Sunday, 29 July 2012

Is Imitation the Greatest Form of Flattery for Writers?

Last night when I found I couldn't get to sleep, I pulled out a book I've been reading on and off for a few months now. It's 'Unlimited Power' by Anthony Robbins. Disclaimer here: Robbins has some good ideas and great exercises, but some of his science or logic is not so strong. However, I still recommend it if you feel you are in a rut. (Just to clarify: it's not about writing, it's about positive thinking for all things).

So last night I was reading his chapter 'Syntax for Success'. Let me briefly summarise his point so you know what I'm talking about. If you want to be successful don't invent the wheel again, watch the actions and methods of those who are successful. Like baking a cake, if you can get the recipe with ingredients, amounts, and the correct procedure, you too can make the world's best cake.
He states: 'The point here is for you to realize that even when you have little or no background information and even when circumstances seem impossible, if you have an excellent model of how to produce a result, you can discover specifically what the model does and duplicate it – and thus produce similar results in a much shorter period of time than you may be thought possible.' (p. 119). The example he was using referred to creating a training course in firearms for the army.

I began to wonder if it applies exactly the same to more creative pursuits.

There is a rage in books at the moment (well, starting a few decades ago) which argue that talent is overrated, that most of what we perceive as talent is actually the result of work and good coaching. I'll probably discuss this idea more later because I do find it fascinating and is part is one of the motivators behind my writing challenge: to test the argument that says anyone can become an expert at anything if they dedicate an hour a day for 10 years (I think that's the time frame suggested).

However, I do also agree with Stephen King when he says that there are bad writers and brilliant writers, and you can't move between these two. I think is is particularly obvious in writing, where there are a lot of prolific writers who never get much better and then there are a few brilliant writers who only ever wrote one book. Having said that, I am sure that I can turn myself from a competent writer into a good writer through more practice. But what type of practice?

As I'm sure all teachers have said for most of eternity: only perfect practice makes perfect. This, I think, is what Robbins is getting at. If you want to become better at something, you can't continue just doing what you have always done. You need to improve your practice methods. And for this he suggests modelling. But does that work in writing?

The ancient Greeks started teaching rhetoric through extensive modelling, playing with form and content. Students would take well known stories or speeches and have to keep the style of them the same but change the content, or keep the content but change the style. This was the basis of their studies and until they had mastered this, were not allowed to go on and try creating something original. (See Aristotle's Rhetoric, he goes into a lot of detail.)

The confusion is, as Dorothea points out, most people imitate the wrong aspects. She argue that 'the philosophies, the ideas, the dramatic notions of other writers of fiction should not be directly adopted...' (p.105) Any author that claims they are writing 'like so and so...' is generally falling into this trap. If I see one more awful romance that states they are writing in the style of Georgette Heyer, I might do physical damage. They do not mean they have her technical excellence in writing or historical knowledge, but they have copied her boy-meets-girl plot lines, and usually not very creatively at that.

According to Dorothea, what you should try to study is Technical Excellence. 'But technical excellences can be imitated, and with great advantage. When you have found a passage, long or short, which seems to you far better than anything of the sort you are yet able to do, sit down to learn from it.' (p.106). (Yes, I am personally directing that to anyone who thinks they write Georgette Heyer's better than Georgette Heyer.)

I believe the essential difference can be seen in Robbin's cake metaphor. If you follow all the ingredients and all the same steps, you get the same cake. In this case, you get a book that someone else has already written. So therefore many people take a famous book and try to keep all the same ingredients but change the sequence or amounts. What sort of cake would that make? The same basic flavour, but badly cooked. If people wanted that cake, they would just eat the one made by the expert. But writers who want to make quick money always try to make the same flavour cake as the best seller at the time. Bad writer, bad!

What the ancient Greeks and Dorothea Brande and doubtless others have realised is that in writing you want to learn the ordering and techniques of cooking, so then you can add in your own ingredients and make a completely different but excellent cake.

Therefore, the concept of becoming an expert at writing through practice must still require you to be able to invent your own ingredients, but study the techniques of others. However, there will be some who are just not able to do this part of invention and no amount of training will give it to them. So, I do not entirely agree that everyone who practices enough can become a good writer. However, if one has a little invention, then the technique of writing can be learned.

Therefore, am dedicating myself to trying to improve what I can. Now, I just have to work out ways to practice the technical elements of writers I like. I might read a bit more Aristotle and see what he suggests.

Summary of my weekend's writing:
Yesterday was a great day of writing, making just over 10,000 new words for only the second time (I think) since beginning. Today I got 4,000 done, but also managed to do all my washing, and hopefully cook enough food to get me through the week, so I count that as a win. I'm over halfway through my next book, and have been surprised a few times by twists and turns my characters have taken me on. Still can't see the end, but am learning not to let that worry me. 
I also got to read quite a bit of Connie Willis' Blackout, though I'm afraid of finishing it before I can get the next one as I've heard it is a cliff-hanger. The verdict is still out on cliff-hangers between books. I hate it enough at the season's end of TV shows, but I feel a book can have a lead into a sequel, but to make a reader wait at least a year for the next to come to get closure should come with a warning on the front. 

Sweet practice my little writers.



  1. Hello!
    As I am very excited about the french historical romance I did a quick google search on Napolonic era books and came up with this:

    M.M. Bennetts, Of Honest Fame (2010), about a boy who smuggles information about Napoleon's Russian campaign to England, the government official who desperately needs the information, and a pair of ruthless French agents.

    Which I thought might be helpful

    1. Thanks Jenny!
      Will definitely look for it tomorrow in the library.
      Will let you know if it is any good (after I finish All Clear, the sequel to Blackout which Tam has got me hooked on).

  2. I love the snarky comments about Heyer imitators, though I think some of the sillier comments about imitation must come from the publishers who are trying desperately to snag potential readers. At least that's what I like to think! Austen, Heyer, and Bronte seem the most frequently appealed to in the romance category, and Lewis, Tolkien, and Rowling in the fantasy genre.