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!”