Succeed By Stealing From Great Writers

    Stealing From Great Writers - book

    A real writer learns from earlier writers the way a boy learns from an apple orchard — by stealing what he has a taste for, and can carry off.
    ― Archibald MacLeish, American poet, writer and Librarian of Congress

    Have you ever singled someone out in a crowd because you liked what they were wearing?

    Did you go home and try to recreate the outfit with what was in your closet?

    Did you wear it better than they did?

    Or did you tear it off vowing never to wear the clothes that way again?

    Modelling writing is kind of like that, only instead of figuring out how to make a statement with your clothes, you do it with your words.

    I spent years developing my narrative voice, that unique way of telling a story that was particular to me.

    How I found my voice was by “stealing” from other writers, trying on different points of view, tones and styles until I found one that was my own.

    Note: Modelling, which is what I mean by “stealing”, is very different from plagiarism. Plagiarism is defined as using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization, and the representation of that author’s work as one’s own.


    How To “Steal”


    1. Borrow the structure: Does the passage below remind you of something?

    “Once upon a time there were two cities within a city. One was light and one was dark. One moved restlessly all day while the other never stirred. One was warm and filled with ever-changing lights. One was cold and fixed in place by stones.”

    The first line of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities reads: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

    In the passage above, taken from A Graveyard for Lunatics, Ray Bradbury “borrows” Dickens’ structure in its comparison of light and dark imagery.


    2. Use the setting: Another way you can model is to use a setting from popular literature.

    As you read these passages, see if you can spot the similarities:

    “A large cask of wine had been dropped and broken, in the street…the cask had tumbled out…the hoops had burst, and it lay on the stones just outside the door of the wine-shop, shattered like a walnut-shell…The rough, irregular stones of the street, pointing every way, and designed, one might have thought, expressly to lame all living creatures that approached them …Some men kneeled down, made scoops of their two hands joined, and sipped…Others, men and women, dipped in the puddles with little mugs of mutilated earthenware, or even with handkerchiefs from women’s heads.”


    “The driver had been coming out of the turn on the inside when the wagon had tilted and gone over. As a result, the kegs had sprayed all the way across the road. Many of them were smashed, and the road was a quagmire for twenty feet. One horse…lay in the ditch, a shattered chunk of barrel-stave protruding from its ear…Wandering around the scene of the accident were perhaps a dozen people. They walked slowly, often bending over to scoop ale two-handed from a hoofprint or to dip a handkerchief or a torn-off piece of singlet into another puddle. Most of them were staggering. Voices raised in laughter and in quarrelsome shouts.”

    Did you catch the comparisons?

    The rural setting? The overturned cart carrying spirits? The road made swampy by the spill? The people trying to sop up as much of the spirits as they can with whatever materials are handy? What about the shattered walnut shell mirrored in the second passage’s lame horses and shattered skulls?

    The first passage is from a scene in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, the second from Stephen King and Peter Straub’s The Talisman. In the modelling of this passage, King and Straub use Dickens’ setting, making it their own by serving it up with the dark and graphic horror their readers know and love.


    3. Break with convention: I recently started reading the Kathy Reichs’ Temperence Brennan series and her use of dialogue tags intrigues me. Here’s an example:

    “Which gives the chapter location.” Ponytail.


    “Warm-hearted ladies, all.” Kuricek.

    When writing conversations between more than two people, Reichs often drops the dialogue tag (i.e., said) and gives only the name of the speaker. This helps keep the conversation fast and the reader on track, without having to read repetitive tags.

    In my example, a boy (Kal-El) is on a bed, listening to a conversation. Delirious, the boy imagines he is Superman recovering from a confrontation with Kryptonite:

    “What is he?” Lois.
    “A boy.” Jor-El.
    “But he’s not…human.”
    “He was once.”
    “But not now?”
    Kal-El swallowed.

