Being a Better Writer: Learning From Other Authors’ Books

Readers! The time has come! The magnificence is upon us! It. Is. Here!

What am I talking about? Why LTUE of course! Life, The Universe, and Everything! The convention for writing Science-Fiction and Fantasy! It’s this week! February 13th-15th!

Yes, most of you have probably already heard of it since I have been mentioning it fairly frequently for the last month. But as it is this week, this is the last time for reminders. Come to LTUE and feast (metaphorically, we need those brains, plus at this con a zombie outbreak would be met with a shrug) on the knowledge of hundreds of professional authors!

Myself included! Yes, I will be there, speaking on several panels as well as attending the launch of A Dragon and Her Girl! And doing a reading from my short in said collection the next day! In addition, I’ll also be at the general signing, so if you’re grabbing a copy to sell, well …

I’ll also be around the con the whole time I’m not on a panel, having fun or even attending other panels. If you’re on the lookout for me, I’ll be sporting a tan shirt that says “Ask me about my book” (perfect, right). Feel free to speak up, catch my attention and say hello! As long as I’m not running to one of the panels I’m on, I’m always willing to chat for a bit and say hello!

By the way, if you’re attending LTUE and looking over the panels in joyful glee of figuring out where you want to be and when, check out my schedule here if you want to make sure you can make it to the panels I’m on. I hope to see you there!

Now, in the spirit of the week, I thought I’d cover a less common but no less useful topic this time for Being a Better Writer: learning from works written by other authors.

This is something that I’ve written about before, or at least touched on, in various BaBW posts, this concept that reading other authors’ works can be a bit like picking up a textbook on how to write. But since this week is all about learning right from those authors, I figured it was about time to do a post on it. After all, if you can’t make it to LTUE, and can’t watch any of the videos that will go online on their YouTube page, that doesn’t mean you still can’t learn from the massive amount of authors that will be there, albeit indirectly.

So then, how does one learn about writing by reading someone else’s book?

Well, I’m sure some of you will answer “Easy, by osmosis.” And well, when it comes to learning how to write by reading others’ works, that’s not wrong.

Yeah, I’m not kidding. Look, if you spend your free time reading great books, things like The Lord of the Rings, or The Icarus Hunt, or Sins of Empire, you’re going to learn something even if its unconscious. You may not be able to articulate it; after all, all the learning with unconscious learning is passive, so when asked directly, you might flounder for a bit (or a while) before being able to explain what it was you enjoyed about each of those books and what you learned from them, but it’s still possible.

Now, if you’re alert, you likely cocked an eyebrow at my choices of “great books” up above, wondering how I could put something like, say, Sins of Empire or The Icarus Hunt next to The Lord of the Rings, one of the acknowledged classics and founder-kings of modern fantasy.

Easy. It did so for two reasons: First, both of those books are extremely good. But second, because what they are good at is different than what LotR is good at.

Take The Icarus Hunt for example. I list it not because it’ll teach you in passing how to build an incredibly detailed fantasy world complete with thousand-year backstory (though it does paint a pretty good Sci-Fi setting that works just fine for the story), but rather for the other elements it does and does far far better than anything in LotR.

Yes, I stand by that statement. LotR, while a ground-breaking (and laying) work of fantasy that much of modern Fantasy has to look back to, doesn’t really have any elements of large mystery-thriller plot to it. Bilbo Baggins doesn’t investigate a murder before leaving the Shire, and Frodo and Sam don’t spend their time with the Fellowship knowing that they’re being knocked off one by one because one of them is a traitor.

The Icarus Hunt, however, is all about this kind of mystery. It’s a murder mystery aboard a space freighter, after all. Where someone among the crew is slowly trying to pick them all off one by one.

You can’t learn the tricks of how to pace that well, or set up clues and misdirection, by reading The Lord of the Rings. Because that’s not the focus of LotR. But it is the focus of The Icarus Hunt.

Same goes for Sins of Empire. What it does well, neither LotR or The Icarus Hunt focus on. This doesn’t make either of those books better or worse. I wouldn’t even say that the “lack” of what Sins does well is to their detriment. All three are great books. But what you can learn from them, what is one display and at the forefront of the author’s focus, is going to be different for each book, and therefore you can learn from all of them equally despite the differences in time, genre, and style between them.

Why bring this up? Because I have seen, before, people who realize they want to learn by reading the works of other authors, declare that they will read “all the classics” in order to be able to write, and then get to work. And just … no. No. Just because a book is a classic does not mean that it will teach you how to write what you want to write. In other words, reading Moby Dick will teach you exactly nothing about how to write a good murder mystery or heist story. This isn’t to say that a classic can’t be a good reading experience, but that if you want to learn specific good writing techniques, you need to read the good books that have those techniques.

Again, Moby Dick may be a classic, but don’t expect it to teach you about how to write a thrilling space fleet battle.

Okay, so you’ve got to at least make some choices with regards to what you are reading and attempting to learn from. Now how about the meat and potatoes of this post? How do you learn simply be reading another author’s book?

