Writing: Deconstruction is the sincerest form of learning



I’ve had this argument with a friend unfamiliar with the writing process, yet interested in writing, himself: It’s not plagiairism to use another writer’s framework. Plagiarism is lifting someone else’s work verbatim, plonking it down in your own piece without attribution, pretending it’s your own. It’s not only illegal, but a moral wrong.

What’s perfectly legitimate is deconstruction, taking a well-written novel, say one in the hardboiled genre for argument’s sake, pulling it apart and examining how a writer accomplished what he did. It’s perfectly legitimate making use of what you’ve learned about structure, character development, pacing, etc., in order to create your own book.


Simple Deconstruction

  1. Read a book you admire at least twice. More, if you can.

  2.  Outline the plot.

  3.  Write biographies of the characters.

  4.  Study the pacing. Note when it speeds, when it slows.

  5.  Really pay attention to the dialogue. How much of the plot relies on what the characters say to each other?

  6.  What is the POV? Why does it work in this book?

  7.  Highlight favorite sentences and handwrite them. Think about what drew you to them, what are their common denominators.

  8. Once you’ve deconstructed this and everything you’re interested in, read the book again.

  9.  Write about what you’ve learned.

  10.  Consider what would work in your own work in progress.

  11.  Use it.


There is no need to re-invent the wheel; it’s been around since the beginning. In fact, this is how writing is taught. What’s the advice most given to novice writers?

Read, read, read. Read a lot, and widely.

Why do you think established writers say that? Because it’s only by reading that you’ll absorb good writing. Once absorbed, the advice is write, write, write without ceasing.

Take Ian Rankin’s Rebus series, for instance. He’s 30 years into it as of this year, his characters iconic. If this is a genre you’re interested in writing, I recommend ripping his books apart, studying them, and making use of his formula.

Again, this is not plagiarism; it’s using an established framework.


Ian Rankin: worthy role model.


So, how does Rankin do what he does?

Early novels in a series establish the main characters, protagonists as well as antagonists. Foils to the main character are often brought back at intervals, woven in and out with regularity, though not in every installment. Think about Sherlock Holmes. He’s a sort of early hardboiled detective whose nemesis, Moriarty, drives him mad. Always just out of reach, the nemesis is fairly untouchable. It would be a bold move killing him off, though not unusual to make it appear he’s been killed off, resurrecting him later on.

Subsequent novels in the series touch on some of the background for the benefit of new readers, but they have to tread a certain line so as not to bore dedicated readers, who already know the early history. A veteran like Rankin, more than a dozen books in, may not need to worry so much about back story. Readers who’ve followed his hero from the beginning will know it, and those new to his books can decide to go back and read his earlier stuff for context.

A veteran like Rankin, more than a dozen books in, may not need to worry so much about back story.


After a certain point, you can pretty much do whatever the hell you want.

Hardboiled detective novels don’t vary much as far as portraying the main character: he is unlucky in love – usually divorced or soon to become so; he  battles vices like drinking and smoking and is often not  in the best of health, isn’t necessarily a hermit but does spend lots of time shunning company, battles depression, and is somewhat of a rogue – going off on his/her own, getting into trouble flouting the rules. It’s not uncommon for him to have co-workers as invested in his downfall as his nemesis. Ultimately, he solves the case on his own, facing down the villain in solo combat. And the revelation of the baddie often comes quite late in the book, the story twisting back and forth on itself to throw the reader off the track.

The flip-side of this is the thriller – you know who’s done the deed(s), but it’s a matter of catching him. There are variations in both genres, but this sums up their main constituent parts, methinks.


It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way. – Ernest Hemingway



Detective series fiction is a popular genre, and can make you boatloads of cash if you’re good at it. Ian Rankin’s damn good at it, a perfect role model. He can turn out a Rebus novel in a mere few months; it would take the rest of us years. How does he do it so well and so quickly?

