Tearing the Flesh from your Beloved Authors

- by Elaine Isaak

I’m currently working on a masquerade costume for the World Science Fiction Convention, coming up in August in Reno.  No, I’m not going to tell you my costume–you’ll have to come see for yourself, or ask me about it later!  But part of the work involves re-reading parts of a book by an author I really admire.  It’s a slow, deliberate process, focusing on the detail, the question of how he gets the effects that he does, where you learn certain things and how the information is conveyed, in particular, how he shows that a character is growing and changing.

In service to this project, I have become a literary anatomist.

This actually ties in well with one of my favorite writing exercises.  It’s one that students often balk at because we all think we want to be unique, to have a unique style and mode of expression.  We don’t want our work to compare to others, and yet we’ll be asked time and again, “What’s it like?”  or, by the publisher looking to market the book, “Who would you compare it to?”  so we’d best set aside that concern.

Instead, we can learn from our favorite authors, by digging a little deeper, cutting away the plot, the characters, the conflict, and examining the basic building blocks of their fiction.  The exercise begins by re-typing a page from an author you admire.  Just the act of re-typing those words will force you to pay attention in a completely different way.  Are you getting the punctuation right, or just guessing at it?  Look again–why did he use a comma there?  What effect is created by breaking the line of dialog?  What particular word choices create the image on the page?  What verbs show the movement of the scene?  Are the sentences simple or complex? 

At its most basic level, even the finest novel is just a pile of words.  A good author skillfully sculpts that pile into a very specific and beautiful shape.  If she’s done her job well, the words will vanish as you read them, transforming into a magical moving story in the mind of the reader.  But as an author hoping to learn from the greats, sometimes you need to snap out of the dream, and study what’s behind it.  Does this make it any less magical?  I don’t think so–it’s like studying the score of the music so that, when you hear a virtuoso performance, you can appreciate what makes it spark.  And, for authors, about more deeply considering how to make your own performance just as brilliant.

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