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Author Topic: Trouble learning from the authors you read?
enigmaticuser
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You often hear that advice that writers should read the kind of thing that they want to write to see how someone else does it.

I try that, but really . . . most of the time I just get drawn into the story and then I'm looking back from chapters later, asking myself, "So . . . what did I learn?" I can get a sense, but I have a hard time seeing the mechanics through the purr of the motor.

Anyone else have that problem, and how do you stop yourself? And if you do stop yourself, how do you know it worked?

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kmsf
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I usually have to read the entire work and then go back and dig. And I would say that if you get drawn into the story despite your best efforts, that is a work worth reviewing [Smile]
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kmsf
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Right after I posted some things came to mind.

1. I read with an eye to when the psychic distance changes.
2. I watch for the very moment I lose track that I am reading which is easier if I've already read the work.

Most of all, though, I have to know what I am looking for. There are many, many moving parts. So, reading OSC's Character and Viewpoint and John Gardner's The Art of Fiction are good references.

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RyanB
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I second kmsf. Read it and then immediately read it again. Repeat if necessary.
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Robert Nowall
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I started way too early to learn anything from the writers I liked and admired...now, of course, I can pick out this and that and try to emulate it, but patterns have already been set and are difficult to break...
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Reziac
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Once upon a time I set out to reread something by Melanie Rawn, with the intent to study what makes her style so 'invisible'.

This lasted about two pages. 200 pages later, I remembered why I was rereading the book.

But, yeah, since nowadays about half my reading is re-reading -- I pay more attention to how my admired favorites do stuff, and how they themselves progressed over time. Having done some re-reading of entire catalogs and being aware of the order they were written, I've noted that most authors make two pretty distinct progress-jumps, tho it may happen across several years or within a single work (usually their first novel in print).

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babooher
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Try teaching the text. I've always understood something better after I taught it. No class? Discuss with friends or just imagine it.
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extrinsic
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I employ several methods beyond the ones kmsf, RyanB, Reziac, and babooher recommend. One, read backwards until the prepositioned cues that evoke strong responses later are found. Two, read tedious and boring narratives that contain the methods and cues I'm working on. Reading works I don't personally enjoy works both ways: don't write like that and glean nuggets from what does work for me. Three, dissect carefully every part down to individual words of small parts. Four, watch film versions and compare and contrast them with their narratives. Most important in all is noting when I have an emotional response or not to any part or parcel and discerning why, and how the writer accomplished that and if it was intended or not. Usually it is. One notable exception, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle targeted readers' minds and hit them in their stomachs. Even from it, visceral emotional responses though somewhat unintended are illustrative.

[ September 03, 2013, 08:46 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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LDWriter2
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Only that it's not always a good idea to do what they do even if a bunch of them do it. Either I don't do it right or it's an example of them being able to get away with something we can't.
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Robert Nowall
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I thought with The Jungle, that Upton Sinclair expected the people to get worked up about the poor working conditions that would let a guy fall into the vats and and come out as canned meats, but instead, they got worked up about the idea of what would fall into the vats and come out as canned meats...
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Dirk Hairychest
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When revising my own writing, I have to focus on one thing at a time or I lose focus. The same is true for learning from someone else's writing. I have to specifically look for how Tolkien creates his vivid setting, for instance, or I get sucked in.

I was recently working on weaving plot and subplots and was able to detach myself from one of my favorite fantasy books that I felt did a particularly good job of this by giving myself an assignment to accomplish as I read. I wrote down every viewpoint character in every scene including the main conflict that character faced. It was extremely instructive and it forced me to slow down long enough to learn what worked. I would need to do it all over again if I was looking for, say compelling characters, to study.

Without a focus, I would find it very hard to avoid the trap of just enjoying the book.

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enigmaticuser
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It sounds like re-reading is the key, but for us slow readers, what that means is I need to amass a memory of works I liked in various genres so I can go back later and study rather than trying to study on a first read (not that I'm not going to try, because I am a slow reader).

But I do think it has to be a story that you liked otherwise you run the danger of blindly repeating what someone else made work in a story that you didn't like.

I could look for what doesn't work, but I think I already know that. For example, knowing what I didn't like about the Time Traveler's Wife (the characters) hasn't helped me write a romantic plot =)

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genevive42
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If you want to write a romantic plot, read Shards of Honor by Bujold. She won an award from the Romance Writers Assoc for best romance story in a non-romance book. It's an awesome book, too.
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Meredith
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quote:
Originally posted by genevive42:
If you want to write a romantic plot, read Shards of Honor by Bujold. She won an award from the Romance Writers Assoc for best romance story in a non-romance book. It's an awesome book, too.

