6 writing lessons from my summer reading

6:50 PM

Over the summer I decided to let my novel sit in its adverb-laden, pace-challenged stew for awhile and find inspiration in the teetering pile of excellent reading material on my bedside table.

It was a good chance to develop my ‘active reading’ muscle, trying to figure out why certain novels worked, while others fell flat for me. I add the disclaimer ‘for me’ because, as we all know, novels are so subjective, they’re right up there with politics and religion for some people (What do you mean YOU DIDN’T LIKE THE NEW HANNAH KENT/NEIL GAIMAN/LIANE MORIARTY/[INSERT OTHER AUTHOR WITH EVANGELICAL FAN BASE HERE]!?!?!)

Whilst it was fun playing the game ‘Catching Authors Using Adverbs’ for awhile (you'd be surprised how many adverbs there really are), I was more specifically looking for all the clever ways these bestselling writers use to:

• Get you sucked into the story quickly

• Move the plot forward

• Develop interesting characters you become invested in

• Make dialogue believable

• Create conflict and maintain tension

• Deal with back story

So here’s a list of my summer reads and all the ‘clever ways’:

1. The power of the opening line


Nora’s first thought when they brought her the body was that it could not be her husband’s.

Wow! Way to get straight into the action Hannah. A dead husband! Who was he? Who is she? Were they still in love? Or was she glad he died? I was immediately hooked and wanted to know more. Am I the only person who stands around in bookstores reading first lines? I doubt it.

LESSON ONE: The first line needs to be compelling. Make the reader want to read on.

2. Set the scene quickly and incorporate scene-setters into the action

Peter wrested the chicken feed from Nora’s clenched fists and kicked the clucking hens from the doorstep.

Hannah sets the scene on the first page so the reader gets a sense of place and time very quickly. We learn that the husband was digging fields when he died and the men carrying his body are a ploughman and a blacksmith, so we know the setting is rural and that, despite the novel blurb telling us it is set in the year 1825, industrialisation has yet to reach this region so they are probably poor. There are chickens by the door, a turf fire burning in the hearth and straw mattresses. A mental picture is quickly formed.

LESSON TWO: Set the scene, time and place, quickly. Use spare, descriptive language incorporated into the action and dialogue.

3. Create rising tension


All this effort. Down on your hands and knees all morning in a dead man’s barn, in this heat,’ Falk said, ‘There’s something more. Or at least you think there’s more.’ There was a long pause. Then Raco breathed out. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘There’s more. [End of Chapter 3]

In her compelling debut novel, Jane Harper keeps you turning the pages by ending each chapter with something that makes you want to find out what’s going to happen. Whose corpses are the flies hovering over? Why is the main character so uneasy being back in his home town? Who is the girl whose eyes looked vacant as her lungs filled with water?

LESSON THREE: Create tension that compels the reader to turn the page by ending each chapter with a teaser.

4. Show don’t tell


‘Listen,’ I said. ‘Have you told the people at the clinic you’re in pain?’

She looked up surprised. ‘Oh, darling,’ she said, sounding almost bored. ‘They treat cancer. Pain’s a given. They’re not interested in my pain.’

I turned away to the sink and yanked on the rubber gloves.

Helen Garner is a master of using the sparest language to convey everything you need to know about her characters. In this novel, the main character, Hel, becomes increasingly frustrated with her friend and houseguest Nicola who, despite dying of cancer and in enormous pain, continues to pay exorbitant fees to dubious ‘doctors’ for increasingly bizarre alternative therapies. As a reader, you find yourself becoming full of rage and indignation. Just look at how much quiet fury Garner rustled up in the short exchange above.

LESSON FOUR: Use action and dialogue to convey emotion (the yanking of the gloves!) or to impart information (doctors who aren’t interested in the patient’s pain? You just know they’re shonky.)

5. Create believable, relatable and/or interesting characters


She marched to the door and flung it open.

