How to Model

If one inquired, what are the three most important activities for a novice wishing to become a published writer?  I would list the following three in the order of their importance: (a) mastering the craft; (b) writing the first 1,000,000 words; and (c) modeling.

The novice is constantly encouraged to model but is seldom given directions for how to do it.  John Sandford, author of the “Prey” novels, in an interview spoke of how important modeling was to writers. Unfortunately, his explanation of how to model was both brief and vague.

Let us examine how to model. Modeling involves reading books exhibiting a great deal of the art of writing as well as craftsmanship. Art, as we are using the term, may be expressed as the application of craftsmanship beyond that which can be taught.  WriterFinal

When one models a novel, one is doing so for enlightenment–that is, to learn through example, not mechanical instruction.  Novels for modeling are to be read not for enjoyment but for gain. We must read carefully in order to recognize, classify, and absorb examples of “good” writing. To state it most succinctly, we must study the novel. Below are some suggestions, if not directives, for how to organize this study.

Begin this process by reading the novel through, cover to cover. This complete reading experience not only gives you an overall view of your immediate field of study but also removes the temptation to ignore examples of fine writing in order to rush ahead as just another “hooked” reader.

Having completed that first reading, the time has arrived to go to work. What you will be constructing as a study guide to the novel is a sort of enhanced chapter summary (you have a handout on chapter summaries). Let’s say your novel has forty-two chapters.  That being the case, you will be doing forty-two different readings, writing a summary of each when you finish. This chapter summary may be written on a notepad, computer, or whatever.  As you write each chapter, you will, in three or four or however many sentences, describe most concisely the part of the plot within the pages of that chapter. That is the more mechanical part of what you should do with each chapter.  In addition to the chapter plot review, you should make the briefest of notes about those items of technique that struck you as most noteworthy–positively or negatively.

More specifically, what do we mean?  We mean that in Chapter 3, if you find the description of the protagonist’s father to be excellent, you should note it in the briefest possible terms for Chapter 3.  If in a chapter, you find one or more clever figures of speech, note that. For example, in Chapter 3, if you see two excellent similes, write in the chapter summary, “good similes.”

If you find a really humorous dialogue exchange, note it in the chapter summary for the proper chapter. If you see a dialogue exchange that develops great tension quickly, note it. If you see description that carries some suggestion of the character’s personality, note it.  And, of course, do the same for good dramatic sense, narrative voice differentiation, transitions, chapter climaxes, and so on.

Now, you may say, “Well, that’s it for that novel.  I’ve gone over it twice.” Nonsense.  The first time you went over the novel, you became caught up in the novel and did more reveling in the enjoyment of it than thinking about all its complexities of art and craftsmanship. When you went through it a second time, making chapter summaries, you were thinking about little more than finding the “goodies” in the chapter and writing them down.

Only after those two passes through the novel are you ready to reap the benefits of your close work. Using your chapter summaries, you can now bring up the outstanding parts of the novel and study them–appreciate them–see how a fine author was able to take the basics of craftsmanship and use them so well that he created that which stands above the regular pack of writers, that is, how he brought art to his writing.

Far better that you model only two or three novels in this time-consuming but fruitful way rather than reading endlessly for nothing but enjoyment while claiming you modeled them.
Once you have mastered the basics of craftsmanship, if you will, then modeling will take you to the point that you will be noticed by the industry as an up-and-coming writer of great potential. Be too lazy to do this, and . . . lots of luck.