krystalynn03

Reading Like Writers

80 posts in this topic

Sometimes I read a book and want to talk about the book like a writer would. I don't have (m)any real life friends who think that way, although I do have many who do love to read. They just don't think about books the way writers do.

I thought it would be fun to start a thread where we discuss published books from the point of view of writers--things we learned from analysis or things we notice that made them satisfying reads. I'm thinking technique, not content.

For example, I watched a cartoon series you've probably heard of: Avatar the Last Airbender. I got into it years after the popularity came and went, but once I started watching, I just couldn't stop. I totally binge-watched it.

Later, I wondered what it was about it that made me unable to stop, so I rewatched some, reread summaries of the episodes, and took notes on what the story did to analyze all its pieces.

What I found out from doing this was that the setting changed nonstop. No episodes stayed in one place for very long until the season finales and even those bounced around the city or whatever.

When I compared this to my own writing, i realized that a lot of sequences that I thought 'dragged' were successions of scenes all using the same setting. Upon rewrite, I consciously changed that, and it worked. It made the whole thing move faster.

I have more examples similar to this, but I'll just share this one to kick off the thread. :)

So what about you guys? Have you read/watched something and learned something from the technique you saw that you applied or could apply to your own craft?

Edited by krystalynn03
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Hmm, I would be careful when comparing a movie/tv series to books. For instance, when you watch an anime, you immediately get to know what the characters and the setting look like, and it can tell you a lot even at first glance. But when you write a book, you must convey everything in words, and of course it will be boring if you do it in too many details, or it may appear out of the character's POV.

That having said, I still think that watching anime did plenty for my characters writing. I was still in secondary school, and my characters were generally contained to the most basic fantasy archetypes - the hero, the mentor etc. After watching "Death Note" and "Code Geass" I suddenly had more variety and discovered that supporting characters can be interesting, too. It still makes me too focused on the character's eye color at times, though XD

PS.

Btw. about "the Last Airbender" - I didn't exactly like first season. I watched it - skipping a lot, but still - only because my friend told me that it gets better in the second one (it does, and the third season is, IMO, the best piece of children cartoon I've ever watched). But ultimately I only wished for Aang and the rest to arrive in the North Pole, and felt that their adventures on the way there were just fillers with merely tidbits of world building. Except for a handful of episodes (that one with Hiroshi warriors, for instance), I didn't have any sense of progress or even character development.

Edited by Ernei
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I like this thread! One writing exercise I've found very helpful is to take passages from my favorite books and then write them out, word for word, in a separate Word doc. My favorite short story, for example, is " 'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman." And when I write things like this out, I start to get a feel for what it might have been like to write the story, and start to get a better sense for all the little choices the author made in word usage, approaches to characterizations, blocking, etc. Getting in authors' shoes like this helps me to think like other writers and expand my own style.

Edited by Coop
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This is an excellent idea for a thread, @krystalynn03, just super.

So, I'm going to say read David Gemmell if you want to see highly effective character development, side characters and mc's. It looks effortless, but no doubt wasn't. Very good plot hooks too. The thing about Gemmell's stories that really makes them cook, I think, is how he worked with the details that really make the stories come alive.

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Good thread idea. :)

Being a female millennial in Utah, I had a lot of girl-geared low-fantasy authors to choose from: Shannon Hale, Jessica Day George, Gail Carson Levine, and ED Baker. That doesn't even mention authors like Brandon Mull and Rick Riordan and JK Rowling that were (and are) very popular among like-minded kids my age. The ones I loved the most had imaginative worlds that may have jumped off of typical fantasy tropes, as in they included dragons and elves and things, but each was just a little different.

What I took from those is that the worldbuilding doesn't need to be too extensive in fantasy or sci-fi stories. It should have a unique flair, though, and the characters and plot should interact with the world extensively. My favorite plot points hinged on the world points, special or not.

(If you want some really interesting stuff, the Frog Princess books by ED Baker are really weird and fun)

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What a fantastic idea!

I've just finished The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern. I'd have not willingly entered into this book had it not been the next pick of my book club, and I avoided it until almost the last minute. I'm just not a 'novel' reader, generally. I like explosions and spaceships and magic.

