Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Pen Is Mightier Than the... Scalpel?

What makes a great book so great? 
What gives it that voila! that makes people want to
read it over and over and over?
And how do we as writers figure it all out?

Book dissection. 

Works for frogs, doesn't it?
Er, they're probably not too thrilled about it, sure, 
but after hearing Rachel Vail (Justin Case, Piggybunny), Melissa Sweet (Balloons Over Broadway) and Bonny Becker (A Visitor for Bear) discuss their research strategies at the writing conference, I got to thinking... 

See, biologists and writers have something in common.
Both need to get at the Hows and Whats and Whys, 
and can be bettered by a little friendly dissection.

How to dissect a book:

First, find a massive stack of books
in the genre you want to write.
(best-sellers and favorites 
are a good place to start.)

Read till you're stuffed.
Then, take out the scalpel - the figurative one - 
and pull your books apart.

Question everything. 

If you're an outliner, try boiling your favorites down into outlines. 

Ask yourself questions like:

1- What makes this a best-seller?

2- What do I love about this? 

3- What sets this book apart from all the others?

4- What is this story about in one snappy sentence?

5- What makes this book memorable:
            -Is it strong central characters?
            -emotional connection?
            -a plot that sucks you in and won't let you go?
            -an unidentifiable weirdness?

Record your findings to see if any themes emerge.
After doing this to sixty picture books, 
I have to say that I really do feel the vicarious cleverness 
seeping in...

I see how certain themes resonate with my brood
and I can pinpoint why some books rise above the rest.

Dissecting books is like
Toto and Dorothy finding the man behind the curtain.
It's like seeing someone that intimidates you
in their underpants.
It's like finding out the magician's secret tricks.
What's left to fear? 

If we can identify what makes a good book good,
we're almost there!
And hopefully some of that goodness will rub off
as we hunker down at our desks to go be clever.

Bookish books:
The Incredible Book Eating Boy, by Oliver Jeffers
Castle of Books, by Bernard Clavel, illustrated by Yan Nascimbene 


Jan Morrison said...

I like this Faith! I think this is what I do AND I like such a bunch of books and they are SO different so...I will write different books.

Marion Ruybalid said...

For me, I have to connect to the plot somehow. Maybe it is a dream plot, or maybe it is really close to home. I like both.

Kjersten said...

I often kind of think of some of these things on the back-burner while I'm reading a book, but I connect with the idea of actually writing the answers to these questions down. I can see why that would be a really good exercise in reading as a writer. I'm going to try it with a few of my library books this weekend. I'm giving myself an assignment. I'll try to remember to let you know how it goes. Thanks for the inspiration! (and as usual, the book suggestions, I haven't read those two).

Dawn Simon said...

I like your questions. It's a good idea to record our thoughts on our favorites and analyze our findings. We can learn from the best!

Have a nice week! :)

Faith Pray said...

Jan, isn't it fun how intuitive writing is! I have an enormous world of favorite books, so I, too am having quite a time of trying to analyze and grow through my many reads.

Faith Pray said...
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Faith Pray said...

Marion, supposedly there are a limited number of plot formulas in the world. Isn't that funny? For all of the books ever written through history - that they might be narrowed down to a plot formula?!

Faith Pray said...

Kjersten, It's fun to hear your thoughts on this. I know you've already been doing it - I loved your Caldecott blog series! I am in a research and analysis phase. (a.k.a "reading a lot.") I guess that means I'm not doing as much writing as usual. But I'm getting in some great reads, anyhow!

Faith Pray said...
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Faith Pray said...

Dawn, as usual, I love your comments. You are such a sunshine person!

Candilynn Fite said...

I love to find all the beautiful language in a great book. For me, it's the word play, sentence structure variations, and poetic prose.

MollyMom103 said...

Oh, my you are so crafty. It makes me want to do something crafty. I will think of something. I will sew something. Perhaps I can send you something...

I love your picking apart books. I think that is the perfect way to figure this and that. I love that reading books is part of the job description. It is not surprising that is true about me. I love writing, but to be honest, I love reading more. M.

barefoot mama said...

Such a wonderful, thought provoking post! Love the questions! I wish I had the ability to express myself with words the way you do. You are one talented Mama!!

ps thank you, thank you, thank you for taking the time to talk to me on my space. I know how busy you are and I really appreciate you taking the time to say "hi". MUCH LOVE!! ~ barefoot mama

Faith Pray said...

Candilynn, I agree! Language is one of the anchors that centers a great book!

Faith Pray said...

Molly, sometimes I go through reading phases. *Quiet phases*, where I'm in between books, and haven't found something I want to dig into, and I'm still processing what I learned from my last reading binges. *Focused reading phases*, where I am faithful to one book, and can't really analyze it because I'm enjoying the read too much. *Rambling reading phases*, where I read a lot of books at the same time to a certain aim, like looking at plot or first chapters, or hooks, or tension. Weird, huh?

Zane Wooder said...
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