Tag Archives: writing

Novel Progress 4.18

I’m writing, I’m writing! In my last update, I felt like I had made a lot of progress and things were moving fast and I was excited. But my writing usually fluctuates, I have a week or two of great progress and then an off week or two, and then I’m back again. So this month I have less progress to report but I’m on the upswing and I’m still excited about what’s going on in my story.

I used to feel bad about the weeks when I just can’t seem to get anywhere in my manuscript– still do sometimes– but these last weeks have emphasized for me why that doesn’t help anything. In my off weeks this last writing month, I started to feel guilty about not getting anywhere and I did manage to force myself into getting words onto the page. I needed about 2,500 more words in Chapter 4 when I started out, and after editing and revising what I already had I got to the end where I knew I needed a little more content with only about 1,000 more words needed at most. That’s about where I was at during my last update in March, and I thought at the rate I was going I’d finish Chapter 4 within days of that update post.

Cue the off weeks. As I said, I forced myself to write through it and I was right up there at the 10,000 words mark after long days and then long weeks of struggling, when the writing mood finally hit hard and I realized I was going to have to rewrite a lot of the new content I had added as well as some of the revisions I had been making in the chapter at the same time. All the answers just started falling into place and I knew what needed to be said in the chapter, but I had said a lot of unnecessary things instead in those off weeks.

So I’ve spent the last week and a half redoing most of my progress. I was so into the work (finally) that I was shirking my reading (I have an overdue library book for the first time all year) and my blogging (I let a few days that I had posts planned for just go by without even looking at the drafts I had started), but when the writing fire lights I don’t want to miss the magic before it fizzles out again.

I finished Chapter 4 today, all but a final read-through that I like to do at night when it’s quiet. I’m just over 10,500 words and I feel really good about it– not just about being done with the chapter, but about having quality content in it. Even though it’s less progress to report than last month I feel just as good about it. It took more time and effort to finish Chapter 4 than Chapter 3 (8 of my 9 chapters are named but it’s easier to refer to them by number while the manuscript is in progress), but I think the end results of 4 were worth it. Did I mention I’m really excited about how it’s looking right now?

I know some writers have rules/goals about writing every day and pushing through slumps (and probably also about finishing writing before trying to edit and revise anything), but this month I learned all over again that I should listen to my instincts about what works for me, at least when it comes to my manuscript. I have plenty of side projects that I could’ve worked on and not cared if I messed up in those off weeks, but instead I created a lot of extra work for myself by trying to be more proactive than I was ready to be. In the end I probably could’ve finished Chapter 4 faster if I hadn’t put a lot of mediocre content in there when I wasn’t feeling it, but I’m so happy with where it’s at right now that I’m more interested in living and learning than resenting the lost time.

Current standing: other than a final read-through of the chapter tonight (just for small word choice edits and double-checking that everything lines up), I’m confidently finished with 4 of my 9 chapters. I have over 130 pages and over 40,000 words that feel like final draft material, but I know Chapter 5 is going to be more/different work than I’ve been doing so far. There’s a lot of content still missing from Chapter 5 so I’ll be back to writing and editing at the same time like the end of Chapter 4. (I don’t have an outline per se but I do have notes of what’s generally supposed to be happening and some pieces put in here and there in the middle.) Chapters 5 and 9 are the ones I’ve put the least time into so far so I’ve got plenty of work coming up but 5 will be exceptionally pleasing to finish– because it’ll mean a lot of work done and because it’ll put me safely past the halfway point. I think the key thing to remember going forward, after the writing month I’ve just had, will be to use the good writing days when I have them and not to worry too much about the off days when they strike.

If you haven’t checked out my previous updates and are wondering, I’m aiming for a 90,000 (up to 100,000 at most) finished product divided into 9 chapters (10,000 words each) with smaller sections inside the chapters. I have two main perspectives but also two minor perspectives that come into the story regularly, all in third person because I have an omniscient narrator. It fits best into the sci-fi genre, but primarily it’s a character-driven story about ordinary people turned superheroes with just enough science to explain what’s going on. The best age range is NA, as the characters are college-aged and figuring out life. I think it’s a pretty great read, but I’m biased.

What do you do when you hit a writing (or even reading) slump? Is it best to wait it out or do you have a trick for working through it? Tell me about it in the comments!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

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Novel Progress 3.18

I have had a superb writing month.

