November 10, 2011

The First Cut is the Deepest

by Tamera Alexander

“If you love reading novels, don’t try to learn how to write them. It’ll take away some of the joy.” That’s what an author told me years ago, and while I’ve discovered that to be partially true, in order to learn how to write novels well you must love to read them.

In The Wizard of Oz the wizard tells Dorothy, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” But as writers, that’s precisely what we should do. Pay attention. In order to see how a novel works, we can’t merely look at the surface (read the story and enjoy it), we must dig deeper, down to the individual parts of the story that make it so enjoyable, so “unputdownable.”

One way I do that is through dissecting novels, separating them into pieces, or as Webster’s defines it, “exposing the several parts for scientific examination; to analyze and interpret minutely.”

Why should we dissect another writer’s book? Because we learn from others; we learn through imitation. As babies, we learn how to walk and talk from others. Then as we’re learning, repetition is key. We also dissect novels to improve the quality of our writing. Reading great writing only enhances your own voice. You’ve heard the phrase “iron sharpens iron.” And it’s true. The more we learn, the better writers we become.

Six factors to look for when dissecting a novel:

1.      Powerful openings
Roger Ailes in You Are the Message says, “We start to make up our minds about other people within seven seconds of first meeting them.” And it’s no different with novels. An average reader gives a novelist five minutes (or less) to hook them. Gripping first sentences and scenes are a must.

Consider these examples of great first sentences that complement their genre:

Sidda is a girl again in the hot heart of Louisiana, the bayou world of Catholic saints and voodoo queens. —Rebecca Wells, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (1996)

I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. —Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner (2003)

Powerful first sentences and openings are a must.

2.      Distinctive Dialogue

As Anne Lamott shares in Bird by Bird, “One line of dialogue that rings true reveals character in a way that pages of description can’t.”

Authentic dialogue jumps off the page, not only in content, but in style and voice, and compels us to keep reading. Distinctive dialogue advances the story, provides insight into characters,
and isn’t weighed down with unnecessary speaker attributions.

  1. Balance of Narration
    In Stein on Writing, Sol Stein says, “Recognizing an individual author’s voice is like recognizing a voice on the telephone. Many authors first find their “voice” when they learn to examine each word for its necessity, precision, and clarity.”

    Voice is seen in the narration of a novel, certainly, and we can learn from that, but within that voice, how does the author use narration? Do they start chapters with narration? Do they mix it with dialogue? Do they slip in “dreaded” backstory? Which actually, when done well, can be a great tool.

  2. Believable Story world
    “…so you build your story world––a moody, subjective bailiwick, brought to life so vividly with sensory images that each and every reader automatically finds himself transported there, no matter how limited his experience,” says Dwight Swain, in Techniques of the Selling Writer.

    How three-dimensional is the story you’re reading? Can you see everything in the setting? Is the author historically accurate? How do they use description?

  3. Compelling Characterization
    “Great characters are the key to great fiction. A high-octane plot is nothing without credible, larger-than-life, highly developed enactors to make it meaningful,” says Donald Maass in Writing the Breakout Novel.

    Are the characters memorable? Unique? Do they grow? Do they have believable flaws and virtues, and emotions? Do secondary characters add to the story without stealing the spotlight? Are characters’ motives clear and powerful enough to create and sustain conflict?
  1. Layering
    “…the main task of fiction is to give the reader a continuing emotional experience,” says Sol Stein in How to Grow a Novel.

    How big is the story? How many layers does it have? How many different POVs? Deep POV is often what separates a ‘good book’ from a story that impacts your life forever.
Now to grab a book––and a scalpel!

Tamera Alexander is the best-selling author of RekindledRevealed and Remembered, the critically acclaimed Fountain Creek Chronicles historical series with Bethany House Publishers, along withFrom a DistanceBeyond This Moment, and Within My Heart (Timber Ridge Reflections series). Her historical romances—including The Inheritance with Thomas Nelson—penned in her style with deeply drawn characters, thought-provoking plots, and poignant prose have earned her devoted readers—and multiple industry awards.

After living in Colorado for seventeen years, Tamera has returned to her Southern roots. She and her husband now make their home in Nashville with Tamera's father, Doug. They enjoy life there with Joe and Tamera's two adult children, and Jack, a precious—and precocious—silky terrier.

Connect with Tamera online at her website, blog, on Facebook and on Twitter.

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