My Top 5 Writers to Study for Style #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

photo credit: Lonely Planet on Unsplash

Google has failed me. I cannot for the life of me track down who said this, or indeed, to check whether I’m even remembering the wording correctly, but I swear to you that someone, somewhere once said, “Read good books and good books will come out of you.” (If you happen to find the attribute for that quote, by the way, please leave a comment!)

There is a connection between what you consume and what you produce.

I believe that, by nature, humans are imitative beasts. Isn’t this the whole “monkey see, monkey do” thing?

Well, if you’re like me, you learn by example. So if you’re like me, always trying to improve upon your style in order to share a story in the most vivid way possible, with words that will inspire and astound, then I suggest you make yourself comfortable with copying.

Or, if “copying” insults your moral sensibilities, we’ll say “imitate.”

Imitation isn’t just flattery, it’s necessary

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the now-iconic memoir Eat Pray Love, also wrote one of my favorite books on the creative process: Big Magic. If you haven’t read it already and are a creative type, please do yourself a favor and read it.

In her section on “Persistence,” Ms. Gilbert says this about Learning:

Generally speaking, the work did go badly, too. I really didn’t know what I was doing. I felt sometimes like I was trying to carve scrimshaw while wearing oven mitts. Everything took forever. I had no chops, no game. It could take me a whole year just to finish one tiny short story. Most of the time, all I was doing was imitating my favorite authors, anyhow. I went through a Hemingway stage (who doesn’t?), but I also went through a pretty serious Annie Proulx stage and a rather embarrassing Cormac McCarthy stage. But that’s what you have to do at the beginning; everybody imitates before they can innovate.

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, page 142

I highlighted that line in my copy: “That’s what you have to do at the beginning; everybody imitates before they can innovate.”

Imitating your favorites is part of the learning process. It just is.

Experimenting allows you to see what works for you and what doesn’t. When you imitate, you instinctively change things that don’t work for you and substitute things that do. The more you do this, the closer and closer you get to your own voice.

The good thing here? You can write like J.K. Rowling or Stephen King or whoever floats your boat. That doesn’t mean you’re going to get published sounding like J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. By the time you go through the whole process of drafting a book, revising a book, polishing a book, pitching a book, selling a book, then editing a book, it will look completely different from when you first started with a ripped off first line.

So write like the ones who inspire you!

My favorite writers (for style study)

I separate writing from storytelling.

Storytelling is the plot stuff, the character stuff, the things you tell people when they ask what the book you’re reading is about.

Writing, on the other hand, is the style stuff. It’s the voice stuff. It’s the “wow this feels like magic” stuff.

These two things, of course, go hand in hand. Bad writing can absolutely ruin a brilliant story and no amount of talented writing can save a crappy story.

So when I have the story part of it but I’m struggling with the writing part of it (which, let’s be honest, is always the case for me), here are the writers I turn to for inspiration and guidance:

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Far and away one of my all-time favorite books, Maggie Stiefvater puts words together in ways I never would have thought of. Her images are evocative and atmospheric, creating the aesthetic of the island of Thisby from the first page.

It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.

Even under the brightest sun, the frigid autumn sea is all the colors of the night: dark blue and black and brown. I watch the ever-changing patterns in the sand as it’s pummeled by countless hooves.

They run the horses on the beach, a pale road between the black water and the chalk cliffs. It is never safe, but it’s never so dangerous as today, race day.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, page 1

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

I didn’t appreciate Laini Taylor’s writing as much when I read Daughter of Smoke and Bone, but when I read Strange the Dreamer, it took my breath away with its swift, concise images. Laini Taylor paints her world behind my eyelids, I swear.

On the second Sabbat of Twelfthmoon, in the city of Weep, a girl fell from the sky.

Her skin was blue, her blood was red.

She broke over an iron gate, crimping it on impact, and there she hung, impossibly arched, graceful as a temple dancer swooning on a lover’s arm. One slick finial anchored her in place. Its point, protruding from her sternum, glittered like a brooch. She fluttered briefly as her ghost shook loose, and torch ginger buds rained out of her long hair.

Later, they would say these had been hummingbird hearts and not blossoms at all.

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, page 1

Broken Things by Lauren Oliver

I’ve read several of Lauren Oliver’s books now, but despite how I’ve enjoyed each of them, I don’t own any of her books. When the paperback of Broken Things releases next week, I’m going to go get my copy because the opening chapter blows me away every time.

Five years ago, when I had just turned thirteen, I killed my best friend.

