Tuesday, June 7, 2016

How Case Studies Can Make You a Better Writer


If you were learning about photography or medicine or how to make rosettes when icing a cake, you'd look at a model -- a case study, if you will. Right? You'd study photos that used different techniques, documented ailments and successful courses of treatment in medicine, and a recipe or a YouTube video before you ever touched the tip of a piping bag to a cake.

For fiction writers, everyone recommends that one of the best ways to grow is to read, read, read. But there's a big difference between reading for entertainment and reading to improve your craft. The latter form makes a science of it, which can help you understand the bones and techniques of your work in useful ways.

You can glean a lot from other authors to help you produce original, creative work -- and not just the structure of a novel/novella. A few of the case studies I like to do include:

  • Reading back cover summaries on Amazon and observing the general structure and techniques of the most captivating ones before writing my own.
  • Looking at popular movie taglines before writing one for my proposal or pitch. 
  • Studying the beginnings and endings of chapters for tips on how to draw readers in and keep them reading.
But there's a big difference between an author studying a comparable novel and a chemist reading a lab report. Here are some tips to make case studies work and amp up your creativity:

Avoid copycatting at all costs. How can we maintain our unique creativity when we are consuming the work of others for inspiration? Easy. When you take notes or outline, use general terms and loose estimates. For example, instead of writing down "Jenny and Kyle decide to put aside their differences and go in on the business together to avoid losing what they both want," I write down "10-25% mark: external goal revealed; relationship between the hero and heroine starts to grow." Write it down in general terms that capture an element this author has done well but leave room for what will work with the story you're telling. 

On that note, if studying structure, make sure to scale. Since your word count will likely not be the same and divided into different chapters, estimate the percentage of the whole work at which your note occurs. If you write down that the black moment occurs in chapter 20, your chapter 20 may be barely past the middle of your manuscript while this book is 80% finished. Percentages work much better.

Don't be afraid to venture into different genres. Do you know of an author who supposedly does something brilliantly? Read it and learn! In the creative disciplines, reading/researching a variety of genres provides an invaluable perspective that amps up the creativity and helps artists and authors produce through a wider, multi-dimensional lens. This also helps with the uniqueness factor, too.

Protect your voice and feel free to give yourself wiggle room. Make sure you maintain your individual voice that reflects the rest of your work. And feel free to "break the rules" if you're so led. Sometimes case studies can illuminate what we don't want our work to look like or inspire us to go in a completely different direction.

No matter what, I hope you find inspiration in the science of novel writing that case studies provide!

I'm working through the pictured novella collection for a new project and often look at Jenny B. Jones's backmatter before writing my own. Is there an author you'd pick to case study for your own project?


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Laurie Tomlinson is a wife and mom from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who is passionate about intentional living, all things color-coded, and stories of grace in the beautiful mess. Previously a full-time book publicist, she owns a freelance copywriting, editing, and PR consulting business called 1624 Communications

She's a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers, a two-time Genesis Award winner, and the runner-up in the 2015 Lone Star Contest's Inspirational category. 
Her work is represented by Rachel Kent of Books & Such Literary.

You can connect with Laurie here:
Twitter - @LaurieTomlinson

1 comment:

Meghan M. Gorecki said...

Love this post, Laurie! :) I didn't know there was a "thing" about this--case studying! I case study Melissa Tagg's books for contemporary romance, and Pepper Basham's historicals help me in that genre too (AND her contemporaries too of course. ;) ) But those are the first two I look to as far as case studying. Aaaand it helps they're a message away if I need help or advice too. LOL