Monday, September 7, 2015

Learning from the Masters

When I talk to groups about writing, I always remind them of what we authors know to be true: Not every reader is a writer. But ALL writers, without exception are readers.

For me, one of the best ways to study craft is to read. I read within my genre. I read outside of my genre. I read non-fiction and biography and YA and middle grade and picture books and adult books; romance and sci-fi and fantasy and everything in between. I study how they hit their beats, how they develop their character. I take mental notes on word choice and narrative structure and point of view. I look at how the book is promoted and reviewed: what do others think it’s about and how did the author get there?

I’m gobsmacked by the work Maggie Stiefvater has been doing in the Raven Boys quartet and E. Lockhart’s work in general, and the small, clever observations about life in Margo Rabb’s work and everything that Libba Bray does, including that she is a genre omnivore and not defined by any one type of book. I've started critiquing with an adult romance writer, Colleen Thompson, because if anyone knows how to plot quickly and efficiently, it’s Colleen with her zillion novels of romantic suspense and historical romance and did I mention that she told me about awesome resources like Everyday life in the 1800s and The Writers Guide to Weapons? I learned what makes a time travel romance swoony by plowing through all 8,000 plus pages of the Outlander series.

And that doesn’t even begin to touch on all the craft books I’ve studied and continue to add to my library.

Scripted television teaches me as well, and I like to think that those seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer back in the day taught me so much about character and story arcs and giving the viewer/reader what they want and then ripping it painfully away. About melding genres and shifting expectations. It made me willing to experiment.  So thanks, Joss Whedon.

Last year’s FINDING PARIS was a big lesson for me. I wanted to write a contemporary without a fantasy element and I wanted to tell this particular story and I wanted to write it in as spare a way as possible—almost all showing and very little telling. It showed me I could write a book where every word counts and where what I show you and what I don’t show you are important in equal measure. It gave me the courage to experiment with form in IT WASN’T ALWAYS LIKE THIS (coming next May)—writing in a close third for the first time in order to craft a thriller that, as my editor says, “reads like a fairy tale.”

I learn formally, too, from classes and workshops and lectures. A master’s class on emotional arcs taught by Sara Zarr at the Writing Barn in Austin. Sessions at conferences like SCBWI and AWP and RWA. And I learn by teaching and presenting my own sessions as well, and by critiquing work for novices. Nothing makes me more aware of my own writerly flaws as finding them in someone else’s pages.

I’ve been lucky to work with some editors who have allowed me to build a brand while still not pigeon-holing me to any one genre other than the umbrella of YA, who see my style and what I do well and encourage me to build and hone my craft.

What authors have you learned from?


10 comments:

  1. Great post Joy! I learned first from Stephen Donaldson. It took me over 20 years to complete the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Not because they were hard to read, but because Donaldson was so unmerciful in how he treated Covenant. Despite that, I HAD to start writing after I finished. My sister Kate Flora and my late mom, A. Carman Clark also helped tremendously through endless chats by Mom's woodstove. You're dead on about the reading. I read a ton of YA fiction and that has helped me squeeze over from fantasy and short story crime stuff.

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    1. I think we all find reading other genres than our initial favorites is really eye-opening!

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  2. I've learned so much from Laurie Halse Anderson, KL Going and AS King. Recently Martha Brockenbrough has blown me away with THE GAME OF LOVE AND DEATH.

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    1. Yes, all of those! And I actually just started Game of Love and Death. Amazing work!

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  3. Love that you mention scripted TV. I've been learning from the screen lately, too.

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    1. And I find it's interesting to sometimes note that what works on the screen won't exactly work on the page in the same way!

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  4. Love this, Joy. I like to read writers who are way better than I am --something to shoot for?/dream of?/aspire to? So, I read Laini Taylor and Maggie Stiefvater. Jacqueline Woodson, Meg Rosoff, Laurie Halse Anderson, Carrie Mesrobian. I read lots of adult novels too-- Barbara Kingsolver, Richard Russo, Anne Tyler, Jhumpa Lahiri. Then, I balance all of that out by watching Supernatural and The Walking Dead.

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  5. Great post, Joy! I love reading about who everyone else is reading. This summer by reading GO SET A WATCHMAN I learned how a drastic rewrite -- and a genius editor -- can elevate an enjoyable coming of age tale to a Pulitzer prize-winning American classic. Anyone have any favorite craft books they can recommend?

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    1. I have not read it yet -- and may not; I'm not sure-- but that's exactly how I see it.

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