Making the Great Novels into Your Own

*Today’s essay is from Fine Lines Senior Editor Stu Burns

Writers Read, Right?

A while back I read the first draft of a friend’s novel then punched out my critiques and advised her to read more novels. This would give her a sense of how she could finish her work and take it to a more mature conclusion. That was the diplomatic version. Privately, I was wondering if she had ever read a novel. As I typed, I looked at the reflection in my monitor’s glare and realized I was staring at a hypocrite.

reading quote

I was trying to write my own novel at the time, an entry in the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) creative project I’d floundered on the previous November. I am a voracious reader, but mostly of nonfiction; I will argue all night that the life of Moe Berg is more interesting than anything J.D. Salinger ever wrote. Novels had never been something I looked forward to. When I read them, it was out of obligation, either for school or after years of prodding.

If I was going to be able to write my own fiction, I had to read novels and like them. In other words, it was time I indulged in outright thievery. There is a much-abused quotation from T. S. Eliot:

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”

Fine Lines LogoCynics often cite the great poet’s line out of context. In isolation, Eliot does seem to be encouraging plagiarism or worse. In perspective, this clever sentence is part of a complementary sketch of English writer Philip Massinger praising that Renaissance playwright’s use of material from William Shakespeare. As Eliot continues, “Bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.” Eliot was a great example of this himself. He freely admitted that his masterpiece, “The Waste Land,” was drawn from several influences, including one of my favorite books, James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Even with this confession, I have a hard time seeing anything from Frazer in Eliot’s lines. The poet has done such a complete job digesting the themes of death and rebirth that they no longer belong to the anthropologist who strung them together. This is the kind of heist I was after. Trying to reinvent the wheel in the shape of a novel was a fool’s errand. I was out to steal.

Reading for Style

I was luckier than most writers who haven’t read enough novels. Between conversations with friends and literary studies in college and graduate school, I had a reasonably good idea whom I should read, whom I should try to steal from. Knowing my limitations, I read Ernest Hemingway for style. Hemingway is legendary for using just as few words as he could to tell his story. He said as much in his bullfighting study, Death in the Afternoon: “If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” When I read A Farewell to Arms last year, I got a sense of what he meant. Hemingway didn’t need to describe the fear and sorrow his protagonist felt. By describing the situations of facing a firing squad or a mother dying in childbirth, the great author evokes those emotions from a deeper place. Some writers, like the great Philip Roth, can accomplish great things with dense prose; I am not one of them. Hemingway was someone I could learn from. If I did it well, none would call it theft.

Looking for Plot

keyboard workHaving never written any fiction longer than a few pages, I was wondering how I would manage to plot my story beyond the high points I had sketched out. Raymond Chandler once said that whenever he didn’t know what came next in one of his detective novels, he would have someone come through the door with a gun. My novel was about a road trip with no gunplay or murder, so that technique wouldn’t work. Instead, I went to one of the best-known American writers in the road genre: Jack Kerouac. Kerouac cranked out his best-known novel, On the Road, in a three-week writing session, fueled by a constant flow of coffee, consulting journals and plot sketches prepared for years in advance. Many successful NaNoWriMo authors operate the same way, though Kerouac had to type on a roll of telegraph paper to avoid having to feed sheets into his Underwood Portable, as opposed to my peers who tote their paperless tablets and laptops. While I wrote, On the Road became my I Ching. Every time I got stuck, I would flip to a random page and take my cue from whatever peripatetic action Kerouac had scripted. I wouldn’t copy his work by any means; Kerouac’s value to me was in the nature of his character interactions, not the details of his plot. If Kerouac’s character was rousted by the cops, my character might have to deal with an aggravating bureaucrat. If Kerouac’s character took shelter with migrant workers in California, my character might spend an afternoon with a Hmong community. That is the essence of T. S. Eliot’s dictum. When you have really stolen something, it no longer belongs to the author you have stolen it from. You have made something new.

Writing Rules and Breaking Them

A good stretch of theft-oriented reading will take you places you did not expect, and you may find yourself stealing from something you do not really like. For example, most of my writing teachers, either in the classroom or in articles I’ve read, have emphasized focus. I have heard the rule many times: if a passage doesn’t move the story forward, cut it out. Then, at age 43, I read Samuel Clemens’ The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This book has more digressions than Los Angeles has suburbs. Entire short stories that have nothing to do with the protagonist or the story arc are embedded throughout. Along with Clemens’ use of dialect, these inserted microplots make the book hard to read, and it is not one of my favorites. I am in the minority here, though. There isn’t an American novel that has gotten more praise than Huckleberry Finn, and I have to admit that Clemens must have been doing something right even if it’s not my favorite. The lesson I learned from Clemens was that digressions can work if the stories are good, and that I shouldn’t be afraid to talk about a town built over a raging inferno or the satisfaction of good martial arts practice if they make for a good read, even if these things have nothing to do with my main narrative. For good or for ill, I am stealing Huckleberry Finn’s tangential structure. I hope I can do it well.

Whose Point of View?

Not everyone will agree that you are stealing the right things. Fine Lines Editor-in-Chief David Martin, for example, doesn’t think I should have stolen Jay McInerney’s second person writing technique from the novel Bright Lights, Big City. I have made my apologies, and I think David has forgiven me. More to the point, there are a number of different ways to present a story. The more you read, the possibilities your own writing will have. Stephen King wrote his first novel, Carrie, in very orthodox third-person prose, then filled out the book with “news reports” on the main plot and transcripts from interviews with his main characters. The two best-known gothic novels, Frankenstein and Dracula, are both written as a series of letters. David Foster Wallace’s epic novel Infinite Jest has an “encyclopedic” structure that I don’t even like to think about.

There are several models you can use in the world of books, but remember: don’t imitate them. Steal them. Make them your own.

The sad epilogue to this story is that I still haven’t finished my novel, much to my consternation. Authors need to stick with it and work every day. That is a blog entry for someone more qualified than me, but at least now I know which direction I’m going and some of the pieces I need to steal to get there.

What novels have you “stolen” from? Technique? Perspective? Broken Rules?

Stu Burns has studied History and Folklore at three of the fourteen Big Ten universities. He has published several academic articles, essays, reviews, and poems. He has been a Fine Lines editor since 2010.



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