A girl and her log

Ever since I signed with Joan, writer-friends have asked, “How did you get your agent?”  They don’t want to hear about the mechanics of querying.  They know those already.  What they’re trying to ask seems to be, “How did you get your writing to that next level?”

That’s a hard question to answer, but I can point to one thing I consciously did: I kept a log.

My floor could be cleaner.
Beginning in January 2010, I dissected every book I read into its constituent elements.  Plot, character development, narrative arc, setting, dialogue.  I picked apart what worked and what didn’t.  I noted where I stopped reading and why.  I explicitly lined out how I thought the writer was using specific elements of craft and what the effects were.

And then I applied them.

My log is a crappy composition book I bought for $0.59 when school supplies were on sale.  Keeping a paper log does three things for me:

1) It makes the log easy to maintain; I just keep it with whatever book I’m reading.
2) It allows me to be completely honest in a way I wouldn’t feel comfortable with if I were posting my comments online.

And, most importantly:

3) Carefully analyzing and recording exactly what’s going on in another person’s work crystallizes my understanding of that element of craft.  Just thinking about reveals or backstory and recognizing their utility is great, but for me, committing the mechanics to print makes it useful.  In other words, writing it down makes it stick.

My handwriting could be more legible, too.
Collecting my thoughts on craft makes me more deliberate in my application of these techniques.  It also makes me look important when I carry a notebook around.



Filed under Writing

7 responses to “A girl and her log

  1. That’s a great approach, J! One of my favorite books of writing exercises is STEERING THE CRAFT by Ursula K. LeGuin, and one thing she mentions in it is that artists in training often make studies of the great masters and paint paintings copying their styles, but writers, because they don’t want to plagiarize, don’t use the technique enough as a tool to understand writing. For a while after I read that, I made a point to write a little snippet in the style of books I admired, just to better understand what makes the style work. I wish, looking back on that, that I had done it all in one notebook, so I could go back to it for reference from time to time. (And we must NEVER underestimate the importance of looking important when it comes to carrying around a notebook!)


  2. That was remarkable to read about. Kind of like walking into someone’s tidy home and realizing what a slob you are. Wow. I teach books to my students and I read great stories . . . but in a conscious way I rarely think about what other writers do. When I see something in particular that I like, I mentally note it (like how some authors describe without losing momentum), but nothing so formal. I read a lot, watch a lot of movies and plays, and take it all in. It works for me (like my messy house), but I love to see what author people do. Thanks for sharing.


  3. I took the same approach, but for picturebooks, a few years before I became published. As I figured out what worked and tried to apply it in my books, I started getting personal rejection letters — the kind where the editor wants to see more work but can’t buy what’s on the table.
    How I’d love a peak at your notebook!
    Incidentally, in writing the revisions letter for one of my books, my editor storyboarded the whole novel (170 pages! imagine!) and sent it to me. Which reminds me — I need to storyboard the novel I’m writing right now.


    • J. Anderson Coats

      I was amazed at how my whole sense of craft changed with this simple exercise. I’ve heard from other writers that this sort of exercise ruins reading for them, but for me, reading closely only made reading that much better.


  4. Thanks, J.!

    This is some food for thought. Fascinating, actually. I’m wondering–do you do this with books only in your genre or all books? I’m thinking of getting extra copies of books I really love–masterfully structured–and writing directly in the margins.

    Thanks for posting!


    • J. Anderson Coats

      The only books I don’t log are nonfiction. I use these for a different purpose and read them in a different way, but no work of fiction is free from my scrutiny.

      I try to read widely, and I’ve gotten some interesting perspectives from other genres, particularly sci-fi. As far as I’m concerned, the past is a secondary world, so there’s a lot I can learn from writers who craft secondary worlds ex nihilo.


  5. Pingback: Something Old, Nothing New | EMU's Debuts

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