    The style worked for me in this scene because in his semi-conscious state, the boy would not be fully aware of his surroundings and might only have the presence of mind to identify the speaker and nothing else. In this case, the break from traditional dialogue tags fit, and I kept it in my final product.


    4. Steal style: Things like simile, metaphor, and alliteration (the repetition of sounds) are hard to do well.

    Stealing an example from a bestselling author in order to model it is a great way to practice. Here’s an example from Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister:

    “I was as dizzy as a dervish, as weak as a worn-out washer, as low as a badger’s belly, as timid as a tit-mouse, and as unlikely to succeed as a ballet dancer with a wooden leg.”

    And my modelling of it:
    “I was as bouncy as a ball, as happy as a hosed-down hippo, as high as a misty moon, as loud as a loon, and as unlikely to keep quiet as a ticking bomb nearing zero.”

    In my modelling, I steal the repetition of simile, sounds and comparisons as well as the structure to create an entirely new passage.


    Succeed By Stealing From Great Writers


    • Keep a journal. Begin one (if you haven’t already), with paper and pen or digitally.
    • Read voraciously.
    • Every time you find an interesting passage, make note of it in your journal. You might choose Richard Castle for his hard-boiled narrative, or Janet Evanovich for her conversational tone, Kathy Reichs for her attention to detail, or Anne Rice for her dark mood.
    • Then, on days you feel abandoned by your muse, go to the orchard that is your journal, pick an apple and take a bite.
    • Study the passage to find the one thing that made it stand out for you in the first place. Then steal by modelling it.
    • Finally, similar to the apples in the orchard, cultivate it over time, mixing and matching it with other styles until you create a narrative voice that is distinctly your own.

    You can try to connect it to your current manuscript, or write an independent passage to use later.

    If you’re lucky, you might figure out where your taste lies, and set down the roots for a future project.

    Here are three wonderful passages to get you started. Don’t forget to share your modeled passages in the comments!

    “Moon. Glorious Moon. Full, fat, reddish moon, the night as light as day, the moonlight flooding down across the land and bringing joy, joy, joy. Bringing too the full-throated call of the tropical night, the soft and wild voice of the wind roaring through the hairs on your arm, the hollow wail of starlight, the teeth-grinding bellow of the moonlight off the water.”
    -Jeff Lindsay, Darkly Dreaming Dexter

    “This meal happened to be a make-believe tea, and they sat round the board, guzzling in their greed; and really, what with their chatter and recriminations, the noise, as Wendy said, was positively deafening.”
    –J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

    “He felt his smile slide away, melt, fold over and down on itself like a tallow skin, like the stuff of a fantastic candle burning too long and now collapsing and now blown out. Darkness.”
    –Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

    About the author

      Elise Abram

      Elise Abram is an English teacher, former archaeologist, and published author and blogs about the writing process, popular culture and its ties to literature and literary elements.

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    • Terrific post however I was wanting to know if you could write a litte more on this subject?
      I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit further. Thanks!

    • Pauline Wathima says:

      Great article. I truly agree that modelling is really a great way in becoming a better writer I find my self reaching for short stories by great writers – Poe, King, Chimamanda Ngozi and others for much need inspiration when I feel out of steam.

      • Thank you so much. I’m glad you liked the article.

        I think many of us do this, but we don’t do it consciously. Many great artists, such as dancers, poets, painters, and musicians study the greats to improve upon their practice. There’s no reason why writers can’t study the works of the greats to help them hone their craft as well.

        Best wishes.

    • RD Meyer says:

      I’ve been doing this a while. I like to blend Stephen King and Alan Dean Foster, with a touch of Timothy Zahn. But the writer that has most influenced my style has been Harry Turtledove – easy flow and even easier to keep separated the voices.

      After all, if the guys you like are reading well, it only makes sense to emulate them.

      • Hi, RD.

        When I really like the style of something I’m reading I subconsciously find myself pickinp up the author’s mannerisms. When I’m stuck, I read Kathy Reichs, Charlaine Harris, or Laurell K. Hamilton. Simply the act of reading their work and studying their narrative technique as I read sometimes helps me out of my rut.

