Sunday, June 06, 2010

Learning from Great Books

When I read a book that makes me fall in love with it, I want to learn from it. I want to know exactly what about that book makes it great; I want to figure out how that author achieved such amazing success with words. My standard procedure is to buy a second copy of the book to mark up. My intent is to go through and underline sentences and passages that speak to me, to make notes in the margin about characters and dialog, to analyze and dissect.

Here's what always happens: By page 2, I am so caught up in the story that I completely forget about making notes and underlining.

This is happening to me right now. I have always loved Jennifer Echols's The Boys Next Door. And when the sequel, Endless Summer, came out a few weeks ago, I re-read TBND and fell in love with it all over again. And now I want to figure out how Jennifer does it. How she creates such a compelling story. But I can't! I keep getting caught up in the wonderful, funny characters; the amazing sexual tension; and the right-on-the-nail-head dialog. And I guess that's one definition of writer's voice: the intangible, indecipherable magic that makes a book great.

How about you? How do you learn from great books?

11 comments:

Carla Swafford said...

I agree totally with you about Jennifer. Though my favorite all time book of hers is GOING TOO FAR.

The book I bought specially to tear apart and see how she did it was Victoria Dahl's book TALK ME DOWN. That book was sexy and so funny. I did the same thing, JoAnn. I started reading instead of marking.

The funny thing about those two authors are that they're CPs. LOL!

M.V.Freeman said...

I love that you do that Joann! I try doing that and like you I get so caught up in the story again.

For me its how the writer does the characterization...that makes it for me.

I am behind on Jennifer's books, I need to catch up!

Jennifer Echols said...

Y'all, this is really sweet! I've never read any of JoAnn's work but I can tell you that my jaw dropped when I read Carla's sexy partial recently. I think a big part of having a strong voice is having no fear and she has NONE.

JoAnn said...

Carla, I love GOING TO FAR too! But there's just something about THE BOYS NEXT DOOR that grabs me. :-)

I think the trick to reading for analyzing vs reading for pleasure is to analyze in small doses. Today I read three scenes, then made myself stop and analyze them. It seemed to work.

JoAnn said...

Mary, you're absolutely right about how compelling fabulous characterization is. I wish I could do it!

JoAnn said...

Haha, Jenn! You are absolutely right -- our Carla is FIERCELY FEARLESS. :-)

Carla Swafford said...

Jenn and JoAnn, you two are so funny. You just say that because you didn't know I was a dirty old woman. LOL!

Hugs to both of you.

Jeanie said...

JoAnn, great post. I don't mark my favorite books up, but certain passages are certainly thumb worn! Isn't it funny that, while many books may be enjoyable, most are forgettable? It's those favorite, magical few we love to read and re-read, to try and absorb the spark and magic that makes that author stand out.

As writers, we all want to be in the keeper pile. Jen, you are there, girl, and how fabulous! Writing is hard and you've found your voice and the magic. What a magnificent feeling that must be!

As for you, Miss Carla, I would LOVE to read that passage Jen mentions. I'm a dirty old woman too!

JoAnn said...

Hey, Jeanie -- I always keep a copy of my favorite books as a pristine "reading for pleasure" copy! I've actually been known to by three copies of some books because I wear them out. :-)

Cari Hislop said...

I just finished The Diary of a Farmer's Wife 1796-1797 yesterday, definitely a great book (at least to me).

A friend at church handed it to me on Sunday and said, "You'll love this!" I've ordered two copies.

What makes it great? The voice of the diarist is so human, kind, funny and so real. I finished it and was sad there wasn't more.

I don't think one can write a book that everyone will find unforgettable. We're all so different and we value different things; we need different stories, but I think if our characters are allowed to tell their stories as they wish to...the people who need our stories will find them and the stories will work their magic. We just have to have faith in our characters that they know what they're doing. (Easier said than done!)

In the mean time...I suspect my characters are all sighing in irritation at being stuck with me as their writer. I can hear them now..."Who do you have? Cari? Me too...what did we do to be stuck with her? I wish she'd write faster. I've been waiting three years in this coach to meet my sweetheart, but I can't get out until she writes me to Cambridge. Cari better type faster or she'll feel my wrath..."

I'm not feeling well today though so they'll have to wait...I think its time to go back to bed.

JoAnn said...

Cari, that's brilliant! I know my characters feel the same way with me. (Mostly they say things like "Jeez, I wish she'd make up her mind!" and "If she changes my name one more time, I'm going to refuse to participate. I will sit here with my arms folded and my mouth shut.")

And you're right -- we have our own stories and voices. I need to focus on what I have and make that stronger. Thank you!