by Jan Grape
How do we learn? Have you ever watched babies or toddlers interact with each other? Many times it's monkey see, monkey do. They learn from each other. If one rolls a ball, the other laughs and then he gets the ball and rolls it. If one stacks one block on top of the other, then on of the other children will see that and stack one block on top of the other. Babies and little children learn from their parents and their siblings. Their teachers and friends. Babies and little children are like sponges, they soak up everything.
Guess what? Animals also learn from each other. My female cat, Nora, is the one I call the smart one. She learns something, like jumping from the floor to the big stuffed chair to the top of the bar and down onto the kitchen counter top in order to get the the sink and water faucet. Her brother, Nick, is Mr. Friendly and is somewhat like the dog, Odie in the Garfield comic strip. He goes along happily ignoring most everything, until suddenly he sees Nora doing her jumping act and then he copies her. They both love jumping to the counter to get to the kitchen sink and then try to get me to turn on the water faucet so they can drink. (I ignore them.)
As writers we read other writers and learn from them. At times we are just baby writers, we read and study and learn how to write. We can see how other writers make a character seem real and intriguing. We see how someone plots and we learn how to do the same. We learn from someone how to build tension. We read a book by someone we think is an excellent writer and we learn from them. We go "wow" I never thought of that. Or how in the heck did they do that? We learn how to set the scene, how to write realistic dialog. We learn how to end chapters. We learn how to get through the middle part of the book. We learn how to bring everything to a climatic end and bring it all to a closure.
I don't mean we copy from them. But we can analyze other's work and learn. And then we practice, practice, practice. Yes, you can learn how to write better by practice writing. You can take a published book and actually set out to copy it on paper word for word. I hope you've picked up and are using a really good book. Use one that you know has won an Edgar or a Shamus award if you're interested in writing mysteries or thrillers. This exercise is for practice, not to plagiarize someone.
You begin copying the first line, the first paragraph, and the first page. Pay attention as you copy. How did the author grab your attention? If that book doesn't grab you on the first page. Put that book down and pick up another one. As a retired book seller I learned just how important that first page is because a person who picks up your book just might not buy that book if you lose them on the first page.
Take Stieg Larrson's, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest. Chapter one begins and reads as follows:
Dr. Jonasson was woken by a nurse five minutes before the helicopter was expected to land. It was just before 1:30 in the morning.
Tell me that doesn't grab your attention. Who is this doctor? Where is he that a helicopter is on its way? And who do you think might be in the helicopter? Man, woman or child? Is the doctor in the military because a helicopter is expected to land in five minutes. Or could he be on an aircraft carrier bringing a wounded soldier? Is the doctor a good guy or a bad guy? Is the incoming patient a good guy or a bad guy? We don't know yet, but I can almost guarantee that you're going to want to read at least a little more to see what is going on.
I chose the next example just to show how after a very intriguing opening scene, and then when you get only a few pages into the story, how you are hooked and grabbed once again. Look at this paragraph on Page 6 of Lee Child's book, Echo Burning.
Seven thirty-nine, more than three hundred miles to the north and east, Jack Reacher climbed out of his motel room window. One minute earlier, he had been in the bathroom, brushing his teeth. One minute before that, he had opened the door of his room to check the morning temperature. He had left it open, and the closet just inside the entrance passageway was faced with a mirrored glass, and there was a shaving mirror in the bathroom on a cantilevered arm, and by a freak of optical chance he caught sight of four men getting out of a car and walking toward the motel office. Pure luck, but a guy as vigilant as Jack Reacher gets lucky more times than the average.
A big wow. Five sentences in that paragraph but what a wealth of information here. A man, a vigilant man, named Jack Reacher is running from someone. There's a brief description of the motel room...can't you just see it? The mirrored glass on the closet door? The shaving mirror in the bathroom on a cantilevered arm? How can you not keep reading?
I honestly think good writing is a talent but great writing takes some effort on your part. And if you learn from other outstanding writers you almost have to learn to be a better writer.
Don't think there's anything wrong in copying another's writing. You're only doing this as a learning experience, a writing exercise. Like I said at the beginning, we learn from each other. Even as a baby. Even as one animal or bird learns from their parent. We can learn. And if you're going to learn to be a better writer, then copy from the best. Learn from the award winners or the best-selling authors. But strive to be a better writer. You'll be glad you did and so will your readers.