Thursday, August 29, 2013

Step 2: Choose a Model Text

Thought for the Day: "I spent three days a week for 10 years educating myself in the public library, and it's better than college. People should educate themselves - you can get a complete education for no money. At the end of 10 years, I had read every book in the library and I'd written a thousand stories." ~Ray Bradbury (1920 - 2012)

ray bradbury.jpg Ray Bradbury, who died on June 5, 2012, was the author of Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man and numerous other works, and was also and obviously a big reader... Notice the equation in the quote above: ten years of reading equals a thousand stories. This is our Thought for the Day because what you are going to do this week in order to help yourself as a writer is choose something that you loved to read. The thing you choose will be your Model Text; that is, the text itself (short story, novel, graphic novel, poem, essay, screenplay, etc.) will teach you something that you can strive towards and emulate in your own work. (Teachers: this is something like working with a Mentor Text. If you would like more information about Mentor Texts, please let me know.)

saint maybe.jpg Step 1: Choose a piece of writing that is similar to something you want to write. If you are writing a fantasy novel, choose a fantasy novel that you have read and loved. If you want to write a realistic short story, choose one that you really admire and, again, one that is similar in subject and style to what you want to write and what you are able to write. You should not necessarily choose the best thing ever written. I admire Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury very much, but I do not write like Faulkner, nor do I intend to try. I have chosen Anne Tyler's Saint Maybe for this exercise in the past because I think she is a wonderful writer, her books are the kind that I want to write, and because on my very best day, when all the planets are aligned and the universe is smiling on me, I can kind of write a little bit like Anne Tyler (while ideally remaining entirely myself, creatively speaking).

stephenking.jpg Note: If you can't come up with a text to study and emulate, then you are not reading enough. Stephen King says, "If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. Reading is the creative center of a writer's life." While you catch up with your reading, I would be happy to help you find a model text, just get in touch with me (Dr. Mandyck).

Step 2: Make a THOROUGH study of your Model Text. If it is a shorter piece, then read it again. If a longer one, then skim it. Consider the following:

How many pages long is your text?
How many chapters?
Do the chapters have titles or just numbers?
Does the author use epigraphs, diary entries, letters, anything like that?
How long are the paragraphs?
Is there a lot of dialogue or a little?
A lot of description or a little?
Action-packed or more contemplative or internal?
First person or third?
How many narrators?
Big words or small?
Flowery prose or plain?
How much time passes from beginning to end?
How many characters are there? (You should probably write them all down.)
Are they mostly male or female?
What is the setting?
Who do you think is the intended audience?
What is the conflict that drives the plot?
How is the story resolved?

Great Book with Magnifying Glass.jpg Your questions will be different if you are writing poetry or nonfiction, and you will probably notice some things that I don't ask about here, but I hope you see what I mean. You should be intimately familiar with your model text and really understand what went into its making.

Step 3: Write a one-page report on your Model Text, describing it in as much detail as you can. Don't critique it or praise it, just describe it. For example: "Anne Tyler's Saint Maybe is about a family of five adults and three children and takes place over the course of 27 years. Each chapter is narrated by a different third-person limited speaker, and each chapter has a title that serves to illustrate the theme of the chapter, although does not name it explicitly ("The Man Who Forgot How To Fly" is one example). Tyler uses a lot of dialogue, detail and exclamation points." And so on.

Step 4 is a Writing Prompt: Consider the thing you are trying to write, even if it exists only in your head right now. What characteristics of your Model Text can you use in your piece of writing? Write another report, which might be several pages long, on the Piece of Writing That Is Yet-To-Be, describing it in detail. You might not yet have all these answers, but you should consider and address them in your report. For example, who is your main character? Who are the supporting characters? Where is the story set? What year is it? Are you writing long chapters or scenes or short ones? Is the action building to a climax, or is the struggle to be more subtle or internal? If you have a work in progress, great. Thoroughly describe it as it is right now AND describe what you have in mind for it as you go on.

And here is the kicker: what is your piece ABOUT? When someone asks you (and they will), "What is your story, novel, screenplay about?" what will you say? Imagine that you are writing the blurb for the inside cover of your book, or the short description of the movie that will be made of your book. : ) (The inside cover of Saint Maybe says, "In 1965 the Bedloe family lives on a quiet street in Baltimore. It is an ideal, apple-pie household, and seventeen-year-old Ian has all the usual expectations and dreams for the future. That is, until the night when he meddles in his older brother's life--and from that careless moment on, nothing can ever be the same." Try something like that.)

Thumbnail image for frustrated.jpg Note: This will probably be hard! The first time I did this exercise with a novel in progress, the first thing I wrote in my report on my own work was: "I have no idea what this novel is about!" So, struggle with it, if you must. Work on it over several days at least, and keep thinking about it even when you are not sitting down to write; let your subconscious mind chew on it too. When you feel finished, you can put it aside, but someplace handy because you WILL come back to it as you continue to work.

Writing Advice:
4 Reasons for Making Time To Read 
Inspirational Words:
Anne Tyler: Author Interview

Resources and Links:
Creative Writing Exercises for Craft
Be a Better Writer

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