Wednesday, August 31, 2011

How To Turn a Novel Into a Textbook

I'm here on tour in Australia, which is amazing (and if you're Australian and would like to come see me, here's my date for Perth tonight, and my other dates for Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane), though I'm spending more time talking to Australian classrooms than seeing Australian landscape. Later, when I find my card reader, I'll share pictures (of landscape, not classrooms).

Earlier in the week, I was at the Melbourne Writers Festival, and one of the girls in line asked me how I made my novels longer, as in, not just thirty pages longer. I told her it was about description and also about engaging the five senses, but the more I thought about it, the more I considered how that was not what my failing was when I was first beginning. Like a lot of beginning writers, my first manuscripts were short, short, short, and I couldn't understand what they were lacking.

So I did tell the reader that I recommended looking at published novels and deconstructing the pages to learn how to pace her novel, but I wish I would've been able to show her what I meant. One of the finest tools in any writer's arsenal, I think, is the ability to turn a novel into a textbook. For copyright reasons, I'm going to use my own books to demonstrate how I would do it, but obviously, I recommend doing it with whichever books that you love.

Okay. Here's a page from FOREVER. The first page, actually.






You can learn a lot of things from a great first page (also from a bad first page. Not so much from anything in between). Want to know what works as a compelling beginning? Ask a reader you know well: you. When I'm stumped at starting a new project, I still go to my bookshelf and pull off a big stack of old favorites. I sit on the floor or my office and all I read is the first page. You can do the same thing.

Well, please don't do it in my office.

Ask yourself:
What do these first pages have in common?
What is hooking me into the story?
Who is introduced? The main character? a side character? setting?
Is there dialogue?
Is there action?
How does it look on the page? Long paragraphs? Short sentences?
Again: how do these work together to hook me?
I used to believe that a great way to start a story was with some cracking dialogue and some fast paced action, but often, that's totally meaningless to a reader who doesn't care whether or not this unfamiliar character lives or dies. Instead, the hook can be a quite subtle thing. Really, the hook is just an unspoken question that the reader pursues to the next page.
Is there a question on the first page?
There's one other very important aspect of a first page, and it's the first line. A great first line can hook a reader, set mood, introduce character, and start the conflict rolling all in one. Not all first lines do this. And they don't have to. But they should set the tone. So, final question for the first page:
How does the first line relate to the rest of the book?
Here are my first lines:

LAMENT: "You'll be fine once you throw up," Mom said.
BALLAD: I was used to being the hunter.
SHIVER: I remember lying in the snow, a small red spot of warm going cold, surrounded by wolves.
LINGER: This is the story of a boy who once was a wolf, and a girl who was becoming one.
FOREVER: I can be so, so quiet.
THE SCORPIO RACES: It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.

So, having exhausted everything that a first page can give us, another really, really useful thing to look at is how other authors shape dialogue and description. For that, you usually need to go beyond the first page. Sometimes, when I'm stuck on a very particular problem, I will find a novel that I remember solving the problem well — pacing an action scene that takes place in a short time, for instance — and reread the passage to try to see what techniques helped.

Here's a page from LINGER.



I will confess, that in my beginning writerly years, this page would have read like this:
"I never pegged you for a fan of the obvious, Sam," Isabel said.
"I'm not," I said. "Or I would've said, Hey, shouldn't you be in school?"
"Touche," Isabel replied.
"I've been seeing wolves near my house," Isabel said.
"How close to your house?"
She shrugged. "From the third floor, I can see them in the woods. Clearly they have no sense of self preservation, or they'd avoid my father. Who is not a fan."
In its entirety. It would not have occured to me that anything was missing. I would have merely gotten to the end of an 11,000 word draft and thought: HOW IS THIS NOT AS LONG AS A NOVEL!? IT HAS A BEGINNING, MIDDLE AND END!

It wasn't until I took apart my favorite novels that I started to understand how to manipulate pacing. The thing is, there is nothing wrong with that stripped down 7-8 line page. It's just that it's missing so many opportunities to play with mood, character, setting. It's nothing but plot sitting there like that, and while plot is a crucial enough thing, it's not what keeps a reader reading. People keep the reader reading.

These are the questions I would ask myself looking at a page like this:

How varied are the dialogue tags? ("said," "replied," "shouted")
How is the writer showing a pause in dialog? By saying "she paused" or by inserting a non-dialogue paragraph?
How is setting worked in?
Is there subtext going on? Are the characters thinking something different than what they're saying?
Can I imagine myself there? Why?
If I remove a sentence, how does it change my perception?
If I remove a paragraph, how does it change my perception?


So that's how I would pull a book apart, in a nutshell. If I had a bit more space, I'd actually pull apart a scene line by line here on the blog, but this post is already epic. Let me know if you guys want something like that.

I'm off to breakfast.


Even the crows have accents here.
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