The Saturday Creativity Quote — outlining a book you admire

One of the best tools for improving our writing is to analyze what we read. I mentioned this last week when I talked about reading. Let’s take that to the next level.

“The ability to see our own work clearly is one of the greatest challenges of writing. Authors fill in the blanks of their characters and world and stories in their heads without realizing whether it’s coming across effectively on the page to readers. It’s almost impossible to assess our own work as objectively as we can with other people’s.” — editor and novelist Tiffany Yates Martin, writing on publishing guru Jane Friedman’s blog

An open box of colored pencils
Pencils (photo by the author)

Start, Martin says, with yourself. Your reaction. Then dive in, analyzing more deeply.

I’ve suggested this before, offering specific suggestions for outlining a book you want to learn from. Yes, colored pencils or highlighters are involved. I’m actually gearing up to do this myself, reading several books by an author I admire, then choosing one to outline deeply to watch how she handles story. Heck, I might do two. She’s doing something readers love and respond to, and I want to grasp it more fully. There’s no better way than breaking it down, scene by scene, element by element.

Sharpen your pencils — or your highlighters — and go!

The Saturday Creativity Quote — simple tools for improving our work

I’ve been talking a lot here lately about the importance of diving in, of getting started. Of moving past our fears and doubts and into the work. Sometimes that means pausing to look more deeply at those fears and doubts, investigating what is holding us back from actually doing the work. Sometimes it means finding tools that help us deepen and improve our work. I’ll be talking about a few of those tools over the next few weeks.

First up, reading. Reading like a writer. In On Writing, Stephen King famously wrote “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Schedule it. Ten minutes a night before you fall asleep won’t do. You can’t fully dive into a story and connect with it unless you’ve given yourself the time. Mystery writer Catriona McPherson says reading is as much a part of our job as writers as putting words on the page.

Read up. I got this tip from Elizabeth George, at a fabulous week-long workshop when I was a beginning writer. (I reconnected with her at the New England Crime Bake in 2015, when this photo was taken.) Read the authors whose work you most enjoy, who are writing what you write or want to write, whose careers and success you admire. The writers who inspire you. If you’re already published, reading authors in your genre who are publishing at the same level as you may not teach you much about craft, but if they’re stretching the genre in some way, striking readers in a way you want to emulate, or in a way you don’t quite grasp, read them, too. Choose what you read with a purpose.

Analyze what you read. I’ve written about “reading like a writer” before, and I still believe it’s a critical skill. Sum up a book by writing a review, just for yourself. (If you want to write a review on BookBub or another site, that’s great, but it’s a very different type of review!) Reread my earlier post for a few tips on what to note as you write your own reviews. (We’ll talk about more in-depth analysis later.)

Find more tools for reading like a writer in Francine Prose’s book of the same name.

“Reading superior novels arouses the mind in a way that nothing else quite does,” wrote Joseph Epstein in The Novel, Who Needs It?, quoted by Jacob Brogan in the Washington Post.

He’s right. And it will improve your writing like nothing else, too.