Have you ever wondered how your favorite authors achieve that something that draws you into their worlds? Whether they are literary geniuses like Hemingway or Fitzgerald, great nonfiction essayists, or genre writers, these techniques can help you see into their minds at work as they write and how they affect you as a reader.
Simple exercises that can help you understand the underlying rhythms and themes of your favorite writers, of any style
It’s important to remember that every successful writer rewrites and edits mercilessly, paring and tweaking the parts that catch them up, or don’t contribute to the forward movement of the story or essay. When you are beginning, especially in fiction, it can be daunting when you read about an author writing multiple versions, throwing out whole sections, or even changing the point of view. It’s a lot of work and it can be very hard to trash things you are proud of. But everyone does it because ultimately you are in service to the entirety of the piece, not that lovely descriptive section you wrote, that distracts from the story flow.
These techniques are designed to help us as writers understand how a voice is developed by looking at the work from a different perspective. The most common practice is to go back and reread the book or story analytically. A second or third read can reveal subtleties that we miss the first time around. These exercises are ways to come at the work from different angles, often on a subconscious level.
Read them out loud
Writing is different than speaking. Most of us don’t write the way we speak, for good reason. But reading a familiar work out loud to yourself, as weird as it sounds, is a great way to start to understand the rhythm of the language, the way sentences flow into each other, and how abrupt changes signal unexpected events. Start with a favorite essay or short story and read it through in one pass, then try a short novel.
One example of how I use this is to help me understand how complex scenes are handled. I’m rereading Tolstoy’s War and Peace and sometimes when I’ve just read a complex scene such as the death of the old Count Bolkonsky or any of the amazing battle scenes, reading those sections out loud gives me a different sense of what just happened. Tolstoy is a very cinematic writer, even though his writing predated the entire concept, and reading out loud helps clarify the entire scene, from underlying meaning of nervous small talk to the complete insanity of battle seen from within, in real time.
Copy their writing out longhand
This is a common exercise in writing classes. When I was trying to rewrite the opening scene in my first novel, I wrote the first chapter of The Great Gatsby out in my painful longhand. I’m no Fitzgerald by a long shot but it helped me change my perspective and progress after many rewrites.
Rewrite a scene from a different perspective
Imagine one of those parlor scenes from Tolstoy, which are written in third person omniscient, which means the writer can tell us what a character is thinking as they navigate a conversation. Now rewrite it in the first person, as though you were in the room. This is very difficult and you may not make it very far (I can’t, not with someone as masterful as Tolstoy!). That’s ok. We’re doing exercises here to flex different writing muscles.
Dissect how they use scenes
Stories are structured in scenes that are complete in themselves, just as movies are. One rule of screenwriting is one scene per page. Breaking a story down into scenes reveals complexity of structure. Why did this character behave like this? What just happened and why is it where it is?
With Tolstoy, or Hemingway, or Ondaatjei, or any skilled writer, each scene is a set piece. If you’ve read The Sun Also Rises, for example, you can see scenes in your head. The scene with Brett and the narrator when the Count buys champagne and we find out the narrator has been emasculated by a war wound. A pivotal setup for why their love can never work, from his perspective (honestly, there are so many great scenes in that book that it’s hard to pick just one).
Rereading is one way to do this. Another is to buy a cheap used copy of the book and go through and mark it up. Some scenes may be an entire chapter, some may be brief but link together into a larger story element. This is especially helpful when you are tackling long form writing.
Read reviews from when the writing was published
“This story is obviously unimportant and, though, as I shall show, it has its place in the Fitzgerald canon, it is certainly not to be put on the same shelf with, say, This Side of Paradise. What ails it, fundamentally, is the plain fact that it is simply a story — that Fitzgerald seems to be far more interested in maintaining its suspense than in getting under the skins of its people.”
Review of The Great Gatsby in the Chicago Tribune by H. L. Mencken
I stumbled upon this technique while trying to learn more about whether some favorite writers plotted out their stories or simply went with the flow. In the vernacular, the former or ‘plotters’ and the latter are ‘pantsers’, writing by the seat of their pants. I went back and read interviews with the writers that interested me.
In the process, I found reviews of the books, from the period they were published. Virtually all reviews are written when books come out as part of a publicity push by the publisher. We now have access to virtually all the major review publications from the past century online, including The New Yorker, The NYTimes Book Review, and others.
These reviews help us understand the context of the times and how the writer was viewed by their contemporaries. For example, Gatsby is generally considered a masterpiece of the 20th century novel, but it was panned when it came out and did not initially sell. Fitzgerald had made his enormous reputation to the point by writing fantasy stories about the Jazz Age and Gatsby burst that balloon, by showing its dark downfall. This helped me understand the larger purpose behind the story, the thematic driver.
Pursuing writing is not easy, but I’d argue very few things done well are. We practice a craft, storytelling, that is both primeval and familiar to all of us as readers. Understanding that craft is no different than learning to mix paint and stretch canvases, or playing scales for hours.
With writing, as in all of the arts, we have masterful examples we can learn from. It goes without saying, or should, that writers must be voracious readers. Exercises like these take this education to the next level and help us understand the complexity of great writing and writers. And to understand and improve our own work.