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Scalpel, Book and Candle

This one’s a rambler, folks, and I’m not even sure I agree with myself, so be forewarned.

Over on Karen Scott’s blog the other day, Karen linked to a site that purported to teach a person how to write a genre novel. Basically, we’re talking book autopsy – take your favorite book apart, line by line, and study it like a dissected frog. Then put something similar together, from similar pieces, and voila, you’ll have yourself your own personal book.

I’ve heard this sort of thing before and it always freaks me out for a variety of reasons.

First, I can’t bring myself to believe it works. Not on that level, at least.

Second, I suppose I believe that reducing a book to its parts – gutting it, in a sense – will destroy its essence. It’s like when stalker-girl says “wow, look at that pretty person. I’d love to look like her, so I guess I’ll hack her to bits and then figure out how to make myself match her. Oops, she isn’t breathing any more. Wake up pretty person, I didn’t mean to hurt you, I just wanted to be like you so, so much…”

Okay, that’s silly. Plus, you can’t “destroy” a book’s essence, but if you take the book apart, the essence will escape into the ether – I’m 100% scientifically sure of that. Which means that when you lay all the parts out, side by side, and try to construct your own similar book, you’re missing the key ingredient, so all of your hard work is for naught. And meanwhile, you just carved up your favorite book and it might never work for you again on the level that made it your favorite in the first place!

Third (and here’s where it starts seeming like I’m disagreeing with myself) I think a reader/writer does this to a certain extent on an unconscious level. You read a book and fall in love with it. You read it over and over again, to the point where you are intimately familiar with it, and somehow, it still works for you. You seek out other books by that author. You look for other books by other authors that do what the first book did.

It’s voice, sure, but it’s more than that. It’s the way that author envisioned the unveiling of her/his story. The way it presented itself to her in those magical, subconscious moments when it was still just a twinkle in the eye. Some of it is so innate, it cannot be taught. But some of it is “mechanical” in the most un-mechanical sense of that word. Through a combination of reading, listening, wondering and daydreaming, that author has learned how to build suspense. When she read a particularly suspenseful novel, she stared at in wonder and asked – How did they fool me so completely? How did they distract me from the truth, when it was right there, hiding in plain sight? (Yes, at this point, she’s doing a mini-dissection, but do you see how gentle it is? How tentative? Because she wants to get close enough to understand, but not so close as to actually touch the essence and ruin it for herself forever. Don’t look directly into that eclipse, right?)

I do this all the time. I close a book and ask myself, what happened? What was it that transported me – made me forget to have dinner or kept me up until 3 a.m.? I walk out of a theatre proclaiming a writer, or director, or actor, to be a genius, and I want to know why. My brain eagerly traces the steps through which that genius took me.

But still, I instinctively stop short of the big autopsy.

Of course, as I’ve mentioned here before, I’m primitive that way. I mourn the loss of magic in our world. Sure, we now understand that eclipse, but don’t you envy those who quaked at the thought of one occurring? To feel that kind of power around you, and know that it came from someplace more real than the electric company?

And finally, I guess my problem with the method described on the website is this – what do you want to write? A workmanlike novel? Then I guess the autopsy route is the way to go. You can write a book that way, and maybe even sell it, but can you create a living, breathing story? I’m not so sure. (And if you do end up with a work of art, I’ll never believe it was the dissection that got you there – you had it already, just didn’t trust it to evolve naturally from reading, listening, wondering, and daydreaming.)

Bottom line: If you want to create something new and special, then learn from what went before, but only to hone your own personal craft, not to re-create theirs.

So here’s my recommendation – take all those hours you would have spent dissecting your favorite story, and read it over and over again instead. Definitely ask yourself questions: Why does it works for you? What was your favorite moment, and how did that author lead you there, build to it, tangle you up in it?

Let your favorite book INSPIRE you as well as teach you. That can’t happen if the very thing that might inspire you – the essence – is gone.

Plus, it’s more fun.


P.S. Yes, I know science is good. It’s actually one of my favorite subjects. And I can find new magic and wonder in what science teaches us, but that would confuse the issue, wouldn’t it? Yes, autopsies teach us wondrous things, like cures for diseases. And yes, those who intimately study their subject matter – like gynecologists – can still appreciate it on a primitive/personal level. Like I said, I disagree with myself on this to a point. But somehow, the concept of book autopsy creeped me out, so I’m purging myself of that feeling with this blog post.

Now back to my YA manuscript where I belong.



( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 21st, 2007 02:26 am (UTC)
We voted and it won't work
We had our local eHQ group lunch today. (sidenote -- we need to rename ourselves b/c we've added friends and some of us never go to eHarlequin.com anymore. But the original/core gropu all met there first and now we get together in person every couple of months). Anyway, Cindy Dees and Evelyn Vaughn represented the authors. There were seven of us who are avid readers -- at least 100 books/year and some of them (3 or 4 of them) read 300-500 books/year. Yes, really.

We decided that we're all smart enough that if we were willing to work our butts off that we could pull apart a genre book (we mostly read romances and fantasy with the odd sci-fi thrown in) and then write one. But it would have no soul. And avid readers like us would notice it (not to mention all the editors in between who should notice but that lead to a discussion of how mad we get when we read a bad book and think about all the good books that didn't get published b/c that bad book did). Just FYI, two of the gals are reviewers so they have to finish even bad books. I put a book that I don't like down. Too many others calling my name . . .

Anyway, we voted and we decided that books have souls. Of course, our argument is only helped by Vaughn sitting there b/c she really does have people living in her head LOL.


Oct. 24th, 2007 07:34 pm (UTC)
Re: We voted and it won't work
Thanks, Penni, I'm glad you and your group and the people in Vaughn's head agree!! Say hi to all of them for me (and from the ones in my head too!)
Oct. 25th, 2007 02:43 pm (UTC)
Re: We voted and it won't work
Well I hope that the people living in your head are getting themselves out and onto paper. Vaughn's aren't cooperating right now. Very frustrating for those of us who want to meet them.

Oct. 25th, 2007 03:45 pm (UTC)
Re: We voted and it won't work
Mine are cooperating, thank God. My problem is that my day job has been relentless until the last few weeks. I actually took some time off these last two weeks just to write, and it was great. But on Monday, back to work.

I finished the book I was working on, and have a couple of others going. Nothing for Harlequin, though. I may try with them again, but maybe not. My romantic suspense just doesn’t fit their definition of romantic suspense, and the question is, do I radically change mine, or just write what I want to write and hope it finds a home somewhere else?

Which of course is why the day job is, in the long run, good for my writing despite the frustrations. There’s food on the table, et cetera, whether I sell one book or five a year, so I can write what I want.

Bombshell (and Natashya) spoiled me. I really did write exactly what I wanted there, more or less, thanks in huge part to her. It’s tough after that to try and write category, unless of course, you just naturally mesh with what their readers want.

See you soon!
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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