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I finished reading Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell this past week. A useful book, it contains good basic strategies for writing a novel. Bell breaks plotting down into manageable chunks but doesn’t claim there is only one right way to go about it. He suggests methods that work for those that like to outline so thoroughly that their outlines could be novels in and of themselves, and methods for those that wouldn’t outline their way out of a deep dank hole if it was their only guarantee of escape. He also indicates that you can combine methods if you’re one of those flippity-floppity types who move between outlining and free writing. (That’d be me.) There are exercises at the ends of each chapter that are helpful for whatever you’re working on now and for generally improving your plotting.

Toward the end of the book, Bell introduces an exercise that he says will give writers a sure-fire boost in the plotting department. He suggests reading 5 or 6 favorite books once through for enjoyment, then reading each one again slowly in order to examine plot and structure.

While I haven’t had time to do this exercise (hey, I just finished the book and it had to go back to the library), I immediately came up with 3 books that are favorites:

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

With a little extra thought, I came up with 3 more to round out the list:

Charley by Joan Robinson

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Messenger of Magnolia Street by River Jordan

I noticed a couple of similarities between these books right away. They are all written by women, for one. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the writing of men, au contraire!, but these are all stories that have resonated with me long after having read them. A couple of the books I’ve reread and I can easily see rereading the others.

When it comes to male writers, I like the work of Malcolm Gladwell, Christopher Moore, Neil Gaiman, Edgar Allan Poe in general, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex in particular. Gladwell is a nonfiction writer, of course, so his work wouldn’t count in light of this exercise, although he writes his nonfiction using elements favored by fiction writers.

Another similarity between at least 3 of the books is To Kill a Mockingbird. Obviously To Kill a Mockingbird is To Kill a Mockingbird, but curiously both The Help and The Messenger of Magnolia Street remind me of Mockingbird. As I read The Help only a few months ago, I remember the connection, but I didn’t remember that about The Messenger of Magnolia Street until I went back to my notebook of Books Read and scanned my mini-review of the book. Here’s what it says:

“The use of language in this book is so incredible, so beautiful – I had to reread passages just because – It reminded me of To Kill a Mockingbird – almost cried through the end – gorgeous”

I cannot even begin to explain why the Mockingbird resonates so with me. Normally it’s the type of book that’s required reading in high school or college English classes, but it was never assigned to me. I didn’t read it until I got a battered copy from my brother in 2004. After reading about Bell’s exercise, I looked for Mockingbird at the library book sale I attended last Saturday. I found one copy, just as battered as the one my brother had given me, and passed it by for that reason.

While Bell’s plotting exercise is an interesting one, what has me super intrigued is the idea of comparing my 6 books further in order to determine whether there is something about the specific story content that draws me in. Are they examples of books I’m striving to write? Perhaps that’s one of the goals of Bell’s exercise. Hmm. Clever.

What are your 5 or 6 favorite books? (Don’t think too hard, just rattle them off.) Do you see similarities in them? What do you like about them? What makes them your favorites? Writers, can you see similarities between your favorite books and what you write?

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