So I was very surprised by this book. Not only was it an utterly enjoyable read, but it really pointed out a number of things that I have struggled with as a writer. For instance:

POV chapters and POV character introductions - I have in the past felt like 'if you're an established writer you can get away with multiple POV swaps and chapters, if you're new you can't' deals. Morgenstern is a nationally bestselling author, and she does have a large number of POV characters. I realized when reading this, finally, why agents were always so down on my multiple POV chapters. It's hard to stay engaged with the story! You get invested in one set of characters, then BOOM, here's another that you really don't give a hoot about because you want to know what happened to the previous one. Good books make it worth your while in the end, with the POV characters weaving together to create a fuller narrative (and Circus does that), but it was so frustrating in the beginning! I've never paid attention to how much I skim through books when POV chapter shifts happen. I have never liked this writing style, and now that I'm conscious of it I know why!

I did really appreciate the descriptive writing in this book. I find myself challenged by descriptive writing, always wanting to get to the action. This book dealt with a lot of senses, and Morgenstern's writing brought everything to the front. I got hungry reading her descriptions of food, I saw colors in her descriptions, could smell the musty old books and ink when she discussed them. It was lovely, and I wanted to sit and revel in the language. It's this level of imagery writing I'd like to be better at.

One thing I didn't get from this book was voice. I struggle with this in my writing, and it is a common comment of agents on my submissions (which is funny, because in my nonfiction writing I am often accused of having too much voice). I didn't feel much voice in this book, which didn't help my current study of 'what gives authors voice in a piece'. I'll have to keep reading and see if I can stumble onto some other examples.

 

 

Also also, I read a ton, and I think this is an amazing thread, so I plan to be all over it. Hope to see lots from you all as well!

 

Edited by kaisa
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Ooh, and I just started reading 'The Lies of Locke Lamora'. I was quickly engaged by the description, which I find intriguing and vivid in places, however the structure of the prologue and early section was really bugging me. There constant flashbacks to Locke's early life, which break up the narrative of the emerging sting. It may be more innovative than a linear narrative, but the constant interruption was irksome. Past Page 110, there is still the odd intermission. I feel that is more manageable, but the opening, to me, risked disengaging the reader.

Further installments to follow, I hope. This is fun :)

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2 hours ago, Robinski said:

Ooh, and I just started reading 'The Lies of Locke Lamora'. I was quickly engaged by the description, which I find intriguing and vivid in places, however the structure of the prologue and early section was really bugging me. There constant flashbacks to Locke's early life, which break up the narrative of the emerging sting. It may be more innovative than a linear narrative, but the constant interruption was irksome. Past Page 110, there is still the odd intermission. I feel that is more manageable, but the opening, to me, risked disengaging the reader.

Further installments to follow, I hope. This is fun :)

I totally agree - actually, that was why I dropped "The Lies". But it did teach me to be more consistent with my narration (in the very first version of "Arcane" I had about 6 characters' POVs, and I was jumping from place to place, LOL).

Edited by Ernei
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I've recently read LoLL as well, I agree that the regular flashbacks can be irksome (to use @Robinski's word) but I have to say that this technique can work rather well. It's the exact same thing that Brandon does in the SA, for example. What bothered me about the "interludes" in LoLL wasn't so much the interruption of the main story, but that halfway through the book, they stop being their own storyline and become something like random short stories to expose some world building. 
Logically, I understand Lynch's reasoning for not continuing the flashback storyline: he had to keep part of that back for the sequels (which I have yet to read), a likely candidate for that being the alluded romance between Locke and Sabetha. But the way he kept to his interlude gimmick (I think that's a fair term in this case?) after halting that storyline felt clumsy to me. 

Another grievance I have with LoLL is the way the real identity of the main antagonist is revealed. There's totally no foreshadowing, unless you count Locke's realisation five lines before the actual reveal. To me, that substantially lessened the impact. To offset that, the final confrontation between Locke and the antagonist was amazingly foreshadowed.

Fair's fair, so here are some positive points about the book.
I like the concept of Elderglass and the balance it presents between the wonder at a mysterious, ancient substance and the everyday nature of the things built from it, like the bridge you walk over every day without really looking at it anymore.
I enjoyed the trickery (an essential element to a good heist story), in particular the sequence where Locke upgrades his outfit (I'll remain vague to avoid spoiling it). The main con found a good middle road between being too simple (which would have been boring) and being too complicated (which is off-putting if you can't follow the logic).

On the whole, while there were some plot points that could have benefited from a thorough reworking, I found LoLL a fun read (but then, I'm easy to please).

