Learning from the Pros

Well, it’s 2011 and, like me, you’ve probably resolved to make this year count in your writing life. Last year was good. I wrote–and was paid for!–a large number of articles for online sites, and received my first professional rejection letter (from Woman’s World). *Remember–I’m Leah, not Sandra!* But this year, I want to focus more on fiction and finish revising this novel (which is all you want to hear about anyway, right?).

I finished my first draft on January 1, 2010. After that, however, every event in my life seemed to conspire against my writing any more. I did, however, read a great deal and in the process, I learned more about what I needed in my writing than I could have in a hundred writing magazines and instruction books. Here are a few of the best:

1. Skill: Voice
Book(s): Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and various pastiche novels.

I’d read Doyle’s Holmes stories in college, and thought them a little silly and dull. Truth is, I wanted a little more gore in my mysteries. However, I read the whole lot of them (and quite a few pastisches) this fall, and realized that Doyle was able, very quickly, to create two characters with distinct identities and voices. He uses little backstory (he doesn’t have room), but through dialogue and description, he makes Holmes, Watson, and their partnership incredibly real. So real, in fact, that fans who go on to read “apocryphal” (non-Doyle) writing know instantly when a writer has achieved an authentic voice and believable story. In fact, I would also put these stories down as an example of “world building” for the non SFF writer. After just a few, you can feel the fog, smell the gaslights, and hear the din of late 19th century London.

2. Skill: Suspense/Pace

Book(s): Relic, Reliquary, and the other Pendergast  novels by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

You’ve heard it hundreds of times: “Make your characters suffer.” But when it comes time to turn the screws, you hesitate. Is that plotline believable? Am I brave enough to go there emotionally? Is all that drama necessary? I have a hard time bringing the pain in my books. Preston and Child have no such qualms–and it keeps you enthralled.  “Naw, there’s no way they’d do THAT,” you say, then turn the page to find that yes, they would, and they just did.  They also do something else extraordinarily well,  and that is….

3. Skill: Character Arc

When I sent my first page to the Dear Author website to be critiqued a couple of years ago, my most frequent comment was that it was full of “info dump.”  This was a new term for me. I thought I was giving the reader necessary information, so they would know and like my character.  Now that I realize that two pages of immediate backstory is a no-no, I still wonder to get those important facts in without breaking up the story or making it contrived.  Preston and Childs have created several vivid characters who become more real over the course of the series simply because you learn just a little more information over time–and it’s always information that makes you want to know more. (They also write fantastic, easily visualized car chases, if you need to know about such things).

4.  Skill: Description

Book(s): The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane  (Katherine Howard)

I am not one for description. I generally skip over them in 19th century novels, and when I have to write them, I end up full of dull words and cliched metaphors.  Katherine Howard has no such problem.  Her descriptions are lush, colorful, and more real than real. They practically drip through the page.

5: Skill: POV

Book(s): Major Andre  (Anthony Bailey)

This is an older, out-of-print book, but if you can get hold of a copy, you should. In it, Bailey uses first-person to explore the last days of  18th century British solider and spy, Major John Andre (hanged for his part in Benedict Arnold’s treason). I’ve read it several times, but this summer, I read it as a writer, and was blown away by Bailey’s ability to inhabit Andre. The reader comes away believing that this is, really, how it must have been.

6: Skill:  Saying More with Less

Book(s): A Slight Trick of the Mind (Mitch Cullin), Mr. Emerson’s Wife (Amy Belding Brown), The Little House Books (Laura Ingalls Wilder)

One of the writing skills I covet most is the ability to describe enormous insights with little words. Whenever any writer does so, the result is profound and lyrical. Mitch Cullin achieves this as he describes Sherlock Holmes’ encounter with love and mortality in his literary novel, A Slight Trick of the Mind. The last two chapters are the best I’ve read this year–and perhaps ever.

Amy Belding Brown’s Mr. Emerson’s Wife achieves the same with her story of the marriage of Ralph Waldo and Lidian Emerson, complicated as it might have been with their friendships. There’s not an extra word, and they’re all chosen for maximum emotional impact.  One caveat: if you wish to avoid over-curious looks, don’t read chapter 16 in the pre-school pickup line.

Finally, if you haven’t read them in years, revisit Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series as an adult. You’ll be surprised at how dark they can be, and how well she can describe the perils of pioneer life and complex emotions with words simple enough for young readers, yet evocative enough for adults.

Keep it simple! Make them suffer! Lose the backstory! Kill your darlings! Writing instruction manuals are always telling us to do these things. Sometimes it’s best however, to see how other authors do them–and do them well. These were my favorite “instruction manuals” for 2010. Share some of yours in the comments!


About leahguinn

I'm a 50-something wife, mother, and writer who blogs about Sherlockian pastiche instead of putting away the laundry. So many books! So little time!
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1 Response to Learning from the Pros

  1. Your PR Chick says:

    All excellent points! And, may I add, creating a sense of mystery around your lead character(s) has worked very well for several of the authors you mentioned. They almost always say more by saying next to nothing. Sure, they tease you with a scant few details, but they allude to a much bigger thing SO HORRIBLE that you wouldn’t want to look at it in broad daylight. So, of course, like a train wreck, we keep coming tiptoeing back to the scene of the crime peeping through our fingers trying to get one more tidbit to tide us over. Ahhh, the delicious tension!

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