In my last writing update, I talked about being stuck in the third chapter of my book, and about wondering when it’s an appropriate time to modify writing goals if the original goal just isn’t working. In the month since then, I finished editing chapter three and it’s currently my favorite chapter. Once I let myself focus on the story instead of the word count, it was much easier to approach the work and make productive progress, and in the end I was only 30 words short of my original 10,000 word count, which is about 970 words more than I was afraid I would end up with. In addition, I worked through most of chapter four (of nine) as well.

Chapter four is one that still had some narrative holes this time around. When I opened up chapter four this month, it had 8k of 10k words, which meant that before final edits, I had some more writing to do: my first substantial writing jog on this project since I started working my way through my manuscript in chronological order. It was a nice change to get back into pure creating, though it does mean that even though I’ve gone through the entire chapter once to do a rough edit and fill in the missing content, I will have to go through the whole thing one more time as a whole.

It should maybe feel like a lot more work since I’ve only had to edit the last three chapters without generating new content, but this chapter was written more recently and thus was more polished to begin with. I approached it just as rigorously as the first three chapters, combing through sentence by sentence,  but overall there were just less edits to be made. Also I had good notes already in place for the content that needed to be added, and it was nice to have a little change of pace with the project. I have more editing ahead of me on the final trek through chapter four, but I know I’ll be getting back to writing in section five again. The alternating is keeping me on my toes. Figuratively.

So, where do I stand.

Right now in section 4 I need about 500 more words, but I’ve got the basis of the missing part worked in so it should be easy to work in those last 500 words as I expand the new content a little more. I’m pleased with about 2/3 of the chapter at this point, but I’ll read through it all (making any more minor changes along the way, of course) so that I have a good lead-in to edit the last 1/3 that still needs some work. I’m planning to finish with the 500 missing words today, and from there I expect the editing and final read-through of this chapter will take only another day or two.

But I do have a busy week outside of my manuscript so I’m not giving myself an exact schedule to follow. I find that exact schedules make me feel boxed in and when I fail them it sours the whole project so I’m trying to keep myself going at whatever pace feels the most productive on a day-by-day basis.

It’s always exciting to reach the end of a chapter and feel like there’s a whole new section complete, but chapter four is especially exciting to me to finish because it’s so close to the halfway point (half of nine chapters is 4.5, so halfway through chapter five I’ll hit it). I’ve been over and over the first three chapters of the book in the last year and a half, and it’s so exciting to put them on the back burner, safely out of the way, and to move into the second arc to the story (each group of three chapters has its own arc inside the main plot).

One more thing I want to talk about in this update: reading for writing.

For several weeks as I struggled through the end of chapter three and then changed pace for the new arc in chapter 4, I’ve been reading Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. This has been the perfect book to read at this point of my own novel, especially as I’m getting back into the writing parts of it rather than just the editing. Atwood’s prose is so… visceral, colorful, metaphorical… She uses so much imagery and makes such unique connections that reading her work inspires me to add to the atmosphere of my own manuscript. I know I tend to err on the side of writing action and inner conflict, so reading something so sensory has been a great reminder to describe things a bit more and pull the reader into the world of my story. Different things help me with different aspects of my writing, and often I don’t know how they’ll help until I’m in the middle of them. This is part of the reason I try to read so widely– it’s surprising what can motivate you.

What do you read for writing inspo? Or have you had any writing break-throughs lately? I love hearing about the ups and downs of everyone’s writing process!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Novel Progress 2.18

I can’t believe it’s been a whole month and I’m still editing the same 30 pages of my book. But I don’t want my slow progress to start holding me back from updating again, and then from making any progress at all, so I’m going to talk a bit about what’s holding me back in these 30 pages and why I’m not letting it stop me.

First, a brief reminder for those who don’t know: I’m aiming for a sci-fi/fantasty story with nine chapters of 10,000 words apiece. I haven’t quite written 90,000 words yet,  but I was getting out of order and saving things in tiny separate pieces because I didn’t know where exactly to paste them in and it was time to go back to the beginning, smooth things out, put everything I had together and fill in the empty spaces. I’m calling it the “final run-through” just to force myself into finalizing it as much as I can, putting in everything that needs to be there instead of getting distracted working on whatever seems the most fun at the time and verging into chaos again. I’ll probably still do another read-through of the whole thing when I reach the end, just because I am making a ton of changes this time around. But I mentioned in my last progress update that I was working on the third chapter– and I’m still in the third chapter, a month later.

