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  • Diane Telgen

How the library made me a better writer

The library is a great resource for mentor texts, books that you can study to see how they work. After you start analyzing what you read, you can apply what you learn to your own work.

There’s a lot of advice for writers out there. Some of it is contradictory: Write every day. No, write whenever you feel focused! Use an outline to save time. No, avoid plotting and write organically!

Writers often disagree about rules for writing, because there’s no one-size-fits-all method to improve your storytelling. It all depends on what works for you—and for your project, because different stories might require different strategies.

One thing most writers agree on, though: it’s hard to be a good writer if you’re not also a reader. Yes, it’s helpful to know what’s publishable, what’s successful, and what might be a good comp title in your query. But there’s nothing like exploring how your favorite authors made things happen in their stories to get you thinking about to improve your own stories.

Oh, no! Now reading is going to be work?

Good news: thinking about how your favorite books function doesn’t have to take a lot of time. My MFA program required each student to read ten books per homework packet, then write an annotation about some aspect of craft. At first, I’d wait until I’d finished the book, then try to come up with an observation about how it was written. Here’s what I wrote in my first packet about the middle-grade historical Stella by Starlight, by Sharon M. Draper:

Very impressed by the opening, which uses short, simple sentences to drop us right into the cross burning that Stella and her little brother witness. Only after we experience it with them, feeling their worry and fear, are we given the specifics about the time and place. Great way to hook readers and elicit empathy, while giving a general sense of the setting without overwhelming readers with details.

I didn’t write this down as I was reading—I didn’t know what I was thinking! Only after finishing the book did I go back to read the opening, because it made such an impression on me. And that’s when I dug in, examining how Draper gave the text urgency (using short sentences) and emphasized character over historical detail. Total time: 10 minutes.

What if I don’t know anything about themes, or sentence structure, or any of that stuff I missed because my English class was boring?

You don’t have to get technical to analyze a mentor text. Reading like a writer can be boiled down to two simple questions: What did I like? and How did they do that?

For instance, you read aloud a picture book to your son, and it’s just so fun to say the words that you don’t mind reading it to him over and over. You’ve identified what you like—the sounds of the text—so now go look at what makes them fun. Is it a variety of verbs? A multitude of sound words? The rhythm of the verse? Maybe it’s a combination of all three—and now you’ve learned techniques that might enliven your own work.

You can do the same thing with novels. Was there a section of dialogue you found hysterically funny? A scene that made you cry? Was there a twist you didn’t see coming? Once you start finding things you love about a book, you start looking for the writing tricks behind them. Eventually you’ll start thinking this way even while you’re reading. Then it’s a short distance to consider how these techniques might apply to your own work.

And don’t discount books you hate, because you can learn just as much! As I was reading one bestseller (which shall remain nameless, because Mom taught me to be nice), I got more and more frustrated with how the other characters withheld information from the protagonist. I couldn’t wait to write my annotation: “this secrecy added nothing meaningful to character or story and stalled the narrative with false conflict.”

What does this have to do with libraries (besides being National Library Card Sign-up Month)?

Libraries can be the perfect resource in helping you discover mentor texts. (That’s the official term we use for books you study to see how they work, so that you can apply the lessons to your own writing.) I mean, FREE BOOKS! I couldn’t have written more than 500 annotations for my MFA program without the wonderful Chicago Public Library.

But libraries also have librarians, magical people who love books so much they’ve devoted their careers to helping people access them. They’ll often have displays or lists of books centered around a theme. Most librarians I know love to give recommendations.

Or check in with your writer community! Sometimes all it takes is one little Tweet: Can anyone recommend a middle-grade fantasy with X, Y, and Z? Pretty soon you’ll have a whole list to take to your library. Then you’ll be reading like a writer—one who’s learning to improve their work through the magic of reading.

The first thing Diane does after moving to a new city is get her library card. She is available for editing or author coaching, and loves brainstorming mentor texts to recommend to clients. Find out more about Diane here.

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