Studying a Mentor Text

I’m a firm believer that reading (including to listening to audiobooks) is a great way to advance your writing skills. Which isn’t to say you need to dissect every book you consume – reading for pleasure still lets you unconsciously pick up on things like dialogue, character, plot, pacing, and reader expectations.

But sometimes it can really help to break a book down and see what makes it work.

My newest WiP (Work in Progress) is an Adult Urban Fantasy, which is a genre I love reading, but not one I’ve tried writing before – leading to some issues.

My biggest problem so far is a low word count. While I do tend to underwrite my first drafts (not put in enough description, or occasionally skip awkward scenes to fill in later) I doubt I have more than 10,000 words worth of missing material.

Leaving me about 15,000 words short of an acceptable length novel. Gulp.

Which is where the mentor text comes in.

I took the first novel of my favourite Urban Fantasy series (The Dresden Files) and broke it down, mainly with an eye to plot and pacing. I’ve probably read this book five or six times already, so I’m pretty familiar with the story, but I’ve never taken the time to look at the mechanics of its writing.

I started by writing some quick point form notes about the events of each chapter, so I could really examine how the story spins out (I’m not going to spell them all out here, just explain the theory of the work I did). I also noted chapter lengths (they range from 7 – 25 pages).

Next I looked at the antagonists. There is one main “bad guy” whose identity isn’t revealed until the end, and who employs four different minions/monsters to attack the main character (Harry) throughout the book. But there are also four separate lesser antagonists who each attack/provoke Harry in their own ways, some of whom turn out to be allies later on.

And on top of all that, there’s a romantic subplot too.

Because this is the first novel of a series (which is what I’m hoping mine will be) I also took note of the way the world-building was laid out. For instance, The basic rules of the world are laid out from page one (Harry is a wizard in a world where magic exists, but hardly anyone believes in it), but he waits until chapters five and six (and later) to introduce certain locations and characters that come to be staples in future books.

Hints about Harry’s past are also dropped in a few places – with just enough information given to make the events happening because of them make sense, without actually spelling out every detail of his past (in fact many of the things hinted about don’t get explained until much later in the series – if that).

The goal of all this analysis is, of course, not to create a carbon copy of the mentor text, but to help see where my own is falling short. Already, I can tell I need at least one more subplot, and perhaps another minor antagonist (or else to expand the role of one of my existing antagonists).

I plan to analyze another couple of first books from other Urban Fantasy series to see how different authors lay out their plots, as well as some later books in The Dresden Files, as a comparison.

After all, as Hermione always says, “When in doubt, go to the library!”



How to Turn a Sick Day Into a Writing Day

It’s only February, and yet already 2019 has handed off its beer and attempted to out-dumpster fire the last two years.

Last week passed in a haze of stress, sleep deprivation, anxiety, brain fog, and the good old common cold. Needless to say, it was beyond my capability to word last week.

However, since I was unwilling to lose the whole week of writing, I managed to find a few ways to work on my craft that didn’t involve making words, and didn’t take a lot of energy/brain power. (Squeezed in between bouts of sleeping/attempting to sleep.)

So here are my suggestions for ways to work on writing, when you just can’t word:

