Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Stealing and Stalking

by Suzanne Cordatos

Teachers have scolded us for plagiarism ever since we learned the three-finger grip on a pencil. Stalking is just plain creepy. However, writers, aren't we known for our powers of observation? Maybe we should pay closer attention to our dark sides. As editors say, there isn’t a new story under the sun—only new ways to tell it. When you're stuck for an idea, tap into your considerable skills of observation as one way of getting creative juices flowing.

Steal an idea. Work it like Playdoh.
Knead it, twist it until the idea is unrecognizable and becomes a creation of your own and not a clich├ęd duplicate. In a favorite TV show recently, pieces of earth rose from the floor of a cave and morphed into a ghost/robot/monster thing. Movie scenes instantly came to mind: mummies from a desert-sandstorm and a ghostly Headmaster Dumbledore rising from dusty floorboards in a Harry Potter. Each of these transforming dust bunnies is creative, unique--and part of a completely brand new story.

Highlight favorite lines while you read. Steal the technique, not the line. Analyze the sentence. What makes some sentences great? Is it the word order that reads like a punch line? Is it the blend of sounds, the writer’s use of alliteration or onomatopoeia that makes the line linger on your tongue like candy? Is it a description of food so gorgeous it makes your mouth water? Keep a small notebook of favorites and refer to it when you want to describe a sunny beach in such a way your readers will want sunscreen.

Stalking 101. We learn writing tips from conferences, books and blogs. We learn how to write settings from paying attention to the world around us. A trip to the local library or bookstore can be another good teacher. Choose a stack of books in your genre. Who publishes the books you relate to the most? Take notes which publishers might appreciate your work when you're ready to submit.

      Sit on a comfy chair near the genre you write. What do teens roll their eyes at in the YA section? What do middle graders giggle about? What images do toddlers poke stubby fingers at and giggle?

      How do adults choose new authors? The cover catches an eye. Flip the book over to scan the back blurb. If all is well, a reader might read the first paragraph. That’s typically it.
     The back blurb
Can you write your entire novel idea in three or four exciting sentences just like the back blurb of a book cover? Research books in your genre (i.e. PLAYDOH METHOD, see above) and compare your own write-up. Does it have the same zingy tone? Show it to a few reader friends (preferably those not in your critique group) -- Is this a story they’d likely continue? Are you able to be richly concise with your main character, plot and theme?

     The first paragraph
Does your novel's first paragraph stand up to the same type of scrutiny?

Enlighten us! How has your keen sense of observation improved your writing?


  1. Thanks for the great post, Suzanne! I love your tip for stealing the technique, not the line. I tend to be more big picture in my analysis. But I like the idea of getting down to the sentence level, noticing which sentences grab my attention, and studying them to identify what makes them great. Time to grab my highlighter.

    1. Thanks, Debbie! If you don't want to use a highlighter in a book, try keeping a small notebook handy. I started this when I realized I was reading too much about writing. The big picture helps, too but writing boils down to words -- and how to use them effectively.

  2. Suzanne - a wonderful post and a uncanny match with an issue I've been writing about. I learn best when I learn experientially, which means reading books, stories, essays I love and doing exactly as you describe - using the technique, or experimenting with using it, to improve my own work. Work I admire is full of inspiration...The natural questions, "Can I try to do this in my writing? with my character? Does my narrative arc have this kind of tension and excitement?" and more, have always been more effective than theoretical advice.

  3. Replies
    1. Thank you, Carol and Vivian! It is eye-opening and cool to experiment with a different point of view on the same scene, or phrasing the same thought in different ways. I find that "beautiful" descriptions are boring until they are tied into a character's perception or emotion.

      When I plug a story into a typical "back blurb", flaws are immediately revealed: Is there too much going on to convey a concise story? Is there a major theme to tie it together?

  4. I'd say we have to be careful with that stealing thing. Ha. But, reading good authors and seeing how they handle emotion, first lines, etc., sure teaches us many lessons. Thanks, Suzanne, this is a thought-provoking post.

    1. You're so right about being careful not to plagiarize! I'm not promoting copying at all. I once watched my cousin learn to paint by copying the great masters. Writers, too, can pick apart techniques to see how it's done well.

      A eureka moment for me happened once when I looked at descriptive passages trying to figure out what made some great and some boring, no matter how beautifully written. The best passages combine the description with a character's reaction or perception of it. For example, "The sunset blazed across the sky in a fury of colors" is nice, but doesn't it come alive when connected to a character? "When Greg watched the sunset blaze across the sky, he saw his last hopes drain to black in a fury of colors.

  5. Great advice Suzanne. There's also a copywriting trick in which you copy (type or write) word for word quality copy from a master. It teaches your brain how to write effective copy. The same holds true with any form of writing. Obviously though you can't claim the work as your own, but it helps you hone your craft.

    And, visiting the library can give you lots of insight into publishers, writing, and markets. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Hi Karen, thank you for posting a comment! I am going to try your copywriting trick. Some people might think great writers are merely born more talented, but I am trying to prove them wrong -- writing is a craft that can be honed and improved with practice!