He knows the formula, and practices it over and over. This is not a bad thing. Rather, it’s what draws lovers of the genre looking for another book like the others in the series, adding aspects like new characters and developing established characters as real humans are wont to do. Rebus ages, lovers come and go. Already retired at least once, fans like myself badgered poor Rankin to bring him back.

John Rebus is beloved.

The same basic idea can be applied to other genre writing. Even literary fiction can be analyzed for form, though it’s not quite as easy. Basic aspects of good writing can be learned, and the best, easiest and fastest way is studying the work of writers you admire.

I’d like to take apart a novel for illustrative purposes and show you exactly what I mean. My reading and reviewing plate’s pretty full at the moment, but this is something I can do in the background while I’m working on other stuff. Once I’ve finished, it may make for a good, short series of posts.

I’ve cogitated on this quite some time. When I read a near-perfect novel, I think to myself “how on earth did he do this…?” The best way to figure it out is dividing a work into its component pieces, outlining then delving deeper into the construction of characters, and all its other elements. With extremely complex works, it could take ages.


Man Booker agrees – the book is a master work.


One example is Julian Barnes’s The Sense of An Ending. I’ve read that novel twice; it’s a rare jewel. Relatively short, deconstructing it would still take a good bit of time. Its intricacies are delicately laced. I’ve wanted to examine it since its publication, the year it won the Man Booker.

All writers model themselves, consciously or not, on the works of others. All books  contain the sum total of their author’s experiences and everything they’ve read. There’s absolutely no reason you cannot model your own writing on that of another author.

Again, just do not plagiarise. Study, but never, ever steal. You’ll be found out, plus it’s just, plain wrong.

But do study. Do analyze. And never, ever stop writing your own stuff.


Nailing Jess by Triona Scully – but mostly, a lecture on craft

Every now and then I make a mad grab for a book, something I run across serendipitously while perusing bookshop events or stumble over in my email. A title or description will catch my eye, I’ll shoot off an email to the publisher and request a review copy. How often this works out satisfactorily to all parties involved, therein lies the rub.

It’s not my normal practice, going rogue. I tend to stick with known quantities, branching out only when I notice debut writers receiving so much attention I itch to know what the fuss is about. Immune to lip-service given to these new, talented warm bodies in the pool, I occasionally lash out with a cry of “prove it.”

When the mad flurry surrounds an indie publisher, as opposed to the big guys, now that’s when reviewing is one hell of a great gig. If I’m harsh, it’s from love – you have to be cruel to cull. Out of the water, bloated reputations. This free swim’s for people who can blow the rest out of the water.

But requesting willy-nilly? Every time I do so, I remember why it happens so seldom.

While not brand new to the UK publishing industry by any means, this summer I’m in the enviable position of having a legitimate excuse to go a-beggin’ for advance copies British publishers are generally reluctant to ship to the States. Before hitting up the big guys, idly scanning through local Edinburgh author events, I ran across Triona Scully’s debut Nailing Jess. Maybe it was the cover photo, or the blurb talking about an original approach to creating a trans main character, I don’t know. I took a chance.

Hardboiled-style detective novels are about overworked, underpaid, disheveled police officers either currently battling drinking problems or wheeling their arms. at the tipping point in mid-fall back off the wagon. They’re divorced or in failing romantic relationships, impossible to get along with and bristly. They’re too valuable to fire, but so rebellious and self-destructive their careers are held on by a thread. Bloody and depraved are the crimes they investigate, violent and elusive the offenders.

It’s how it’s done.

Launching 29 June, Blackwell’s Edinburgh

Scully’s Nailing Jess hangs its plot on the old standard definition detective novel, using as its hook the flipping of gender roles: women are cast as violent killers, men the unwitting victims. D.C.I. Jane Wayne has just been busted down a rank. Now a rung below the new guy – in this case, a man in the typical role of a woman, because up is down and male is female – on a case she formerly lead, she’s working with a huge chip on her shoulder. A string of boys have been found stabbed and strangled, lying on crosses, pages of religious texts scattered around the bodies, crucifixes shoved in their anuses. So begins the race against time finding the killer before she strikes again.