I chased her down and cracked her over the head with a rock. Then I dragged her body out of the woods and into a field and arranged it in a center of a circle of stones I’d placed there with my other friend, Mia. Then we knifed her twice in the throat and five times in the chest. Mia was planning to douse her body with gasoline and light her on fire, but something went wrong and we bolted instead.

Broken Things by Lauren Oliver, page 4

A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd

I either read somewhere or was told that besides being a novelist, Natalie Lloyd is also a poet. Even if I misheard or misremembered, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if it were true because Natalie Lloyd’s prose is nothing short of poetic.

“They say all the magic is gone up out of this place,” said Mama.

She looked straight ahead as she drove, past the white beam of our headlights, deep into the night, like she could see exactly what was up ahead of us. I could see anything, though: not a house, not a store, not even an old barking dog. A big fat moon, pale white and lonesome-looking, was our only streetlight. I watched the way the moonlight painted her profile: the dark shadows under her cheekbones, the tight pull of her mouth. I didn’t need to see her eyes to know how they’d look: sky blue and beautiful. Full of all the sadness in the world.

A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd, page 1

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

When I first learned I’d have to read The Hobbit for my Fantasy Classics class this past spring semester, I was a little nervous. I’d tried reading it in high school and was bored to tears ten pages in. But reading The Hobbit as an adult, I was pleasantly–well, nothing short of astounding, really. (Plot twist: I did not enjoy The Fellowship of the Ring hardly at all. I struggled hard with the writing in that one.)

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, page 3

Your favorites are not my favorites

I highly recommend that you compile a list of books whose writing style inspires you, even if you didn’t necessarily like the storytelling. Usually, these two things will go hand in hand as I said before, but not always. For example, since Lauren Oliver doesn’t really write the kind of high fantasy stories I prefer, I read her mostly for her exquisite writing style. (Though that’s not to say I don’t enjoy the stories while I’m reading. Broken Things was particularly engrossing.)

This is a very personal exercise because there is no one standard of excellence: it is all subjective, and what appeals to me will not necessarily appeal to you. I place a very high premium on writing styles that use longer sentences and create atmospheric images. But you may prefer something punchier, with more interjections from the main character acknowledging the presence of the reader. Find what works for you and don’t let anyone make you feel embarrassed about it.

What to do when you’ve got your favorites

This is when having an English degree pays off, let me tell you. But you don’t have to have a degree in English Lit to be able to analyze your own feelings and responses to a book.

I very much recommend that you start reading with a pencil in hand. When I read a book, I keep a pencil nearby and when the writing is particularly grabbing, I underline the sentence/phrase/paragraph that caught me.

Obviously exercise restraint if you’re reading a library book or someone else’s copy or if it’s a book you’re planning on selling soon.

Pay attention to what grabs you and start putting those structures into your own writing.

Deliberately write a short piece in the style of one of your favorite writers. No one has to see it. Just write it and see what happens, how it feels. You’ll learn what works for you and what doesn’t: take what works, abandon what doesn’t.

And don’t be afraid that you won’t find your own voice. Trust me. You will. You just have to stick with it.

I’ll leave you with this:

It’s a simple and generous rule of life that whatever you practice, you will improve at. For instance: If I had spent my twenties playing basketball every single day, or making pastry dough every single day, or studying auto mechanics every single day, I’d probably be pretty good at foul shots and croissants and transmissions by now.

Instead, I learned how to write.

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, page 143
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Saturday Check-in: all about the readathon

Instagram @mizwriterlady

Hello my lovely fellow story seekers!

When you got into a relationship (platonic or romantic), did you find yourself starting to like things you never thought you’d like? Or initially disliked but grew to like it? That’s me right now with the band Dance Gavin Dance. I have a pretty broad musical taste–regardless of genre, I’m looking for a hook in the music–but the most hardcore I ever really went was Three Days Grace in high school. I wasn’t initially down with DGD but the more I listened… honestly, the music is really clever and I like the dude’s voice. So lo and behold, I have eleven of their songs in my playlists now. Go figure.

So I have been pushing myself. Now that I have complete control over my schedule, I’ve been filling it with goals and I am so, so, so pleased to report that I have been killing it!

My self-imposed readathon

If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know that I have recently decided to make a desperate push on the unread books on my shelves. I’m planning to move states by the end of the year and LET–ME–TELL–YOU. I have so many unread books on my shelves.

But I don’t want to haul them 1,000 miles when I might not even want to keep them in the end BUT I do want to read them.

Easiest way to go about this conundrum? Please line up shortest to longest, folks.

If Only Packing Were This Easy GIF - TheSwordInTheStone ...

I can’t even tell y’all how many books I own that I haven’t read. Or, rather, I can but I dare not from shame. Can we just agree that it’s for the best that I don’t work at a bookstore anymore (where I got a 30% employee discount?)

