My Weight Watchers leader had a nifty little exercise last week about portion sizes and planning your Thanksgiving meal. It involved paper plates, and demonstrated very thoroughly how very small a standard pumpkin pie slice should be. One of the attendees asked him where he got the idea for the lesson. He had learned it from his own leader, he said, and told us it was a Weight Watchers tradition to use other people’s lessons, with the acronym “CASE,” for “Copy and Steal Everything.”
It isn’t the province of Weight Watchers, though, as I told him. I actually encountered the acronym in my own preparation for teaching. We all live by it. When we teachers encounter a lesson or a unit we like, we take it, adapt it, build it into our own repertoire, and pass it on to the next person.
It isn’t just teachers who do it. Saturday, at Philcon, the great science fiction writer C.J. Cherryh spoke. She told us she first became a writer at the age of ten when her favorite show, Flash Gordon, was cancelled. She decided to write another story just like it. Except she changed everything: The protagonist, the setting, the premise, everything. Otherwise it was still the same story, she said.
Of course, it wasn’t the same at all.
Steal. And then change everything.
If you’re struggling with a technical aspect of writing, say dialogue, description, or exposition, take a book of short stories and pick one to analyze that does a good job with that aspect of writing. Hopefully, it’s a book you own, because you should write in it.
Count the words and pages in the story. Draw lines when there’s a transition from exposition to dialogue, from present day to earlier, from action to description. Figure out the percentages and the placement. How much of the story is dialogue? How much is exposition? How much is description, and how much time does the writer spend on describing characters and how much on setting? Focus in on the aspect you’re studying. For instance, in dialogue, how does the author put in speech tags (“said”) to help the reader keep track of who’s talking? What gets left out of dialogue? What gets put in? What is the information conveyed in the dialogue, and how do the characters speak so that their personality comes through? Write in the margins.
Then, in your own story, copy it. But change everything.
Yes, I’m talking about using the formal structure of a model to guide creative work. All artists do it, or they should. In art school, for instance, we spent hours with pencil and paper copying plaster busts, and we studied examples of great painters to help us see how they did it. And then, we used that technical model to guide our efforts at originality.*
Tomorrow: Dealing with interruptions
*Well, some of us did. Others rejected the past and struck out boldly into new visual territories, disdaining the rest of us as rote formalists. But those innovators still painted just like the modern painters they admired, or like their favorite comic book artists. We always imitate in the beginning.