If your own writing makes you cry, laugh or erupt in goose bumps (at all the right spots, of course), then so will your intended audience. Therefore compose first to please yourself. Of that you can be sure. Of that, you have control over.
First, let me say this: PLAGIARISM IS NEVER ALLOWED. Don't get me started on this topic.
Second, take three of your favorite books. Those that you reread all the time, more than five times each. It would be best if it was from three different authors, or like Nora Roberts aka J. D. Robb, pick one of her romances and then one from her In Death series.
Choose the most memorable scenes and hand copy them word for word. A dynamic link occurs between the brain and the hand when you engage both, so bear with me here. When you take that first step, all manner of providence aids you.
Study them, both the big picture angle and the small. Does the author's printed page have a lot of white space or is it crammed full of text? Check out paragraph length. You are looking for pacing here. I particularly like a fast-moving book.
How about sentence length? A mix of long and short? You've seen the six basic human needs: certainty, variety, significance, love, growth, contribution. Incorporate variety in your prose, even to the number of words in your sentences.
Remember those diagrams in English class where you had to identify every word in a sentence? Do it here just for those wondrous lines of word combinations where you think, I wish I had written that. This may reveal whether you focus more on the outward (actions/descriptions) or the inward (thoughts, introspections, mental dilemmas).
You may even want to see how long each of the chapters are, on average, for your fave authors. Attention span seems to be getting shorter and shorter, and our need for more info, more speed increasing. Take note of that.
Just study their style and discern any patterns. Ask yourself why you think it works for them? How could you apply it to your writing?
Decades ago I read about the highlighter technique and applied it to the first chapter of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged in a second paperback copy I bought specifically for this purpose. You take like five different colors, assign one for dialogue, narrative, description, internalizations, action, emotions, foreshadowing, humor, etc. Select what works for your genre.
Then mark up the story accordingly. I remember thinking she had a pretty good mix of all five in her first chapter. I'll have to look for it and confirm.
Regardless, I like very little description and I won't change that in my writing. I just hate the police blotter rendering of physical appearance (unless you are actually having your reader review a police intake form).
Still I need some. My tale employs people and places, and I need to share that with my reader. I give a bare-bones overview of my characters, but I really want my readers to conjure up somebody they like, instead of me being so exacting, so detail-oriented, that I portray their hated second grade teacher or an ex. That would be counterproductive.
Adverbs. I write a pretty clean first draft, but it is overrun with adverbs. Can't help those LY words creeping into my thoughts and showing up initially. My original text is a more creative version, with my internal editor gagged. But I can get rid of most useless adverbs--by using stronger verbs and concrete nouns--in the second go-round with a more critical review of my words.
Think of adverbs as flags. Making you choose better subjects and predicates.
Adjectives. Purple prose turns me off. But there is a way to hide those modifiers--put them after the noun they describe. For example: The slow, murky water of the winding river did not even reflect the sunlight. Traditional sentence structure, right? How about, instead, we do this: The river wound through the mountains, its water slow and murky and unreflective. Disguise some of your adjectives, mix up your sentence formation, try something new.
And you need not just use fiction for these exercises. I read Stephen King's On Writing recently and was wowed by how much detail and how many phrases the man could put in one sentence and not lose me. It was coherent. It was "plain" even. Just amazing. So even analyze a favorite How-To-Write book of yours that really spoke to you. Was the style conversational or instructional? Dry or witty? A mix of teaching and personal example?
Third, don't be an imitation of anyone else. Be the best you possible. These writing exercises are not to change your style, but to show you new ways to demonstrate your thoughts, some variations that improve clarity and may draw in your readers for a more emotional experience. Just assimilate some things that support your voice, elevate your writing--to where others are now saying, I wish I had written that.
Fourth, above all, communicate. Don't get so flowery your reader has to reread a sentence three times trying to figure it out. Don't use a five-syllable word your reader stumbles over and has to stop to look up in Webster's when a one- or two-syllable word is concise and perfect for your use.
Fifth. Punctuation is critical. For example, commas can be your friend. Use a comma to denote a pause. Like I noted about Stephen King above, I really need to investigate his style with his long sentences and see why his commas worked. For he must have used a lot of pairs, to set apart his phrases, within each long sentence, from my memory. I'll have to check that out further.
Okay, guys. We are nearing November 1. Is your writing space set up for productivity? Clutter and dust strangle your creative side. See y'all soon online.
Denise Barker, author + blogger + copy editor