This past weekend I set about rereading the Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. (A) Because it is brilliant, and enthralling, and I love it. (B) Because the third and final book of the series, Mockingjay, comes out in LESS THAN 10 DAYS OMGYESFINALLY! And (C) It’s inspirational/educational for me as I begin my new project.
The first time around, I couldn’t stop whipping through the pages, desperate to find out what new obstacle Katniss would face — and quickly! This time, as Sherrie points out, “the tension was still there on every page, but I was really reading every page, not racing to find out what happens next.”
Yes, this time I had my writer hat on, in addition to my reader hat, and I was able to think about what Collins was doing. I could see the seeds she had sown, whereas last time I could only marvel at the plants as they sprouted. I watched for how she drove tension, how she handled the limited first person perspective, how she withheld and then revealed information over time. Dare I say it, I even mentally edited a few sentences. Collins wasn’t perfect, but she was damn near it. She was masterful.
And hey, here’s what’s so awesome about being a writer: your “Master’s degree” can be free! (Shh, don’t tell my parents. We spent, um, a lot of money on my B.A.)
Pick up any book and you can learn a world of tricks and secrets. (Note: Erika Robuck blogged about this over at Writer Unboxed, specifically discussing characters, and how authors make you fall in love with them.) Good or bad, as a writer, you can take something from any book. Maybe the prose was beautiful but the story was boring. Maybe the story was great but the characters were inconsistent. Maybe the characters were lovable but the dialogue fell flat. Or maybe it’s all spectacular (see: Hunger Games, or The Secret Life of Bees) — then just try to understand and emulate it.
Yes, EMULATE IT. Do not be afraid of trying to recreate something that worked, in your own way. I am not advocating plagiarism, but rather, apprenticeship. Like playing piano, or building a house, or calculating profit margins, there are techniques already in place, templates to take advantage of. Artists are always afraid of this, afraid of “stealing,” but trust me, if you’re really an artist, you won’t. You will make it your own.
So learn from the masters. Figure out what they did right, what they did wrong, and what you can do differently. Then do it. Practice. Every day, every word.
Eventually you too will be a master.