What I’ve read this week

If you follow me on Goodreads, you may have seen these already. By the way, how often do you read reviews? Do you read them at all? I’m curious.

Currently reading

I’m still reading…

  • Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor (it’s fallen by the wayside but I will finish it!)
  • The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon (can’t believe I made it 300 pages in, but it took me so long to get there that it has to go back to the library already *cry*)

And I started and will soon finish…

Are you doing the Goodreads Reading Challenge by the way? My goal this year is for 50 books. I’m five books behind at the moment but this push will get me caught up in no time.

The rest of the books in the readathon

So I started with the shortest books first: I pulled down all the books under 250 pages. You know how many I have unread that are just under 250 pages? Eleven.

Correct Friends GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

To just get through the books under 250 pages, here’s what I hope to finish by the end of September:

  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle
  • Matilda by Roald Dahl
  • Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper
  • The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper
  • Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson
  • Stardust by Neil Gaiman
  • The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her own Making by Catherynne Valente
  • The Dark Tower by Stephen King

So I knocked out three (almost four) in a week! There’s hope for me yet.

Blog recap

So this week was a light week in terms of posts (just the one) but since the last check-in, I’ve published:

Next week will be about how I did with my writing these past few weeks. I am SO PSYCHED about it!

How many books do you own that you haven’t read yet?

The Merits of Picture Prompts

photo credit Justin Luebke on Unsplash

part i

Earlier this spring, I had an epiphany.

And part of this epiphany involved me starting to write every morning.

Since I was new to writing so often, my muscles were weak.

I realized a few things very quickly: my first inclination when I’m stuck is to journal. That was easy enough to combat. It just meant that I took ten or fifteen minutes to journal first and get that out of the way so I had no excuse.

I also realized if I have to rely on myself to get the juices flowing, I’m going to be sitting there twiddling my thumbs for a while, and that wasn’t very productive, so.

Long have I been cultivating my Pinterest boards. (I wasn’t an immediate Pinterest convert. I tried it years ago, tried it for blogging and writing alike and just… wasn’t wild about it. I don’t know what happened, but I’m all about it now.) And I’ve got extensive boards. One of them is specifically for story prompts.

When I sit down, I journal. Then I find something that strikes me on my Pinterest board. I don’t spend a lot of time doing this, knowing how Pinterest can suck me in.

But once I do, I fill out a blank 3×5 index card–front and back.

part ii

What this process has allowed me to do is dip my toes in the creative well every morning before the craziness of my day starts.

It’s a bit like what US Navy Admiral William McRaven talks about when he says to make your bed every morning:

“If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task.”

Admiral William McRaven, US Navy

When I fill out that 3×5 card, I’ve accomplished an important part of my day. Even if the writing was “bad,” it was done. That card was blank and now, because of my discipline and determination, it isn’t.

In this particular case, the goal is not quality. It’s quantity.

So by merely filling out the card–regardless of the nature of the content–I get to claim credit for completing that task.

It’s an extremely heady feeling that often puts my day on the right track. (The write track? Groan if you must, I enjoy a good pun lol)

And doing this also coincides with another thing Admiral McRaven said:

“If you can’t do the little things right, you’ll never be able to do the big things right.”

Admiral William McRaven, US Navy

As part of my MFA program, I have to write an entire novel. My novel right now is projected to top out at 100,000 words.

That’s a lot of words.

But if I want to be a professional author, I’m not going to write just 100,000 words for this thesis novel. I’m going to write those and then write them all over again because my thesis novel has to undergo two semesters of revisions before final submission.

And then I’m going to write another book after that. And another one after that.

It’s a scary number, but it’s a little less scary when you consider that I can stuff about a page’s worth of words on those 3×5 cards. That’s about 250 words. Let’s be generous and say 300 because I write small.

300 words x 365 days = 109,500 words a year

Basically, regardless of what’s going on with my big novel projects, if I keep with my daily writing, I’ll write a hefty-sized book a year.

Aside from that, doing a daily snippet gives you the chance to explore a new creative space every day. It isn’t a commitment. The only thing you’re committing is time and swinging the door open to inspiration. Show up, but don’t wait for inspiration and creativity. Start without them. Explore. Imagine.

With that thought in mind, I encourage you to explore the idea of writing a little something every morning. If for no other reason than a small boost of dopamine to get your day off right.

part iii

I’m going to start posting my daily writings. I’ve been holding onto them for a while (and also got out of the habit *eek*) and it’s time to put them out there.

They probably won’t do more than just exist for a while, and I’m okay with that. Part of writing is letting it go.