Because of the structure of my book, with its nine chapters (further divided into smaller sections, for anyone who’s worried about unreasonably long chapters), the main plot is divided into three separate arcs. So in this third chapter, I’m reaching the end of the first arc, the first third of the book. It’s been largely a set-up arc, introducing readers to my world and characters. Two major things are happening to my main characters in  the first two chapters, so this third chapter is all about bringing the pieces together, the motives, the problems, to get them where I really want them for the meat of the story. There’s a lot of characterization happening, a lot of mystery being solved in why this world is functioning the way it is, some politics and alliances and obstacles being levered into place. I believe there’s plenty of action to keep the pace rolling, but especially in this third chapter there’s a higher level of introspection, decisions that need to be made and accepted on a personal level, resolutions made. And I just kept trying to rewrite the slow parts to make them work, to build up the conflicting emotions that are forefront at this time, and in the end it just wasn’t working. It didn’t flow with the charm and surprise of the first two sections.

So I’ve been doing some cutting. Some compacting, really. I’ve been removing whole paragraphs to replace them with singular, to-the-point sentences that better fit my book. The problem with doing this is that by winnowing down my content this way, I’m not going to hit the 10,000 word mark. That’s why my progress has been so slow and reluctant this month, because I was so determined to hit that goal, when it just wasn’t working with this chapter.

Now I’ve accepted that my chapters aren’t going to be of uniform length. I already knew that to some extent, because I went over the 10,000 word mark for the first two chapters, but I didn’t think with as much as I like to draw things out and say every relevant detail that I would ever have a problem with too-few words. And I think in the end I won’t be short of the 90,000 word range, even if I have to let a couple of chapters fall below my original target goal. Which is why I finally decided that the consistency of the story is more important than a word goal I set before I was this sure of my content. 90,000 words seems to be a general target range for my genre, so once I had those nine chapters planned it wasn’t an arbitrary goal, but I think the important thing now is to let the words fall where they will, keeping an eye on that final word count goal without being too inflexible about each chapter.

I am more than halfway through the third chapter, and it’s going faster now that I’ve got a system of sifting through it. I’m getting excited about the project again instead of dreading trying to work on something that just wasn’t working. By the end of this chapter I’ll be a third of the way through my book; all the important characters will be mentioned, important places will be visited, key terms linked to their objects, major conflicts noted. I feel a little as though I’m checking these things off a list as I’m editing this chapter, so I hope they read like they’re appearing naturally, that the bones of the story won’t show as much to someone who’s got a better distance from the story. But as long as I’m working on it so closely, looking at each sentence individually to make sure that everything is strong enough to hold up in the final work, I think it’s best that I can see the underlying structure so clearly to keep an eye on how things are moving along.

For my fellow writers:

How do you know when it’s time to modify a goal? How do you know when to trust that the story is strong enough to stand in its own way instead of sticking to the constraints of your initial outline plan? How do you make it feel less like failing if you do have to change a goal?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Novel Progress 1.18

Have you ever wanted something so badly that you almost don’t even want to try for it? Because there’s that chance that you won’t get it, that you’ll give everything you’ve got and you still can’t get it, and that’s worse than dreaming forever without following through.

That’s how I feel about writing a novel.

But I know that’s not a helpful way of thinking, or of potentially succeeding at my goals. So here I am again, committing to monthly progress updates (whether anyone else is interested in them or not) to hold myself accountable, to push forward and find out whether writing is a dream I should keep chasing.

So here’s where I’m at:

Between my busy fall job and the holiday season, I started back at the beginning (as I’ve done a hundred times before) with the intent to revise, edit, finish writing in missing pieces, etc. all the way through to the end of my working manuscript. My book is divided into nine sections that’ll be about 10,000 words each (further divided into chapters within the sections). Currently I’m trending toward running closer to 11 or 12 thousand words per section, but I think at this point that’s the preferable way to skew. I want to hit the end without being short on anything, then do one final sweep to take out anything that doesn’t belong.

Right now I’m very happy with the first two sections, and working hard on the third. I’ve never been this excited about the progress I’m making, the changes to the story and the way it’s all turning out. I wish I could share a few excerpts here, but I just don’t trust the internet enough with something I hope to publish at some point. But I think the very fact that I’m ready to share parts of it, that I can read back through what I’ve edited and think, ‘Wow, I wrote that?’ is a great sign of achievement. I cannot wait until I feel that way about the entire book, and send it out into the world to try my luck with publishing.

