In my blog entry, “Filling the Well,” I included a long list of ways in which to keep your imagination humming. The last entry on that list suggested that you pick a favorite novel and type the first three chapters.
Sounds like drudgery homework, doesn’t it?
Years ago, I came across a quote that I can only paraphrase now. But it was something along the lines of you can judge whether you’ve found your true calling if you enjoy even the tedious aspects of that profession or task.
It’s important to keep your writing skills honed. We work so hard to acquire them, yet they can go rusty in two weeks. So writers must always be practicing and learning the craft.
In doing so, you will also keep your imagination toned and ready to supply you with ideas.
Now, you don’t type another author’s story to steal it. You type it to get a close feel for how this writer puts sentences together, how the words flow, how the paragraphs link, how the scene conflict unfolds, or how the dialogue rambles or snaps.
You may be thinking, Is she out of her mind? Type three chapters? Use hours of potential writing time, typing some rich author’s work? I can see what Arthur Author’s doing without going to all that trouble and effort!
You’ll see something, but you won’t get close enough until you practice it.
Case in point: earlier this summer I wanted a strong opening hook for a story I was working on.
The best novel-opening hook I can think of is the first sentence of John D. MacDonald’s DARKER THAN AMBER.
“We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge.”
There it is. A simple, effective, well-written sentence that conveys just enough to grab your interest and make you want to read the next paragraph.
Now, sure. I can read and reread that sentence. But I wanted the cadence of the words. I wanted that rhythm for my own. So I typed the sentence several times, then I placed my own opening sentence next to it and tweaked and edited until I achieved the effect I wanted.
Plagiarism? Not at all. I’m not writing the SAME sentence. I’m not writing the same plot, or setting, or genre, or characters.
All I took away from Mr. MacDonald was the rhythm, cadence, and pattern of how the sentence flows.
(Am I going to share my sentence with you? Sorry, no. Chalk it up to an old superstition of mine–no sharing until publication.)
If you want to learn how to launch a novel, type the first three chapters of the best book you can think of. Get a feel for it, where the breaks are, how the scenes or description move.
If you want to learn how to write good description or good dialogue, type the best examples you can find and compare your efforts to them.
This exercise doesn’t work if you don’t type the excerpt from the published material.
Opening sentence: The day I decided to steal a dog was the same day my best friend, Luanne Godfrey, found out I lived in a car.
If you want to teach yourself how to plot, type the whole book that you’ve chosen as your template.
Yes. From start to finish, type the thing. It will teach you more than you can imagine.
Opening: I didn't realize he was a werewolf at first. My nose isn't at its best when surrounded by axle grease and burnt oil ...
Opening: Bailey was not surprised when the doctor's first incision drew up something darker than blood.