Free master courses in writing

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.

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14 Comments

  1. I’m actually getting a master’s class from my kids. Exhibit A) Besides the icebergs, etc., that Elsie (age 5) requested for her birthday were seals, walruses, beluga whales, and lemmings. Now, why did she want them? She wanted them so that the polar bears and arctic foxes she already has can eat them. Exhibit B) Quinn (age 4) wanted Ursula, Malificent, and the Mean Queen to accompany her play with the Ariel, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White toys she already has.

    What, you ask, does this have to do with the post at hand? Well, they both wanted these things for their imaginative play. They had the good guys (you decide how to see the polar bears!) and now they needed the other side of the coin. They needed *conflict.*

    I’ve started writing a fairy tale, and watching my girls with their imaginative play – and what they want to facilitate it – has really brought it home to me how important the bad guys are, how necessary conflict is to a story. My tendency is to fall in love with my heroes and heroines, and then frankly I don’t want to traumatize them too much. This is a flaw. Trauma is needed!

    And master’s classes are all around – if you look for them. :)

  2. Les

    I’m trying to read more lately, for some reason it seems to slip by the wayside…

  3. As my three-year old would say, “Yep and yep.” :) I love this idea, I’m signing up for my Masters course.

    “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.
    C. S. Lewis (1898 – 1963)”

  4. I just started reading CATCHING FIRE yesterday. I waited to read it because I didn’t want it to end (I’m a dork!). My reading club is reading MOCKINGJAY next, so now I have to read both of them!

  5. I remember one of my high school English teacher’s taking me aside and having a conversation about books. It was her experience that people learned to write well by reading a lot when they were younger (even if they didn’t necessarily keep reading later on in life).

    I think there’s something to be learned from every book, no matter if you enjoy it or not. Of course, enjoyment would make that learning a bit easier :D

  6. OMG! I’m so glad I’m not the only one who mentally edits sentences when reading. That being said, I can’t wait until Mockingjay comes out. I didn’t re-read the series, which I probably should, so I hope I’m not too lost. I was one of those people who was flying through trying to find out what was going to happen next.

  7. Jon

    Agreed about emulating certain authors’ styles. Hey, imitation is the highest form of flattery, after all. I wouldn’t go too far, either, but follow the way you describe it, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Learn from the mistakes of others!

  8. This is a wonderful post! It is so heartening because this is the path I have chosen to follow. Everyone always asks me what I’m going to do with my life and then when I tell them I’m going to write novels they look at me like it’s not a real option. But it’s what I’m good at and love to do! I always read with my writer’s hat on and gather tips so that I can, well get better. And I finally made the decision to go for the gold with my creative writing MA. Why not? It’s what I love, and I can break into both the writing and publishing world with it. I’m with you Kristan!

  9. Wylie

    Very good message!

  10. Sonja-
    “And master’s classes are all around – if you look for them. :)”

    Yes! Brilliant! And yes, torture our heroes/heroines we must. Sadly I’ve come to enjoy that part… but only because then their triumphs are even more… triumphant!

    Les-
    I seem to alternate weeks. 1 of heavy reading, 1 of no reading. {shrug}

    Sarah-
    C.S. Lewis is a genius in many ways. :)

    Rachele-
    Erin was doing the same thing — holding off so she wouldn’t have to wait as long for Mockingjay. I admire y’all’s self-restraint. Me, I just burn through everything (books, chocolate, sleep) until I run out and desperately need more. :P

    Miss Rosemary-
    Good for you! And good luck! (Note: I have a semi-flexible day job that allows me to pursue my writing without becoming a literal starving artist, and that’s something I highly recommend.)

  11. Joelle

    I love going back and re reading a book from a writer’s POV :) I’ve never thought of it as being able to get a free course in writing, until today. I keep hearing about the Hunger Games books, I suppose I’ll check them out.

  12. I have to say that the learning can only begin on the second reading. The first reading is meeting the novel, breaking the ice and establishing whether it’s the book to learn from. Only during the rereads can the writer awaken and shove the reader, who by the way still keeps asking ‘what’s to happen next?’, and see how it’s done.

    Anyway, yes, I agree. Every book can teach us and we shouldn’t fear experimenting with what we see.

  13. Suzanne Collins series is amazing. I had a bunch of friends taking a young adult class and they kept raving about it so I eventually got around to reading it after I finished school. I wish people were as obsessed about them as Twilight, cause I feel they are far better written than the Twilight books. At least it would be an obsession I could get behind.

  14. Joelle-
    There’s death and mayhem! I think you’ll like them.

    Harry-
    Good point! It does usually take a second reading. Some books that I am enjoying *enough* but not *overwhelmingly* I can analyze on the first go-round. But for the ones I love (and thus the ones I most want to emulate) yes, I have to read again.

    Lauren-
    I think some people are more obsessed about HG than Twilight… but especially with the movies out, Twilight has reached a broader audience. Hopefully when the HG movies come out, the series will experience a greater surge in awareness/popularity.

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