Monday, January 25, 2010

Author's Note: Imitation and Flattery

When I was very young, I realized that I could spell ridiculously well, including many words that weren't even necessarily in my vocabulary.  The theory is that I picked up on not only how to spell words, but also the rules regarding how to spell them, from reading so damn much.

I think, to some degree, the same is true of my writing.  I mention in my book here, The Author, that most writers start out as imitators.  I think I read somewhere that Stephen King started out re-writing stories, simply copying them out.  Not passing them off as his own, just scribing them like a monk.  Judd Apatow, who is now a screenwriter, started out by transcribing VHS recordings of Saturday Night Live skits.  I think another writer claimed to do the same thing with radio shows.

Some of my earliest works of short fiction were intentional rip offs, trying to ape the style or ideas of Poe and Bradbury.  I even wrote a Frank Peretti knockoff once.

You learn by example and so, it follows, that the best examples will be the ones that you strive to be like.  One of the greatest compliments I was ever paid as a writer was being compared to King.  I believe it was in my use of metaphor.  Not that I was particularly trying to write like him at the time, at all, but just that it was powerful being compared to a writer I admired.

What I'm getting around to is that in writing about it, and writing about writing about it, if you know what I mean, I'm becoming conscious of who's knees I spent my time learning at.  I loved the thrill of James Patterson when I was in college (I think he's something of a hack now), but I first learned pacing and cliffhanging chapters as an adult from him.  I learned it much at a much younger age from Hardy Boys books, so either way, lesson learned.  Writing two books in this serial fashion has been very exciting, stringing one event to the next, and realizing how much tension I can build.  And I learned it all from the examples of others who successfully used the same technique.

From Stephen King, as noted above, I got my use of metaphor.  In his book On Writing he talks about trying never to use turns of phrase that people have heard before.  Of course that's basically impossible, but when you describe something you can at least strive not to use a turn of phrase that everyone has seen 100 or 1000 times over.

Also from King, and I've used it several times in The Author, but less in much of my other writing, is creating a sense of forboding.  I just finished the audio book of Thinner, and he ends one chapter with something like: "They went upstairs and made love.  It was the last time they ever did so."  He doesn't do this a lot, but sometimes it is in annoying places.  I don't think he did it in The Dome, so it might have been something he grew out of.  I remember reading passages like that sometimes and thinking, "You son of a bitch!"  It can be a tease and it can be torture and it's probably a tool not to abuse.

One thing that people compliment me on that I think is most my own is my dialogue (and can you believe my browser's spell checker wants me to use dialog?  Ugh.).  I can't point to a single source for that the way I can for some other things.  My theater background helps a bit, I think, in that when writing I practically have conversations with myself.  Reading writers who do great dialogue, like Lawrence Block, is part of it.  I think listening to a lot of audio books has probably helped as well.

The thin line to walk with dialogue comes from keeping it "realistic".  I was struck by the first few minutes of the movie United 93 because it actually was realistic.  It was a couple of guys talking about their weekends and you could not have cared less, but tension was there nonetheless because you knew what was coming.  And then a plane plowed into a building.  Movies, television and books pretty much NEVER have realistic dialogue.  If they did, they would be boring.  What media does is boil down conversations to an essence.  When we say a conversation in a book was realistic, it usually means it was what we wished real life sounded like.  Some writers get recognized for leaping so far past realistic that it becomes another thing altogether, like Quentin Tarantino or Kevin Smith.

I realize now that I've spent more than 20 minutes writing this for no reason in particular.  I walk around these days composing passages for The Author in my head for the next time I sit down and write, and for some reason things like this were bouncing around in my head this evening.  As also noted in The Author, it is bad form to ask a writer where his ideas come from (Of course, I haven't been asked that question over and over yet, so I don't mind if you want to ask).  So this, instead, is me talking about where my technique comes from, I suppose.  Maybe you won't care or maybe it'll be a nice DVD extra for the book until the next chapter gets posted.  A look behind the curtain.

If so, I'm glad you care and I'm glad you're interested.  If not, then the next chapter will be up soon enough.

Thanks for reading.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing, Beau. Some day this will answer the kinds of questions that will irritate the shit out of you. So we're all honored with getting that insight early on, methinks.