        Thanks for posting.

    • Thank you so much for your post.

      I like the idea of beginning with the modelling and continuing with a brand new story. I’m going to have to try that with my students the next time I teach a writing class.

      Take care.

    • Stealing is awesome! I used to coach teachers to do it all the time when I was a teaching coach and, on my blog, I used to host a Modeling Monday writing prompt where we would take the first three sentences from a favorite book and write a brand new story using it as our framework. Lots of fun.
      As for the various models you presented here, I must say I absolutely LOVE the dialogue tags or lack thereof !)

    • It may have been Virginia Woolf who wrote extensive essays on the subject of “thievery” in literature–great insights.

      • Thanks, Mike.

        I’m going to have to look that up.

        Best wishes.

    • I really enjoyed your post! Very practical and applicable. I especially liked the examples you gave and the advice on how we can take it from there.


      • Thank you so much for your complimentary post. I’m so glad you liked it.

        Best wishes.

    • Great piece -thank you! I find that imitating a voice can often happen naturally as I’m engrossed in different books and that my current style is a combination of many. Reading is definitely the key to developing your voice.

      • Thank you so much for your flattering comment. Reading about the ways people has been really interesting.

        Have a great day.

    • Neale Orinick says:

      Thank you for a great article. I often find inspiration for my writing by reading others’ work. I have modelled a sci-fi character off a Star Trek character, so I even use screenwriting and plays, not just other novels, to inspire me. The same with music. The lyrics of a Muse song inspired the opening of my sci-fi novel. I agree that to be a successful writer, you must be a voracious reader.

      • Hi, Neale.

        Writers connect with their muses in a variety of ways. Modelling characters after existing characters, using archetypal characters and plots, as well as song lyrics are great ways to do this. I often model characters after actors. I find that any time I watch the actor, tiny mannerisms in voice inflection and body language help me to write the same for my character.

        Thanks for reading and responding.

        Good luck with your novel.

    • I think all writers go to the masters of their craft for inspiration, especially, when they’re stuck. Even musicians and actors are notorious for doing this. Sometimes a story just isn’t forthcoming and it needs something outside of us whether that be a different point of view, or style in order to be birthed. Otherwise, we”ll be forced to watch our piece of work die a slow and hideous death.

      • So true, Rachel. I agree 100%.

        Modelling is a great way to help writers out of a rut. Coming at the scene from different points of view is a good technique as well. I will often try out different viewpoints when I begin a project to make sure I am telling the story from the right one.

        Thanks for the comment.

        Take care.

    • I have SO many books I have yet to read, so now this gives me a reason to catch up. I love the apple orchard analogy.

      • Hi, Willi.

        So glad you liked the post. It took the better part of the day to find that quote, but once I did, it was easy to work it in.

        Good luck with your reading and modelling.

    • Janet Nuckolls says:

      Great article. I have four bookcases in my office where I write my novels. When I’m stuck, or slow to find motivation to fire up the computer and get to work, I often grab a book and open to a random page to see what’s there. Sometimes I find what I don’t want to sound like, but often I read words that flow so beautifully (Alice Hoffman is a favorite for narrative and, total opposite, Ed McBain for dialogue) that I’m suddenly inspired. Yet I felt a little guilty – like that’s an underhanded practice! Thank you for helping me to see it’s simply what it is, a valuable tool.

      • I find often that when I’m reading a book with a narrative I enjoy, the modelling is often subconscious. If I’m reading something written in first person, for example, and I’m writing something in first person, I inadvertently pick up some of the mannerisms of the author I’m reading.

        Don’t feel guilty. Don’t sports players study the greats to pick up winning techniques? Budding singers cover popular artists and try to match their pitch and inflection when they do. Modelling encourages you to experiment with your own writing by studying the masters in the same way.

        Thanks for reading and posting.

        Best wishes.

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