Modeling and imitation are time-tested techniques used by athletes, artists, and skill-builders of all stripes. One of the best ways to stretch your writing skills is to draw inspiration from those who are writing the kind of novels you want to write. What do the authors you admire do best? Can you emulate that?
The key to making imitation exercises work is to choose your writing mentors carefully. The approach used by a writer from an earlier era probably isn’t a good fit for a contemporary writer writing for contemporary readers. It’s fine to let the voice of a lion of literature inform your work, but emulating every detail isn’t necessarily the right choice.
For the purposes of this exercise, find an author whose work exemplifies the best of the best in the genre and market where you want to write. This will be your writing imitation mentor.
Technique #1: Train your ear.
You already know that if you want to be a good writer, you have to read. Working writers must continuously devour new ideas, new stories, and new approaches. Learn to read like an author so that you can apply the lessons you’re soaking in.
Once a day, sit down and copy one page of your mentor’s work. Writing by hand is best, but you can type if you prefer. Don’t go back and analyze the writing afterwards. Just watch and listen to the words as they flow onto the page. Your goal is to internalize the author’s voice.
Technique #2: Replicate the style.
Once you’ve developed an ear for your mentor’s writing voice, it’s time to try your hand at duplicating it.
Again, copy a fresh page from your mentor’s work. Then make a bullet-point outline of the page with enough detail that you can relate all the major points on your own. Next, list all the things about the writing that make it work well for you. Can you “hear” the author’s voice? Can you spot the narrative and artistic choices? Can you identify the strengths, what makes it successful at making itself heard?
Understand how and why the writing was created and then practice those specific techniques.
Now turn the original copied text over and attempt to replicate that page of writing as closely as possible. You can use your style and structure notes, but don’t refer to the original text. Don’t try to create your own version; using your memory of the writing’s voice and your notes about what went into it, try to reproduce what the author created.
When you’re finished, compare your effort with the original. How well successfully did you emulate the original? What elements did you miss?
This exercise falls under the category of effective practice. You’re committing a successful framework to memory by duplicating it—not memorizing and regurgitating, but understanding how and why it was created and then practicing those specific techniques.
Technique #3: Incorporate the style.
Now you’re ready to sail on your own. Read a single scene of your mentor’s work. Outline the scene. Next, create a similar scene of your own; tweak the characters and situation and details, but essentially recreate the thrust of this scene. Now write it in your own words, without trying to imitate your writing mentor.
With this exercise, you’re finally taking a strong idea written in a strong voice and making it your own. You’re using your mentor’s boat, casting off, and navigating your own way.
Imitation: For practice only
Please remember that any material you develop based on another author’s material could be considered plagiarism. Your work with these exercises is intended for your eyes only. Respect the work of other authors by using their writing only for your own practice and development.
When you need a leg up, I offer short-term coaching on story development and writing technique and long-term coaching from concept through editing. For manuscripts that are ready for editing, I specialize in comprehensive assessments (a coaching-size version of a manuscript critique) and substantive and line editing.
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