I wrote this short essay about writing a while back for the Mystery Writer's Association newsletter. Thought some of you might find it interesting:
“Mediocre writers borrow; great writers steal.” So said T.S. Eliot. He wasn’t encouraging plagiarism, but was distilling into a sentence a general approach that all writers use whether they are conscious of it or not, to develop their craft.
In all the centuries before there were coast-to-coast creative writing programs, ordinary folks had been learning to write poems, novels, plays, and stories quite well. Though I’ve been teaching in a university writing program for thirty-five years and am absolutely certain that the service we provide to aspiring writers is of an overall benefit to many, I am equally certain that attending an academic institution to learn to write a novel is not necessary, nor is it necessary to read how-to books on plot or character or the use of setting. Everything a writer needs to learn her craft is sitting on her own bookshelf at this moment, just waiting to be plundered.
This may sound like heresy. A writer, and writing teacher, making the case for stealing the work of others…well, yes, heretical it may be, but it’s also the truth, and it also works. I learned this the hard way, starting my own apprenticeship as a writer with four failed novels. I spent about ten years trying without success to write a serious literary novel.
After reading many biographies of great writers, and from talking to writer friends of mine, I estimate that the average apprenticeship for any writer, from the day that she makes writing a central, dominant part of her workday, to the point at which she is actually publishing and getting paid for what she writes is roughly ten years—about how long it took me. Some manage to cover this ground more quickly, some take longer. Some write four novels that fail, some write two or three, some write and rewrite the same one until they learn their craft. But ten years is a ballpark estimate. Which suggests to me that you sure as hell better love the daily process of writing if you’re going to sustain your enthusiasm through that long trek. (And it wouldn’t hurt to have a day job, too.)
After failing four times, I reached the conclusion that even though I had a Ph.D. in literature and had published short stories and poems in literary journals for years, I was simply not smart enough to write a novel. But stubbornly, I still wanted to do it. So I hit upon the simplest strategy I could think of. I sat down and dissected a book that I dearly loved, a popular novel (that will go unnamed), one that while not exactly of high literary status, had been a reaonable commercial success and was close to the kind of novel that I thought maybe, just maybe, I could write.
I dissected and dissected, outlined, made notes. Chapter by chapter, page by page. Scene by scene. I scrawled observations in the margins of the novel. I even typed out verbatim whole pages of it, dialog, setting, action, all of it. I was determined to absorb this book on some cellular level, digest its rhythms, its pace, its narrative techniques and so on until I could mimic it in my sleep.
Then with the book open beside me at my computer, I wrote my first chapter. Same number of characters, same number of words, same amount of dialog, same quantity of action, a dash of setting, some quick character descriptions. I didn’t steal the words, the idea, the plot, or anything beyond the most elementary aspects of the book’s architecture.
When I’d finished the first ten pages, which was very close to the length of my model’s first chapter, I turned to the second chapter and repeated the process. I consulted my model every step along the way. Every paragraph, every page. I tried very hard to avoid using even a single word from the original, or to duplicate anything in it beyond the structural elements.
Then something surprising happened. By chapter seven I found myself not paying nearly as much attention to the novel that lay open on my desk. Because the the novel unfolding on my computer screen was taking possession of me. I think of this process now as being like the booster rocket that pushes the heavy payload off the ground and propels beyond the pull of gravity, then when it’s served its purpose it drops away and the space capsule (your own novel) continues on its own course, and finds its own orbit.
This finished novel became Under Cover of Daylight and it was published by W.W. Norton in 1987. It was reviewed favorably, sold more copies than most first novels do, and it started a career in novel writing that I’m still engaged in twenty years later.
About a dozen years ago when I decided to try to teach a novel writing course in the MFA program at Florida International University where I work, I decided to use this same approach. The course was titled, “Writing Your First Novel.” Rather than rely on one of the many fine fiction writing text books that are out there (Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction being the best of the lot), I had each student spend a couple of weeks deciding on a particular novel they would use as their model.
That’s the first issue we discussed, and it’s a crucial step in this process. For some beginning writers there’s no doubt in their mind when it comes to selecting a model. They know and love a particular book with such passion that it stands apart from all other books they’ve read in its influence over them. For other beginning writers choosing a model for their own work can get confusing. They like so many books, admire the abilities and styles and skills of so many different writers that picking one out of that huge assortment is a daunting task. But it must be done to follow this method.
Of course, we are all influenced by many of the books we’ve read. We admire certain writers for certain aspects of their craft, and other writers for completely different skills. For instance, I think of John D. MacDonald, the creator of Travis McGee, as an incredibly good writer of action scenes. When two men are fighting, his descriptions of the physicality of the events is nearly without parallel. Ross MacDonald is great with faces and expressions and eyes. James Lee Burke is fantastic with weather, and Elmore Leonard is the master of dialog. Sue Grafton has a voice, wry but tough, that I dearly love. And on and on.
But when it comes to choosing a model for your first novel, you MUST, focus on only one. More than that confuses the issue. The novel you choose should be one that will sustain your long term interest. (That sometimes won’t become clear until you’ve tried out this method for a month or so.) It should have been commercially successful (though not necessarily a blockbuster). It should have been written within the last fifty years or so. (Times and fashions change so radically, and it can be dangerous to choose a book that was popular in some bygone era but that seems silly in our current one.) And the book you choose should fall in your comfort zone. (You don’t want to pick a Tom Clancy novel as your model if you have no patience for research, or don’t already possess a vast storehouse of information about some area of expertise.)
Hemingway had Sherwood Anderson’s stories open on his desk when he struggled to write his own first stories. He was convinced he could write at least as well as Anderson. He stole a great deal from Sherwood Anderson and were it not for using Anderson as his model, many of the stories in In Our Time (Hemingway’s first collection of short stories) could not have been written. Great writers steal. Which means they don’t simply take someone else’s work and slap a fresh coat of paint on it. They take someone else’s work and digest it fully, absorb it into their own chemistry and what was once Sherwood Anderson is transformed into something all new, totally fresh, with only the faintest echoes of the original.
Several students in that long ago class went on to publish novels. All of them are still publishing novels today, even in a very competitive marketplace. I’m not trying to take any credit for their success. They learned to write their novels the old-fashioned way, the way writers have always learned to write. They didn’t study literary theory. They didn’t analyze Aristotle’s Poetics to learn to plot their novels. They sat down with a pre-existing version of the thing they wanted to do, and studied it till they knew it inside and out and could use that model to support them through the long and difficult stages of composition, until they were ultimately able to give birth to their own creation.