Before becoming serious about writing, I spent many years as a professional musician, a career I still continue to pursue. As I got deeper into writing fiction, and began devoting myself to trying to carve a path towards publication, I couldn’t help but observe that these two vocations – music and writing – have a lot in common.
For instance, success requires dedication, sacrifice, countless hours of practice, and some luck. Disappointments and obstacles abound, and the vast majority of your friends and loved ones won’t understand why you do what you do. The industries themselves are in upheaval, making it terribly hard to strategize and figure out the right move (and easy to become mortally fearful of making the wrong move). Chances of economic success are incredibly thin, and there’s no middle class, no 401K, and you can bet there’s no health plan. And no matter how hard you work, there will always be others who seem to succeed effortlessly, without any apparent skills or redeeming qualities whatsoever.
Oh, and there are also some downsides.
But being the historically glass-half-full guy that I am, today I’m going to look at one of the upsides, and focus on something that both music and writing share: an incredibly powerful resource that is available to every single one of us, which can definitely increase our chances of success, no matter how far along we are in our journey. Sound interesting? Then read on!
Standing on the shoulders of… mimes?
Musicians aren’t the only artists with whom we share a lot in common. Similar challenges are faced by painters, sculptors, and other visual artists, dancers, actors – hell, even mimes. No matter what your artistic calling, this isn’t an easy life.
But there’s an area where I think many writers are skipping – or simply missing out – on a very basic form of learning. The vast majority of artists in other mediums spend time studying the work of other artists. And most take it a step further, by actually copying the work of other artists, to assimilate their techniques and better understand their methods.[pullquote] The vast majority of artists in other mediums spend time studying the work of other artists. And most take it a step further, by actually copying the work of other artists, to assimilate their techniques and better understand their methods.[/pullquote]Musicians have done this, well, basically forever. Classical composers like Mozart copied the works of Bach and others, basically taking them apart like a mechanical apparatus, to understand how they worked. Most famous jazz artists have paid their dues transcribing note-for-note their favorite solos from the jazz giants who preceded them. And most rock musicians have spent time worshiping at the altars of Zeppelin, Hendrix, and John, Paul, George and Ringo, to name a few.
Bottom line, I’ve never met a professional musician who hadn’t deeply studied the work of other musicians he or she admired – to the point of learning certain riffs, solos, rhythms or melodies note-for-note. It’s a basic and essential method for building a musical vocabulary, from which they can step off and find new ways to express themselves.
It goes deeper than reading
But wait, you say. We writers study the masters just as deeply. You should see my collection of books! And some of them I’ve read multiple times!
Yes, I’m sure that’s true. But let’s continue the comparison. I submit that reading a book multiple times is analogous to a musician listening to a certain recording multiple times. They’re listening – and no doubt, they’re learning – but are they really taking it apart at the deepest level? Nope – that’s when the next step is necessary: trying to replicate what they just heard on that recording, but doing so on their own instrument. And that’s where simply reading doesn’t cut it. That’s when it’s time for writers to take the next step:
Copying, word-for-word, portions of some of your favorite authors’ work.
Author James D. MacDonald, who wrote a lengthy but helpful tutorial for beginning writers a decade ago at the Absolute Write forum, suggested that we should take our favorite novel, and manually retype the first chapter.
Okay, I’ll admit, this is the kind of idea that sounds great, but that most of us would likely never actually do. So I’m suggesting something more manageable:
Take the first page of one of your favorite books and retype it.
Why? Here’s what MacDonald had to say ten years ago:
The point of this exercise is this: Have you ever gone to an art museum and seen the art students sitting there with their easels and oils, copying the great masters? The point isn’t to turn them into plagiarists, or to make them expert forgers. The point is to get the feeling into their hands and arms of how to make the brush strokes that create a particular illusion on canvas. Writing is no less a physical skill than painting. The words are your paints, the sentences your brush strokes. Following a master, asking yourself, always, why. Why did he or she choose this word rather than another? Why was this scene from this particular point of view? Why did the scene end there?”
