In the movie Finding Forrester, Sean Connery's character William Forrester encourages protege Jamal Wallace to develop his own writing voice. When Jamal appears stuck, Forrester hands him a book and instructs the young writer to copy some of those lines until his own ideas take over and he creates a new story.
When I taught high school English ( in a heavily writing-based classroom), I encouraged students to do the same thing. If we were discovering the art of the personal essay, I distributed copies of Bob Green's Be True To Your School or Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Sometimes it was the work of Anne Sexton, Mark Twain, Judy Blume or Shakespeare that I placed before them, hoping they would connect with the work.
We would read sections from the works and discuss the strengths of the writing. Then I would give students a snippet from a work, have them copy it, and build a story based on those opening lines.
Students created new characters or established new settings for these works, but the important lesson they learned was that if you removed the original snippet, there was a new, unique story which they had developed.
You can do the same thing. Ever notice that you like a certain author's books? Jodi Picoult is one of my favorite authors. Sure, I aspire to write heart-touching stories like hers. But do my words resemble hers exactly? No, and even though I can learn a lot about technique from reading her novels, or any book for that matter, I am the master of my own voice.
But you can use your favorite author's works to develop your writing skills. Have an idea for a character but not sure how or where this character fits? Insert her into one of your favorite reads and see how she develops. You'll be surprised by how many ideas for character development will take root from this type of exercise.
In Open Your Heart with Writing, Neil Rosen discusses the pros of the copycat experiment. Rosen suggests taking a well-known TV series and move it to a new location. "When you combine research and your own original ideas to create a new location, it is interesting to see the influence it has on changing the dynamics of a story," writes Rosen.
I think about the number of Shakespearean spoofs available from play script companies. These authors take the Bard's words and characters and give the storyline a fresh twist. Kids enjoy the modern tales and relate to the updated content. Plus, whether they admit it or not, they've just been exposed to classic stories.
Using the works of great authors to build or sharpen your writing skills can improve your technique. By living Forrester's example and words, you will create a piece that others might someday use as an example:
"You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head.
The first key to writing is . . . to write, not to think!"
Open Your Heart with Writing by Neil Rosen. Copyright 2007. DreamTime Publishing