The novel I just finished writing is a dark comedy about a group of siblings prematurely vying for their inheritance. I read a number of comic novels that dealt with crazy families, estates and wills, fights over money, etc. All of the authors taught me something useful and I found the process of annotating (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) valuable. And fun.
So, at the risk of the shameless plug for Annotation Nation (which will soon be accepting creative non-fiction), consider annotating a few books in preparation for writing and as a helpful tool as you work on your novel. Why go to all that trouble? Funny you should ask….
- Closely examining a novel enables you to focus in on a particular issue that you may be having trouble with or help you make one of the many decisions that make up a book, such as which point of view you want to use for your narrative. Is your book better served by a first person narrator, multiple POVs or an omniscient narrator? ROOM by Emma Donoghue shows the power of confining a book to one point of view (and mostly one setting). Limitations can be freeing. That kind of approach won’t work for every book, but it could help with a single scene.
- Determine what doesn’t work and why, then avoid the same pitfall(s). If you’re put off by the tone of the fiction, figure out why. I’ve found one common case is that the author has contempt for the characters and/or the audience. The best and lasting works of fiction come out of a deep love for people and trying to figure out why we do the things we do.
- Examining a novel on both the macro and micro level is the best writing teacher there is. You can learn from people who haven’t drawn breath for the last hundred years as well as those who are walking around today. Tastes change, but Tolstoy and Twain remain treasure troves.
- You may learn more from unsuccessful novels or those you dislike in part because you don’t get caught up in the narrative. Not loving a book allows clarity to look at the individual elements.
- Then again, inspiration is a great positive force to motivate your writing. We can get lots of energy from negative emotions, but why not let yourself be carried upwards by a book you absolutely love? The deep love of books is what led us to write in the first place. Rediscover that, get carried away and use your enthusiasm to awaken your creativity and have fun. Creating should be fun, at least some of the time!
- The key to annotating is to look closely at the nuts and bolts of writing, then to apply it to your own writing. If you love a writer’s imagery, how can you achieve your own version of that element? If you are blown away by the sentence structure, what is that writer doing? No one creates in a vacuum. Think of this as your apprentice system.
- Often agents will want to know that you understand the book market. You will be prepared to discuss what books are out there, whether they’ve been successful and how yours is different. A number of online query forms now require that information.
If you put in the extra time to annotate, to write down what you learned from a book, it can only improve your writing. If you don’t already know it, you will discover writing by the seat of your pants wastes far more time than giving deep thought to the decisions that go into fiction. Going the extra mile will enrich your own experience as both a reader and a writer.
And yes, please submit them to Annotation Nation!
UPDATE: Melissa Chadburn on lessons learned from WORKING BACKWARDS FROM THE WORST MOMENT OF MY LIFE by the wonderful Rob Roberge.