JWAM reader request no. 21: Learning from the writing of others

Monica says:

I have a hard time reading other novels without getting drawn in and forgetting to analyze and learn from them. Any tips?

Mary Elizabeth S. says:

A while back, you mentioned something about writing out scenes from books you liked in order to try and figure out how they worked and why. It was only mentioned in passing, and you were going to expound on it but never got the chance. (Of course, now I can’t find that post to save me life, and am wondering if I haven’t gone a bit crazy…) I’d like to know more about that exercise.

Funny you should ask, Monica, because your question overlaps with Mary Elizabeth’s. One of the best ways to avoid getting sucked into the narrative so that you can closely analyse the novel is to retype a chapter or two. This may sound time consuming and laborious but it really works. You’re forced to look at each word, each clause, each sentence and think about why they’re ordered the way they are, and why the author made the choices they did.

I typed out the second chapter of Denise Mina’s Exile because I wanted to figure out why it was so effective. Here’s a snippet:

    Chapter 2: Daniel

    London is a savage city and she didn’t belong there. She might never have been found but for Daniel. She would have disappeared completely, a missing splinter from a shattered family, a half-remembered feature in a pub landscape.

    Daniel was having a good morning. It was a sunny January day and he was on his way to his first shift as barman in a private Chelsea club favoured by footballers and professional celebrities. The traffic was sparse, the lights were going his way and he couldn’t wait to get to work. He slowed at the junction, signalling right to the broad road bordering the river. He took the corner comfortably, using his weight to sway the bike, sliding across the path of traffic held static at the lights. He was about to straighten up when he saw the silver Mini careering towards him on his side of the road, the wheel-trim spitting red sparks as it scraped along the high lip of the pavement. He held his breath, yanked the handlebars left and shot straight across the road, up over the curb, slamming his front wheel into the low river wall at thirty miles and hour. The back wheel flew off the ground, catapulting Daniel into the air just as the Mini passed behind him. He back-flipped the long twenty-foot drop to the river, landing on a small muddy island of riverbank. The tide was out, and of all the urban rubble in the Thames he might have landed on, Daniel found himself on a sludge-soaked mattress.

    He did a quick stock-take of his limbs and faculties and found everything in order. He thanked God, remembered that he didn’t believe in God and took the credit back for himself. Staggered at his skill and reflexive dexterity, he pushed himself upright on the mattress, his left hand sliding a viscous layer off the filthy surface. Gathering the mulch into this cupped hand, he squeezed hard with adrenal vigour. A crowd of concerned passersby were leaning over the sheer wall, shouting frantically down to him. Daniel waved. “Okay,” he shouted. “Don’t worry. Other bloke all right?”

    The pedestrians looked to their left and shouted in the affirmative. Daniel grinned and looked down at his feet. He was sitting on a corpse, the heel of his foot sinking into her thigh.

The opening sentence intrigues me: “London is a savage city and she didn’t belong there.” On my first read I had no idea who this “she” is. It’s only after reading the fourth par that you realise it could be the dead woman. But is it in her pov? Or is it omni? It feels omni to me. A broad look, from above the scene that is about to unfold: “London is a savage city”. And now you, the reader, are going to see some of that savagery.

Yet in the next par we’re in limited third. It’s Daniel’s pov. He’s the one who thinks it’s a good morning, he’s the one who sees the mini careering towards him and makes evasive moves, which land him in the muck of the Thames on top of a dead woman.

Do you notice that Mina doesn’t once write “suddenly” or “at once” or any equivalents? Yet the reader is aware of how rapidly Daniel’s good morning goes to hell. Part of that is achieved with her verb choices. You’ve got your typical descriptive “to be” for most of the first par and the beginning of the second, setting the scene, establishing the goodness of his morning. The first more active verb is “slowed”, but then they ramp up: “signalled”, “took”, “to sway”, “sliding”.

Stuff is happening. Soon they’re happening even more rapidly: the silver Mini and parts are “careering” “spitting” and “scraped”, Daniel reacts: “held”, “yanked”, “shot”, “slamming”. Then there’s “flew”, “catapulting”, “passed”, “back-flipped”, “landed”. “Catapult” and “back-flip” especially are action verbs. Hard to do those slowly.

I find it useful to look closely at who is doing what to whom. In the first par she’s the subject who “didn’t belong” but exists. She’s a “missing splinter from a shattered family, a half-remembered feature in a pub landscape”. (And how vivid are those images? Very.) In the fourth par when she reappears she’s the object: the corpse he’s landed on, the thigh his heel sinks into. She is in bits, not a whole subject.

Let’s look at that first par again. It’s really different from the other two, not just because of the pov switch, but because of the evocative language. The first par sings. It’s poetic and melancholy: London’s “savagery”, “the missing splinter from a shattered family”, a “half-remembered feature from a pub landscape”. Notice how “the missing splinter” lifts “shattered family”, which we’ve seen before, and on its own would verge on cliche. But the “missing splinter” transforms it entirely. I find “a half-remembered feature” and “pub landscape” pretty much perfect. I know exactly what’s meant. I’ve walked through many a pub landscape. Seen the sodden regulars keep themselves upright by leaning against the bar, flopping back into a corner booth, struggling to stay upright on a slippery stool.

Notice how my attempt at unpacking Mina is much longer than what I’m examining? I cannot describe how she’s written this scene without running longer than her scene. She’s compact, efficient, evocative. My discussion of her four paragraphs is not.

I’ll stop now even though there’s lots more to say. Like, notice the shift from Daniel’s relief he’s okay, from the normality of him shouting up to the concerned passers by, to the realisation that he’s sitting on a corpse. (And, trust me, the rest of the chapter only gets worse. It’s a jewel of a chapter.) But I hope that gives you an idea of what I get out of typing out someone else’s writing. When I first read Exile I didn’t notice any of this.

A more shorthand way to do it is to read a book backwards. (The novel in question needs to be one you’re familiar with.) Read the last chapter first, then the penultimate, and so on. It should keep you from getting sucked in (though not always) and force you to pay attention to word choices, pov, shifts in tense and so on. But typing out a chapter is much better.

Hope that helps. Good luck with it. Delving into other people’s writing is a fabulous way to learn.

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

3 comments

  1. marrije on #

    ooh, reading a book backwards, that’s a great one! thanks for that. and also for this wonderful dissection of how these paragraphs work – makes me want to go out and buy the book :-)

  2. Alexa on #

    Great advice and I loved your dissection of the paragraphs. Especially the action verbs, I tend to overuse suddenly.

  3. Mary Elizabeth S. on #

    Thank you! That makes very good sense. I’m going to have to try this out on a couple of books, in hopes that it will help me figure out why it is that they grab me so fast and firm.

    And now I want to read Exile. Very, very much.

    ~Mary

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