No, not unconsciously. We already talked about that. That’s just reading and enjoying the words on the page before you. And really quick: There’s nothing wrong with this. It works, so feel free to enjoy the books before you and read to your heart’s content.

But what about when you are being conscious about it. What about when someone recommends a book as a good example of something and you’re reading the book to learn about it?

Okay, here’s what you want to do. First, keep what you’re looking for in mind as you read through each and every page. As best you can. It might take some practice, but let your focus snap to it when you find it. This might, as you may surmise, diminish your enjoyment of the book a little, so you may want to wait for a second read-through if you just want to enjoy the book first. Or not.

But keep that focus in your mind as you read, and call it out (not vocally, unless that helps) when you find it. Make a note of it, mentally (or physically, if you’re so inclined). Then examine that passage or section, and start asking questions.

For example, one of the panels I’m on at LTUE is on writing non-human PoV characters (and yes, I’m excited!), so in preparation, I went back and reread two different books that feature exactly that (one of which I often recommend). As I did, I paid close attention the way the author portrayed the elements that made their PoV character non-human. Or rather, how they presented this fact without making it seem jarring to the reader. So when a scene where this aspect of the writing showed, I read it, noted it, examined it. What was the author’s approach? How did it differ from other approaches by other authors? Was there a specific phrasing they used? Was it reinforced by something else earlier in the text? And so on and so forth.

By asking myself questions like this that force me to examine the way the author handles the writing aspect I’m focusing on, and then answering them, I glean learning from their writing. I see how they handled a certain approach or scene, or how they tackled a particular problem. And then, later, when I write on my own, I can fall back on that knowledge of “Oh yeah, so-and-so did that and it worked. Maybe if I tried something like that …”

This can apply to a massive range of writing knowledge, from dialogue to mystery to worldbuilding. You pay attention to how other authors handle it and then apply that in your own work.

Now, I have heard some young writers respond to this advice by saying that they don’t want to do it because they’re afraid they’ll just copy what another writer does, and not develop their own voice.

Don’t worry about this. It’s a honest fear, but a misplaced one. Yes, it’s true that if you read a book to learn and then attempted to write those principles, you’d probably create something close … at least at first. Very quickly human nature would take over and you’d begin to do your own thing. Sure, you may have a few starts that look a lot  like the lone book or author you read, but with practice you’d settle into your own groove.

Better yet, there’s an easy solution that was hinted at in the above paragraph. I noted that it’s true if you read a book and then attempted to write those principles. But what if you attempted to read a dozen books, many by different authors, paying attention to all these different things you wanted to learn?

Why, you’d be much harder pressed to mimic one of them, even by accident. Instead, each approach would blend in your mind, and then as you wrote your own voice would develop, all the stronger for all the techniques, approaches, and tricks you’d learned from each of those authors. Your own voice would be strong, supplied and backed by the knowledge learned from reading each of those stories and what you learned.

The more you read, the more you analyze, the more your voice will pick up, and the more your knowledge of writing tools, techniques, and approaches will grow. To go back to the old “writer’s toolbox” analogy, each book you read has a chance to add a new tool, or sometimes bit, to your toolbox.

Better yet, sometimes those “bits” will be different ways completely of coming at an objective. Say for example you want to learn about misdirection. Well, there are different ways to go about it. A misdirect from an author like Brandon Sanderson, for example, will have a different execution than an author like Timothy Zahn. So if you read both, paying attention to how each of them approaches misdirection, you’ll find they do so in different ways, and then have two sources of inspiration to pull and learn from. Which will, with time, allow you to fashion your own “bit” to work with.

At which point, reader, some new aspiring authors out there may be reading your work to learn about your approach to a particular concept or tool.

Now, two final bits of advice. First. yes. this form of reading is a bit taxing. As well as slower. It’s a very active, analytical style. There’s nothing wrong with reading for the unconscious absorption first, and then coming back later when you think to yourself “I want to read a book that does this one thing really well” to analyze and learn in depth.

But second, some of you may be wondering “Well, how do I find books that are good at ______?” Well, the answer is simple.

Ask people.

Ask web forums. Ask people on Facebook. Ask librarians (a lot of them are readers). Ask friends! People at a bookstore! Use your sources to find books that tackle mechanics you want to learn!

And that? Well, that’s it! Read them and learn, then adapt and build your writer’s toolbox.

Good luck. Now get writing reading!

Being a Better Writer exists thanks to the support of the following Patreon supporters: Frenetic, Pajo, Anonymous Potato, tiwake, Taylor, Jack of a Few Trades, Alamis, Seirsan, Grand General Luna, Miller, Hoopy McGee, Brown, and Lightwind. Special thanks to them for helping keep Unusual Things ad-free and Being a Better Writer articles coming!

If you’d like to be a supporter as well, then check out our Patreon Page, or if you’re particular to a one-time donation, why not purchase a book!

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