CRAFT: Why did we start doing this?

On ‘s journal we were typing about how sad so many children’s classics and YA “problem novels” are–everyone dies, especially the pets, and in some awful, disappointing way . . . and the moral seems to be that there are so many things you can’t control that you might as well toughen up. This may or may not be a great Moral of the Story to start pounding into them when they’re little.

I wrote back, saying:

This is precisely why I don’t read YA/children’s books any more unless someone has read it and SWEARS that there are no animals IN the book. _Charlotte’s Web_ almost did me in, and don’t even talk about _Old Yeller_ *sob*

However, something good sorta may have come out of all my sad readings. My dad walked in one day when I was abed with chicken pox and was sobbing at the ill turn of events that some book or another had taken. “What’s wrong, sweetie?” He was alarmed because he thought I might be croaking from the plague. I explained whatever it was, and it had Ruined the Whole Book.

“Is that all!” He beamed as I imagine C. S. Lewis doing. “Well, here’s what we do. We just back up to JUST BEFORE the bad thing happens, when you are still happy with the story. Then we just re-imagine a new ending! We think the story we wish had happened!” He didn’t suggest ripping out the bad pages, because in those days books were still sacrosanct and NEVER written in, let alone recycled, but in effect that was what we did. “Tell me the story that you WISH the ending was, and it will be that way!”

So I told him. He also pointed out that I could do this re-ending by writing the corrected ending in my spiral notebook. I then paper-clipped the Bad Pages of whatever book together and stuck the torn-out spiral pages on the front of the clip. That way nobody would make the mistake of reading the Bad Part again.

You can see where this is headed . . . me being a writer and all.


I hadn’t realized that this was a pretty formidable thing to come up with and tell to a child . . . until I got some replies privately that told me so. They said my daddy was pretty cool. (snif) I think so, too. I sure miss him.

Also . . . in a recent newsletter from author Holly Lisle, who has a website where she lists several web courses that she teaches for writers, this “copybook” technique came up. Basically, you buy “slaughter” copies of five books published within the last year or two* that you have absolutely loved. These books need to be like the book you’re writing or trying to write in that they should be the same genre and this should be the house/editor you’re aiming at, or pretty close. In other words, choose romances or fantasy or whatnot, not just literary books that you adored, if you’re not writing literary novels (and she pretty much assumes you’re writing genre.)

Now, why are we doing this? She’s making the recommendation that if ten years ago, you used to get requests for fulls–but you no longer do, though you believe your work is better now than it was then–you need to change the way you write. “Has your style changed in the past ten years? Because the market
has.” This was a point we were arguing on the WRITING2 mailing list, where they feel that your natural voice and style is the only thing you should try to use. Holly Lisle assumes you want to sell. That’s where she’s coming from here. Just to make things clear. She’s not asking you to sell out if you don’t care if you sell, in other words.

Sit down with these copies, a handful of highlighters, and a spiral-bound notebook or two. You’re going to open each book and highlight things. (I’ve talked about this exercise before.) In yellow (*say*), highlight all the dialogue. Color the descriptions pink. Blue can be for action. Hope there’s an orange, as you need a different color for musing, internal monologue, “sequel,” or whatever you call that part.

Now you have the “pattern” that each book follows as far as the mix of dialogue and action, the balance of internal monologue to dialogue, and so forth. But she proposes that you go a step further.

Write out your favorite scenes, copying them word-for-word. Copy until the urge to change things kicks in. When it does, change to your heart’s content. Continue until your modified version reads as smoothly as the
original copy. She says, “It won’t take anywhere near as long as you think. You’ll catch voice and nuance, rhythm, word choice, and much more, and make them your own. This won’t make you a clone of the person
whose work you’ve modeled. It will just break down some barriers that have been keeping you in one place.”

Hmm. I know that when I was in elementary school, we (the Green Group, the best readers) used to put on plays for the class. We did this by having me go through some segment of a book the class had read or was about to read and making it into a play, usually with a Narrator and various actors quoting from the book. Maybe that influenced my style a little.

She goes on to say that we learn to be original–that we first imitate, and then we adapt whatever it is in our own way and put a special individual stamp on it, and eventually we’re walking on our own. “This copybook technique simply shortcuts the process,” she says.

This sounds kind of fun, in a wacky sort of way, for someone who’s sitting there without instincts and crying, “But I don’t know HOW to write what’s in my head!” However. . . .

I don’t really approve of this “copy” part so much on the part of grown-ups who are trying to learn to write fiction, mostly because it can lead to plagiarism, inadvertent and/or caused by missing some part of a passage that you thought was so original. It could cause some crypto-copying later on, where you don’t realize that you’re outputting a passage you memorized from somewhere else. That is possibly what happened to a couple of these young writers lately who’ve been caught copying parts of other books in toto into their own! Yet you can see what she’s telling us to do. And she’s a well-known writers’ mentor. Has a string of published books going from here to Oklahoma. So maybe the process is not bad. You just need to watch out for these negative possibilities.

Now, let me be clear that up to the point where you started copying out passages, I was fine with this. I’ve called that “colorful rewriting” and recommended that writers do this with printouts of the first draft of their own work to see the mix. But it just worries me a bit with the copying out and all. I know you’re not typing the stuff in, but still, I worry.

If you were to do this with the classics, that would be more like imprinting on the cadences of Fitzgerald and Steinbeck and Dickens and Austen . . . and would probably be ruinous to your chances of developing a style that’ll sell books today. But you wouldn’t have to worry so much about being called a plagiarist if you accidentally regurgitated a few famous passages later on! That would be “homage.” *grin*

You can subscribe to Holly’s newsletter or take her classes over at


Author: shalanna

Shalanna: rhymes with "Madonna" and "I wanna," and is not a soundalike with "Hosanna" or "Sha-Na-Na." Aging hippie with long hair, husband, elderly mother, and yappy Pomeranian. I've been writing since I could hold a crayon. I started with fiction, which Mama said was "lying." “Don’t tell stories,” she would admonish, in Southern vernacular. “That's all in your imagination!” When grownups said this, they were not approving. So, shamed, I stopped telling stories for a few years--rather, I stopped letting anyone read them. I'm married to a fellow computer nerd who doesn't really like hearing about writing, but who reads sf/fantasy and understands the creative drive. I'm actually a nonconformist/hippie still wearing bluejeans and drop earrings and the Alice-in-Wonderland hair with headbands and sandals. Favorite flavor is chocolate/orange, favorite color is either Dreamsicle orange (cantaloupe) or bubble-gum pink, favorite musical is either Bye Bye Birdie, Rocky Horror, or The Producers . . . wait, I also love The Music Man. Is this getting way too specific and irrelevant yet? Obvious why I don't sell a ton of flash fiction, isn't it? To define oneself, I always say, it is good to make a list. How about a booklist? Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, Cheaper by the Dozen C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (all the Narnia books) J.R.R.Tolkien,The Hobbit/LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (before dismissing it, actually read it) George Orwell, 1984 Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle Donna Tartt, The Secret History Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn James Allen, As A Man Thinketh Mark Winegardner, Elvis Presley Boulevard James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum Winnie-the-Pooh/House at Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie The KJV and NIV Bible (each translation has its glories)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s