Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Rewriting the Classics

I found a great quote in On Writing Horror, in a piece by Michael Marano, although he makes clear that he got the basic idea from another writer. The quote is: "...to read a passage is to fly over it, while writing it out is to walk the same path that the writer did." Marano suggests finding passages from writers that you find particularly effective in creating horror and "type" those out yourself so as to put yourself in that writer's shoes. It wouldn't have to be horror, of course. You could retype a particularly telling bit of description, or an adept bit of characterization. I think I'm going to give this a try and see what happens. Has anyone done this?

Here's my first example, from Matthiessen's Snow Leopard:

"The old man has been ravened from within. That blind and greedy stare of his, that caved-in look, and the mouth working, reveal who now inhabits him, who now stares out. I nod to Death in passing, aware of the sound of my own feet upon my path. The ancient is lost in a shadow world, and gives no sign."

OK, a couple of quick points. For this exercise I don't think you need to worry about such things as getting the dash in "caved-in." Maybe it is even informative if you "don't" get it perfectly right but then compare your version to the other author's. I also automatically feel a push to rewrite it, to make it my own, not because I see problems with it, but just because, beautiful as it is, it's not how "I" would say it. And yet, I don't think I could improve on it.


Heather said...

Yes, I have done this, in an effort to blog about "The Way the Crow Files" by Ann-Marie MacDonald.

My post is here:


I did feel more connected to the words after typing them out myself. And, now when I think about that passage, it is much easier to remember.

Steve Malley said...

I first got this advice from a comics publisher in the 80's. He said a great way to learn from those you admire is to sit down and try to re-draw one of their pages. It's harder than it looks, and of limited value, but you do find stuff going on that you didn't know was there.

I remember doing it again (words only this time) with Fitzgerald and Hemingway back when, and I ran into the same problem. I kept wanting to modify work that I couldn't possibly improve on.

But I did find myself getting a sense for how they'd use sentence structure and sparing adjectives to build an effect. There was other stuff at the time, but that's a loooooong time ago now.

Sidney said...

Interestingly, I'm reading a direct mail copywriting book for my day job, and the first exercise is to copy an exemplary sales letter three times, noting as you do so how each paragraph makes you feel.

I guess it's an effective method sort of across the writing spectrum, based on Steve and H.E.'s thoughts.

Erik Donald France said...

Excellent ideas. I also have to admit that when I re-key someone else's writing, there's always a temptation to change or edit it, at least a little. When editing, one can make "suggestions" or "ask questions." Good writing exercise, for sure.

Donnetta said...

Charles: I like this. Never tried it but will now. I think Steve will be right--"you find stuff going on that you didn't know was there." Makes sense. Donnetta

ZZZZZZZ said...

great advice.

JR's Thumbprints said...

I've done this many many times. Some times the best written pieces seem so effortless, but I know that the writer spent lots of time and energy getting it just right on the page.

Susan Miller said...

Your suggestions seem to always come at the perfect time.

Charles Gramlich said...

I remember reading that (I believe) Piers Anthony did this with a whole novel once when he decided to write a thriller. I've retyped a few passages before, but not really with the intent to put myself in the other writer's shoes, to walk the ground with them. I will definetely try it some more. I'm a little surprised that the advice is more widely known than I'd thought.

Stewart Sternberg (half of L.P. Styles) said...

I definitely work and rework the classics. I have even memorized large chunks by Poe and Bradbury as a way of feeling the work.

This summer I read the Nick Adams stories of Hemingway and immediately turned to work that style into a short story of my own which became a horrific piece I called "Fishing with the Little People."

I also sat down and worked an entire chapter by Parker in one of his Spenser novels. I love Parker's dialogue and pacing.

You are right Charles, studying and working with other writers' material is invaluable. Good good posting. Wish I had thought of it. But then, maybe I will.