The Grammar Stage:
This is your first pass through a book. Other than a few extra steps, this probably looks pretty close to what you usually do when you read a book.
Step 1: Look at the title, cover, and table of contents.
I keep an Excel spreadsheet of what I’ve read each year. (I’m also on GoodReads, although I don’t update that account as often as I should.)
Being a writer nerd, I also keep track of who published the book, who the agent was, and who the editors were. After a while, you get a sense of who the personalities are in New York publishing, and what imprints specialize in.
It’s because of of this list that I know that most of my favorite mainstream books are published by HarperPerennial, Vintage, and Anchor Books are my three-favorite imprints. Strange how I never noticed before how that two-toned olive, the sunset, and the anchor decorate the spines of almost all of my favorite books. I’m also a fan of DelRay, Tor, and Orb for my sci-fi and fantasy fix (Angry Robot is also starting to become one of my favorites).
Step 2: Keep a list of characters as you read.
I keep this list either in the back of the book, on a separate piece of paper (my bookmark), or in SimpleNote if I’m reading an ebook.
Step 3: Briefly note the main event of each chapter.
On paper books, I like to put Post-Its at the top of each chapter, so that I can summarize what happened in that chapter. I like using Post-Its because they allow me to remove my notes before loaning the book to someone (no spoilers!).
For writers, taking chapter-by-chapter notes on how the masters plot their novels can be really helpful when you start trying to plot your own.
Short story writers can use this exercise too. For those of you who really want to nerd-out on a short story, try boiling down what’s happening in each paragraph into a single sentence, or even a single word. (E.g., character development, setting, exposition, character desires established via specificity of detail re kittens.)
You can also use this exercise when editing your own writing. If things feel disjointed and you don’t know why, taking note of what’s happening in each paragraph (or chapter) might show you where the problem is and help you reorganize.
Step 4: Make initial notes on passages that seem interesting.
Susan Wise Bauer recommends copying passages out in a separate book, but I only reserve that degree of labor-intensive nerdiness for passages I really love. For the most part, I just make pencil notes in the margins, or highlight the text.
For those of you reading on Kindles, check out Bookcision, as a way to download and print your highlighted notes.
Step 5: Give the book your own title and subtitle.
Imagine yourself at a dinner party. You’ve got this book tucked under your arm and someone asks what the book is about. Basically this is the same as writing a pitch for a book. The idea is to lay out the main character and conflict in a single concise sentence.
Here are some examples:
In Raiders of the Lost Arc, Indiana Jones is a archeologist who seeks to find the Arc of the Covenant before the Nazis.
The Fellowship of the Ring is an epic fantasy novel about a hobbit named Frodo Baggins, and friends, who are on a quest to save the world from the evil Sauron by destroying the One Ring of power.
In The Great Gatsby, mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby seeks to win back the heart of his long lost love, Daisy, who is trapped in an unhappy marriage to another man.
In Moby Dick, Captain Ahab seeks revenge on a whale who once ate his leg.
In Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag is a fireman who begins to save and read the books he is in charge of burning.
In Heart of Darkness, Charles Marlow is an ivory transporter who travels up the deadly Congo river in search of Mr. Kurtz.
Into Thin Air is a non-fiction book about a group of mountain climbers struggling to survive the 1996 rogue storm on Mount Everest.
In Revolutionary Road, Frank Wheeler has always believed he was destined for greatness, yet when given the opportunity, he is plagued by self-doubt to the point of self-sabotage.
In Anna Karenina, Anna is a housewife who falls in love with playboy Count Vronsky, even though pursuing her romantic desires may ruin her life.
Here are the components of a pitch:
- Who is the main character. Sometimes this might include brief description of who they are or what they do. E.g. “Indiana Jones is an archeologist”; “mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby”.
- What does the main character want. This is best described something concrete, a specific goal where, at the end of the book you can determine if the character got what they wanted or not. Frodo wants to destroy the ring. Indiana wants to find the Arc. Gatsby wants Daisy.
- Who is the main character’s obstacle. To figure this out, look to the central conflict, or the main event of the book. Obstacles often come in one of four types.
- man vs. man—Indiana Jones vs. the Nazis; Frodo Baggins vs. Sauron; Jay Gatsby vs. Daisy’s husband; Captain Ahab vs. the whale.
- man vs. society—Guy Montag vs. a world that hates and fears books. (Other examples are George Orwell’s 1984, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.)
- man vs. nature—Charles Marlow vs. the Congo. Climbers vs. Mt. Everest.
- man vs. self—(this is about competing desires). Anna Karenina’s love for her husband and son vs. her desire for Count Vronsky. Frank Wheeler’s desire for greatness vs. his fear of the unknown.
This exercise is similar to writing a pitch. Practicing writing a pitch for someone else’s book can be helpful when trying to come up with a single-sentence pitch, or back-cover summary, for your own writing.