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1 minute ago, Eagle of the Forest Path said:

I've recently read LoLL as well, I agree that the regular flashbacks can be irksome (to use @Robinski's word) but I have to say that this technique can work rather well. It's the exact same thing that Brandon does in the SA, for example.

But there are big differences between LoLL and SA; I wouldn't quite say the technique is the same. In the latter, there are only five points where we actually get interludes, and even at the beginning, where we indeed jump around a lot, each chapter has only one POV - and it's consistent. The whole prologue with Szeth, for instance - it can be read almost like a short story. It stands alone quite well, so whereas I was bothered by the POV changes even back then (it was my true first Sanderson's book, so I didn't have any trust for the author yet), it didn't bug me nearly as much as in LoLL. Besides, Kaladin's and Shallan's stories kick off pretty early, while in LoLL I read about 1/3 of the book and still didn't have any sense of purpose :( 

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On 9/24/2016 at 11:08 AM, Coop said:

I like this thread! One writing exercise I've found very helpful is to take passages from my favorite books and then write them out, word for word, in a separate Word doc. My favorite short story, for example, is " 'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman." And when I write things like this out, I start to get a feel for what it might have been like to write the story, and start to get a better sense for all the little choices the author made in word usage, approaches to characterizations, blocking, etc. Getting in authors' shoes like this helps me to think like other writers and expand my own style.

This is fascinating. What prompted you to try this? Was it your own idea or did you read about it somewhere? @Coop

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20 hours ago, kaisa said:

It's hard to stay engaged with the story!

 

20 hours ago, kaisa said:

It was lovely, and I wanted to sit and revel in the language.

 

I just read/abandoned this book as well, so it's especially interesting to hear someone else's thoughts. When the book opens up, the world-building and character intros and imagery drew me in hard, and I really enjoyed it. However, the relentlessly wandering POV killed the book for me. I got as far as one of the character's finding out who her opponent was (note I can't even remember said protagonist's name after listening to 2/3 of the book) and realized my library license was up and decided not to get in line to recheck it out (audio loan).

I think Morgenstern's level of imagery is something that I can appreciate passively as I read, but I certainly wouldn't want to try to emulate it. I get why it's popular, but the characters didn't sell me hard enough. They were interesting, but like you pointed out, the narrative jumped around so much that I never got invested.

It does give interesting perspective on the whole POV jump thing!

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1 hour ago, krystalynn03 said:

This is fascinating. What prompted you to try this? Was it your own idea or did you read about it somewhere? @Coop

I don't remember... Seems like I heard it from somewhere.

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22 hours ago, kaisa said:

It's hard to stay engaged with the story! You get invested in one set of characters, then BOOM, here's another that you really don't give a hoot about because you want to know what happened to the previous one.

I'm having trouble with this in the Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Kay.  It's a beautiful book, and his writing is gorgeous, but I've lost track of how many different story threads he's introduced.  There were new ones still coming at 40% of the way through.  Intellectually it's interesting, but in terms of hooking me, I keep losing my sense of investment.  I've had it for several weeks now and I'm still only half way done.

On 9/24/2016 at 10:11 AM, krystalynn03 said:

Avatar the Last Airbender. I got into it years after the popularity came and went, but once I started watching, I just couldn't stop. I totally binge-watched it.

This series got my husband and I through mono during our first year of marriage.  I love it.  I totally agree about keeping it fresh with the setting changes.  But what I really loved were how strong the characters were.  Aang is strong and active while still maintaining his innocence, and Zuko's character journey is so compelling... I think everybody roots hard for him all the way through.  And everyone loves Uncle Iro because his love is so unconditional and unrelenting.  Aaaah love love love!

On 9/24/2016 at 11:48 AM, Ernei said:

I didn't exactly like first season. I watched it - skipping a lot, but still - only because my friend told me that it gets better in the second one (it does, and the third season is, IMO, the best piece of children cartoon I've ever watched). But ultimately I only wished for Aang and the rest to arrive in the North Pole, and felt that their adventures on the way there were just fillers with merely tidbits of world building. Except for a handful of episodes (that one with Hiroshi warriors, for instance), I didn't have any sense of progress or even character development.

I wonder if seasons two and three were a conscious change on the part of the writers when they realized their audience was more than just young children.  The first season felt like the after-school shows I'd watch as a kid.  Each one was kind of interesting in itself, but the overall plot was very loose.  I'm glad you persevered - the other seasons are so worth it!  I still watch this whenever I'm sick.

