I’ve heard from several authors that one of the best ways to learn to write is to study the writing of other authors, and that the best way to do that is to write out some of their writing. Copying, it’s said, will slow the progression of words down enough for you to actually notice the words themselves and how they are connected. I thought I would try this out and report on what I find. But since it would be hard for you to follow along, I’ll put the text up for you to see as well. I may as well, since I’ve got to copy it out anyway.
I’ve selected a section from “Burning Alexandria”, by Michael J. Sullivan:
He felt it unfair that he should die for lack of burnable fuel in a home filled with paper. He noticed a trade paperback sitting absently on top of the foremost tower, its title screaming out at him in three huge, condescending words: Overcoming Compulsive Hoarding – a Christmas gift from Jimmy. His brother thought that giving him a book would be like slipping a pill in a sick terrier’s hotdog. As much as his skin crawled at the thought of damaging any book, he could burn that.
Irwin tore pages out, crumpled them up and fed them to Audrey II, whose name he mentally changed to Audrey III for originality’s sake. The fire reawakened to its bright self once more spreading warmth and life in its glow. Feeding a page at a time, the book wasn’t consumed nearly as fast as the junk mail. He was only up to chapter five, “Applying Cognitive Strategies,” by the time the sun set. If he could make a short book last hours, how long could he survive on David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest? Not that he would burn that, but there had to be others he could sacrifice. In the immortal words of Spock, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
So, what did I notice in typing out this exercise? For one, that Mr. Sullivan and I have different ideas about when commas should be used. He’s got better proofreaders than I do (ie. he has one), so chances are I need to bone up on my comma usage.
What is revealed about Irwin, the protagonist, in these two paragraphs? He is a hoarder of books, looking on them as near-religious objects. He finds being classified as a hoarder “condescending”, however. He has a brother. He is up on pop culture outside of books, albeit somewhat nerdy pop culture.
Mr. Sullivan did a little research for this section, unless he already has “Overcoming Compulsive Hoarding” in his library. There is indeed a book by that title, and its chapter five bears that heading. Finding this out probably took no more than three minutes on Amazon.com, but lends an added layer of authenticity to the story above and beyond what would have been achieved by simply saying, “He noticed a trade paperback sitting absently on top of the foremost tower, a book his brother Jimmy had given him on overcoming compulsive hoarding.”
Description in general is neither overly abundant or sparse. It doesn’t call attention to itself, but it’s there. It’s a “trade paperback”, not just a book, and it sits absently. It’s title screams. It’s a Christmas gift, not just a gift. There’s imagery in the sentence about slipping a pill in a hot dog for a pet that also extends Irwin’s feeling toward his brother’s gift. He doesn’t just hate the idea of damaging a book, his skin crawls at the thought.
And note the cliché there! Skin crawling is a fairly common one, and yet Sullivan gets away with it.
Irwin crumples the paper and feeds it to the anthropomorphic fire rather than just dropping the pages in it. The fire reawakens, and is fed more pages.
We are shown Irwin’s thoughts without any direct device, such as italicizing or quotes. Perhaps“If a short book lasts hours, how long would ‘Infinite Jest’ last,” he wondered. Would work just as well, but he picks one primary mode of conveying the character’s thoughts, reserving the italicization to really emphasize strong thoughts. He keeps it consistent.
That’s just a short pass through a short passage of the short story, but it reveals much. From here I might select other sections of the same story and compare or contrast with this one. Or I might select a passage from an entirely different writer and compare them. I can’t say that this exercise has triggered an epiphany, but it does reveal something of Sullivan’s style and voice. Continuing this exercise, especially across a variety of writers, could be illuminating as to what each has in common as well as how they differ in their writing approach.
What do you see in that passage? Anything that stands out to you? Is there anything you saw differently from me? Let’s discuss! Leave your thoughts/insights in the comments.