Updated: Aug 16, 2019
I didn't go to college.
For a long time, I believed that disqualified me from succeeding as a writer. But it was my passion, and no other activity made me feel more alive. I was determined to learn how to tell a compelling story.
* I watched YouTube videos on writing (there are tons...).
* I studied the habits of successful writers.
* I practiced A LOT. (Hours slumped over a legal pad)
* I purchased books on writing and story elements.
* And I read...lots...of...stories.
I found that, more than anything else, READING STORIES WITH THE INTENTION OF LEARNING TO WRITE was the game changer. Because whatever it is that you want to learn about, immersing yourself in that thing is key.
All the things you're learning through the vast resources available mean nothing until you see them in action. It's why books/blogs/videos on writing contain examples.
HERE'S WHAT I SUGGEST:
1.) Buy your favorite books in paperback from your local USED book store. A cheap copy...because you're gonna mark the heck out of that thing. (I'll explain in a second...)
2.) At the same USED bookstore (listen, you can do this at full price...but why not save a few bucks, right?), grab some random books to add to your shelf. Don't worry if they're good or bad...that's the great part. Some of them may be downright awful. Get your highlighter ready. Consider buying one or two books in the genre you're most interested in at the time.
3.) THE FUN BEGINS! (You'll want to color code using different color highlighters. Also make notes in the margin or on sticky notes.)
But this time, be observant. Here are a few things to take note of:
* First line of the book.
* Strength of the first chapter. Did it hook you? Why? Why not?
*How well were the main characters introduced/described?
* Descriptive words/phrases that stand out to you or causes an emotional response.
* Sentence structure. Was there a sentence you had to reread a few times to fully understand it? Highlight it. Dissect it and figure out why it didn't quite work for you.
* Sentence rhythm. Did the author vary sentence structure to keep the flow interesting? Is every line the same format, making the reading rigid and boring?
* Strong verbs vs. Weak verbs. (Passive vs. Active)
* Repetitive phrases or words. A popular series I read utilized the same strong imagery for fear so many times within the same book that it began yanking me out of the story. I rolled my eyes a few times. Never a good thing. (Note: strong, descriptive imagery should be used VERY sparingly, or it loses its desired effect. Example: "Cold fear dropped down my spine..."
* Plot holes
* Dialogue you love.
* Dialogue that's awkward and unnatural.
* Perfect emotional reactions in characters. Moments you connect with.
* Over-the-top, unnecessary emotional reactions in characters.
* Physical reactions by characters that don't make sense to you.
*Physical reactions that you really like.
* Favorite lines.
* Flow of the story. Story beats. Inciting incident, rising action, building tension.... etc. (Does the tension fizzle out too soon? Make note of that.)
The list goes on!
If an author is very very good, you'll find this may be a really challenging activity, because you'll lose yourself in the story and forget to make notes. That's cool too and a great indicator of an excellent storyteller who can teach us a lot.
Make note of anything and everything that stands out to you. Dissect those books! And be bold. No one else has to ever see your comments or opinions. This is for your own research and growth as a writer. We learn from each other's strengths and weaknesses...and we are all unique in how we approach telling a story.
What works for one writer won't work for another. What one author reads as beautiful prose might be too flowery for another. Comparing and contrasting is a great way to find your own rhythm and style.