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Fully Intentional Copying

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Ban, Oct 20, 2016.

  1. Ban

    Ban Sir Laserface Article Team

    Good day/night to you all.

    I read today that beloved nutjob Hunter S Thompson honed his writing skills by intentionally copying his favourite works. Rewriting books like the Great Gatsby word for word. The art of manliness site has a nice little article on it as well with examples of other writers who have done this How to Become a Better Writer: Copy the Work of Others!

    So I ask you scribes. Have you ever tried this? Does it work?

    I would love to know if this would benefit me or not, because I am considering spending some serious time on this if it works.
    Heliotrope likes this.
  2. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

    I've taken films I liked or admired and novelised them. Even films that were originally stories or have official novelisations.

    Why would you transcribe a book?

    To me, you would have to approach it as a critical exercise. Look at every sentence, paragraph, scene, and chapter for what you though worked or didn't, what you liked or hated. Try and find what you'd write better or wished you had written first.

    Just copying a book would seem to be a horrendous waste of time... but there again I don't like Hunter S Thompson's writing that much. So maybe it worked to make him the writer he became.
    Ban likes this.
  3. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    When I did writing in University we did this, but not exactly copying.

    I'll try to show you what I mean...

    So as an writing exercise we would need to take a passage from a novel (I'm in my third grade classroom right now... don't worry, school hasn't started yet) so all I have on hand is Charlotte's Web:

    When the children grew tired of swinging, they went down toward the pasture and picked wild raspberries and ate them. Their tongues turned from purple to red. Fern bit into a raspberry that had a bad-tasting bug inside it, and got discouraged. Avery found an empty candy box and put his frog in it. The frog seemed tired after his morning in the swing. The children walked slowly up towards the barn. They, too, were tired and hardly had energy enough to walk.

    "Let's build a tree house," suggested Avery. "I want to live in a tree with my frog."

    Then what we would do was substitute our own material, but with the same sort of structure as the the novel passage:

    Andy and Mona grew tired of Jacob's incessant nattering, they rolled their eyes and turned their attention to the faded pages in the worn text. Their eyes darted from page to page. Andy couldn't make heads or tales of the strange lettering, and felt discouraged. Mona found a chunk of text that was missing entirely and pointed it out to Andy. Jacob appeared to finally tire of repeating himself and stopped his groaning. Andy and Mona leaned back in their seats. They, too, were tired and hardly had energy enough to read.

    "Let's go to the fountain," suggested Mona. "I need to splash some cold water on my eyes if I'm going to stay up all night like this."

    So, while I may never use that passage in my story, what this exercise does do is helps force me to practice different sorts of sentence structures. Often times new writers get entrenched in sentence structure that feels comfortable to them and can sound very repetitive to a reader. This activity helps writers to play around with the sounds and cadence of different types of sentences. It also helps to play around with different ways of framing dialogue, different ways of using description... all sorts of good practice.
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2016
    spectre, Svrtnsse, Peat and 1 other person like this.
  4. Peat

    Peat Sage

    Bernard Cornwell did this as well at the beginning.

    I tried it with one of Lindsay Davies' books and I have to say, its a really really good writing exercise. I can't recommend it enough. As a way of immersing yourself in the nuts and bolts of the craft - when to show action, when to show background, when to use long sentences, when to use short - its fantastic.
    Ban likes this.
  5. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    For my nano project I'm copying a few events from a favorite book of mine (Moominland Midwinter). I won't be rewriting the scenes themselves, but I'll copy the ideas and the concepts closely enough that someone who knows the story will be able to recognize them.
    Ban likes this.
  6. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    I've never done it, but it makes sense, in order to train certain sentence structures and the like. On the other hand, I have a bad case of mimic without going that far, if I'm reading a book and writing I will often tend to pick up some habits (or at least used to). I've no doubt it would work for some people, and is unlikely to hurt.

    I've also considered the possibility of taking some screenplays or other well written character dialogue, all from one character and typing them out as a means to "study" the speech patterns and such without breaking into them grammatically.

    I'm in the process of honing major character dialogue in my book (much more of a pain in the ass than with a screenplay, LOL) and this sort of technique might just be useful.
    Ban likes this.
  7. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    I've done it. Only one book in entirety (Martian Chronicles), but I've passages from others.

    I have found there is a benefit to the physical act of writing the words (I write it out on paper). There's some educational kinesiology research behind it, but this really falls under the heading of do what works for you.

    I sometimes re-read a book not for pleasure but for instruction. For example, I loved Lord Jim, but it's a narrative rat's nest. Why did I like it? So I read it again not as a reader but as a writer. And when I got to passages I really liked, such as the point where Jim walks into the story, I stop and write out the scene. Another one is to take dialogue I love and write that out.

