I’m running a study project for a writing group; I thought I’d note down my current study process here, too:

  • Pick the right book, by a long-term pro in the field.  15+ years of writing a book a year, a book that’s less than 10 years old (and push back the 15+ years if the book is older than this year), and a current bestseller.
  • Type in the book description from Amazon.  Look at the sales categories (horror, sf, romance, etc.), the bio, and the author sales categories.  Look at the reviews, including editorial, top, most recent, and one-star reviews.  Look at the cover–look at the author’s other covers, the other series covers, the author’s other covers in that genre.  Look at the other covers in the author’s sales categories.  Do all the things line up, providing a clear, appealing, consistent message?
  • Type in the first section, at least 1000 words, to get a feel for the author’s style.
  • For each section, identify:
    • POV character
    • Setting
    • Opening (before the main action of the story) and length
    • What does the main character try to accomplish, a.k.a. the “try”? (And is the main character the same as the POV character?)
    • Does the character fail? Does the character succeed?  If they succeed, how does this make things worse?
    • Closing (how the chapter wraps up).
    • How long is the whole section?
  • If you get stuck, type the section in.
  • Watch for scene transitions inside of sections; you might need to break down each scene or each beat in a section in order to answer all the questions in depth.
  • As you realize that you have an issue with any one element of a story, go back and type that element in across the book.  Have trouble pacing action scenes?  Type them in.  Dialog clunky?  Type some in.  Not sure how to handle dialog tags?  Type them in.  But don’t just type in the isolated element–type in that entire section, because stuff that doesn’t look relevant always is.  (Secret:  long-term professional writers don’t waste words.)
  • If any element of the book is tricky, you can go back to your notes and put them in a grid–a grid showing POVs is often useful in multiple-POV fantasy novels, for example.  Timelines in a multiple-timeline novel.  Clues vs. red herrings in a mystery.  Characters’ emotional states in a romance.  But first do the study:  it’s easy, when making grids like this, to impose your theories on another author’s book.  The more you type things in, the more likely you are to get at what the author said, rather than your theory.
  • Do at least one modern book that fits the rules above.  Then spread out with other writers who maybe aren’t as experienced, or books from the past.  You should be able to identify some of the differences, which might not be what you’d expect.

It’s harder than you’d think, but more rewarding, too.

If you liked this post, well, you’re a nerd, and I’m glad to have you.  Please check out the rest of this blog, which is where most of my truly nerdy stuff goes…and maybe take a look at this fabulous book bundle that I’m in, The SF/F Binge Reader’s Bundle.  I’m in The Faerie Summer Bundle.