Monday, December 23

T.S. Eliot: Good Writers Borrow, Great Writers Steal

T.S. Eliot stated, “Good writers borrow, great writers steal.” Aaron Sorkin’s version of this commandment is, “Good writers borrow from other writers. Great writers steal from them outright.” (And, of course, neither writer was talking about plagiarism! That is 100% wrong and guaranteed to end a writer's career.)

Ralph Pezzullo expresses this idea well in his article, “How to Steal Like a Writer”:

“To my mind, it’s not a question of borrowing or stealing; it’s responding to the writing that turns you on, trying to imitate it, finding that imitation lacking, and in the process of striving to improve on it, stumbling upon a style of your own.”

Someone told me once -- I was at the Surrey International Writers Conference -- that the trick to good writing was to take the universal (some idea that we all have no trouble grasping) and making that idea specific. Make that idea personal. I think this is one of the reasons why reading the work of writers we admire is essential, because in doing so we see all sorts of different ways this can be done.

For example, take the idea of murder. Murder is the intentional, unlawful, killing of another person. We all find it easy to grasp the idea of murder in the abstract. But what a good horror movie does is make that general idea specific and personal. There is a specific murderer, victim, place and time. The reader doesn’t just understand the idea of murder, they feel terrified by a very particular murderer (Jason, etc.) who could be lurking in the dark for THEM.

The Universal and the Particular

Like many of you, I read before bed. Since I use a tablet I turn off the lights and read in the dark. The blackness pools around me and is only kept at bay by the dim glow of my iPad. When I read a good horror novel I become increasingly scared of the various slimy tentacled creatures I am increasingly convinced are lurking in the dark at the foot of my bed just waiting for me to go to sleep.

How an idea is personalized -- how something general is made specific -- is something unique to each writer, perhaps it’s a part of their style, but the trick itself is something all effective writers know how to do. Which is why Stephen King’s advice to read and write regularly is helpful.


If I might be so bold, I would add to Stephen King’s advice. I would admonish writers -- especially beginning writers -- to practise imitating their favorite authors.

Which brings me to a couple of writing exercises I’d like to suggest.

A Writing Exercise

Here’s one of my favorite writing exercises:

a. Read a few sentences or paragraphs from one of your favorite books.
b. Ask yourself, How did the text make you feel? Curious? Horrified? Scared? Scandalized? Angry?
c. What words or clauses did the writer use to create this effect? Study their language.

For example:

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.” (J.K. Rowling, The Sorcerer's Stone)

I love Rowling’s use of language! Mr. and Mrs. Dursley (no first names) were proud that they were not just normal but PERFECTLY normal. They seem like the kind of people who aspire to being as boring as possible. So, here, in the first few lines of her book, Rowling sets up a continuum of value: boring on the one end (and that definitely includes the Dursley’s) and strange and mysterious on the other (and that definitely includes Harry).

I think I need to read that book again!

So ...

How I felt after reading Rowling’s passage: I did NOT like the Dursley’s.

What caused this effect: “... perfectly normal, thank you very much.” I can imagine this, I can already start to see the characters. I hear the tone of voice it is said in, prim and proper. Cold. More interested in rules and what others think than in honest human connection.

And I just realized that Rowling, here, is using Free Indirect Discourse! Ha! Very effective. I’ve been experimenting with this in my own work. Anyway, moving on ...

Using Writing Exercises to Create an Outline

Let’s use this general idea of borrowing good ideas from other stories to write the outline for a novel.

a. Write down the main plot thread of one of your favorite stories.

Take one of your favorite books (you could also use a movie) -- it could be the same one you used for the previous exercise -- and, briefly, write down the main plot. Try to keep it as short as possible. Don’t worry about the side plots. For example, the main plot in The Matrix had to do with Mister Anderson becoming Neo, becoming The One. The side plots had to do with Neo and Trinity falling in love, Cypher betraying Morpheus to the enemy, and so on.

Okay. Clear as mud?

b. Now do the same thing with another book or movie, making sure the two are from different genres.

c. Make a new plot that draws from the events of both books. Be creative.

d. Using the events you’ve just created, assign each to a story structure of your choice. 

Here’s the story structure I use, but this is just one possible structure: Story Structure: The Hero's Journey. I use a three act structure, but you could go with four or six or twenty seven! Whatever makes sense to you.

About major turning points ....

Be sure to mark which events are the major turning points. Minimally, there will be ….