Great thread idea!

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Just now, Hobbit said:

Zuko's character journey is so compelling... I think everybody roots hard for him all the way through.  And everyone loves Uncle Iro

So much yes to this!

At first glance when the show was on Nickelodeon back in the day, I thought Zuko was a whiny teenager and it was a major turn-off, but when I watched the show and saw what he became as a character, I was sold. I can't decide whether I like him or Iroh best. They had the most fulfilling arc, imho. I guess the technique I learn from this is...it's okay to start with an unlikeable character? I don't know--in fiction that seems harder to do than a cartoon because in fiction you spend so much more time in a characters head and you don't bounce around like a cartoon. I don't think I would enjoy an entire novel of just Zuko, you know?

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2 hours ago, krystalynn03 said:

I got as far as one of the character's finding out who her opponent was (note I can't even remember said protagonist's name after listening to 2/3 of the book) and realized my library license was up and decided not to get in line to recheck it out (audio loan).

Yeah, it really dragged at that point. It's worth getting through it. I found the end satisfying enough to keep the book instead of putting it into a little lending library. Maybe give it another go? Or I can just spoil the (pretty obvious) ending for you if you'd prefer.

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I actually went online and read what the ending was to see if it was worth getting back in digital line to wait for the book all over again...and wasn't sold. Since I didn't care enough about either of the two protags I didn't care about their well, how things end up. I think the final twist sounds good, but the journey getting their didn't sell me. Again, this being an audio book I might have had a different feel if I'd been controlling the pacing of the book with my eyes rather than relying on a static pacing as given by a reader.

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Fair. I did a fair amount of skimming in the middle, which is the only reason I made it through.

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17 hours ago, Ernei said:

But there are big differences between LoLL and SA; I wouldn't quite say the technique is the same. In the latter, there are only five points where we actually get interludes, and even at the beginning, where we indeed jump around a lot, each chapter has only one POV - and it's consistent. The whole prologue with Szeth, for instance - it can be read almost like a short story. It stands alone quite well, so whereas I was bothered by the POV changes even back then (it was my true first Sanderson's book, so I didn't have any trust for the author yet), it didn't bug me nearly as much as in LoLL. Besides, Kaladin's and Shallan's stories kick off pretty early, while in LoLL I read about 1/3 of the book and still didn't have any sense of purpose :( 

I wasn't talking about the Interludes in SA (the ones between the parts), but about Kaladin and Shallan's flashback chapters (I seem to remember there being more than five of those). The technique I mean is telling a character's backstory through a series of flashback chapters with a common/serial story thread. There are indeed differences between SA and LoLL in how this was executed, the big one being that it's well planned out in SA. (The apologist in me urges me to point out that LoLL was Lynch's first book, excusing in some measure the clumsy use of a hard-to-master technique.)

To spell out my take-away from the differences, some things to keep in mind if you try it yourself:
(feel free to contradict or add, this is mainly me spit-balling)

  • Spread out the flashback chapters so they run through the entire length of the book. (aka: Avoid forcing yourself to use semi-random inserts to fill out the latter part of the book.)
  • Make the flashbacks have a self-contained story-line, with it's own climax.
  • Make sure the point of the flashback sequence is relevant to the main story.*
    • for bonus points, the contents of each flashback should have a connection to what's happening at the moment the character has it.

*This is actually part of a larger guideline: Don't use a gimmick without a specific reason. If you can't say why you're using a gimmick, you probably shouldn't be using it.

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Just now, Eagle of the Forest Path said:

I wasn't talking about the Interludes in SA (the ones between the parts), but about Kaladin and Shallan's flashback chapters (I seem to remember there being more than five of those). The technique I mean is telling a character's backstory through a series of flashback chapters with a common/serial story thread. There are indeed differences between SA and LoLL in how this was executed, the big one being that it's well planned out in SA. (The apologist in me urges me to point out that LoLL was Lynch's first book, excusing in some measure the clumsy use of a hard-to-master technique.)

True, I misunderstood. My bad - after SA I'm kind of used to distinguishing flashbacks and interludes, so the wording threw me back. But being first book doesn't change the fact that I was bored reading it, and just couldn't go on.