The plot of the book isn’t important. It’s the old standard. The expectation of plot variance is pushed aside, allowing room for the author to take a stab – pun sort of intended – at achieving overt novelty via the subversion of male and female societal roles. This promise of shocking or clever artistry only works when handled deftly, a point so obvious I almost hate myself for saying it.

Simply: if a writer promises, the onus is on her to deliver and big. Splashing blurbs all over the cover is a cop out. It’s what’s inside that counts.

Hanging a “new” twist – more correctly, less common, because there’s nothing new  – on an established genre is smart; the reader knows what to expect from a detective novel, he doesn’t need much outside the usual formula and a hell of a lot of talent. More power to writers who go there, but all that’s needed are a few interesting characters and an amount of bloody savagery consistent with the level of swearing. Thus freed, a writer is given permission to leverage his or her stylistic gymnastics on the book, unbound by re-making the wheel. But you gotta satisfy the judges, and stick that landing.

The knowledge I have an e-galley of Rushdie’s new book waiting prohibits me from lecturing in-depth on what makes good writing, but let’s just take the basics, because it’s been a while since I’ve gone here: voice, style, grammar, syntax, blood, sweat, tears and persistence. Originality? It would be nice, but nail those basics before promising the extraordinary.

Next, you need to hire one hell of a good editor ready to rip your guts out. If you’re not standing in a puddle of your own despair on draft one, you’re not doing it right. That’s how you level up. There is no short cut.

Simple, right?

All my best to indie writers and small publishers working in a brutal field. When your editors have fangs, it’s a joy working with you. It’s when the blood’s off the floor that I come in, relieved and appreciative.

I have to run. It’s reading time.


Blogging and Bloggery, at age 5

I didn't make a big deal of it – or mention it at all – but Bluestalking celebrated its 5th anniversary over the summer. That's five years of writing at least weekly, if not always daily. It's been both fun and great discipline for me. Five years of mulling over books, sometimes (okay, OFTEN) veering into the personal,  sharing some of my photography, a bit of crafty this and thats, and frankly I don't even remember what else.

To the best of my ability, I've tried to avoid topics of a political or religious nature, though a couple crept in when I couldn't contain myself. As far as outrageously opinionated, snarky or even downright aggressive posts, those are in here, too, mostly regarding books I felt very strongly about, those I resented making it into publication in the first place, when there are so many better unpublished writers out there. And I wouldn't retract a thing.

Going back over the books I've read, would my opinion of all of them still be the same now? In lots of cases, probably not. I'm a firm believer the time and place you're at in life has a very big impact on how you feel about what you read. Some books I read and loved now leave me scratching me head, wondering what on earth I was thinking. And for others, it may be the reverse. But whatever I said was what I felt at that moment. That's the important part.

Blogging for five years has been an overwhelmingly positive experience. I've met great people, read a lot of books I'd never have otherwise, gotten a great deal of respect from amazing people, and shared camaraderie with other book bloggers and all-around rabid readers. There just is no better company than readers.

Have there been negatives? Aren't there always? I've often put myself under too much pressure to perform, to blog when I don't feel like it, or read everything I'm sent whether it deserves mention or not. All this pressure I put on myself for a voluntary endeavor? It's a little nuts. Because everything I write is going to have a huge impact on the world, right?


Still, I hit the five year mark. What do you know? Something I started on a lark (at roughly the same time other bookish friends decided to try it) has turned into something I've kept up – for better or worse – for five entire years. I guess that's something to feel a bit of pride about, even if I'm not equally fond of all the writing and/or content, or all the incarnations the blog has gone through. I don't know if I'll still be here in another five years. That depends on life, on how much time I have to spare for "free time" endeavors, etc. Meanwhile, Happy Birthday to me. And, to all who've ridden along with me, thanks to you all. It wouldn't have mattered without you.

I'm here now, and assuming I can stave off that inner critic who keeps telling me I could always do better, will be for at least a while. We'll see how it goes.