  • Read/listen to audiobooks: you knew I was going to say that, right? But it’s true. Reading has been the #1 thing that has improved my writing over the last few years. I stopped reading for a while because of my concussion, but now that I’m into audiobooks and able to read some print books, my writing skills are so much better. Read the kind of books you want to write. Read outside the books you want to write. Not to say you have to dissect every book you read, just reading (/listening to) them lets you absorb the basics of plot structure, dialogue, character development, and reader expectations. Having said that, also
  • Dissect mentor texts: find a couple of good books in the genre you want to read and tear those suckers apart. Consciously and critically look at what makes the book work (more on this next week).
  • Consume good storytelling via other media: I’m working my way through a few good shows on Netflix right now. Russian Doll was excellent (an may have already sparked a story idea), and I’ve loved the three episodes of Umbrella Academy  I’ve watched so far (I think it does a great job of weaving flashbacks into the story, and the way the first episode used a scene of the main characters each dancing on their own to display their characters was just *chef’s kiss*). Dragon Prince is up next, and I’m counting down the minutes until the next season of She-Ra is released. (Have any other must-see suggestions? Drop them in the comments)
  • Engage on social media: I didn’t do a lot of original posting last week (see the whole “unable to word” bit above) but I did try and interact a little more by replying to other people’s tweets (I often just speed-skim my feed and retweet things I find interesting). But social media is made for, well, being social, so I’m trying to chat more and actually make friends/acquaintances.
  • Read books/blogs/posts about writing: there are so many good sources out there! Two of my favourites are Chuck Wendig’s blog (I’m sure his writing books are excellent as well, but I don’t own any yet, despite them being on my Xmas list for the past two years), and Delilah Dawson‘s Twitter threads.
  • Think about your book: this may seem really simple, but since I’m in the early revising stage (aka turning the word-vomit of my first draft into something with an actual plot and character development) pondering things over really helps. But why would x character do that, when it makes things worse?  How can I make y character more likeable while still keeping him opposing the MC?  and How can I filter in necessary background info without just dumping it all in the first chapter?  are all questions I asked myself (and answered) while lazing on my couch this week.

And that’s how I spent my sick week. Have any other suggestions to add? Drop them in the comments.

Killing Your Darlings

Writing is a bit like giving birth; not just because it’s painful and messy and involves an awful lot of screaming and crying, but because you spend months (or years) of your life bringing a little part of you into the world, and even more time trying to mold it into the best version of itself.

So it’s natural to become attached to your work.

And just like it’s hard to hear criticism of your children, it can be difficult to hear criticism of your writing as well. And even more difficult to act upon that criticism.

Especially if doing so involves killing your darlings.

*Wonders if I should rethink this analogy. Keeps going anyway.*

Where was I again? Oh, right.

Killing your darlings. Deleting or changing beloved words/sentences/paragraphs/chapters/characters/plotlines/etc in your precious, precious work to (gasp!) improve it overall.

In revising my MG Fantasy, I just removed/rewrote my favourite parts: the witty, acerbic dialogue between my two MCs. Why? Well, because critiques had helped me realize their voices were two similar.

As much as I loved seeing my two characters snipe at each other, they couldn’t both be masters of snark. Not only was it confusing for readers, but it went against one MC’s personality. So, it’s gone.

Did it hurt? Damn Skippy.

But is the book better for it? I certainly believe it is.

And, as I enter my (hopefully) final revisions before sending it out into the world, I’ll be looking for more darlings that aren’t contributing to the overall quality of the book. Because no part of your manuscript should be considered too precious to improve* (insert gif of Gollum here).

*Not saying that every critique you receive will be right, or carry the same weight, but if you get multiple critiques of the same issue, it’s definitely worth considering ways to improve things.


February Check-In

January was quite the month this year. On the bright side, between sick days (mine and the rest of the family’s), snow days, and the end of Xmas Holidays, I got a lot (no, really, *a lot* – check out the numbers below) of reading and audiobook-listening done.

But I did also manage to revise SHADOWCATCHERS enough to send it to my critique partner, and now I’m already ploughing (wait, or is it plowing? Is this one of those Canadian/American/British things?) through those revisions.

I’m feeling pretty great about it right now, and I think I’m going to try querying it, so I guess I’ll add “research agents,” “write a query letter,” and “write a synopsis” to my writing goals. Worst case scenario, if no agent wants it because it’s already been on sub in the U.S., I can still submit it to Canadian publishers later.

And that’s where I’m sitting, writing-wise. I’m itching to get started revising my Adult Urban Fantasy – I’ve been bouncing ideas around in my spare time, and I have some great plans for how to fix it up already.

And now for my January Reading Stats:

(Before you get too shocked over these numbers, I’ll point out that I read/re-read a fair number of shorter MG books, that only took and hour or two to get through, as well as some shorter/faster paperback novels. However, I also DNF’d a book at the 16-hour mark, so I feel like that balances things out a little.)

  • MG Fantasy (7)
  • YA Fantasy (3)
  • A Urban Fantasy (3)
  • A Mystery (9)
  • Re-reads (19)
  • DNF (2)

Year to date: 22

Re-reads: 19