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

Breaking Down the First Chapter #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

woman leaning on the wall while reading book
photo credit: @jsycra on Unsplash

First chapters are far and away the most crucial part of your story because if the person who just picked your book up off the shelf or clicked on Amazon’s “Look Inside!” feature (because hello 21st century) was enamored enough by the summary to make it this far, it’s time to show them what you’ve got, that the summary wasn’t kidding around when it said this book was a “rich classic in the making” and will “absolutely stun you.”

Full disclaimer: if you’re currently drafting, I wouldn’t recommend reading this. Or, if you’re a curious or particularly masochistic soul, I recommend not taking any of this advice too seriously at the moment. Wait until you’ve got your Editor Hat™ on and then come see me. Because drafting is not the time to be agonizing over whether or not your first chapter takes off from the gate like a thoroughbred on race day, you know?


For this exercise, let’s take a look at and break down the first chapter of The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon (Bloomsbury, 2019).

The opening line(s)

It seems to be an instinct born in every future writer the debilitating anxiety of crafting the perfect opening line. “You have to hook the reader!” they all cry. “You must establish tone! You must…” (this is where I lose them as I fade away into anxiety attack-induced unconsciousness.)

I was fortunate to attend Kevin Hearne‘s keynote presentation to the students of the Writing Popular Fiction MFA program at Seton Hill University this past January. His talk was about cracking the first chapter. He says the first line needs to do one thing and one thing only: inspire curiosity.

The stranger came out of the sea like a water ghost, barefoot and wearing the scars of his journey. He walked as if drunk through the haze of mist that clung like spidersilk to Seiiki.

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

In these opening lines, we already know that 1) this isn’t from the point of view of the man coming out of the sea but rather from someone elsewhere watching him emerge from the water; so who is the watcher? 2) what happened to this man that he bears “the scars of his journey”? 3) where did he come from and under what circumstances? Shipwreck? Mutiny? Freak accident?

And then we know some world building stuff like this is a world where there are water ghosts and silk doesn’t come from silkworms like in our world but rather from spiders. It’s also a country called Seiiki.

Now that our curiosity has been inspired, what’s next?

The conflict

In his Masterclass, award-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin talks about how he can’t start any story without first knowing the intention and obstacle. Honestly I need this tattooed on the inside of my forearm where I can reference it at any time.

Let’s look at the way Samantha Shannon presents conflict. Her POV character has discovered a stranger coming out of the sea and we already have a sense that this is bad but then we start to learn why.

On the first page, here’s what we learn:

  • the stranger’s intention is to speak with the Warlord of Seiiki
  • the stranger’s obstacle is that the POV character, Tané, holds a knife on him

Then we come to paragraph eight, which carries us over onto page two, that tells us both Tané’s intention and her obstacle:

She dared not speak, for to show she knew his language was to forge a link between them, and to betray herself. To betray the fact that just as she was now a witness to his crime, he was a witness to hers.

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

Now we’ve learned:

  • her intention is to keep her crime hidden
  • her obstacle is this stranger being a witness as well as a liability

Also, our minds are exploding with questions: she’s committed a crime? Why is it a crime? And why is it a crime that he washed ashore?

We quickly learn that the reason for her anxiety is that she’s supposed to be in seclusion in preparation for her Choosing Day. She cannot be caught out or else she’ll be considered tainted.

But in a brilliant stroke of raising the stakes, it isn’t just Tané herself at risk. We learn about the fear of the “red sickness” that she’s afraid this outsider must have. This could be seen as a bad omen. Now, if she were caught with this outsider, not only would she be considered tainted for having left her seclusion, but the bad omen would condemn her entire generation of apprentices to miss the opportunity to become riders (of what? We aren’t told yet.)

Tension builds as she wrestles with herself. “If she turned this outsider over to the authorities, she would have to reveal that she had broken seclusion.” What is she going to do?

She could not report him. Neither could she abandon him. If he did have the red sickness, letting him roam unchecked would endanger the entire island.

