As part of a deal I made with myself to improve my writing this year, I decided to commit to studying bestselling novels all year long. Why? Because Debbie Macomber once recommended this to me while we were both at a festival dinner. She seemed so certain it helps. I was grilling her relentlessly about what advice she’d give me on succeeding as a writer and she was so generous with her time and tips, but this one by far she seemed the most adamant about. So much so, that I became excited about taking it on. But how do you go about studying someone else’s work to improve your own? I was so shocked to be talking to Debbie Macomber one-on-one, that I forgot to ask. But recently, I think I’ve come up with a pretty good method. I’ve listed it below:
1. Pick a book in the genre you write in most that has been a NYT bestseller for multiple weeks.
2. Make notes about the basics first:
- Who’s the author?
- Who is the publisher?
- Who is the author’s literary agent?
- How many total pages is it?
- What is the average chapter length in pages?
- What is the Point of View? Tense?
- What (if any) are the distinguishing features of the book? Examples: chapter titles, quotes, dates, etc.
3. Read one chapter at a time (I do one to two a day over a month—planning to complete the book at month’s end) and make notes on the following:
- How long is it?
- How does it open—with dialogue? Scene description? Action?
- What events/actions take place in this chapter?
- What does the character learn or discover in this chapter?
- Cite examples of how the author revealed character development/arc through action.
- Make note of any excellent language/description/dialogue.
- How does it end? On a cliffhanger? Interior character thoughts? Action?
4. Once you’ve read and taken notes over the entire book go back and decide where the first, second, and third acts begin and end then label or list the following plot elements and where they occur: (Taken from Larry Brooks’s book: Story Engineering)
- Opening Image
- Inciting Incident
- First Plot Point
- First Pinch Point
- Second Pinch Point
- Second Plot Point
5. Create a calendar mapping out the book’s timeline.
6. Make any final notes on writing style, theme, symbolism, etc.
I’ve done this for three books to date and I can honestly say that it is helping me understand plot and character development in new, more concrete ways. I am outlining my stories better already. Doing book studies just may be the single most effective piece of advice anyone’s ever given me to improve my writing. Thank you, Debbie Macomber!