Friday, April 5, 2013

The Art of Modeling--How Other People's Books Can Make Yours Better

When I was in graduate school, one of my teachers suggested a sketchy idea:  Read a favorite published writer and "model" them. 

She suggested it because I was way stuck--in a (to me unsolvable) problem with one of my chapters.  It needed a lot less imagery.  I love imagery.  So me and the chapter were at a standstill.  I was at a loss:  how to capture necessary emotion without the pictures?

Luckily, my teacher was a minimalist writer.  She was famous for this in her novels and short stories.  I loved them but they were like a foreign language.  She answered my dilemma with a list of books to find and read. 

Like her writing, most of the writers on the list were also minimalists.  A few occasional visual or sensory details.  Imagine Old Man and the Sea but in modern prose.  Sentences short and to the point, characters who didn't mess with thoughts or reflection. 

Whew, I thought.  First read was tough.  I railed against my teacher's determination to break me of imagery overuse.  My rebellion went on for about a week until I got tired of my own whining.  I was still stuck with my chapter--going nowhere.  I thought of all the money I was shelling out each semester for this MFA. 

I sat down and began studying these writers.

My teacher congratulated me for making it through.  Then she asked me to write like them.  Just a page or two.  Take a page of their writing and model it.  Study the actual sentence structure, how often adjectives were thrown in.  How often summary, scene, dialogue, action.  Study minutely the rhythm, the pacing, the voice. 

"Isn't that stealing?" I asked her.

"Not on your life," she said.  "This is called modeling.  You use your own words, you mimic their structure.  Like art students painting an old master in a museum class, you're trying to imagine the writer's hand being yours.  Only way to actually capture the rhythm and get it in your cells."

Ever skeptical, I asked around.  Yes, this was common practice.  I was not to make it my own, not steal these people's words or images.  But let my writing hand and eye visit a new country.

After I got over my temper tantrum, and my fear of inadvertent word theft, I went for it.

I got unstuck within a few days.

I used this exercise recently in one of my online classes.  A writer with an excellent mystery story needed help learning dialogue.  I asked him to find a couple of published books he loved.  He has been modeling one after another of these writers, and his dialogue is working now!  It's still his story, nothing like any of those other writers, but it's flowing beautifully.

Another student in my online classes is doing the same with a published memoir to study the balance of scene and summary in her own memoir chapters. 

This week, try it!  Pick a favorite published book in your genre.  Find a page in the middle and begin modeling.  See what your hand and eye and heart learn--and how you can translate it into your own writing's stuck places.   


  1. Mary, this was so helpful in reminding me of where I was in my writing when I first took your online class. I remember how much I railed against your gentle advice to look at my overwrought "lyric" writing by comparing it with recent memoirs. Of course, you never used the word overwrought... But I learned so much from that process, no matter that I hadn't expected or wanted to.... Thank you!

  2. Thanks, Mary, so nice to hear it was helpful! And thanks again for being our interviewee last week--so many people enjoyed that!