Between the Lines

“Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.”—E.L. Doctorow

An excellent way to learn to write is to copy the greats. What!?! Copy!?! That is plagiarism! It will (insert fear here — change my voice, make me sound like a cheap version of xxx, ruin my originality, yaddayaddayadda …). Actually, the exercise will force you to stretch your writing and creativity muscles. Better yet it will kick you out of writers block and help you slip into the writing zone. Another benefit: allowing you to concentrate on writing specifics and word choice as opposed to sinking into the story experience. You’ll learn many lessons from this exercise — choosing powerful, active verbs, pacing and phrasing, expanding vocabulary, writing meaningful description, and setting a tone with prose. Practice writing by using this technique and you will be in the company of many greats in the writing world — Jack London, Stephen Pressfield and Poet Laureate Billy Collins to name a few. Even if you aren’t a writer by trade, excellent writing is a handy skill. And an exercise like this is a good brain workout!

Grab a book that you love, or go to www.gutenberg.org to find over 57,000 free books to download. Another source is poetry or short stories. Use writing you love and passages that inspire, entertain, make you laugh, cry, or throw the book against the wall. Simply put, go to writing that moves you. Choose a section. Analyze the essence of what happens, put the essence into your own words, and brainstorm new elements. Next, referring to the original, write your version, learning from the author you’ve chosen. It’s not as complicated as it sounds. Here are a few “how-to” examples:

“The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. A man opens a window and a raven flies in. The man speaks to it as he sinks into madness. Place your character in a graveyard speaking to a statue. Or in a shopping mall speaking to a koi swimming in an artificial rainforest pond. Refer to Poe’s poem and pay attention to structure and how he creates atmosphere. Do the same. Play with metaphor. (Hint: Relate the slip into madness with the physical object — a graveyard/lost loved one, koi pond/a character losing it over the state of the world today.)

“The Prince of Tides” by Pat Conroy. In the prologue, the author contrasts his father and mother, both teaching him life lessons and revealing each character. Jot down instances where your father taught you a lesson. Then your mother. Or, two mentors who influenced your life. Write your own passage in the style of Conroy, comparing and contrasting the two lessons and teachers.

“A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens. The beginning describes a time (French Revolution) by the life contrasts for different members of the society. Think of opposites in today’s world. Write about the contrasts and gulfs between poverty/wealth opportunities, liberal/conservative philosophies, logical/creative job market, etc., referring to the famous “best of times, worst of times” passage.

Kathy Steffen is an award-winning novelist and author of the “Spirit of the River Series:” “First, There is a River,” “Jasper Mountain,” and “Theater of Illusion.” She writes from her home in Spring Green she shares with her husband and cats. Find out more at www.kathysteffen.com.