It has often been said that the best way to learn how to write is to read. As Evan pointed out in Monday’s post, reading the master like George R.R. Martin can teach you more than any book on writing. Looking closely at how they do it, figuring out what tricks and techniques are used is a talent that any good writer should cultivate and use.
I don’t know about you, though, but it’s a talent I’ve never quite gotten a handle on. I get lost in stories too easily. Even my own tales tend to run away with me. So, I’ve had to cultivate a different talent.
The brazen art of highway robbery.
Okay, so “highway robbery” might be a bit strong of a term. I guess mimicry would be closer to the truth, but it’s not enough for me to simply look at a piece of prose and figure out how it was made. I have to carry it off, with a grin on my face, and dissect it piece by piece.
I first did this with one of my all time favorite authors, Neil Gaiman. One thing that Gaiman is famous for is his use of humor. So, I took a short story I was writing and after much re-reading of Gaiman’s work tried to copy his rather unique tone and style. What came out was a story about an angel and demon hiring a private detective to find Satan, who they need in order to start the Apocalypse. It’s a silly tale that will never see the light of day, but the people who have read it laugh at all the right parts. It proved a learning experience I don’t think I would have gotten any other way. I learned that humor, in Gaiman’s work, comes out of his choice of details, which is, quite frankly, brilliant. Now, I enjoy using that very technique not just to show humor, but any other emotion I might desire in a scene.
I did the same with Elmore Leonard and his use of dialogue. By mimicking his style in a story I learned how restraint can make dialogue more believable and how subtext can work far better than paragraphs of spoken exposition. Less is more with Leonard…or rather, less is everything.
The drawback, many would say, is to lose a bit of your own style and tone. Some might think that, by mimicking another author, you run the danger of letting their voices overcome your work. The idea here, though, isn’t to steal their voices. It’s to steal their technique. To take on a particular writer’s style, see how they put the words together, and then let it go. The reason it worked for me, I think, was that I had no intention of ever publishing my experiments. They were learning tools that I easily shoved in a drawer and left behind.
So, I invite you. Find a writer you like. Get out your chosen writing device, whatever it may be, and see if you can recreate something from your own mind in their words. See what comes out. I’ll bet you’ll learn something you didn’t know before.