Just now, Eagle of the Forest Path said:

To spell out my take-away from the differences, some things to keep in mind if you try it yourself:
(feel free to contradict or add, this is mainly me spit-balling)

  • Spread out the flashback chapters so they run through the entire length of the book. (aka: Avoid forcing yourself to use semi-random inserts to fill out the latter part of the book.)
  • Make the flashbacks have a self-contained story-line, with it's own climax.
  • Make sure the point of the flashback sequence is relevant to the main story.*
    • for bonus points, the contents of each flashback should have a connection to what's happening at the moment the character has it.

*This is actually part of a larger guideline: Don't use a gimmick without a specific reason. If you can't say why you're using a gimmick, you probably shouldn't be using it.

Totally agreed :)

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Just finished Dragon's Keep by Janet Lee Carey. I'm not a big fan of YA, so it's likely no surprise that the pacing in this book made me want to scream. The first half of the book dragged so much that if I didn't have a stupid self-imposed rule of finish books I start unless they are making my eyes bleed, I'd have put it down. 

The premise was solid, and the writing was alright, I just could not get behind the main character. I wanted to punch her mother. I did read the text more closely in the second half, after the MC became nursemaid to some baby dragons, but even that bored me at times. While we have established that I am a sucker for imagery writing, this book's style turned me off. I think the difference between Dragon's Keep and Night Circus was that there was almost prose in Night CircusDragon's Keep was just... fluff. 

I keep trying to read YA and keep being disappointed. I assume the trend of 'nothing happens for the first half of the book then you force the entire plot into the second half, possibly the last quarter if you can manage' must appeal to young readers, as it keeps cropping up. However when I compare to YA writers I like, like Garth Nix and his Sabriel series, I see that faster paced YA can be popular.

 

Just, ugh. I don't like the writing style of most YA. There. I said it. 

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8 hours ago, kaisa said:

I wanted to punch her mother.

Lol (cough), been there.

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9 hours ago, kaisa said:

I keep trying to read YA and keep being disappointed. I assume the trend of 'nothing happens for the first half of the book then you force the entire plot into the second half, possibly the last quarter if you can manage' must appeal to young readers, as it keeps cropping up.

You just comforted me somewhat (although I have a feeling you won't like "Mistfold" too much) XD But I think I know what the problems is - you just look for different things in books than YA audience; for instance, I have a friend who doesn't like fighting scenes and skips them just to see the outcome - instead she likes character's interactions and dialogues, so probably what you call "fluff". I didn't read the books you mention, though; I read Sabriel a few years ago, but I didn't like it. I don't remember much, just that it didn't appeal to me :ph34r:

 

On the side note, I finally read "Elantris" this week - and whereas I liked it a lot (not that I expected anything less), I actually found three POV characters quite tiresome at times. It irked me when I wanted to know what would happen with Raoden, but I had Sarene's and Hrathen's parts to go through. I feel I wouldn't have this problem with two POVs, and perhaps an occasional third one, but this was like reading three separated stories until very late, when they finally came together :o 

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2 hours ago, Ernei said:

On the side note, I finally read "Elantris" this week - and whereas I liked it a lot (not that I expected anything less), I actually found three POV characters quite tiresome at times. It irked me when I wanted to know what would happen with Raoden, but I had Sarene's and Hrathen's parts to go through. I feel I wouldn't have this problem with two POVs, and perhaps an occasional third one, but this was like reading three separated stories until very late, when they finally came together :o

I think a lot of people have this problem with Elantris.  I definitely found some POV's much more interesting than others when I read it.  But I still enjoyed it in the end.

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On October 1, 2016 at 6:39 AM, Hobbit said:

I think a lot of people have this problem with Elantris

Me included. All I wanted was the parts in the old city with the magic marks. Didn't care about any of the rest of it. I still loved the book, but some of those POVs really dragged.

ETA: @Ernei I wouldn't say I dislike character work. I like well done character work. I like dialogue. I need tension of some form. So I don't like the above when it's just chit chat about the day stuff, but when it builds tension, that's when I get engaged. Action sequences can be boring too if I don't have good character buy in.

I clearly am just not well suited for YA generally. Looking at my bookshelves the only YA I've kept over the years is by Garth Nix. I have a fair amount of MG though, so something must happen in structure between MG (which I am much more fond of) and YA, that then reverts back in Adult (another area I love). I'll have to give this some thought.

Edited by kaisa
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