But I’m not getting ahead of myself this time. I’m a big believer in goals, but I don’t want to fall back into the trap that brought my progress to a halt last year: failing to meet my goal meant I didn’t want to post a progress report, and when there were no progress reports to keep me motivated to work, there was less incentive to make progress… It was a vicious cycle in which I accomplished very little for too many months.

So right now I’m working in section three of nine. I’m expecting to take about two weeks to pick it apart and stitch it back together in a way that’ll satisfy me. This isn’t a goal, it’s an estimate based on the time frame of the last two sections I edited and the current state of section three. I’m hammering out small details in my editing, but I’m also still asking myself the big questions, ‘What themes am I reaching for here,’ ‘What’s the point of this character, or this event, or this chapter?’ I have an ending in mind, but I haven’t written as much of the plot in the later sections so I want to make sure I stay on track with the purposes of the novel and make sure everything is staying together cohesively.

I don’t know if anyone’s actually curious about my novel-writing endeavors, but I think it would be kind of cool to have some record of my working on it in case it ever does turn into the biggest accomplishment of my life.

Also, updates help keep me on track. I’m aiming for one update per month, and I think the more I get into it, the more I’ll share details about it, and about my process. Right now I’m going through sentence by sentence, changing everything that just doesn’t excite me. Making sure every word is relevant to the overall story. Culling adverbs. Streamlining dialogue tags. Adding sensory details. Cutting redundancies. There’s a lot of set-up in this first third of the book, but by the end of section three, everyone important is introduced, all of the fictional elements specific to my novel’s world are named and explored, the settings are covered, etc.

Oh, it’s a superhero book, by the way. New heroes, new monsters, new plot. New Adult age range primarily, but I wouldn’t say it’s inappropriate for younger audiences or too immature for adults. It’s also an exploration of soul mates– whether they exist, under what conditions, how important they are (or aren’t) in the grand scheme of things. It’s a nice balance between fast action and introspection (at least I think so); it’s got a strong female lead with an admirable sometimes-partner in a world turned upside down by man’s quest for immortality. I’m hoping it’ll be pretty good, in the end.

But I gotta get back to section three now.

Any other writers out there? How long have you been working on your projects?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

I don’t know how this happened. I had an overflowing list of books to read in October, and Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft was not one of them. I ordered it in September, thinking that I would get around to it someday but not today; except when it arrived in the mail I was intrigued enough to read the first foreward, and then the second forward, and then the third, and then the next thing I knew I was laughing and crying and marking one hundred quotes that I loved and closing the book because I’d finished the whole thing. Which is rare for me with any sort of nonfiction, but that’s what happened.

onwritingAbout the book: On Writing is divided into sections within sections, some about King’s early life and writing career, some full of advice on honing your writing skills, some on questions King wanted to answer about his writing (complete with examples from his books and tales of how he came up the ideas). There’s a sample revision section, and a section full of book recommendations (in the 10th anniversary addition there’s an expanded list). There are instructions for assembling your writer’s “toolbox” and using to build a stronger writer. It’s all written with King’s usual flair, so that stories of King’s early childhood and cautions about the horrors of adverbs are equally appealing to consume.

“Some of this book– perhaps too much– has been about how I learned to do it. Much of it has been about how you can do it better. The rest of it– and perhaps the best of it– is a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.”

On Writing consists of fewer than 300 pages, but it covers a lot. Each topic is kept brief enough (surprising for King) that the reader never gets bored, but the writer gives enough detail– succinct detail– that every section feels rich and worthwhile, a mountain packed into a molehill.

“A Memoir of the Craft” is a perfect description for this little book because it is most definitely a memoir, but it is also entirely focused on one man’s account of writing life. This book’s target audience seems to be the aspiring writer, the novelist as yet unpublished, and even the details of King’s life shared in this volume fit that aim: we see an ordinary child try and fail, try and rise, rise and nearly fall. King is humble about his talent, but honest in a way that new writers long to see.

Haven’t read any of King’s books before? That’s not a problem with this book. Although he does talk about his first publications and refer to some of his novels as examples when he’s giving literary advice, the reader of this memoir needs no outside knowledge of those works, in case horror and sci-fi aren’t your genres. On Writing is not about fiction and genres. It’s about being brave enough to pick up your pen and write, if that’s what you’re trying to do. It’s about making writing fun, and also taking it seriously. It’s a handbook of insightful reminders and doubt-banishing encouragements. Writing is hard. But King is here to help, no extra sci-fi reading required.

