.  Sometimes, Crummey's method--character defined by those around her.  And Shapiro's method worked well for my youngest character who is definitely self-conscious.

Your writing exercise this week is to take a writing problem in your own manuscript and find three authors who have already solved it.  What can they teach you?