“Katherine, dearest, don’t rush off!” Her father stood up. “Oh, dear, this isn’t going well at all. It’s just that she’s so busy, Pyoder. I can never get her to sit down and take a little break. Did I tell you she runs our whole house? She’s very domestic. Oh, I already said that. And she has a full-time job besides. Did I tell you she teaches preschool? She’s wonderful with small children.”

“Why are you talking this way?” Kate demanded, turning on him. “What’s come over you? I hate small children; you know that.”

There was another hooting sound from Pyotr. He was grinning up at her. “Why you hate small children?” he asked her.

“Well, they’re not very bright, if you’ve noticed.”

He hooted again. What with his hooting and the banana he held, he reminded her of a chimpanzee. She spun away and stalked out, letting the door slam shut, and climbed the stairs two at a time.

This novel just goes to show that you don't need a big, complicated, racy plot to be a page-turner. Make us love the characters (spiky and eccentric and full of human frailty as they are) and we desperately want to find out what happens to them, no matter how small and insignificant their lives may seem at first glance. Anne Tyler is brilliant at creating character driven narratives, again by using mainly action and dialogue to ‘show’ the protagonist’s characters. In the first chapter of Vinegar Girl, we get an immediate sense of Kate’s introversion, intolerance of her immediate family and simmering anger about something, but we also get a glimpse of her softness, all of which made me want to find out more about her.

LESSON FIVE: Get the characters to interact to show their personalities. In this case, it is clear that Kate is fed-up and angry, coming across as rude, her father is desperately trying to appease her and failing miserably, while Pyotr seems to find her behaviour amusing! It’s an intriguing mix of characters.

Notice the use of action to convey Kate’s annoyance. Rather than telling us Kate is pissed off, we are shown by her marching to the door and flinging it open, by her stalking and slamming and not ‘saying’ but ‘demanding’.

6. Deal with backstory





Stephen King says “The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting. Stick to the parts that are, and don’t get carried away with the rest.”

It is so tempting to lay out our characters’ back stories in a torrent of ‘telling’ but how do you ‘show’ back story? Working it into the narrative is hard because it risks sounding clunky or too obvious, while devoting a whole chapter to back story risks pulling the reader out of the action and slowing everything down.

In all this active reading of mine over the summer, I’ve paid particular attention to the techniques authors have used to incorporate back story. It seems, like everything to do with this novel-writing malarkey, that it all comes back to the basics - just make sure your back story, however you incorporate it, still has a hook, a character insight, a surprise, tension, that it moves the plot forward.

Liane Moriarty is brilliant at the incorporation method.

Right up until the moment that Patrick put down his knife and fork, it had been perfect. Exquisite even. She’d slept deeply and dreamlessly to the rhythm of the rain on the roof . . .

And she’s off, into some reminiscing by her main character, Ellen, that provides insights into her character and sets up her current situation.

The other three novels (all of which I thoroughly enjoyed and would recommend by the way) comprised brand new chapters that were wholly devoted to back story. Yes, those chapters pull you out of the current narrative, but if you can make the back story interesting and compelling, then as a reader, you don’t mind going with it. As my friend Jo Riccioni says “When people buy a novel they're in it for the long haul .... you have leisure to unravel the story. Make the reader work … we like it.”

Also, if you’ve captured me as a reader with the first few chapters and I love your character/s, I’ll be absolutely gasping for the back story. I think KM Weiland’s advice is spot on “Take the time to engage the reader’s curiosity and raise the stakes (start with action and hook), and readers will not only be willing to sit through the backstory, they will be champing at the bit to learn about it.”

LESSON 6: It doesn’t matter if you dish up back story in a bowl or on a plate, as long as the contents are tasty! In other words, make sure it’s as compelling as the main narrative, that it answers some question the reader is dying to know about and that your characters and story are already engaging so the reader is willing to be yanked out of the main narrative to learn more.

This last lesson has been particularly useful to me as I wrestle with the structural edit of my manuscript. I’ve fallen into the big bear-trap of far too much ‘telling’ with my back story so I’m now writing new scenes that use action and dialogue to ‘show’ those stories. Easier said than done!

What did you read this summer? And more importantly, what did you learn that you can apply to your writing?

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