It is recommended, though. Reading, in general, is recommended. And isn’t that just what we readers want to hear?

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I still can’t believe how much fun I had reading grammar rules and suggestions, and that wasn’t even the best of the book. It’s an encouraging read– no, an empowering read. It’s easily the best memoir I’ve ever encountered (although to be honest I don’t read memoirs very often). A lot of the writing tips were familiar to me from my college writing classes, but I was surprised how much I needed the reminder of a few of them, and they were all amusing to read. I’m going to be recommending this one loudly for a long time, so get comfortable and prepare yourself for that.

Further recommendations:

  1. Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, especially the illustrated edition.  Stephen King talks about this one a lot in On Writing, and for good reason. If you’re new to writing (or not) and looking to improve your techniques, this is the best place to go. It’s a non-fiction guide full of the rules for writing and suggestions on when to break them. It’s not always a fun read, per se, but it is helpful. I’ve been inspired to revisit it after reading On Writing.
  2. Anything written by Stephen King. If you came into On Writing for tips on writing, enjoyed the book, and haven’t read much else by King, you should fix that. He’a the King. My personal favorites at the moment are 11/22/63 (a time-travel book about attempting to prevent JFK’s assassination), The Dead Zone (the protagonist can see selectively into the future and must commit a treasonous crime to stop a growing tyrant), and Bag of Bones (a writer who’s just lost his wife is trying to put his life back together ends up living in a haunted house that’s maybe trying to kill him).

Coming up next: who really knows, at this point. I wasn’t intending to read On Writing, for starters, and lately I’ve been having a lot of fun reading multiple books at once (I just finished an entire four-book series that I’ll talk about in my monthly wrap-up). So I’m currently reading A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin and plan to review that soon, but I’m also starting Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. I’ll probably be reviewing one of these soon.

Have you read anything that really surprised you lately?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Skewed Goodreads Ratings

“One learns most clearly what not to do [when writing] by reading bad prose.” -Stephen King (On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft)

The thing about Goodreads ratings is that they’re not accurate. They are not the opinions of random, objective readers. Almost every single person who contributes a review or star rating for any given book has picked up that book for a reason and went into it with expectations that will affect their concluding opinions of it. Have you noticed that ratings for books in a series tend to be rated higher as the series goes on, even though the overall ratings are fewer? That’s probably at least partially due to the fact that the readers who make it that far in the series are readers who’ve already found something they liked in the first book and know they’ll find what they’re looking for in subsequent novels. There are exceptions, and of course it is possible that the books in any given series do actually improve, but I think it’s also worth noting that the people who read (and rate) book 2 are usually people who liked book 1. And by book 3, even more readers who were on the fence have been weeded out, thus driving ratings up even more.

That’s just an easy example. We also have people who rate books they’ve DNF’d (unfair, in my opinion), people who rate books before they’ve read them, people who know the author, or have been given a free early copy, or had to read a book for a class and wound up letting their feelings about the class show in their review of the book. No matter how it happens, anyone who checks for reviews on Goodreads before picking up a book should be aware that almost every single person who’s left their opinion in the reviews section has been biased in some way. They believed the Booktube hype, or have read something else by the same author, or found the title on a list of reputed “good books”, or are in love with a particular genre. Most of those readers aren’t people who saw the title in a bookshop, picked up the book without knowing anything at all about it, and reviewed it completely impartially. I’m not saying that doesn’t happen, but it’s not the norm.

Don’t be fooled: I love Goodreads. I check the ratings there before I pick up a book, often. But it’s important to note that sometimes books are rated highly not because they’re good, but because they contain whatever their readers were looking for when they picked them up. Case in point: Elle Kennedy’s Off-Campus series.

I’ve been highly stressed lately, and in times of stress I reach for guilty pleasures. I often go for something I’ve already read and know will be a guilty pleasure, but this time I picked up something new. In the Off-Campus series, Elle Kennedy has written four NA romance books. They’re pretty short and easily readable–I read all four in four days. I’m talking about these here because they’re rated highly on Goodreads; every single book in this series is rated above 4 stars, and they’re not good.