- A Call to Adventure at about the 12% mark,
- A reversal at around the 25% mark,
- The protagonist will come to a profound new understanding of the Story World at the midpoint (plus possibly a death),
- A reversal at around the 75% mark,
- A final confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist beginning about 85% of the way through.

Those percentages are very flexible, what really matters is the order.

e. Use the above structure to write a story!

For instance, thinking about the structure of the main plot for The Matrix and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I could write a story about a girl, a vegetarian, who lives with her horrible aunt and uncle but who suspects that reality isn’t as she believes it to be. As a result of facing her fears and pushing herself to the breaking point, she grows into someone who can save the world.

What I'm reading:

I'm still reading Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch, the first book in his Rivers of London series. No scaly things have materialized at the foot of my bed ... yet.

If you would like to support my blog ...

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I’m recommending The Guardians by John Grisham. Here is an excerpt:

"Cullen Post travels the country fighting wrongful convictions and taking on clients forgotten by the system. With Quincy Miller, though, he gets far more than he bargained for. Powerful, ruthless people murdered Keith Russo, and they do not want Quincy Miller exonerated.

"They killed one lawyer twenty-two years ago, and they will kill another without a second thought."


  1. I felt a little silly this morning, so I did this writing exercise. I took the main plots from J.K. Rowlings, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and The Matrix with a smattering of Star Wars IV: A New Hope. What follows is tongue in cheek.

    Act One

    0 to 5%: The protagonist is named Jane. She is 17 years old and just out of school for spring break. Jane is a vegetarian and has been deaf from birth.

    5 to 11%: (Call to Adventure) Certain tragic events occur when Jane visits a conservatory with her parents and her parent’s friends. As a result, Jane discovers she can ‘hear,’ and converse with, a certain kind of plant: Psilocybe hispanica. At first Jane refuses to acknowledge her gift because she knows it will bring her nothing but grief. Her aunt and uncle would kick her out and her parent’s friends would tease her mercilessly. Not to mention that if one kind of plant is intelligent and has feelings then perhaps all plants do. Since Jane is a vegetarian, that would be a problem.

    12%: (Refusal of the Call) Jane tells herself herself she’s simply going mad, nothing more than that. No plant has feelings and it certainly doesn’t have thoughts! The very idea is just too ludicrous.

    13 to 25% (Acceptance of the Call to Adventure): As Jane is walking by a field dotted with mushrooms, one of them tells her something that would save not only her life but the lives of her (awful) aunt and uncle. Jane can no longer deny her gift and uses this information to save the lives of her guardians.

    1. Act Two

      25 to 37%: Since Jane heeded the mushroom’s warning her aunt and uncle survive but need to stay in the hospital for a while. Jane is taken in by her cousin. While there, Jane discovers that her cousin can talk to plants as well.

      Jane’s cousin tells her that there is a group of plant-talkers in their city. They all meet once a month. Jane’s cousin brings her to the meeting. The speaker is the most elderly and respected plant-talker in the country. He tells them a story about how someone he calls The One will come and be able to give normal humans the ability to talk to all plants, thus bringing plant-murder to an end.

      Jane also learns that most of the plant-talkers can only talk with one sort of plant -- marigolds for instance. Very rarely, a plant-talker can communicate with two different kinds of plants. The person who heads up the plant-talking group in Jane’s city is unique: he can communicate with three different kinds of plants.

      Still, Jane is unusual because, although she can only talk with one kind of plant, it is a kind that no one else can communicate with: It is said that anyone who can communicate with this plant can talk to all plants. In so doing, she would be able to unite all plants and usher in a wonderful new world of tolerance and fruit consumption.

      37%: There is an Anti-One, someone who can talk to any kind of plant except for Psilocybe hispanica (the one Jane can talk to). He is convinced that if only he could talk with hispanica that the secrets of the universe would be laid bare to him.

      The Anti-One has worked for decades trying to figure out how to transfer the ability to talk to a certain kind of plant from one person from another. Now he attacks Jane and tries to steal her ability. But something goes wrong, his experiment doesn’t work as it should. Perhaps there’s something special about Jane that no one, including her, has discovered.

      38 to 50%: Jane’s attack galvanizes the plant-speaking community. They have put up with the Anti-One’s chinagigans for too long. He needs to be put somewhere he can’t harm anyone else. The Anti-One is known to inhabit a cave in the middle of a cursed field. Jane, her mentor, her love interest and her sidekick (each of these characters would have their own arc, but I’m not including them here) approach the Anti-One’s lair.

