Thursday, December 17, 2015

Writing Basics: Reading with a Writer's Eye

In my prior post Writing Basics: Learning from the Greats, I discussed two ways in which you can use your favorite books to improve your writing skills. Today, I am going to provide an example of the second method, reading with a writer's eye.

This method is my favorite because it allows you to, with a slight change of focus while reading, passively improve your craft by considering the ways great writers write great books.

Below are some of the notes I have been mentally taking while reading Juliet Marillier's Wolfskin. (I avoided spoilers where possible.)

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1. Importance of character POV- How Eyvind didn't know the truth/wouldn't see the truth about Somerled.

This aspect of the book helped me focus on how an author can craft a multifaceted tale by showing events from varying perspectives. In much the same way that George R. R. Martin shows us the same event from multiple perspectives, and thus gives us a greater sense of "truth" versus "fact" in his Game of Thrones series, Marillier shows us Somerled's actions through the lens of Eyvind, his stalwart friend and blood brother since youth. Eyvind seeks to see the goodness in Somerled, and so gives him the benefit of the doubt when the facts point in a damning direction for Somerled. Though the reader may reach his/her conclusions on Somerled as a character early in the book, we are forced to seek the goodness in this seemingly all-evil character because Eyvind (one of our primary POV character's) seeks it, even through the darkest of times and the most horrendous of events.

This line of thought also had me thinking about reliable versus unreliable narrators (separate point from what we see in this book, but it felt worth mentioning here because it points to an additional benefit of reading with a writer's eye: the information we glean on craft from fiction can lead us to think about various aspects of writing outside of the book at hand.)

2. Importance of historical patterns - Nessa's people take sick and many die during a seasonal change after the Vikings come from Rogaland.

This event, while serving a purpose in terms of plot and character development, stood out for me because it had a ring of Earth prime truth to it. One simply has to turn to the repercussions seen in the contact between Europeans and American Natives to see how foreign contact can affect an isolated population, especially in terms of illness and disease. Though the Norsemen in Wolfskin came to the Light Isles with intentions of peace (well, some of them had intentions of peace), they inadvertently gave the Folk a grave and deadly illness that stripped from them many of their fighting men. Again, while I can appreciate the affect this event has on the overall plot, I can also appreciate the ways in which it grounds me in the story itself because I see the event as being logical based on parallel Earth prime historical evidence.

In all likelihood, the illness suffered by Nessa's people (the Folk) was from some dormant strain the Vikings carried (had been exposed to in youth and thus from which had immunity). This is why none of the Norsemen were affected by the illness, despite being a source of care for the Folk during their time of illness.

3. The description of place/grounding your fiction in truth - Orkney is a real place (located north of Scotland) with real landmarks and history which Marillier evoked in her story.

While Marillier explains in the Historical Note of Wolfskin that she used a blend of historical possibility and pure fiction, one must admire the way she grounds her story in a real place and references real landmarks. Doing so ensures that Marillier's readers are more likely to find a sense of truth, a sense of logical possibility in her story. Though her book features magic, charms, anthropomorphic figures, and almost superhuman feats of will, it is easy for a reader to suspend his/her disbelief because of the fidelity with which Marillier represents the time period and region.

4. Character development, emotional - Eyvind and Somerled's friendship, and Eyvind's opinion of himself.

Through out the course of the book, the reader can see the ways in which Eyvind both values and devalues himself as both a warrior favored by the god Thor and a man who has failings in abundance. Though we would have known Eyvind's opinion of himself anyway (he is a POV character, after all), we get a fuller sense of who he is and why because of his interactions with Somerled. Eyvind goes from seeing Somerled as a burden, to seeing him as a being with grand potential, to seeing him as a friend, to taking him as a blood brother, to fearing what he has become. Throughout this journey of growth, friendship, and loss, we see how Somerled's actions affect his and Eyvind's relationship. We also get the chance to see how Somerled's derisive comments to Eyvind affect Eyvind's sense of self.

It is possible for a potential writer to learn much from the emotional interaction between these two characters, especially when it comes to developing emotionally strong, realistic, and diverse characters.

5. Character development, physical - The way we learn more about Eyvind because of Nessa's observations.

At the beginning of Wolfskin, we follow Eyvind. We get to know how he feels about himself (stupid, can't learn basic things like writing or how to be witty, only good at being a warrior) and how he feels about others (finds Somerled to be intelligent with great potential, and much smarter than he is). Eyvind, in his thoughts and observations of himself and others, shows the reader that he is basically a simple warrior, determined to do right by his friends and Thor. It is from himself that we learn Eyvind is fair and rugged, tall and strong. We learn the basics of his physicality. However, the reader can deduce from the depth of his musings that Eyvind is anything but simple.

When he journeys to the Light Isles, we get to see him reflected through Nessa's eyes. We learn more about his physicality (he has kind eyes, butter-yellow hair, huge fists suitable for gripping his massive war hammer) and his demeanor (solemn and thoughtful) because Nessa observes him closely. In much the same way, we learn more about Nessa's physicality through Eyvind: she is slight and dark with slender shoulders and an air of mystery and magic.

This observance of physical characterization got me thinking about the ways in which I describe my own characters, and the emphasis I give to certain attributes versus others. It also had me considering the delivery of such physical revelations: should I, like the ever present cliche, have my characters look in a reflective surface and describe themselves, or should I slowly, intentionally, and with purpose reveal how they look through the characters who view them?

In closing:

There is much and more that can be learned from reading some of our favorite books.

The important thing is to read with purpose; if you appreciate a description or characterization, don't gloss over it and keep reading. Spend a second or two thinking about exactly what you appreciated and why. In this way, you can vastly improve your craft by learning from great writers, all while still enjoying your favorite books. It may be jarring at first to do this, but once you get in the habit, reading with a writer's eye can become unobtrusive and second-nature. 

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