Wednesday, April 18, 2012

14 WOW Wednesday: J. Anderson Coats

Today's guest, J. Anderson Coats, has dug for crystals, held Lewis and Clark’s original hand-written journal, and been a mile underground. She writes historical fiction set in the middle ages that routinely includes too much violence, name-calling and petty vandalism perpetrated by badly-behaved young people. J lives within walking distance of the Puget Sound with her husband, teenage son and a cat with thumbs. You can find her on her Website, on FacebookTwitter, or her Blog.


Analyzing What You Read to Improve Your Writing

by J. Anderson Coats

Keeping a log and analyzing the books I read made a big difference for me in making the transition from writer to author. In January 2010, I began picking apart every book I read into its constituent elements. Plot, character development, narrative arc, setting, dialogue. I picked apart what worked and what didn’t. I noted where I stopped reading and why. I explicitly lined out how I thought the writer was using specific elements of craft and what the effects were.

And then I applied them.

My log is a crappy composition book I bought for $0.59 when school supplies were on sale. Keeping a paper log does three things for me:

1) It makes the log easy to maintain; I just keep it with whatever book I’m reading.

2) It allows me to be completely honest in a way I would not feel comfortable with if I were posting my comments online.

And, most importantly:

3) Carefully analyzing and recording exactly what’s going on in another person’s work crystallizes my understanding of that element of craft. Just thinking about reveals or backstory and recognizing their utility is great, but for me, committing the mechanics to print makes it useful. In other words, writing it down makes it stick.

As I read, I note down problematic aspects of a text or elements that I think are particularly well done, sometimes along with a comparison of other books that come to mind. When I finish with the book, I usually write out summaries of what the author did well (in an "Advantages" section) and things that didn't work for me ("Drawbacks"), then my overall impression of the work as a whole and to what sort of reader I might recommend it. ("Someone who loves high-school hierarchy stories" or "Someone who likes snarky heroines.") If a book is particularly awesome, I put a star next to its entry in my log.

How do you read? Are you as careful in your analysis of published work as you are when beta reading for fellow writers?


Research is one of my favorite things!



Available 4/17/2012

14 comments:

  1. I love your idea of thoroughly analyzing a book to learn more about writing. Thanks for sharing.

    Does this take away some of your enjoyment of reading the book, or do you read for pleasure first and do the analysis after a second read?

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    1. Andrea, I can't speak for Jillian, but it's hard for me to turn off the writer's brain when I read. If I can, then it's because everything in the book is working. But what I usually do with great books that just want to be read is go ahead and read them once. Then I think about them. Then I reread-and that's when I can start to see the man behind the curtain. It becomes the best of all possible worlds. :D

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  2. I keep an ongoing Word file of books read during the year. While reading, I'll jot notes down of what I consider amazing writing and then quote those things on to my list after I finish reading. But I tend to focus more on details like sensory or character descriptions that stand out to me/I particularly like. But you've shown me I need to expand on the idea to include more elements--thanks! I can see the value in the practice--and appreciate the tip.

    And I too like research :-)

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    1. We learn so much from what marking what we love, right? :D

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  3. I've started keeping a journal six books ago, and it's teaching me a LOT. It's also handy for remembering what books I read when.

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    1. Good for you! I'd love to hear more about your process sometime, Traci.

      Martina

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  4. This is such a good idea. I do this mentally but obviously I forget and lose sight of the details; writing down where I lost interest, what worked, etc is a really smart tactic. I've only thought to do this with books on the craft of writing (takign notes mainly) but not with fiction.

    You've inspired me! Thanks for the great post. Plus, now I have something to do with these blank paged journals people keep giving me.

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    1. LOL! I have a bunch of moleskins that ride around in my purse collecting lint and odd, disjointed notes. Occupational hazard.

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  5. This is a great idea! I always notice elements like plot, character development, etc. when reading books, but I never write them down. I should start. I can see how this would help you become a stronger writer.

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    1. I love my eReader because of this--I can make notes as I read and then they are all there afterwards. And I don't feel like I've desecrated the book by making notes in the margins :D

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  6. This is a great idea, something I haven't done. But I can see the benefits of helping with our own writing! Great post.

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    1. But you read pretty analytically anyway, don't you Rebekah? I suspect, knowing you, that you're making mental notes.

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  7. Reading is one of my favourite things too! I rarely write down my impressions, in fact, I didn't track my books until recently on Goodreads. I like your idea though - very helpful!

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  8. How interesting! I do pick apart books, but I've never written down the specifics. I guess discussing books with writer friends has been my way of going over what worked and what didn't for me. Lively discussion and friendly debate usually ensue, but I love your idea as well. What a great reference if you're struggling in a certain area and need a good example as a refresher!

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