Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Analyze Yourself

By the time I graduated with a degree in English, analyzing literature had become second nature to me. I could rattle off a 3-5 page paper about anything in an hour. Reading analytically is a learned skill, much like doing geometry proofs or drawing blood from a squirming cat.

So when I sat down to my first day of this Fiction Writing Workshop that I'm taking, you might imagine my pleasure when I saw Edward P. Jones and Tobias Wolff on the syllabus. Brilliant authors, I think. Plenty to write about.

Until the professor started explaining why exactly these literary giants were on our reading list. You see, he doesn't want us to analyze for meaning--he wants us to analyze how these two authors use writing techniques to craft such amazing fiction. How do they bring about character? Setting? What can we learn about story structure, the usage of backflashes, etc?

When I sat down to write my first "book story analysis" on Jones's short "Young Lions," I felt like beating my head against the keyboard. How could I look at this great fiction on a nuts-and-bolts level? It went against everything I'd been trained to do.

I struggled through the assignment and got an okay grade on it, but it wasn't until the next story, Tobias Wolff's "Smorgasbord," that I finally started to understand how to go about the assignment. It wasn't that I didn't understand--it was that I was already doing it, but masking it in my thoughts as pure content analysis.

So I wrote myself a note: first sentence, first paragraph, setting/place, description, ending. These are some of the topics that we tend to emphasize during workshop, so I figured I might as well use them to structure my analysis. I won't say that it exactly flowed out of me, but it was scads easier than the first, and it helped me realize a few things.


  • All fiction contains metaphor, symbolism, analogy. But especially symbolism. 
  • Use your setting not only to give the reader a center, but also to strengthen characterization. 
  • The details that you choose to describe speak volumes about your characters (the narrators, anyway)
As I've matured as a writer, I've become more conscious of these elements, but the symbolism one still escapes me sometimes, or at least at the levels I'd like it to be resounding. 

So here's a thought: read your manuscript like an English major. Make notes as if you were going to write a paper about it. 

  • How many topics can you find? 
  • How often do certain elements reappear? Symbols/metaphors/images, etc. 
  • Do the characters have any sort of connection to something bigger, like a theme? 
You might be writing a pop-culture driven YA urban fantasy, but I think this exercise will benefit no matter what your genre. It's all about resonance, threading, and adding as many levels to your writing as possible. Trust me, while your average reader might not be looking for meaning, there will be those readers out there who can't help but search it out, and when they find it in (insert your genre/book here), it's going to stick with them. 

28 comments:

Christine Danek said...

Great tips, Summer. I will have to try this out.
I hope you are well and I like the new look. :)

Teri Anne Stanley said...

Wow, Summer, good thoughts. There are so many layers to good writing, and it's important to be able to look at writing from many different angles. The forest, the individual trees, the species of trees, the height of the trees, the age of the trees, the moss on the trees...

Stina Lindenblatt said...

This is great advice. I'm definitely going to try it out on my wip. :D

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

my last WIP had some great symbolism stashed in there. I loved it! This one, not as much. Ah well

Lola Sharp said...

It's all about layers. This is part of the slow process of my revisions, part of what I fester over for months: adding in those layers.

I heart you.

Sophia Richardson said...

I've been reviewing books on my blog this year which has some elements of what you mention here (the importance of the first sentence/paragraph) but ironically I struggle to read as a writer when I'm enjoying a book that does these things well. When I'm immersed in a setting or rooting for a character I rarely stop to think about how the author made me do that because I have to keep reading to find out what happens!

This sounds like a really good exercise though, I'll have to practice it on a re-read-- I'm thinking The Hunger Games because wow, page-turner much?
- Sophia.

j.leigh.bailey said...

Great tips! This made me want to go back into my WIP to see how I'm doing! :D

Old Kitty said...

For me the most important lesson I learned while creative writing studying was to analyse my writing as academically as posible. I still struggle to do this however because it's always easier to just go with my gut feeling/intuition but it's great posts like yours here that remind me of the importance of critical analysis too! Thank you! Take care
x

Courtney Barr - The Southern Princess said...

Wonderful advice Summer!!! Love the blog look btw! ;o)

Stay warm...


Visit My Kingdom Anytime

Regina said...

I love this idea. Great tips. Thanks for the post. Love the new blog design.

Renae said...

Love this idea. I'm going to try it out on my current WIP. Thanks!

Elana Johnson said...

This post terrifies me, I'm not gonna lie. I think I analyze the things I read on this level, but the thought of having someone else do it to my novel... Yeah, freaks me out.

What if you just sat down to write a book about kissing and making choices? Is that symbolic? *freaked out*

Simon C. Larter said...

Excellent advice, good lady. Though, as a non-English major, I find I analyze the craft first, then look for themes later. Works out well enough for me. :)

Colene Murphy said...

Eep...I'm terrible at analyzing my own work! Looks like a great skill to have though! Awesome tips!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

The lightbulb came on for you - and to our benefit! Thanks, Summer.

DEZMOND said...

we, people who have studied English literature, really are some crazy people, aren't we? :)))

Hannah Kincade said...

I never thought I was good at recognizing symbolism until I began having in depth discussions about movies with Sam. Both of us were surprised by how much I noticed. Now it's like a race to see who notices more whenever we watch movies. haha! We're so competitive.

Also, I was just overanalyzing myself yesterday! Good times.

Meredith said...

This is a great way at looking at it! I'm definitely going to use this advice as I revise--thank you!

Jessica Hill said...

Summer, this is a GREAT post. I'm definitely go to have to try this out.

Shelley Sly said...

Very interesting! I enjoy writing reappearing elements, and they usually end up being symbolic, even if I didn't intend for them to be.

I've heard that about setting strengthening characterization, but sadly, I haven't been able to master it. I'm terrible at setting. But it's something I'll try.

Dread Pirate Lainey said...

To echo everyone else--great ideas. I am just starting to analyze the first half of my novel.

Its also funny that those are the first three things we learn about in playwriting.

roxy said...

I was an English major, too, Summer, and yet, I had completely forgotten about this type of analysis. Very helpful! I'll read my work over and ask some of the questions above. Thanks!

Kathi Oram Peterson said...

Awesome! I wrote down the check list to use on my books. Thanks for the insight!

Jen Daiker said...

This is great information for any writer! I loved it! Thank you Summer!!!

Umm. So, I have to admit something. I've been a bad friend! Though I stalk/lurk frequently my work internet never allows me to comment! Today I'm at home while blogging and was able to COMMENT! WOohoo!!! I feel awesome!

Oh how I miss our chats!

DL Hammons said...

I've always wondered how much of the hidden meanings & symbolism I'm taking away from a piece of writing is purposely planted by the author...or just a creation of my own mind. Hmmmm....

Excellent post!

~Nicole Ducleroir~ said...

Your class sounds amazing! You're going to get so much out of it -- and you're awesome to share some of that here with us. Best of luck with it!

I love your new blog layout!

M Pax said...

A great exercise. Although I consciously make sure details add to characterization, I hadn't thought of an edit with the filter you suggest. Will make note of it, since I'm in revisions anyway. Will be a good time to look at my work in this light.

Teebore said...

read your manuscript like an English major.

I love this idea. I do it from time to time on a very micro level (looking at one element like theme or something) simply because my English major training takes over, but I've never sat down and read the manuscript on the whole that way. I will have to try it.