I’ve been studying books this summer. Books, short stories, even movies. Let me tell you, the more I work on this the more I think that it’s the way to go. So stop reading this stupid blog and go study a book!
How should I study it, you ask, because you’re smart and you ask the questions that I want you to ask. (Every writer wants that audience.)
You know, I can tell you how I started, but really, it’s a bootstrappy, state-dependent kind of process, so it’s going to be different for you. You can start where I started, although I can assure you that you’ll head elsewhere soon after.
What you do is read books. Doesn’t matter what kind of books. Just keep reading until you hit one where you’re like DAMN I AM SO JEALOUS. Not one that you like, but one that makes you irrational. One that you recommend to other people, one that makes you despair of ever being A Real Writer. Or, scratch that, you could start with any book. You could start with a horrible book. It doesn’t actually matter; personally, I find it more enjoyable to work on books turn me green, because as I work, I slowly find out how to do it. Ah, the power.
What you do is you go back to the beginning and start typing parts of the book in, OR outlining. Or both. Or some other technique that you’ve made up that makes you slow down and pay more attention to the book, to analyze it (and to absorb it on a less critical level while your brain is distracted by Shiny New Ideas). Right now I’m outlining, except when I hit something that makes me go hm…, and then I type. Sometimes I just type for the hell of it. “Ah, I already know what’s going on in this scene, but I don’t feel like being too terribly analytical today, so I’ll just type.” It doesn’t matter. Just throw yourself in. You’ll know you’re headed in the right direction if a) your brain hurts, or b) you’re bouncing on your seat going “LOOKITLOOKIT.”
I’m working on The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch. I have worked on many, many stories this summer. I studied romances, I studied crime capers, I studied a James Patterson thriller. I studied a buttload of short stories across genres. There wasn’t a single story that was a waste of my time, even when I found out things like “this author is really weak at plotting” or “you can write a short story with only two real characters in it, and nobody will know the difference if you populate the character’s thoughts and dialogue with references to other people.” I learned to see things the authors didn’t want me to see.
By the time I got to Locke, I could handle typing things in without my brain hurting, and I could outline without breaking a sweat. I worked on him for a while, found out some cool structure stuff (like how to write more than one time stream per chapter, and maybe how and when to write omniscient)…and then started seeing something different.
Scott Lynch dicks with the reader.
I’ll give you an example.
In short, the book’s about a con artist, Locke Lamora, in a fantasy world. The city he lives is run by two groups, the official government (the Duke), and the unofficial criminal government (the Capa). Someone’s been murdering the Capa’s men in particularly brutal ways; Locke goes to the Capa to pay him the weekly cut of his little gang’s takings, and sees the Capa torturing some of his other men, who should have been able to stop the latest killing but are claiming they have no memory of it.
This is a brutal torture scene. Broken glass and a heavy canvas sack are involved. There are two guys out of eight left. The floor’s splattered with blood and everything reeks. The Capa has the torterer work on the next-to-last guy while he questions the last guy. The last guy doesn’t change his story: none of them remember what happened that night.
The Capa goes down a list of things that might have caused them all to forget: drinking, drugs both natural and magical, sorcery, and divine intervention. The victim denies drinking or drugs, and the Capa says, “Oh, forgive me. You weren’t enchanted by the gods themselves, were you? They’re hard to miss.”
And then they move on, and the last guy gets thrown to something nasty under the boat where they are, and the rest of the scene is underscored by the thumps and scrapes against the wood.
See what I mean? Dicking with the reader. This happens in almost every chapter, if not every other scene. Lynch tells you a) how things are going to fall out, b) why, and c) with what method. He hasn’t, as far as I can tell, yet told us who was going to do it, although I can see the necessary pieces and parts laid down. Of course everything must fall out the way it does, because of the groundwork that has been laid.
So I’ve begun reading to determine what’s happening to the reader at any given point. Here the reader is being encouraged to ask certain questions–then having the questions answered misleadinginly. Here the reader is being distracted by a torture scene in which Locke is worried that he’s next (because of course he’s been lying to the Capa about the take), and can’t see when the author throws in the method that the bad guy is using to get to his victims. Here the author is letting the reader see that nothing has changed about Locke since the last time he had a major screwup. Here everything goes smoothly for the character…all too smoothly, until there’s a gratuitous fight scene to distract the reader from the fact that it’s all too easy. Here Locke patiently explains how he’s deceiving his victims…while behind the shadows, someone else is doing the same thing to him.
When I first read the book, I had no idea how it would come out–I just felt like the ending was surprising and inevitable, which is the way you want a book to come out. Now that I’m studying the book, I can see that there was nothing really surprising about it–it was just that my main focus wasn’t on the details that would have told me how the book ended. The details were there for my subconscious to absorb–but my consciousness was always distracted from those details, time after time, so that I wouldn’t give the ending away to myself too soon.
I don’t know that I’ve mastered the idea yet. I’ll tell you when my brain stops hurting. But something I do know is that you’ll never pick up on this kind of thing on a good writer unless you do something that breaks the spell of being purely a reader. People say that if you want to be a writer, you have to read a lot of books. Well, you can read as many books as you want, but you’ll never see this stuff on your own–because the writer is deliberately distracting you from it.
Pretty cool, eh?