Later in the same discussion, MacDonald concluded, “At the very worst your typing skills will improve, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.”
Try it – you’ll like it.
Having tried the exercise, I can heartily endorse it. It’s a surprisingly strange sensation, physically typing words with which you considered yourself so familiar. A paragraph that never seemed long before might suddenly seem interminable while you’re typing it. Why did she put that comma there? Did he really mean to repeat that word within the same sentence? Wow, I never noticed how many sentence fragments are in this book.
You really do gain a whole new level of perspective on the author’s technique when you do this. I once participated in a writing contest where the goal was to write in the same style as a well-known author. The contest submission consisted of your own brief excerpt, plus an excerpt taken from the work of the author you were imitating (which meant you needed to manually retype that excerpt). Then the judges had to try to figure out which was the original, and which was the fake. I chose the crime novelist Robert B. Parker, whom I’d been avidly reading for a couple of decades. I consider him a big influence, so I was pretty confident I could nail his style.
Wow – actually retyping his prose was a revelation. For example, in all my years of reading him, I had never noticed how rigidly he stuck to only using the word “said” for dialog attribution. I’ve seen authors and writing teachers argue that it’s the best choice, and essentially a “transparent” word, but I’ll confess I often gave myself more freedom, and allowed my characters to shout, whisper, inquire, blurt out, etc. Man, copying this Parker excerpt was a huge lesson in just how transparent the word “said” really is.
And I would never have learned that lesson without having copied a page or two of his work. Not even after 20 years of reading him religiously.
That’s just an example of what you can learn. I recently read a book by Jonathan Tropper where I felt he totally nailed the opening, giving us the main characters, the core conflict, the main character’s backstory, and the narrative voice, all in one page. I wanted to understand better how he did it. So, I opened the book and started typing. Again, I learned a lot, and gained insights that merely reading the passage would not have provided.
Retyping another writer’s words can be a striking, almost mystical experience. There’s an intimacy to it, as if you’re being allowed access into their mind, as you become aware of every individual word they chose, and can stop to wonder how and why they made that choice. Really, it’s a fascinating exercise, and I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t reveal to you things you had never noticed about that author, no matter how familiar you considered yourself to be with their work.[pullquote]Retyping another writer’s words can be a striking, almost mystical experience.[/pullquote]
You can also apply this technique surgically, to work on certain skills. Were you knocked out by the climax of a certain book? Retype that scene. Did an author totally slay you with a humorous passage? Retype it. Did a section of the story make you cry? (Or, if you’re a manly man like me, did it simply cause you to “get something in your eye?”) You know the drill: retype it and see how they did it to you.
Why writers don’t usually do this
I won’t say this exercise can’t be tedious. I’m no ace typist, and there are certainly more pleasant ways to spend one’s time. And in one respect, it’s not surprising that most writers haven’t experimented with this. After all, what is the number one fear of every writer? No, it’s not being accused of writing like Clive Cussler. It’s plagiarism. Probably the nastiest word in the publishing profession, plagiarism is something we writers are taught to avoid in any form – with extreme prejudice. Graduate-level college curriculums (or is it curricula?) actually provide specific anti-plagiarism training, to help students avoid even unintentional instances of it. And here I am, advising you to copy another writer’s work, word-for-word?
Yup. Because there’s a key difference in what I’m asking you to do. This isn’t plagiarism. It’s practice.
With apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein
And practice is something we all need, whether you buy into the 10,000 hour rule or not. Remember, this is only an exercise. Nothing you’re copying should ever appear in one of your manuscripts. Think of yourself as a musician practicing scales, or a painter practicing triangles and circles (or whatever the hell painters practice doing). But the thing is: practice stays in the practice room. I mean, no musicians ever released a recording of themselves playing a scale (with the possible exception of that “Doe, a deer…” song from The Sound of Music).
Calling all copycats
I hope you’ll give this a try, and let me know how it goes. For any of you who have already explored this technique, I’d love to hear about your experiences. And as always, thanks for reading!
Image licensed from iStockphoto.com