    Whatever the research says about muscle learning, one thing I noticed is that writing it out by hand forces me to read really slowly. I have to focus most of my attention on the words themselves. It makes me notice in phrases rather than in whole scenes. I notice the rhythm of the sentences, the sound of the words.

    I can't keep that up for long. A paragraph or two, a page or two at most. Just enough to hear the author at work.

    Ban and Heliotrope like this.
  8. Sheilawisz

    Sheilawisz Queen of Titania Moderator

    Those that have followed me in the Showcase know about my derivative stories.

    I have done stories like Halley Wolffer and the Alchemy Crystal, Sunset and Violet Riding Hood. They are pretty similar to the original material (Harry Potter, Twilight and the Red Riding Hood movie, respectively), but they are not copies scene by scene. They are all my own scenes, my own twists, my own characters and my own sparks, which results in quite original creations.

    This kind of thing can help a lot with exercising your own creativity and imagination, it's really great.

    Now, if what you want is to improve your writing and narrative abilities I think that the best idea is to read many books from various authors with different styles. Each of them will influence and teach you something along the way, but in the end what you have to do is to develop a writing style and a narrative voice of your own.

    That Copycat thing could cause you to become way too influenced by somebody, and also it seems tedious, time-consuming and a little dishonest at least from my point of view. In case I found out that someone is re-writing one of my books scene by scene but changing details, I would tell them: You leave my work alone!

    Writing Fanfictions is a better idea.
    Ban likes this.
  9. Chilari

    Chilari Staff Moderator

    Interesting timing, as I was thinking about this myself yesterday. I can see the value in doing it to learn techniques for pacing, creating mood, writing description and so on - the technical means of achieving storytelling goals. But I would expect it to have diminishing returns after a certain amount has been written from any given work or author. I think I'll attempt it myself and see how helpful it is; there are a few books I already have in mind to practice with.

    I have written out my own work longhand as an editing exercise before. It was a short story and I found that writing it longhand forced me to consider my word choices, sentence structure, to notice repetition of words that might stand out, and so on. So it would be logical that doing the same with someone else's work would give me similar insights.

    I think the way I would go about it would be to get an A4 notebook, draw a line down the middle of the page, and use the left half the page to transcribe the book or passage and the right half to make notes about what I've learned, what I like or dislike, how the structure or word choice serves to improve the reader's understanding of character, etc. Once November is over I'll give it a go.
    Ban likes this.
  10. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    Ooh, I like the idea of the two columns. Will have to try that.

    No less a person than Benjamin Franklin recommends the copying exercise. You're right about diminishing returns, but I hold it's worth doing, especially if it's focused--this scene for its descriptions, that one for dialog, another for a fight scene, and so on. But not the same kind a dozen times!
  11. Wow, I've never thought of this. But it seems like a good way to internalize the techniques and strengths of authors you admire and learn from them.

    The rewriting passages in the same structure also sounds like a good idea.

    I will try this...But I favor rewriting a passage as your own using the same structure over direct copying, as it seems like copying would become tedious and mindless after a while. Copying from memory might work though.

    I wouldn't waste too much time on it, but it's worth a try. Sounds like a great activity to do during periods of writers' block. Shall I add this to my list of ways to unblock...or at least make good use of time spent blocked?
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  12. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    Dragon, that's typically when I do it, during writers block. If I'm staring at a blank page and not quite sure how to start a scene I may open up a novel and start with the same way that author started... maybe a bit of dialogue, maybe a thought, maybe a description... but using my own content. Often it gets edited out, but for me it is worth it's weight in gold for simply just getting started.
    DragonOfTheAerie likes this.
  13. spectre

    spectre Sage

    When I read books that I think move to quickly and so are smaller books, 250-300 pages, that I think about rewriting them. Not necessarily changing things, but perhaps utilizing my own wordplay but just as an exercise I'm not a plagerist. Insofar as transcribing a whole book, I don't know. Sounds tedious.
    Ban likes this.
  14. Chessie

    Chessie Guest

    I did this once with an author who has stellar prose (although her storytelling...well...let's just say she takes the trophy on most meaningless use of f bombs). I took about 3 paragraphs worth of a passage, and wrote parts of a story I was working on at the time in her style. After about 20 mins, I tossed it. Totally wasn't my thing but it did force me to consider adding more description into my narrative. That's something I struggle with because truth is I hate reading long passages of description anyway.

    Also, in a college French class we did this with Ana Karenina, translating from French to English and vice versa. Did it with other novels, too, like Jane Eyre (not a fan). UGH. I hated that class so, so much.
  15. Ban

    Ban Sir Laserface Article Team

    Thank you for your responses everyone! This has been a great help. I am not sure how I will go about this exactly. But when and if the law gods allow me to be done with my exams soon, I will try your suggestions.
  16. evolution_rex

    evolution_rex Inkling

    Surprised so many have done this. How helpful would you guys say it is? It doesn't interest me in the slightest but if it's helpful enough then maybe I might give it a try.

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