When it comes to writing, most people have their end goal firmly in mind: sign book deals, get published, sell the rights to Hollywood, move into a mansion, live off the royalties.
royalties: Writers that have their works published for sale generally earn a percentage of the money that each copy earns, although at times, magazines and other publishers may pay outright for the story, so as not to owe royalties to the author.
Ok, that may or may not be a little exaggerated, depending on the person. Most of us who have been in the business for any amount of time know that it’s an ever more elusive goal. Even so, deep down, we all still want our writing to have the potential to make money.
That being said, now that NaNoWriMo is in full swing, I can’t help but think that this is as good of a time as any to discuss writing from another perspective. The perspective of which I speak is writing as an exercise, the sole purpose of which is to enhance your skills.
I like to think of this idea as tracing for authors. I mean think about any other artistic endeavor.
How do you learn to draw? You copy the works of others, perhaps even using tracing paper so that you can absorb every detail of their technique.
Likewise, how do you learn how to be a musician? You recreate the works of others, playing their pieces note by note so that you can learn not only how to play your instrument, but what the salient features of a good piece are.
If you’re an actor, how do you learn to hone your craft? You replicate famous scenes from movies and/or well-known pieces of literature, such as Shakespeare’s plays, scenes that teach you new the techniques of your craft.
The question now, though, is this: Is there a method for writers to “trace” the work of other writers?
Well, the first issue in this method of creation is that copying someone else’s works word-by-word without attribution is, in fact, illegal. It’s called plagiarism.
There is one important detail that it would be good to remember regarding plagiarism: Plagiarism requires you to attempt to publish the writing and pass it off as your own.
That is not to say, though, that you can’t copy the writing of others for your own edification in your own notebook or note-taking app.
It is at this point that I want to be clear about one thing, and that is that I am not recommending that you copy the works of other authors word-by-word.
There may be some situations where, in very small quantities, such a tactic could be beneficial to your writing. Maybe you read a paragraph that is masterful in the way it guides you through the visualization of a scene, or that conveys the exact emotions of a character in a few short sentences. In such cases, it could be extremely beneficial for you to study the structure of this writing, to find out precisely what makes it so great, and, hopefully, to add those methods to your repertoire.
There are, however, other ways to trace the work of others. Let’s look at a few of them.
Characters and Settings
The first aspect of writing that you can trace from other authors is their characters and settings.
It can be very beneficial for those who are not experienced in the techniques of world-building and character development to work within the sandboxes of other authors. In that way, you can learn how to work with well-thought-out, developed characters and settings and, at the same time, you can come to understand what your characters and settings need to carry you through an entire story.
The thing about this method of tracing is that you can, in fact, publish your finished works online, albeit for free, and thousands do just that every day. This sort of writing is known as “fan fiction”, and these works have a large following online. Posting your fan fiction on websites such as Wattpad can allow you to have your writing read and assessed by those who know exactly what makes a great story and who can tell you what you’ve done well and what you could stand to improve on.
Tone and Concepts
The second aspect of writing that you can trace from other authors is their tone and concepts.
If you love James Bond stories, then maybe you can try your hand at writing about the international adventures of a super spy. If you love Star Wars, maybe you can try your hand at writing an ensemble story with a “chosen one” and magical powers or a space-western complete with shady characters and train robberies.
This manner of tracing is the greatest choice to provide you finished product that is your sole creative possession. There is no copyright on the concept of spies, nor is there a copyright on the ideas of magical powers or space cowboys. As long as you develop your own stories and characters, the result will be a piece of fiction that you will be free to do with as you please.
Plot and Story Beats
The third aspect of writing that you can trace from other authors is their plot and story beats.
This can be incredibly helpful if you have difficulty developing your own plots or even if you are just unsure what should happen next in a story with a plot of your own.
Really, you’d be surprised how often writers copy the plots of other authors. Think about the story of an orphaned young man living with his aunt, uncle, or both, who discovers he has an amazing inherent ability, and he needs to save the world from a dark lord. Several stories fit that plot, including Star Wars IV: A New Hope, the Harry Potter series, The Lord of the Rings, and Eragon.
The question of how much is too much when it comes to tracing the plot of another story is nebulous at best. No one accuses Harry Potter of being a rip-off of Star Wars, although they share many similarities. On the other hand, some feel that Eragon contains such blatant plagiarism from both Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings that it should not be considered an original work.
What about story beats? Perhaps you’re writing a police investigation. It’s more likely than not that you do not have any personal experience with the steps that police officers take when investigating a crime. On the flip side, it’s incredibly likely that you have read or watched a piece of media that contained such investigations and from that media you can have at least a base idea of what steps are involved and what obstacles may arise.
Is the process of tracing the works of other authors a waste? Not necessarily. Every writer is going to start as an amateur. And every writer is going to need to write for quite a while before their work is worthy of being sold. The question is, will you use that opportunity to learn valuable lessons in your methodology as a writer, or will you not? And, of course, there’s always the possibility that you can develop your traced work into a work of your own. Fifty Shades of Grey, regardless of its merits as a novel, famously originated as a Twilight fan fiction. So get tracing, get writing, and update me on your progress.