How to Make Highway Robbery Work for You

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.



4 responses on “How to Make Highway Robbery Work for You

  1. Evan Braun

    Great post, Leigh. Indeed, my list of stylistic influences is very long. It’s really helped expand my grab bag of writing tricks. After taking on techniques in this way for many years, I believe I’ve *almost* managed to synthesize them all into a style uniquely my own. 🙂 Almost. I may need a few more years for that.

  2. RD Meyer

    I think the two writers I mimic the most are Tim Zahn and Harry Turtledove. I’ll include Alan dean Foster in there as well. Their styles flow easily and have provided a map for me to follow in my own style.

  3. Brandon M Lindsay

    I love this! So much so that I’m going to steal it and use it for my next post, which is on creativity (I actually wrote that before reading this, but we can just pretend that it’s mimicry anyway).

    I have a similar method of highway robbery. I’ve gone through books by authors whose style I’ve liked, flagged the best passages with Post-It notes, and then rewritten said passages verbatim on a blank page so as to isolate it. Then, I would study it, word by word, to figure out what it was that I liked so much about it. This method works for me because it only pulls me out of the story for as long as it takes to slap a Post-It on the page, so I can both enjoy the story and learn from it later. Great post, Leigh!

  4. Frank Morin

    Excellent post. I’ve been thinking about this more lately, and I think I’m ready to try an experiment like this. I’ve learned through osmosis from some favorite authors in the past, but never in so overt a fashion. I’m looking forward to the insights I’ll gain.

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