      The Anti-One isn’t there, although he booby-trapped his cave. Jane and her allies discover this in time and disable it. As a result they get a very useful piece of information. Perhaps they discover that the Anti-One wasn’t born knowing how to talk to any kind of plant, that he developed a device that transferred that power to him. All his power is stolen. Now Jane and her allies understand why he wants to capture her.

      If the Anti-One captures Jane then he would have the knowledge of all plants and use the immense power he would obtain to further his own selfish desires and the world would descend into chaos. They must stop him.

    2. The Midpoint

      50 to 55%: The allies escape from the Anti-One’s lair.

      55% to 57%: The allies go somewhere public (a bar, a pub, a coffee house, etc.) and make a plan. There are objections to the plan. Someone tries to sabotage the plan. Perhaps there is a traitor among the allies, someone who tattles to the Anti-One about the plan.

      57 to 61%: The plan is put into action. Perhaps the allies come into conflict with supporters of the Anti-One.

      62 to 65%: Now the antagonist is actually concerned about Jane. At the 37% mark (the first Pinch Point) the Anti-One didn’t really take Jane seriously. Now he does. The information Jane came into at the midpoint -- and her reaction to it -- changed her in a fundamental way. Jane is now a formidable foe. As a result the Anti-One directly and savagely attacks her.

      As a result of the antagonist’s attack, Jane’s plan fails. But there is still hope. The Anti-One’s attack ended in a setback for Jane but -- although it will be much more difficult -- she can still defeat the antagonist.

      I’m going to say that Jane’s mentor will die either here or at the Midpoint.

      66 to 75%: Jane implements her new plan and travels to where the final showdown will take place. At the end of this section there will be a fight between Jane’s sidekick and the sidekick of the Anti-One. The antagonist’s sidekick will be a traitor within Jane’s band of allies. From this point on Jane will be alone.

    3. Act Three

      76 to 85%: Jane goes through the lowest part of the story. She is captured.

      The Anti-One gives Jane a choice between saving herself and saving the man she loves. He doesn’t make Jane decide right away, a ticking clock is set up. Jane tries to see a way out, perhaps she talks to various allies, but the Anti-One is too clever, too strong. There is no way out. She must choose between giving her power to the Anti-One (and in so doing make him invulnerable) and saving her love interest.

      Jane decides to let the Anti-One have what he wants. She allows him to extract her power in exchange for not killing her love interest.

      The Anti-One absorbs Jane’s power and so becomes much more powerful. No one can stand against him.

      This, now, is the lowest point in the story. Jane’s allies tell her she made a huge mistake. They tell her that she is weak. They desert her.

      It seems as though Jane has failed utterly. Not only has she given up her one, unusual, power but the Anti-One has a full set! This has taken his powers to the next level. He now has the ability to reveal plant-speech to ordinary humans, but he won’t because he is selfish. Instead he will use his powers to fulfil his personal wants. The world is doomed.

      86 to 90% Huddled alone in the corner of the dungeon, Jane sobbs. She is absolutely crushed that she failed. But then something strange starts happening. Jane starts to ‘hear’ the grass speak! And the fungus!

      Jane realizes that the mushrooms were talking to her so loudly that she couldn’t hear anything else! Now that she can no longer hear the mushrooms, she can hear and understand all the other kinds of plants!

      91 to 98%: Jane and the Anti-One engage in some sort of battle, some sort of conflict. Jane uses her new powers to great effect -- they get her off to a good, promising, start. But, in the end, it looks as though she’s still going to lose. Then, just as the Anti-One is trying to force Jane into the device that would strip her of ALL her powers, not just the ability to talk to a few mushrooms, she hears something … a snail is trying to talk to her. Wait. What?!

      A snail is an animal. But no one can understand animals! Well, it turns out that in the continued absence of those noisy mushrooms, Jane is now able to hear animals as well. It turns out plants talk a LOT louder than animals and so it took Jane more time to ‘hear’ them.

      One of the snails tells Jane something that enables her force the antagonist into his own machine and zap his powers. Of course Jane, being good, doesn’t absorb the powers, she sends them back into the earth and everyone the Anti-One stole power from gets them back.

      99 to 100%: Jane, her love interest and her sidekick share a drink together. He is starting a new venture with the help of the snails. Then Jane and her love interest walk off into the sunset, hand in hand. Her mentor, in heaven, smiles down on them.

      Or something.

      Again, this was tongue-in-cheek. You get the idea. Write out the main arc. You’ll see where the other, minor, arcs need to be and then can flesh them out.

      Good writing! :-)


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