Friday Morning Pages: Practice by Retyping

Last week was about practicing depth and sensory details in your writing. But how are you supposed to know what this stuff really looks like in a professional level story?

You’re a reader. Go find your favorite books, and see for yourself what those authors did to pull you into their books. There’s a thousand techniques to pull readers in, you’ll discover some of those techniques when you analyze the books that pull you in.

But there’s a trick to analyzing this stuff. You can’t just read, and you can’t just write your own stories. Do both, for sure. You need to also study.

First, read only for pleasure. If a book doesn’t hold you, toss it aside and find something that does. Life is too short to waste on reading dull books. I personally have a fifty page rule, which works like this: When a book doesn’t grab me on the first page, I put it aside, unless something about the book still interests me. The promise of something good to come, for example, like a steampunk world with mechanical dragons, or a quest in the outer reaches of the galaxy. Something that appeals to me as a reader. Then I give the book until page 50, and if I’m still not interested, I give up. Fifty pages is generous, long enough to forgive a poorly executed opening, short enough to read over a snack.

Second, you need to study modern bestsellers. Find modern books from top writers you enjoy. Isaac Asimov was a great writer, but his “idea stories” don’t appeal to many current audiences. Edgar Allan Poe’s work has stood the test of time, but nineteenth century style of prose hasn’t. If your goal is to entertain readers, then you need to read books that have been written within the last ten years.

With those two caveats in mind, here’s a great way to study and analyze books. As you read books, put them into a pile—physical or digital—and come back to them for study. With each book, open to page one and type in the author’s words as if you were writing the book. Don’t edit the original text, just type exactly word for word and coma for coma.

This will train the creative side of your brain to think like a storyteller. You’ll absorb the techniques the original author used, and then later you can use the technique for yourself.

If you retype James Patterson’s books, will you write exactly like Patterson when you attempt your own projects? No, goodness no. Your style will be very much your own, when you get out of your own way and allow your creative voice full reign. But you’ll adapt Patterson’s technique to your style.

(I like to pick on Patterson, because his craft and techniques are obvious when you realize what you’re looking at. I highly recommend studying his books, even you don’t actually read them.)

How much of the book do you copy? Depends on what you’re studying. I recommend the first 500 words, to study openings. Also a good idea to study specific areas of novels, like transitions and cliffhangers. End of chapters are good, and beginnings of new viewpoints. Study the final pages, how the author wraps the book together and gives the reader a warm feeling.

Or, if you’ve never written a novel before, spend a few weeks and retype an entire novel, start to finish. Maybe type 2,000 words a day, which is a good pace and, assuming you type every day, should get you to the end of book in a month or two, depending on how long it is.

Do this exercise with the type of books you enjoy reading and the genres you want to write in. What better way of learning a genre and all the loaded expectations that come with it, than by directly studying the top writers?

Also use this to study other genres. Pick one of the top romance writers, say Nora Roberts or Danielle Steele, and study how they handle emotions in their prose. Even if you don’t write romance, some day you’ll need to write about a character’s strong emotions, whether love or something else. The top romance writers are masters of showing and portraying emotional depth.

Study mysteries to understand how puzzles are built up and resolved.

Study science fiction to understand the “outsider viewpoint.”

And so on.

The point of this kind of study is to train your subconscious to think like a storyteller. When you sit down to write your own stories, all this information will be there, and you’ll use it without even realizing what you’re doing. Make study a habit, just writing every day.

And, as always, have fun.

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By David Anthony Brown

Indie writer and publisher. Among other jack-of-all-trade skills...

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