Using Your Book Idols to Grow Yourself As a Writer
When I was little my dad always used to say to me: “Writers write. Always.” It was a quote that he took from the Danny Devito movie, Throw Momma from the Train, and while I’m not sure that Danny Devito was one of my dad’s idols, he was certainly a huge fan.
But something about that phrase always bothered me, or maybe it was the way my dad said it, because I just didn’t see Danny Devito as idol material, and so, however well-intentioned his encouragement was, I didn’t connect to it.
When I was a young writer, I never really knew anything about an author other than his or her name — what mattered to me was the story they told. So it certainly wasn’t writers that I idolized then — it was their characters. It was only when I got older that I started to understand that as much as I was in love with Alanna of Trebond, she wasn’t really my idol — Tamora Pierce was. And as much as I identified with Francie Nolan — it was Betty Smith that I idolized.
I think I learned this lesson the most when I started taking classes in university and it was agony to sit through a three hour class in which we took apart Thoreau’s Walden. That was when I realized that I didn’t give a hoot about symbolism and themes — that wasn’t how I wanted to take a book apart — what I cared about was how Thoreau did it. And I realized that the reason I loved the writing courses I was taking at Johns Hopkins University’s Writing Seminars program was because that was exactly what we did — we didn’t look at what an author did, we didn’t talk about themes, we took books apart while asking the question: HOW?
That switch was everything.
So here are the most important things that every writer must do:
- Fall in love with a book. Any book. In any genre. That’s the first step. Everyone can do that, right?
- Figure out what it was about the book that you loved most. The characters? The description? The plot? The way it made your heart race? The way it made you cry? They way it transported you to another place and time? All of the above?
- Once you figure out what you loved and why, dive back into the book and try to figure out how the author did it. Was it the dialogue? The pace? The way the characters interacted? The descriptions? The poetic language?
- Once you figure it out (and it might be harder than it seems) — try to do it yourself by rewriting that scene or that chapter or that paragraph in your own words. “Live” inside the author’s language in your attempt to recreate it. It’s the best way I know to truly learn from a master.
Sounds simple, right?
Everything we write comes from somewhere — and I don’t mean our brains or our fingers. Whenever we set words down on paper we are pulling from things that we’ve already read — in many different ways. But if you really want to mimic your idols and write a book that gives you the same feelings that theirs did, the most important thing you need to do is figure out how they did it.
For example: one of the things that I love most is a book that makes me cry. And for the longest time I couldn’t figure out how to create that same effect in the books I was writing. It made me crazy. How is it that I LOVE scenes in books that make me cry, and yet, I can’t figure out how to make readers cry in my own work? Isn’t it obvious that if that’s the type of writing I love, and that’s the type of writing I want to write, that I should be able to do it?
I was missing something. What was I missing?
I then embarked on a serious study of all the books that made me cry the most and tried to figure out what about them that made me cry. I re-read the most tear-jerky chapters in literature and I discovered a fascinating thing. It wasn’t the actual words on the page, or the way they were written, because I could write the same exact scene and it wouldn’t make people cry in my own work.
What made me cry was…
… when a character cared deeply for another character. I think it’s a really deep thing — human beings are naturally empathetic, and when a writer shows me a character caring for another character — it makes me want to care about them to.
It was REVELATORY.
It changed the way I wrote books. It meant that I had to find a way to make my readers care about my characters before I could get them to the point that they cried, and the best, and perhaps the most important way to do that was to model that behavior in my books — if I showed my characters caring for one another, chances are, my readers would care for them too. And so when something major happens to that character in the book — it matters to us as readers, because we’re emotionally invested.
I think that the most important thing that we can take as writers from our greatest literary idols is to figure out how they do what they do. If you love description and lush settings – the way you think you should describe a room or a scene or a city or a dress, may not be the same way your favorite author accomplished that effect. It may mean taking apart a scene, or a sentence, or a chapter, or even a whole book — but the most important thing that we as writers need to do is to figure out HOW.
Definitely easier said than done… but absolutely worth it in the end.
So the next time you read a book you love — take a minute and try to figure out exactly why you loved it. Then dig back into the book and take apart exactly how it was done. And the next time you write a scene or a story that doesn’t feel like it’s working for you — try to see if you can troubleshoot why — and then go back to your favorites, your idols, the wordsmiths that inspire you the most and see how they did it. You might make some astounding discoveries.
Because writers do write, always. But they also read. And they learn from what they read. (And sometimes they watch movies too… even ones starring Danny Devito.)