Friday, July 29, 2011

Friday Filler! Theft of Stolen Goods!

Sometimes when I'm reading (okay, often) I find myself looking at something the writer is doing and thinking, "I can use this." I don't mean stealing passages from their book (that's called "plagiarism" and no matter what David Shields thinks, it's morally reprehensible), I mean stealing a writing technique.

For example, when I was reading Louis de Bernieres' Birds Without Wings I noticed that he has a habit of putting passages of intense beauty--often describing natural phenomena--right before passages of intense ugliness--often describing human cruelty. "I can use this," I said when I figured out what he was doing.

I've been reading the stories of Anton Chekhov lately and I noticed that in his later stories he had a habit of putting passages of lyrical, poetic images--often describing the beauty of the natural world--before passages of emotional intensity--often describing human selfishness. "I can use this," I said when I figured out what he was doing.

And then I stopped for a moment and said, "Hey, Louis de Bernieres is using Chekhov's technique." I thought for another longer moment and realized that William Shakespeare, when writing his tragedies, would often put broad comic scenes right before scenes of heightened emotion, or he'd put lovely and amazing speeches into character's mouths just before they'd do something horrifically barbaric. I'd noticed that years ago and had already decided I could use it.

So I keep finding writers who have used more-or-less this same technique, over hundreds of years of literature. And whenever I consciously focus on any other writing technique, I invariably find instances of it that predate whoever I've decided to steal from.

Which leads me to the conclusion that there is nothing new under the sun (no, I came up with that line myself) and that I shouldn't be shy about grabbing techniques from my favorite authors just because I don't know who they stole them from. They probably don't know either.

Obligatory question: What's the coolest technique you've stolen from another writer? I like the one of using my most beautiful prose during moments of great sadness. I also like pausing in the middle of a dramatic scene for a flashback, but I can't remember who I stole that from.

Also: It's Friday! Alex MacKenzie is coming over for tea tomorrow with me and Mighty Reader! It will be swell! We have no idea what to feed her. Also also: Last night we went to a showing of "Breakfast at Tiffany's." It's a swell film, though I always feel bad for Cat.


  1. I was afraid to come to the blog because I really wanted a Friday Filler and possibly there wasn't going to be one. But here one is! Friday Filler!

    Once I spent the morning making a list of all of my favoritest favorite writers and looked up their influences online and convinced myself that there was some lineage of cool writers that I was following. It included Woolf and Tolstoy and Proust and I don't remember who else. Maybe Faulkner? I like to think that there are these different writer family trees to which we belong to, and all the members have a common goal and stand on each other's shoulders to reach that goal. The key for me--just because I think it's cool--is that not every famous writer is on the same tree. I'm not sure Hemingway would be on my tree, for example.

    The coolest technique that I've tried to steal, but in the end it doesn't really work for me, is the creation of ambiguous experiences. I remember I once read a short story in Glimmer Train about a different dimension that existed behind a television screen but in front of the electronics in the television. Like, in this little crack of a plane. And there were little worms inside it. My description sucks, but it was cool, and I have tried to create spaces like that.

  2. And Scott, because you aren't on Twitter, I feel the need to put this link up here. Watch it a hundred times.

  3. Obligatory question: What's the coolest technique you've stolen from another writer?

    Don't know if this is the coolest, but it's a good one. I read a story a long time ago (well, a long time in internet ages -- maybe a year or two ago) by a fine young writer named Caitlin Hites. She had a trick where a lop-sided conversation takes place between two characters, with only one of them actually speaking, while the other remains silent. Nothing new, I suppose, but Caitlin's trick (also not new, probably) was to actually have the silent character answer every question and respond to every statement, but as internal thoughts:

    “Oliver, can you hear me?”
    I’m suicidal, not deaf.

    This direct but silent response gives a power to the passage that simply relating the character's inner thoughts as thoughts, could not:

    “Oliver, can you hear me?”
    Well, of course, I could hear him. I was suicidal, not deaf.

