Learning from the pros
A few months ago, I wrote a blog about a number of bad habits writers can fall into and how to cure them or even avoid them. Today, I’d like to build on that topic. In a later blog, I will address the source of many of the bad habits I picked up: other writers. Even best-selling authors can fall into bad habits, and those habits can rub off on you if you’re not careful. For today’s blog, I’ll focus on the good habits you can pick up if you study other writers’ works.
I’ve learned a lot from my favorite authors. I’ve read and reread their works, studying the pace of their stories, their techniques, their exposition, anything I believe will help to make me a better writer. For a project to rise to the level of bestseller, there must be some benefit you can pick up from studying it.
When I was younger, I tended to find an author I liked and stick with what I knew. To this day, my bookshelves and storage bins are filled with novels by the likes of David Eddings, Terry Brooks, Robert Vardeman, and of course the obligatory five novels by J. R. R. Tolkien (the fifth novel is The Silmarillion, which was published after Tolkien’s death, by his son). In more modern works, I’ve become hooked on Timothy Zahn, Vince Flynn, and David Mack. Since I became a published author, however, I’ve tended to branch out more and not become so focused on a small group of writers. Let’s look at some of the strengths these writers bring to the table.
The master of backstory, and indeed the father of the fantasy genre, is J. R. R. Tolkien. When he wrote The Hobbit, and followed it up with The Lord of the Rings, he created an entire world in writing the background for the story he was creating. He invented the history for Middle Earth, going back thousands of years. He also created languages for some of the different races to speak, including Elvish, Orcish, and the language of Mordor.
The amount of work he invested in writing his backstory is staggering. Some of that work ended up forming the text of The Silmarillion. Although it’s probably not necessary to go to that extreme, having a full backstory certainly makes the writing easier. When I wrote my first novel, The Killing Frost, I filled up a legal pad with information on the history of the world I had created, including background information on every character in the novel. When you have all that information at your fingertips, not only is the novel easier to write, but you end up avoiding the conflicting information you’ll have if you make it all up as you go.
This became even more crucial when I wrote my first fantasy novel, The Piaras Legacy. For that one, I almost filled three legal pads with backstory. In the case of the fantasy genre, not only do you need to create the history of your world, but you have a whole set of rules to make up. Does magic work? How is it limited? How powerful can an individual get? If you write the story on the fly, I will guarantee that readers will find your characters doing something that, just a few chapters earlier, you told them was impossible.
David Eddings has written several novels, most famously The Belgariad series and its sequel series, The Mallorean. In these books, as in his others, his core group of characters goes on a quest, which carries them through a series of adventures. Frequently, they have to resort to violence to escape from peril. But that can get a bit repetitive. Characters find themselves in trouble, characters draw their swords, characters escape, rinse and repeat.
Eddings has his characters use their wits and much as their muscle. And by spreading it around among the various characters in the group, he shows that they all have their strengths and weaknesses, just like real people. That’s what we strive for our characters to be: as real as possible.
In my novels, I try to vary the storyline the same way. When my characters get into trouble, they sometimes resort to violence. But they also fall back on other options. Trickery, guile, bribery are all viable alternatives to fighting, and they add some variety to the novel. As a side benefit, this helps to flesh out your characters a bit and bring them to life.
Timothy Zahn specializes in science fiction. He has written a number of titles that were entirely his own creation, but he also writes in the Star Wars universe. One aspect of his writing that I really enjoyed is the pacing of his battle scenes. Whether it’s a ground battle between opposing forces, hand-to-hand fighting among a few combatants, or a space battle involving large numbers of ships, he brings his fights to life and keeps the tension levels high.
I feel that fight scenes are among the greatest strengths of my writing, and I credit a lot of that to learning from Zahn’s work. True, I have some experience in the area, and writing about what you’ve done is always easier. I’ve been in combat twice (Panama and the First Gulf War). That plus my combat training has given me a sharper insight into what it feels like to be in live combat. During my fifteen years as a police officer, I’ve been in any number of fights, which has helped to shape my hand-to-hand scenes. But I still want to give kudos to Zahn for helping form the framework for these passages.
I could go on and on with this topic. Terry Brooks showed me how to link books together in a series, even if each novel is a standalone. Vince Flynn’s books, starring Mitch Rapp, have sharpened the techno-thriller side of my writing. David Mack’s Star Trek novels helped me with my character development (and they’ve given me a goal to work toward: getting my own Star Trek novel published). My style is uniquely my own, but I have definitely learned from some of the top writers in the field. I hope you can learn from your favorite authors, too.