The Beautiful Writers Workshop #21: The Keeper Shelf

Happy Thursday, writers! Today we’re jumping right into the craft of writing and, more to the point, how the books we read influence and inspire us. Many of us know that to be a better* writer, we must spend a lot of time reading good books.

 *I’ve heard it said many times that if you want to write well, you must devote an equal if not greater time reading, especially within your genre. I have mixed feelings on this. Yes, reading good work in your genre can be important to how you formulate story, find inspiration, and learn. But if you are doing it solely from the perspective as a writer, it can also cause you to lose a bit of that magic we call your ‘voice’. And, don’t misunderstand, I LOVE TO READ. But I will often lose myself in a good book (Thanks a bunch Chuck Wendig, you beautiful beast of a writer) to the extent that I use up most of my ‘free time’ and close the cover in a self-made brain fog, where in I can’t find my laptop let alone write something coherent. So I guess what I’m saying is: Balance.

Today, I want to talk about what you read and in particular your “Keeper Shelf”.

Ladies and Gentleman Hectic Eclectic (Part 1)

All of us have a “Keeper Shelf”, I’m sure of it. These are the books and stories that we love so much we can’t bear to part with them. They have somehow touched us, shaped us, hit that chord deep inside that makes us want to read them over and over again. This shelf is unique for each person and what’s lovely about your Keeper Shelf is that you’ve chosen these books because something about them worked so intrinsically well that you keep coming back, even when you know how it ends. These are the best ‘how to’ manuals we have as writers.

Hectic Eclectic (Part Deux). Ballerinas next to Deadpool (thanks April Kramer), a dash of Xian Terra cotta warrior and an empty bottle of what my father said was part of his worst college experience. Oh…and some of my all time favorite books. High brow.

This week, I want you to take an introspective look at an area you are struggling with in your own novel/work. For some of us, that might be dialogue. It might be story arc, it might be how best to show (not tell) emotion, character quirks, climax, scene setting, you name it. At least one of those authors on your keeper shelf has nailed a concept that you are struggling with. Once you identify what you’re trying to accomplish with a story, scene, or character, I would love you to take another look at one of your ‘faves’ that did it right.

Read, re-read, dissect it, pull it apart and diagram it on post-it notes…

“Ah, she doesn’t say Mel is sad…she makes the sky cloud over—even the setting turns dark—and  Mel misses breakfast for the third time because she can’t pull herself out of bed, and her eyes hurt, and her mom won’t stop asking her if she’s all right.”

“Ah—I can see these characters care about each other because they can pick on tender parts in their banter and only love each other more for it.”

“She leaves every chapter with a tiny cliffhanger…that’s why I can’t put it down.”

“He’s made Nessie so human and imperfect, by all the things she does despite of her internal dialogue, he makes her a hero that feels personal.”

You get the idea. It is the sincerest form of flattery and honor to use someone’s work to make yours better. Obviously, I’m not advocating for plagiarism; you will and should write your own story, but if another author’s work helps you see the difference between what works and what doesn’t, then utilize their book as a tool to get you there.

You have shelve(s) of Master’s Classes right in your own home so go through some of your old favorites and pull out the things those writers are doing to connect with you as a reader so you can do the same with your own readers.

Constant and continual improvement in our writing craft is essential to success. Because someday, we all hope that a reader gets to the last page of our book, closes the cover, puts it up on that top shelf in their library, and says, “That’s a keeper.”

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