As a writer, I was recently faced with an epic task—to distill into a single book the life of an astronaut-explorer whose bio not only includes space, but sky, sea, medical school, and the Olympics. Oh, and then there’s the climbing of frozen waterfalls. And zip lining into raging volcanoes.
Scott Parazynski’s life is the story of a little boy who dreamed of being the first human being to step onto the red soil of Mars. He worked hard, he was very lucky, and he ultimately grew up to explore many (and I mean many) of the most dangerous and difficult places on and off the planet.
That was great. Impressive. Amazing. And lots of other adjectives. But how was I ever going to put everything he’d done into a book, and not make it a thousand pages long, or even worse, put the reader to sleep with a laundry list of his accomplishments?
I turned to one of my favorite tricks in my toolbox. It’s called deconstruction. How it works is you take a good book and study it by taking it apart to see how it works. It’s like a dancer watching clips of Fred Astaire to try to figure out the secret to his effortless dancing, or like a football player watching old game films to see how a winning quarterback throws the ball. It’s taking the initiative to learn from the best.
I asked Scott his three favorite books about explorers and from that list, I picked one I thought was the best—a bestseller called Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer.
It’s an unforgettable story of the tragic Everest climbing season of May, 1996, that claimed five lives. But I had never really looked at it from a writer’s perspective. Now it was time to look behind the curtain to figure out why it was so good and so compelling.
You can deconstruct books, too. It’s a quick and effective way to figure out how to write a book from a polished professional author who you might never get to sit down and have a conversation with, or take a workshop from. And here’s the best part—this knowledge and insight is available to you for the price of a paperback and a handful of highlighters. Here’s how it works:
First, pick a book in your genre. Genre is the category of writing you see your book fitting into on a bookstore shelf. If you want to write a romance, read romances. If you want to write a self-help book, read as many of those as you can. Once you’re familiar with the good books in your genre, pick a favorite to deconstruct. Make sure it’s a successful book and it’s no more than a few years old.
Next, figure out what elements you want to study so you can learn how to craft and incorporate those effective elements into your own book. Are you looking to write a memoir (a true story from your life) or a novel (a made-up story, also known as fiction)? Then you’ll want to start with how the author handles elements such as plot, characters, conflict, setting, dialogue, and theme.
Are you a nonfiction writer? You can look at many of the same elements as a work of fiction, but you also might want to look at problems and solutions, or the ratio of principles to explanation, as well as the use of anecdotes, examples, and illustrations. In other words, how many points does the author make and how are those points delivered in an effective way?
There are other things to look at, such as voice, pacing, sentence and paragraph construction, chapter construction, title, table of contents, and more. The possibilities are endless. If you Google “story elements” or “literary analysis” you’ll find examples of charts and rubrics to help you put together your own personal list of treasures to mine for in the book you are deconstructing.
Once you’ve decided what elements you’re looking for, use colored highlighters to mark up those elements right there in the text. Create your own color-coding system that matches what you want to study.
For example, if you’re writing a novel with a villain (or antagonist), you might choose the color orange to mark every time they appear. When you’re finished with the orange highlighter, you might flip back through the book and discover how the villain makes a couple of early, innocent-seeming appearances, then begins to show up more regularly, until the climax where the villain is all over the pages in his flaming orange glory (or shame!) Just by color alone, you’re getting a look at how an accomplished author is at work.
In a nonfiction book, you might decide to mark up anecdotes (short stories with a personal feel that are used to make a point) with the color purple. As you read the book, you notice and highlight every anecdote in purple. In paging back through the book, it quickly becomes obvious that anecdotes are a very important part of most nonfiction books, and you can then look more closely at how many the author uses per chapter, how long each anecdote is, and where in the chapter they seem to fit most effectively.
When I deconstructed Into Thin Air, I specifically looked at setting (time and place) and how the author described Mount Everest (a place I’ve never been and will probably never go to), and I had an a-ha moment. The most powerful passages in the book used lots of imagery, or vivid descriptions appealing to the reader’s five senses. The imagery put me right there in the middle of the deadly blizzard at the top of Mount Everest not only through visuals (the most common) but through touch, smell, sound, and taste.
By the way, did you know the International Space Station smells kind of musty, like Scott’s grandmother’s house? Now you do, thanks to deconstruction.