Justine: Fiction as Reference Books

eight ladies writing, justine covington, writing fiction, romanceWe Ladies seem to have fallen into a book theme this week (we swear it was unplanned), starting last Friday with Kat’s post about one of her favorite authors, Jilly’s about reader reviews, and Nancy’s post yesterday, where she shared some of her favorite novels.

Today, I’m talking about fiction as reference books.

Naturally, I don’t mean “reference” as in something scholarly that you’d use for your PhD dissertation (although I’m sure you can do that); I’m talking more about using fiction as a reference for what you should — and shouldn’t — do when writing.

I’m rewriting my first scene (again — I think this makes about 5 times now…since March) and it’s important for me to build into the scene some good tension between Nate and Susannah — some good verbal dialogue, witty epithets, calculated moves — but also a demonstration of their mutual attraction. Naturally, I turned to books where I’ve read that sort of “good stuff.” For me, reading the first several chapters (after the prologue) of Loretta Chase’s “Lord of Scoundrels” was perfect. There’s great tension (but attraction!) between Jess and Dain, they’re each of their own mind, there are some great zingers, totally unexpected action/reaction, and the whole thing just moves along at a sprightly pace, completely taking the reader with you.

One thing I have not done (yet) in my book is have multiple POVs per scene, but after reading “LoS” again, and also reading a great book on fiction writing called “The Fire in Fiction” by Donald Maass, I’m starting to think I should change that. It would certainly allow me to avoid all the “thinkin'” that happens at the start of each new scene, as the non-POV character from the previous one processes everything that happened. I’m still cogitating on that (but am happy to hear your opinion on it).

Another author that I’ve been mining lately is Georgette Heyer, mostly for her dialogue and period language. I actually started making a list in the back of my Moleskine of period words and phrases Heyer uses — not that I could necessarily start throwing them into my book without sounding like a plagiarist or copycat, but certain words, like “spinney,” for instance, I could probably get away with (a spinney is a thicket or wooded area, just in case you were  unaware as I was). What I love about Heyer is her restraint. Take “Black Sheep.” In that book, Ms. Wendover puts Mr. Miles Calverleigh on the spot quite a bit, because his money-grubbing nephew is courting her niece (for her fortune, of course). Naturally, Ms. Wendover wants Mr. Miles Calverleigh to do something about it, but he does not (at least, that’s what you’re supposed to think). When I expect Miles to jump up and either swear or issue a witty retort to one of Ms. Wendover’s barbs, he never does…instead, he adopts a languid, genteel, laissez-faire attitude. I know this is part of Miles’ character, but Ms. Heyer uses dialogue in the most exceptional ways to pull this off. It’s a treat reading her.

Not so much a treat, but also a good learning experience, are some of the — ahem — less-well-vetted books out there…the freebies and the self-published novels. (Before everyone gets in a lather, I’m not saying that every traditionally published book is exceptional and every self-published book is not; however, the odds are higher that a self-published book will not have gone under the same, er,  scrutiny as a traditionally published book.) I’ve read a few self-pubbed books…some were pretty okay and others were downright terrible, but all of them were great for me to learn what NOT to do or what to do better. I actually think that reading bad novels is as important as reading good ones (although I’d qualify that by encouraging you to adopt a 4-to-1 ratio — for every 4 good books, read 1 bad one). Frankly, I’d much rather read someone else’s mistake than make the same one myself.

I’m sure you all have “go-to” books or authors that you read when you need some inspiration, examples, or lessons. Who or what are they? Have you found any benefit from reading poorly written novels?

8 thoughts on “Justine: Fiction as Reference Books

  1. Reading a bad book reinforces everything one has ever learned in every class. Too much backstory, unnatural-sounding dialogue, telling not showing, it just jumps out at you. I read Jenny for a model—I love even the books she says she made mistakes in. I should be able to make mistakes like those!

    I also love Georgette Heyer, and as for “spinney”—where I learned that word was from A.A. Milne in The World of Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner. I loved those books. And when I read your post and saw that word again, I remembered how much I learned about character development from reading them.

  2. I recently read a book that I would not call bad in the sense of having poor writing, but I didn’t love the story and the author pulled the same stunt multiple times and I just hated the manipulative feel of it. She’s an author well-known in contemporary romance/women’s fiction that I’ve been told by several people I ‘must read’, which is I why I didn’t put the book down and walk away after the first incident, which occurred in the first scene.

    The stunt was making a scene seem like it was about one thing, then surprise! it wasn’t about that thing at all, it was actually totally different. And of course, I saw it coming each time, so it didn’t feel clever, it just felt annoying. One example late in the book was a scene between two teenagers where the reader is led to believe they’re fondling and groping each other and oohing and aahing in romantic ecstasy, when in fact, they’re fondling a telescope and oohing and aahing over a celestial event. As this was about the fifth time this intentional ‘misunderstanding’ between reader and writer occurred, I decided to finish that book (invested too much time by that point), but I won’t pick up another one by that author.

    More typically, if a book is ‘bad’ (IMHO) or just not my cup of tea, I’ll put it down and move onto the next book in my TBR pile. I can see merit in reading what we don’t like to help us determine what not to do, but the older I get, the more I think life’s too short to read books I don’t enjoy :-).

    • I totally understand what you’re saying about life is short; however, the “bad” books I read are typically 40,000 words or less, so it’s not a HUGE investment in time. Now were it a Diana Gabaldon-size tome, I think I’d cut out early, too!

    • That “stunt” is kind of interesting. It seem like something I’ve seen in rather bad sitcoms or comedies — we are given something “hot and heavy” and it turns out to be innocent. Did we watch “Down with Love” for class, or was that just the Popcorn Dialogues? There’s a place where they did a split screen telephone call, and the characters were doing various innocent things, but the placement of the screens made it look like foreplay and sex.

      It didn’t really work in cinema. I would think it would be even harder to pull off in a book.

  3. I never used to DNF a book, but since McDaniel I do it more often. I’ve become a different reader. I notice craft so much more, and I think that often stops me from suspending disbelief – but when I get totally drawn in, I always have to go back afterwards and try to deconstruct how the author did it. I agree about Georgette Heyer and Loretta Chase, Jenny, and SEP (I know most of them more or less off by heart) but I learn something from every single book I read, good or bad.

  4. Jayne Ann Krentz is where I go when I’m not happy with what I’ve written. I love her pacing in paragraph, scene, and book. My worst writing sin is over-explaining (Jenny called this stepping on my own writing) and just a quick read through a chapter by JAK reminds me how lovely it is when a writer doesn’t do that.

  5. I haven’t really got the motivation to dissect a book by myself. But, I do belong to an internet group that will have a group read every once in a while, and that motivates me to not only pay attention, but also the insights of my fellows can be astounding.

    In class, when we were talking about how the opening paragraph sets the scene, I picked up five genre books at random, and really looked at the opening paragraphs. It was a revelation — most of them do inform the reader within the first paragraph what genre this book belongs in — and they often accomplish it with just a word or two. And those couple of words often do double duty in establishing character, setting and all sorts of other things.

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