Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Column: Five Craft Elements a Model Book Can Teach You by Deb McLeod

As a creative writing coach, I ask my clients to find a model book. Maybe even two.

A model book is one that:
  • is typically in your genre
  • is something you have either said “this is the book I wanted to write,” or “I could have written that book.”

Together, we pick it apart and identify craft elements that the model author used that could teach us something about what the client likes or identifies with in a story.

What worked?

I like to teach from a model book. Teaching from a book that’s a finished product and one that’s presumably been edited (though that’s all changing with e-books, isn’t it?) allows writers to judge what worked and what craft elements they might be able to use in their own book. It also begins to help identify just what it was about that book that resonated with them.

Something else happens too. When you use a model book, there’s a focus on the positive – what did work? Because you only want to emulate what did work, right?

Even if you’re identifying what didn’t work in the model book, you spin that to a positive because the next question, of course, is: What would you do differently in your book?

Different than critique group discussions

In my years of coaching I have found this kind of work to have an important distinction from critique groups. I have participated, led and attended many, many, many critique groups. I find that in analyzing work that’s not complete, the focus is generally on what doesn’t work – helping the writer fix it. There are points of discussion about what does work, but the bulk of the conversation is about how the writer might change what’s on the page so that it does work according to the writers in the group.

When you use a model book, there’s no changing it. It is what it is. There’s only what you can learn from it and adapt into your work.

I run a monthly Writers Book Club where we dissect books for craft elements. Often one of the first things I ask is: what would your critique group say about this book? Interesting to note that we usually concur that most of the books we read wouldn’t have made it through our critique group intact.

Here are five things we might be focusing on when we’re dissecting a model book:

1.  Opening hook: you might actually pick apart the opening hooks of several books in your genre to get the feel of what works for you as a reader.

2.  Structure: this is a great use of a model book. What kind of plot is it? Is it traditional, lyrical, juxtapositional? Or a combination? Can you map the structure? Does your structure match? Can you learn anything from the model book structure?

3.  Backstory: Here’s a big one: When you’re writing you’re often figuring out the story as you’re writing so backstory creep is common. In your model book, look at when, how and how much backstory is conveyed.

4.  Arc: If you pull apart the individual character arcs, can you see something about the pacing? About the rise in tension? Can you see how the characters drive the plot?

5.  Story world: Is the world different than ours – different country, different time period, different species? If so, how is that difference communicated? If not, how much of a role does the world of the characters contribute?

One of my clients is working on a three-part YA series. So far, we have found a few model books to work from. They are all post-apocalyptic and they deal with certain differences in world structure, as does her book. How does the author orient the reader into the new world? Where does the story start? Do we get any backstory that tells what happened? Or does the book follow what the character needs to know and not what we readers think we need to know? How is the world different and the same as the one we know? What’s the story question? How does that question play out? Who is the character at the opening of the book? How does the character change? What did she face along the way?

There are as many ways to pick apart a model book for craft as there are craft elements that you can identify.

If you get experienced at picking books apart for their craft elements, you will begin to see what has worked in the past. Then you can decide if you want to follow a map you’ve created for yourself from your model book or if you want to veer away and create something different than the models that are available.

About the Writer:  Deb McLeod, is a writer, creative writing coach, co-founder and executive director of The Writing School. She has both an MFA and a BA in creative writing. She has been teaching and coaching for over ten years. Deb has published short fiction in anthologies and journals. She has written articles and creative nonfiction. Deb has been a professional blogger, tech writer, graphic artist and Internet marketing specialist.

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