That’s not to say they’re all bad. I’ve read worse. I gave each of the books in this series (The Deal, The Mistake, The Score, and The Goal) 3 stars for my enjoyment level, which is certainly not my lowest rating. They’re cheesy, predictable, somewhat sexist books with transparent plot mechanics. But even though the plot is obvious and feels fictionalized, it is a functioning plot. It makes sense, at the very least. The mechanics are in working condition, even if they are more visible than they should be. Even though it’s clear from the first two chapters who’s going to end up with whom and which major obstacle they’ll have to overcome, there’s emotion in there. There are abundant sex scenes, if that’s your thing. And that’s why I think these books have been rated so highly. The people reading these ab-covered books are the people looking for predictable bodice-rippers starring college hockey players who believe they’re God’s gift to women. The abs on the covers attract a certain audience. There are some topics these books handle well– every main character has something difficult in their present or past: a rape, an abusive parent, a sick parent, a dead friend, an unexpected pregnancy, etc. These details are dealt with carefully and respectfully. It’s the “puck bunnies” I have a problem with. The use ’em and lose ’em mentality of the men in this book. And that’s why I’m not posting full reviews for each of the books in this series. They’re all very much the same and I had the same complaints about them all. Admittedly, I liked them enough to read all four, but I think it’s like Stephen King says: we learn what not to do in our writing by reading bad books, and that’s as important a lesson as reading examples of what we should do.

Sometimes you just have to read a bad book or two. Or four. There’s nothing wrong with reading whatever the heck you want, literary merit be damned. I just wanted to use this opportunity to talk about the Goodreads rating system, because I was shocked that the third book in this series is rated higher than some books well-known for their goodness. The Score, an NA romance novel about a horny hockey player who falls in love with a girl who’s ashamed she had a one-night stand with him, is rated higher on Goodreads than Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s important to keep in mind when using Goodreads that it’s not a tool for rating literary goodness. It rates enjoyment. Sadly, those are two very different categories. And further, enjoyment levels are affected by the fact that readers always, always have expectations of the books they’re reading.

The reading world would be a different place without Goodreads. A lonelier place. But, like any other tool, we must use it wisely.

How do you feel about the Goodreads rating system? Also, does anyone have any better NA reading recommendation for me?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Reading as a Writer

The biggest difference between reading for entertainment and reading in an active attempt to learn about how the words work is asking why. All readers have opinions on what they read, no matter how big or small or tangential. Words are powerful things. They leave impressions. Sometimes they make us like a character, dislike a plot, fall in love with a fictional world, or loathe particular paragraphs. These are the little pieces that add up to a reader’s overall judgment of a book–how will you rate it? Will you read it again? Will you recommend it? The answers to those questions come from how we feel about a book as we’re reading. When you want to take even more from your reading experiences, to pick out techniques to use and avoid in your own writing, the first thing to do is start asking why.

Not only asking, but forcing yourself to give a full answer. Don’t allow any “I don’t know”s, or “I can’t explain it”s. You like a character? You cringe at a section of dialogue? You love a particular sentence so much you want to read it over and over? Ask why. And answer.

The more you do this, the more you explore the mechanics of writing. When you find characters you like and explain to yourself why you like them (do not say “they’re just awesome,” or other vague non-answers. Challenge yourself. You’re the one who benefits from the effort yo put into this exercise), you’ll start to notice trends. I like characters that are fallible, that are morally gray, that lie or are unreliable for other reasons. I like them because they’re unpredictable and sometimes unstable. I like them because they could do the right thing, or the very wrong thing. I like trying to decipher their motives. What sorts of characters do you like? Why?

Character is only one example. You can do this for virtually every aspect of a book. Length of chapter. Amount of description. Progression of plot. Dialogue tags. Sometimes (almost always) it’s very subjective. It’ll make you look for answers in individual sentences, or pick out specific words. Sometimes appreciation for a whole scene comes from one great choice of words in a fragment of a sentence. Look closely. See what’s in the lines, and what’s between them. Why does it work for you?

The next step is to incorporate your findings into your own work. Maybe this means exploring your reasoning behind choosing a certain genre or form, or maybe it helps you form plot or character traits that appeal to you. Maybe it’s the emotion that gets under your skin, that you can learn to wield just as well as your favorite writers seem to. Conversely, you’re probably also learning what not to do. You’ll discover the specific things that annoy you to read, and you’ll avoid them.

As I mentioned earlier, this is all subjective. Writing is subjective. Different folks like different jokes, and some don’t want to read humor at all. Find what works for you, and make it work under your own pen. To write objectively, learn to look at writing critically. Ask why. And answer.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant