Posted on Sep 21st, 2012 | 99 comments
Guest Blogger: JR Parsons
Call me Katniss. Some seconds ago–it’s not important how many–feeling lonely and cold in my bed, and finding not the warmth of my sister beside me but only the rough canvas mattress cover, I thought about the bad dreams that must have disturbed her sleep and caused her to search in the dark for the comfort of our mother. It was a way, I knew, of warding off fear of the coming reaping.
Sounds familiar, right? But is it Suzanne Collins or Herman Melville? Neither–unless Collins fell prey to the literary mimicry trap or Melville wrote dystopian YA fiction. Thankfully neither did. And the world reaped Moby Dick and The Hunger Games.
I sometimes work with writers who, in hopes of discovering their own voice, listen to well-intentioned advice. Read the classics, the bestsellers, the award winners. Rewrite your scenes in the manner of Hemingway, Hunter Thompson, Amy Tan or Angelou. Study this master traditionalist or that stylish modernist.
That advice isn’t necessarily wrong, but often it’s incomplete.
Why should writers read Hemingway? For his disdain of adjectives or for his ability to strip a sentence bare yet layer emotion and conflict. Angelou, for her love of metaphors? Or for the way she weaves elements of blues music—off-beats, repetition, call and response—to give her prose depth and rhythm.
Absent this direction, many new and aspiring writers get it wrong. Jessica inserts a metaphor into every scene of her historical romance. Ray kills any adjective lurking in his mano o mano adventure novel. Kerry takes it further, adopting unnamed-superstar author’s complete writing style.
The result: literary mimicry.
Jessica’s metaphors remind one of Angelou’s, but don’t sing. Ray’s sentences are straight-forward, but don’t go anywhere. And Kerry, unfortunately, becomes the writer’s version of a bad impressionist at open mike night.
So how do we, as writers, learn from authors we admire? Six Dos and Don’ts will help you avoid literary mimicry.
- DON’T separate words from context. Great writers choose the right words. Words must fit a story’s setting, illuminate a character’s personality, and carry and reinforce thematic elements. Imagine, if instead of writing “It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done…,” Victor Hugo had penned, “It is a good thing I do because I have never done much…”
- DON’T separate dialogue from character. We’ve all run across brilliant dialogue and thought, “Damn, I wish I’d written that.” No harm done. Unless, you figure brilliant dialogue stands alone. It doesn’t. Dialogue must fit a character like a bespoke suit. Consider how the main characters introduce themselves in two well-known books-turned-movies: Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale: The name is Bond, James Bond. And John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night: They call me Mr. Tibbs. Each statement perfectly fits the character; switched, they hang like cheap suits.
- DON’T confuse plot devices with plot. Some best-selling authors weave complex plots that rival Turkish carpets. Channeling these master plotters, new writers throw in every possible twist and turn—and end up with their story in a jumble. Instead, concentrate on how your favorite author handles conflict, rising-falling action, crisis-climax, and resolution. These form the thread that holds plots together.
- DO read with your ears. Our eyes easily detect structure: short sentences, long paragraphs, an abundance of speech tags, an absence of quotation marks. Our eyes also process the words so our minds can grasp the story. But our ears allow us to feel the story. We hear not see the cadences—how words and sentences sound, how dialogue and narrative resonate and unfold—that make fiction seem real.
- DO identify choices the author makes. How does your favorite author handle character growth? Is it through dialogue, narrative, internal monologue? How does she build tension? Through foreshadowing, interrupted action, an unreliable narrator? Why did he choose a constricted versus a sprawling timeline? How does the author achieve story movement through dialogue and emotional impact through narrative?
- DO realize that you are not Toni Morrison, John Cheever, Danielle Steel, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Judy Blume, Jhumpa Lahiri or any other writer you can name–young, old or dead. But you can learn from them. Just understand that what you can learn is the craft of writing. The art comes from inside you.
Have you become a better writer by studying classic writers? What have you found the advantages and pitfalls to be?
Jim Parsons is a fiction writer and business and editorial consultant who recently started a new company called 9 Crossings.
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