    The great thing about stealing tricks is that you can steal it without the person you stole it from ever missing it! :)

  4. One, Breakfast at Tiffany's is one of my very favorites, and I always feel bad for Cat. Two, LUCKY that you get to hang out with Alex. I've heard from Rhemalda that they finished her cover and maybe she'll show it to you... :) Three, I've stolen lots of things from a lot of writers, but I think the most significant has been a laid-back observant tone from Annie Dillard - that, and making everything connect to nature in a way.

    Oh, and watch that link from Davin. It's wickedly cute. Sometimes you just need some wicked cute. :)

  5. Davin: I sort of feel the same way about writerly family trees, and I think maybe I'm a cross between a couple of different trees. I haven't thought about that in depth, but I will. The idea appeals to me and I like the thought of being part of an unbroken tradition. It reminds me of learning the violin: my teacher studied with Vilem Sokol, who studied with Otakar Sevcik, who studied with Antonin Bennewitz, who studied with Friedrich Pixis, who studied with Giovanni Viotti, who studied with Gaetano Pugnani, who studied with Archangelo Corelli who was pals with Antonio Vivaldi.

    I like the idea of that Glimmer Train story. And the yawny youtube is adorable.

    Levi: That reminds me of Raymond Carver's maxim that dialogue should be disconnected and indirect because real people never really listen to what's being said.

    "The great thing about stealing tricks is that you can steal it without the person you stole it from ever missing it!" True that.

    Michelle: Alex and Mighty Reader will likely talk about binoculars and not books. I do want to see her Seattle Sleuth cover! The connection to nature is one of my favorite things about your writing. I try to do more of that but then I end up writing about how warfare destroys landscapes, which is not the same thing at all.

  6. Yaaaawn. Close eyes. Lick lips in bliss. Sleep.

    (I'm totally blaming you for my lack of productivity today.)

  7. Yat-Yee: The sloth loves you. Love the sloth back! You act like laziness is a bad thing.

  8. Yat-Yee, doesn't blaming take up too much of your energy? Just sleep. Sleeeeeeep.

  9. Of course, I love the sloth! How can I not! Laziness is a good thing. Whoooossshhh. (The sound of a whip in my inner being who's been programmed to think laziness is the number 1 sin. Or maybe it's disrespect. I dunno.) I'll keep chanting though. Laziness is my friend. Laziness is as cute as the sloth. Laziness gives me a glowing skin. Laziness

  10. Laziness hijacks a scholarly writerly blog post. Lazinessszzzzzz.....

  11. You may feed me cheese and crackers. No sweat.

    Stealing: I don't know that I've been smart enough to borrow writing techniques, but I do steal art ideas for my painting all the time.

    Cover art: I just put a tiny version of it on my blogger site. It's way cool.

    -Alex MacKenzie

  12. I've been trying my hand at three and four way conversations, much like in life. I'm not conscious where I picked it up, but it's been working.

    I seldom interrupt a dramatic scene for any kind of exposition, most likely because I lack the technique to make it work.

  13. Alex: Cheese and crackers you shall have. The cover is gorgeous, by the way! Rhemalda's been doing amazing covers lately. I am envious and I love the orange hues.

    Charlie: One thing I don't do brilliantly is dialogue with more than two people. I've made myself write some of those scenes in my current MS and I try to think about them as if they're stage plays. I can't say how effective that is.

    The trick to interrupting dramatized scenes for flashbacks is to make sure the dramatic scene is tightly focused on a single character, the one who's getting the flashback. I'm writing just such a scene today and I started sort of preparing the flashback a couple pages in advance by moving the POV solidly to that of one guy and introducing images that will continue along through the flashback. You can't just cut to it; it's got to flow naturally in and out of the narrative.

  14. Angela Carter used to pile on the verbs from time to time. I'm thinking of her story "The Snow Child" when the said child pricks her finger and "screams, falls, dies."

    For some reason, I like that. It must be the rhythm of it or something. Maybe it's because I can picture someone describing a Tale like this and her stories in The Bloody Chamber were definitely Tales with capital Ts.

    I really don't know why I like it but I have tried to steal it from time to time.


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