How To Write Like A Master Part 1: Reading

The first time I referenced the book, I didn’t think all that much about it. The second time I referenced it, I noticed a pattern.

The book is called The Girl with All the Gifts, and without giving too much away it’s a zombie story with a kind of scientific slant to it. The questions came from people in my online writing communities.

The first question had to do with the passage of time. The writer’s main character was in juvie for a term of 18 months, and she needed a way to get her main character out of juvie quickly.

I mentioned a device that was used in TGWATG. In it the main character, Melanie, creates a system for keeping track of time using a major event as a starting point. (In her situation, she has no method for keeping track of time). In a chapter early in the book, she decides to use this major event as a means for tracking how much time has passed.

In the very next chapter, she says, “It has been a hundred and seventeen days since…” Just like that three and a half months have passed, simply by the main character telling us this.

I’m right on board. I don’t need to know every little detail of what happened in the past a hundred and seventeen days. If it was important the author would tell me, but it’s not, so he doesn’t. Time to move on.

The second question that came from my community was a writer talking about how she wanted to use a strong female character for her main character but wondered if that was being overused. I answered that I can never get enough of strong female leads, but if her gut was telling her this was overused, then there were other ways to go about it.

I linked to this article in The Onion’s AV Club (which is, by far, the best piece of writing I have ever read on female characters). Basically the author suggests that if a story possesses enough diverse, female characters, then it doesn’t matter whether one of them is strong or weak, which is what makes Mad Max: Fury Road the fuckload of awesome that it is.

Indeed, what makes Mad Max so exciting is its sheer number of women. If one or two bore the sole burden of representation, it would be easy to dismiss Furiosa as an uber-competent [sic]“strong female character,” the wives as damsels in distress, and the female motorcycle gang as minor supporting players. But because they all appear together, none of them feel like stereotypes. The film acknowledges the vast diversity of the female experience and presents these women as active players in their own stories. That wealth of onscreen representation is a luxury men have long enjoyed and its precisely what feminist critics are demanding — that women not be presented as token characters but as living, breathing human beings. — From “If You Like Return of the Jedi but Hate the Ewoks, You Understand Feminist Criticism” by Caroline Siede

TGWATG balances this very well. There are three female leads: Melanie, Miss Justineau her altruistic teacher, and Dr. Caldwell who’s determination to understand the zombie virus makes her seem like a cold, inhumane scientist utterly lacking in empathy.

If, as Siede writes, “one or two bore the sole burden of representation”, then each character on their own would be a pitiful stereotype, but because they don’t stand alone (and they have agency), all three represent the wealth of the female experience in one way or another.

All this from reading one book. From studying the craft.

Way, way back in high school when I was an honors student, I started reading this way. If you were in any kind of English class in high school, then you know what I’m talking about, the kind of class where you spend an entire hour talking about the mechanics of one single passage.

It seems meticulous and tedious to people who don’t go on to get a PhD in English or people who don’t really love to diagram sentences. For the rest of it feels a little like a lobotomy followed by death by a thousand cuts.

While I don’t practice that kind of close reading anymore, I practice a version of it. The principles of this Lobotomy & Death By A Thousand Cuts stuck with me. I answer some very simple questions.

  • What worked?
  • What didn’t work?
  • What did/didn’t I like about it, and why?
  • What might I have done differently?

Advice I hear consistently from many, many writers is to tell the best story you can. If you want success, that’s all you can really do. To learn how to do that is to take in as many stories as possible.

(I say take in, because in my world, movies and television count here, too. Books are very important to read, and I’m definitely not giving you an excuse to spend hours in front of the tube for the sake of “research”. No, sirs and madames, that’s not what I’m saying at all. But there are a lot of amazing programs these days that you can learn some lessons from them).

No matter how good you think you are or how much you’ve learned about the craft, a good writer is always learning and always studying the craft.

Some of the answers to even the most difficult questions of craft can be found in plenty of books that have already been published. Before you go crying over the lack of originality or how there are no new ideas anymore, think about how awesome that is. There are so many tools at our disposal. Every time you read a book with a slightly different technique, that is a tool that you can then use.

Every book you read is a study of the craft but its also another tool for your toolbox.

Many of us, including myself, started writing because we were inspired by the books we read, but it doesn’t stop there.

A true master is always reading and studying, always open and curious to challenging what you think you know and learning something new.

Jane Endacott is a writer, runner, and Zen Buddhist. To read more posts like this, visit her site.

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