A simple writing truth is that to be a great writer, you must be a great reader. To fully absorb the author’s artistry, analyze the stories you read to understand how the writers crafted them. How did the author engage you as a reader? What was satisfying about the story? What craft elements stood out for you? What didn’t work?
As I read, I stay alert for sentences or paragraphs that cause a ping in my chest. Then I ask myself why I liked them and make a note.
Watch for these elements of writing craft as you read.
Metaphors. I assigned myself a project this week to make a note of metaphors that stand out in my reading. They don’t even have to be good. We can learn from something we read that doesn’t seem to work quite right. Note the metaphor and why you do or don’t like it. I’ll be doing a blog post in the future where I’ll share a list I’ve collected.
Description. When you read a distinctive description of a character or a setting, take notes about what makes it different so you can apply the ideas to your own work. Look for descriptions that are organic to the story. In the post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, he describes the world his father and son characters inhabit. “Dark of the invisible moon. The nights now only slightly less black. By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp.” Read more
When reading other authors’ novels, do you ever find yourself skipping over the setting descriptions? I do. If that description goes on for more than a few paragraphs or, God forbid, a page, I’m annoyed.
I know some bestselling genre novels do this and get away with it, I think, because of the big names of the authors—they come from an earlier time (you know, when raptors roamed the earth). But, after a few weeks, they seem to fall off the list. Those books that tend to stay on the list for weeks and weeks (I’m thinking books like The Help and Water for Elephants), don’t annoy us with pages of dead description but have learned how to tell us what we need to know when we need to know it.
One way to keep your reader engaged in your story is to make sure your setting is active. Instead of dropping big chunks of setting description in your scene—which may have been all the rage when Jane Austin was alive but is a sure way to bore your reader to death now—is to drip in bits of description and to “make it active.” What do I mean by that?
The easiest way to explain is to show you a “before and after” example from my work-in-progress: Read more
As writers, one of our tasks is to create mental pictures by combining just the right combination of words on the page. This is exactly what makes writing challenging, rewarding – and maddening.
Those times when I’ve hit a wall and need to step away from the keyboard, I find inspiration from the advice of Anton Chekhov, often called, “the father of the modern short story.” In a letter to his brother Alexander, Chekhov wrote:
“I think descriptions of nature should be very short and always be à propos. Commonplaces like “The setting sun, sinking into the waves of the darkening sea, cast its purple gold rays, etc,” or, “Swallows, flitting over the surface of the water, twittered gaily” — eliminate such commonplaces. You have to choose small details in describing nature, grouping them in such a way that if you close your eyes after reading it you can picture the whole thing. For example, you’ll get a picture of a moonlit night if you write that, “on the dam of the mill, a piece of broken bottle flashed like a bright star and the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled by like a ball, etc.”
Chekhov’s correspondence with his family and writing contemporaries reveals a trove of advice and insight.
For more Chekhov advice, read his six principles of good writing and an example of how he offered writing feedback.
I've found I can more fully imagine scenes that I want to write about by drawing pictures of them.