Learning from the masters

Plagiarism is a big deal. Not just if you are the wife of the possible next president of the US. In the last few years, a surprising number of German ministers have been accused of, and in some cases guilty of, plagiarism in their doctoral theses, which turned out not to be quite as much their theses as had been supposed. And students’ papers can be electronically checked for possible plagiarism. You can even check your own papers for possible missing attributions which could be taken for plagiarism. Copying someone else’s work or holding it out to be your own remains a big deal of the negative kind.

But of course we all learn from, and imitate, others all the time. We are even encouraged to do so. At work, we learn the processes that have been found to work. We then apply them and are paid for doing so. We don’t claim, of course, to have invented the process. Perhaps to have improved it, but we never expect to credited with its origination. And we might be encouraged to read books by business leaders where, for the price of the book, they offer to share their insights with us, what made them worthy of a book deal, and often they suggest that we would do well to follow their example.

When it comes to writing fiction, the one thing you hear all the time is how important it is to read – a lot and widely. Osmosis can work. Unlike in a “normal” job, you don’t – at least not in the same way – have other people around you to point you in the right direction, take you to one side when you do something silly, share their experience, and pay you at the end of the month whether you get it right or not.

Instead, we have hundreds (there are thousands, of course, but that’s daunting) of extremely talented writers out there, many of them still writing today. And through their books we can get an idea of how they approach their work.

The masters

Take structure. Anthony Horowitz spend longer working on the structure of Moriarty than on the writing of the book (although that sounds wrong somehow, as both are part of the overall process). Sarah Waters did something ridiculously clever in Fingersmith, so much so that I played with doing something similar. Then the realisation hit me that she is Sarah Waters and I am me and maybe I should try something a little more straightforward for now. As well as the structure of that book, her mastery of detail is always stunning. Gone Girl must also have been meticulously planned out for it to work. And Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller uses an approach which I am finding incredibly helpful at the moment – I have it on the floor beside me, ready to pick up when the thought comes to me “how did she do that bit?” Does it mean I’m copying her? I couldn’t if I wanted to. But learn from her approach? Absolutely.

And how about writing style? Every single time I read something by Stephen King, I think, “that’s how it’s done.” And the same goes for Jodi Picoult, Maggie O’Farrell (next week’s blog), Douglas Kennedy… the list goes on. Each has a style of writing that is very different from the others, and each works – for them and for the reader.

I find it helpful to ask myself sometimes, how would so and so approach this, how would they write this scene? It’s still my words and it’s never going to be how one of them would really write it, but I find just thinking about the question helps me to find an approach which is better than what I might otherwise have done. In this way, I can learn from the masters just as apprentices in other walks of life have learned from their masters over centuries – they just experience it a lot more directly. When I see what some writers can say in a paragraph (sometimes a line) that I need five pages for, I just remember that I can get out the red pen later. But I can see how it can be done (and probably should be done – brevity is not easy). And at least I can sometimes see when what I’ve done is not right (sometimes while I’m writing it!). Without the treasure of existing literature, it would be a nightmare.

So I have my Kindle loaded up with books for the next few weeks. Have Kindle, will travel and read at the same time. The great thing is that I get to read some fantastic books while learning my trade. That has to be worth something.

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