SHARDS OF HONOR or A CIVIL CAMPAIGN from later in the same series. Both are great.
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kmsf
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I thought of another couple of approaches I find helpful when trying to learn from writing I enjoy and admire.

I read each paragraph with the MICE quotient in mind. And though very frequently it is possible to make a categorization below the sentence level, the exercise itself is what counts. Using the MICE quotient gives me a framework with which to analyze what the writer is doing.

Secondly, I have found it helpful to re-key the text. It is sort of like trying to literally place my foot in the footprints of the person who went before. This provides a perspective I couldn't have otherwise attained by re-reading.

There is always more to learn.

Thought-provoking topic.

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Owasm
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I can't read for enjoyment and read to pick up the style since in order for me to notice style I have to be somewhat detached.

I've noticed that when I read that way, I'm more inclined to put down the book before I finish. I never used to do that before.

If it's a really good author or a story I really like, the detachment disappears and I'm into 'enjoy' mode and I pick up less.

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Reziac
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quote:
Originally posted by LDWriter2:
Only that it's not always a good idea to do what they do even if a bunch of them do it. Either I don't do it right or it's an example of them being able to get away with something we can't.

Oh yes. Frex, I use a lot of technique I learned from Jack Vance and CJ Cherryh, and it works for me. However, I can't use the same types of stuff as learned from Bujold, or I sound like an idiot (ie. it "sounds like writing"). It's just not a good match for my overall style.
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shimiqua
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I think it's a bad idea to try to write like someone else, especially, to study on how to copy someone else's style.

I think the better track, at least for me, is to read to be filled. Find authors who speak to you, either by story, or by prose, and then swim in them. Fill your own tanks, and then approach your story and let it tell itself. All those little details and moments will eek out of you in the right places, and you will tell your story in your voice, the only way your story can be told.

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genevive42
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quote:
SHARDS OF HONOR or A CIVIL CAMPAIGN from later in the same series. Both are great.
Agreed. But I think 'A Civil Campaign' works better if you've been following the series and know the characters. That's why I didn't mention it. But she did win the romance award for both.

I met Bujold at World Con by the way. I'll be posting more about it in my blog by Sunday night.

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enigmaticuser
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Owasm, I hear you. That's my difficulty.

Shimiqua, I think you're right. I didn't mean (and I don't think anyone here means) to copy what they did, but to understand how they did it. An example that comes to mind, is Hunger Games. It reads very urgently to me. I had a hard time stopping, but why, is it the most action packed? No. In my perusal (and I did notice this while reading) is that it was all about where she broke her scenes. They almost always felt like cliff hangers. She could have stopped the scene with Katniss picking out clothes or talking about plum stew or thinking about Gale's dreamy eyes and it wouldn't have had the same affect as throwing the breaks where she did.

For me, I usually just ended up reading a couple pages from the next chapter and mentally inserted my own break.

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Reziac
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I think it's a good thing to learn to imitate others' styles. This helps teach you to vary your own writing to fit the character, piece, or scene.

Also, it's necessity if you're editing others' works -- when you're done, they still need to sound like the author, not the editor. And that's achieved by imitating the existing style.

But that doesn't mean you should, or even can, copy another's style and make it work for your own writing. When editing another's work, the result needs to sound like theirs; when you write/edit your own, it needs to sound like yours.

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babooher
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When I wrote my short story "Book Worms", it was in response to my wife reading Lord of the Flies over and over again. She finished it one night and I jokingly asked if Piggy's glasses got broken this time, too, as if the story might change if she read the book enough times. That got me the original idea for the story. As I began writing it, I realized there were some parallels to what I was creating to Stephen King's "Mrs. Todd's Shortcut," about a woman who keeps looking for shortcuts even though there are only so many roads. I never studied that story, I had just read it years before. So I went out and bought a copy of Skeleton Crew to see if I could learn anything from King's tale.

Ever since then, I have tended to seek out books that are known for doing something well. For example, I'm thinking about starting a sci-fi that deals with religion, capitalism, and bio-ethics. So, for some of the religious and capitalist stuff, I might peruse Dune. For more about bio-ethics and capitalism, I might look at Infoquake. When I wanted to kill a character only to have him come back, I sought out books where the authors had done that.

If I was going to study everything I read, I wouldn't have time to read as much as I do. Reading broadly and voraciously gives me a mental file that I can use to go back to texts when I want a specific effect or plot point.

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