There was only one choice.

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

So we have a character, Tané, who has a lot going for her in life and a big day of her to follow and here comes this stranger to screw everything up. What does she do? What is she willing to risk to protect herself and what she wants?

We then come to a section break. She makes her choice: blindfolding the stranger (careful not to touch him) and guiding him through the city towards a point where she can leave him for another to smuggle him across an inlet to an island close by called Orisima. It’s obvious this is a huge risk for her to take. As readers, this tells us a lot about her.

There’s another section break and we meet a new character as the POV changes: Niclays Roos, who is quickly established as a grumpy old hermit on the island of Orisima. Conflict develops further as the smuggler tries to foist the stranger off on him but he refuses.

“No.” Niclays stared. “Saint, woman, are you trying to involve me in a smuggling operation?” He fumbled for the door. “I cannot hide a trespasser. If anyone knew–“

“One night.”

“One night, a year–our heads will be sliced from our shoulders regardless. Good evening.”

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

So now we get that this is a big deal for all involved.

Niclays isn’t given a choice. The smuggler promises silver and simply leaves the stranger behind. The stranger and Niclays have a conversation wherein we learn a few more things like 1) the stranger is from a different country called Inys; 2) that his name is Triam Sulyard; 3) he and Niclays have different religions and countries of origin; and 4) that Triam is on a dire mission for the sake of his queen, who doesn’t know anything about it. Niclays has great contempt for all of this, as he doesn’t consider anything worth the risk to himself.

And then the cliffhanger:

In the street, there was no sign of the sentinels, but several of his neighbors had gathered. Niclays joined them. […]

An enormous head towered of the fence of Orisima. It belonged to a creature born of jewel and sea. […]

A dragon. Even as it rose over Cape Hisan, others were ascending from the water, leaving a chill mist in their wake. Niclays pressed a hand to the drumbeat in his chest.

“Now, what,” he murmured, “are they doing here?”

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

The character(s)

A few givens about conflict: it cannot exist in a vacuum. It isn’t conflict unless it affects somebody. So presenting conflict means presenting characters and why this development is a conflict for them.

Tané is an apprentice about to face her Choosing Day. If she’s caught, she’ll lose her entire future. We can sympathize with such an agonizing decision: she doesn’t want to kill this stranger, for all that she holds a knife on him, but she has so much to lose because of him. And Niclays, a crotchety old doctor, will be executed if someone so much as suspects him of housing an outsider.

We have respect for Tané for risking the futures of her entire class of potential riders for the sake of this stranger and in contrast, we rather dislike Niclays for thinking only of himself when the choice is put to him.

Samantha Shannon essentially asks the reader: what would you do in this situation? This question keeps us involved as the conflict develops because it’s stressful.

In conclusion

There are three big things Samantha Shannon does with this opening chapter:

  1. establishes three main players, what they want, and why they can’t have it
  2. a glimpse of a much wider tension-filled conflict that spans the seas
  3. a cliffhanger ending where dragons rise from the ocean and we’re pretty sure they aren’t supposed to (the “red sickness” after all is sometimes referred to as the “draconic plague”)

After analyzing this chapter, here’s what I’ve taken away from it as a writer:

  • keep in mind Kevin Hearne’s advice: start with something that inspires curiosity and keep doing that
  • remember that the reader doesn’t expect to learn everything in this first chapter, so be picky with the details
  • show what the characters are like through their decisions

If I were to offer any critique for this opening chapter, it would revolve solely around the writing style, which I thought lacked a cohesive atmosphere, sensory details, and concise language. But for the way she snags the reader and begins developing the conflict, this is a solid beginning that prompts the reader to keep going.

I chose The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon because it was close at hand. If I were to pick my favorite opening chapters, I’d recommend The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling.

What first chapters inspire your curiosity? Share in the comments!

This post is part of the Author Toolbox Blog Hop. Want to see other posts in the hop? They’re all about helping you, future/current author, in your authorly endeavors. Click here to see more.