My Top 5 Writers to Study for Style #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

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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

How to Start Writing: for Beginners

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“Even though the future seems far away, it is actually beginning right now.”  -Mattie Stepanek

The scariest thing about writing is getting started.  I hope that this post helps mitigate some of those fears you have, and if you found it bolstering, comment and let me know!

I’m one of those writers who has been writing since I was a kid, so I consider myself “self-taught.”  But you may be a bit older, in your teens or well into your adulthood and you want to try out this “writing thing.”

I’ve made a list of tips to help you start on your writing journey.  And it may be helpful to our veteran writers, as well.

Buy a notebook and get to work filling it up.

*Take into consideration that this notebook should be a) something you can carry around with you easily in case opportunity arises and b) something you can easily write in i.e. hardcover v. softcover, 3.5” x 5.5” or 5” x 7”

But, fill it with what?

  • Ideas — character sketches, descriptions that come to you, plot points
  • Lists — things you like (in stories, in life, etc.)
    • A neat warmup exercise is Ray Bradbury’s association technique. This is also a great way to build up a repository of descriptions.  It can also double as inspiration pages.
  • Doodles — let your brain relax for a minute, you never know what’ll happen
  • Quotes — from TV, books, or (my favorite) life

How often should you write in it?

However often works for you.

I don’t write in mine every day; I never make a point to, because that doesn’t work for me. Instead, I have it at hand when I’m reading or watching a show so that if something comes to me (a snazzy piece of dialogue, a line of description, or a plot idea), I can write it down.

Try making it a goal to write in it every day in the beginning, though, just to get a feel for it.

How should I organize it?

I organize mine by date. I found that I really liked the satisfaction of flipping back through and seeing when I came up with an idea.

I also use highlighters to categorize things, but right now, I only have one highlighter color in use: green, to make it easy to find things I’ve marked as “potential titles.”

Final tip: Make it something appealing to write in

This means that, if getting a notebook with gilded edges psyches you out, don’t get the gilded edges.  

This means that you can dip into your childlike impulses and decorate the hell out of it with stickers.  And who needs much more of a reason to use stickers?  (I personally use stickers and washi tape.)

Don’t be afraid to use different colored pens, either.  I don’t like the pressure of making it “look good” with the different colors and I also don’t like discontinuity, so I have a single pen that I use for writing in it.  It’s a dark, bold ink pen that gives me a deep sense of satisfaction when I flip through the pages.  But if you want a rainbow, taste the damn rainbow.

Join NaNoWriMo

This may seem a weird piece of advice to one who hasn’t written much before, but here’s why doing NaNoWriMo will help you:

    • There’s a huge community to keep you accountable and encourage you to keep going
    • You can’t take yourself too seriously if you’re trying to write a “novel” in 30 days and this is essential to beginning life as a writer
    • By the end of it, you will have a huge pile of writing you didn’t have 30 days ago, which is a huge confidence booster if you’re just starting out
    • By the end of it, you will have a huge pile of writing to do something with, which is considerably more comforting a thought than you might think
    • By the end of it, you will have a huge pile of writing you can do absolutely nothing with, which is also incredibly liberating
    • NaNo is so inherently messy that–believe me–the mess you’ll make will go completely unnoticed
    • It’s the perfect chance for you to stretch muscles you’ve never used before and a way of getting all the soreness done with on the front side

Go to your favorite authors’ websites and start soaking

Sometimes you won’t find their websites, or their websites are crap.  That’s fine.  Don’t linger; move onto the next one.  If you’re a writer, odds are you’re a reader, so you have a whole backlog of other authors to choose from.

A lot of websites I go to have a section “For Writers” or “Writing Advice.”  Check those out.  After a while, you’ll start to realize that they’re all giving mostly the same advice.  You’re now becoming familiar with the fundamentals of writing: the things those on the “inside” know.

A few other, small ways to Soak

On your preferred social media platforms, start following some writers you admire and writing advice accounts that appeal to you.  I used to do all this on Twitter and Instagram, but then I got into Pinterest and haven’t looked back since.  Talk about idea fodder.  I have hundreds of pins on my “writing inspiration” board and I separate it out into different sections, one for story prompts, story mechanics, aesthetic, etc.  

Visit your local bookstore and take a look through the writing reference section.  Browse the table of contents of ones that appeal to you, making note of the topics they cover.

Start going to book signings in your area.  It doesn’t really even matter if you’ve heard of them or not or what genre they write.  Go, get a feeling for what they’re like.  Ask some questions like, “What’s your writing process like?”  Or “How did you get the idea for this book?”

Write as often as you can

This doesn’t have to be every day but if you want to be a writer, make an effort, because you won’t learn anything in theory.

Pay attention to your emotions and mindset as you approach writing

Frustration is part of the process.  It just means you’re in between what Elizabeth Gilbert calls “the bright spots.”  The sum of it is that you will have great days, but more than likely, they will be few and far between.  Show up to your creative work anyway.  You didn’t sign up because it was going to be easy; you signed up because you believe it’s worth it.

You’ll soon pick up the language of your emotions.  By writing every day one summer, I realized that there are two things behind “I don’t want to write today.”  The most common one was I was just lazy or afraid, and I deemed those excuses not good enough to keep me from writing.  Then I started realizing that, sometimes, “I don’t want to write today” means I shouldn’t write today because otherwise, something bitter will start to grow in my attitude towards my project.  I found that I had to take a day off every 10 days or so, otherwise I started to burn out and something would start to fester in my creative soul.

Establish a routine and/or find someone/thing to hold you accountable

This may not work for everyone.  For me, now, it isn’t a question whether I’ll write, it’s how quickly am I going to write.  I use alpha readers to keep myself accountable.  Having a pack of bloodthirsty close friends that hang around me asking, “Where’s the next chapter?” is the perfect amount of motivation for me.

If you’re just starting, discipline will seriously help you out.  The faster you learn discipline, the better.  What shape this takes is up to you, but the result should be that you Show Up–whatever works that gets you to the pen, the keyboard, even when inspiration is sunning itself on a beach somewhere.

Prepare for the marathon

Quantity alone doesn’t beget quality, but is, IMHO, a major ingredient.  Like anyone who’s tried to master something knows, you have to practice a ton before you start getting good.  And!  You have to mess up a ton, too.

There’s a beauty in this, though, because it means that all the mess you make when first start is completely normal and everyone does it.  It probably won’t feel that way at first.  It’ll feel like everyone writes better than you do.  Truth is?  Not true.  Think about all the people right now who aren’t writing, who aren’t working on getting better.

Not only that, but the published writing you’re reading is like magazine covers: edited to within an inch of its life and bears only a passing resemblance to what it was before.  This doesn’t mean that your writing can’t get that way: it just means that your writing won’t look like that on the first go.

I hope this post has helped you!  Take a deep breath.  Go ahead and write.  You’ll be okay. :)

If you want a reason to write right now, check out my 30 Day Restart Challenge prompt list and see if anything there takes your fancy.  I’m right there with you, stretching those writing muscles.