Monday, April 1, 2013

Writing: Studying and Improving

Sometimes readers wonder, and even ask, how a writer improves.

While writing on a regular basis can help, it doesn't necessarily mean you're improving. Practising a flawed technique won't advance quality. Folks reading your work, pointing out weaknesses can help a writer focus. But how does a writer improve and overcome that weakness?

Here's how I do it...or attempt to:

When I come across an author/novel(s) that I really enjoy I often re-read them.

One of the benefits of reading novels is that it sets the foundation of storytelling for the writer. The writer gets an idea or feeling how it should be done, structure, flow, what works and what doesn't.

Then, I will re-read good novels again and again, but not for enjoyment. I'll mark pages as I go, noting how dialogue was written, action scenes were accomplished, and other things like description, wording and pacing. This gives me ideas on how a successful author managed what I might be struggling with, or working to improve. I compare how other authors accomplished the same thing by--you guessed it--re-reading their novels. Then I take what I observed/learned and merge it with my own writing style and projects.

It takes time--a lot of time, but I think it's the best way to learn and move forward.   Some of the authors I've studied:  

Roger Zelazny, especially The Chronicles of Amber, and A Night in the Lonesome October
Steven Brust
, especially The Vlad Taltos Series
Stephen R. Donaldson
, especially The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever
Laurel K. Hamilton
, especially the Anita Blake Series (the early novels)

There are plenty more, but those are the main ones.

For a specific example, after finding a publisher for Flank Hawk, which I wrote as a standalone novel with the potential of continuing the storyline and characters into a series, I wanted to write Blood Sword as a novel that could be picked up and read without having to have read Flank Hawk. I also wanted readers of Flank Hawk to enjoy it, complementing while furthering the story and characters, but without feeling in any way redundant in what they already knew about the characters or the world they inhabit.

It took me about a year of reading and re-reading, and studying mainly works by Brust and Hamilton, in an effort to get the balance right--for providing backstory for Blood Sword. I wanted to blend it all into the storyline where needed, without detracting from the experience for those who'd read and enjoyed Flank Hawk. I noted when and how, through exposition, dialogue, and character observation, to accomplish this, since much of what happened in Blood Sword had its roots in Flank Hawk. It took about a year to do, and I think I got it right.

Really, what better way is there to learn how to write than by studying the works of successful writers?


  1. I very much agree. It's not really any different than learning anything else. Exposure, examination and repetition are all essential.

    1. Thanks, Jeff. A sussinct way of rephrasing it. :)

  2. I do the same thing. Andre Norton wrote numerous series featuring continuous characters. In one series, she wrote generational characters, but in most, there were two to four sequels using the same characters. Sometimes the main people in the sequel would be the same while in others the former protagonist becomes a support person or mentor. A lot of my writing structure comes from her examples.

    Good post, Terry.

    1. Andre Norton mastered many areas in storytelling. This is just one, and basing structure on her examples is certainly a wise option to follow, Dean.

  3. I almost never reread books. Just can't bring myself to do it, exactly because I know I'll start analyzing everything and that will ruin the experience for me.

    1. That's why I allow myself to enjoy the book for the reading experience the first time through. But for me, analysis is part of the job. Still, I know exactly what you mean, Misha.