Read for influence. Deep Revision: Part 3.

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This is Part Three of a 5-part tutorial called Deep Revision. This series is designed to help you prepare for The Little Bird Writing Contest.  

Read the rest of the Deep Revision series here:
Part OnePart TwoPart Three (below) — Part FourPart Five —    

Don't pirate my editions; do plunder my visions. The name of the game is Give All. You, reader, are welcome to my stories. They were never mine in the first place, but I gave them to you. If you have the inclination to pick them up, take them with my blessing.
— Jonathan Lethem

Bad poets imitate, great poets steal.
— T.S. Eliot  

Revision requires reading. Read widely. Remember that the work you do as an active reader is as important as the work you do while writing at your desk. “Write what you know” doesn’t mean only write about your family, your memories, your experiences. It means write everything that you know about writing.

Everything you’ve experienced as far as style, language, structure and character development is what you know. And you want to use all of that knowledge when you are revising. If you aren’t reading, you won’t have very much to go on when you work on your draft.

You’re always going to be writing from influence — you can’t protect yourself from this. And why would you want to? Celebrate it! But let your influence be nutritious and conscious. You need a healthy and varied diet of good writing. Every day.

Please don’t be afraid to sound like other authors. The more you read, the more textured your own voice will become, and your writing will strengthen from your influences. A writer’s voice doesn’t just appear fully formed! It’s developed over time, sculpted by its environment.

There is nothing wrong with being in the zone and writing without thought or consciousness. I mean, this is kind of what you’re aiming for most of the time, especially when putting a first draft together. But another part of your work as a writer is learning how to get out of your own groove.

Developing new ways of articulating your story through language is your work. You learn new ways of writing by studying what other writers do.

Revision is the place for you to practice this.

A word: it’s important to know the difference between plagiarism and influence. Influence feels like humility: plagiarism feels like arrogance. Allowing influence is a sign of respect, and copying someone else is a sign of fear and insecurity. You can feel the difference: be brave.



You have a choice this week. If writing under the influence is brand new to you, I suggest doing the exercise from The Comfort Zone.

If you know the feeling of writing under the influence already, please do the exercise from The Discomfort Zone.

I. The comfort zone.

Read work that inspires you because you recognize something in yourself when you read it — maybe the sentence structure, the language, or something about the setting is familiar to you. This is a great place to start.

Read the stories you love over and over again. Study them. Why do you love them? What is it about the style and language that you love? Why is it all working? Keep these stories by your desk and read them before you start work on your own story.

Choose a passage from one of these stories and use it for the exercise below. You’ll only need a paragraph or two.

II. The discomfort zone.

Read work that makes you a bit uncomfortable because the style is new and interesting to you. Find someone who you think writes in a very different style than your own.

Read these stories over and over again. Study them. You might not even like some of them. Find your limit and press against that line. What is it about a particular writer’s work that challenges you? Why does it challenge you? Why do you like something? Why don’t you like something? What can you learn about your own limits by imitating a writer who challenges you?

Choose a passage from one of these stories and use it for the exercise below. You’ll only need a paragraph or two.

The exercise.

1. Copy the passage word for word, by hand, in your notebook. Write it out again, by hand. Do this at least twice.

2. Now rewrite the passage, using your own nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives. Keep the sentence structure, the articles, the punctuation. In other words, change all of the “what” of the original and add your own. It will feel like a Mad Libs game.

Work intuitively here. Your right brain has something to do — it’s filling in the blanks — and so your left brain can go free, delivering words to you. Be open to this special delivery.

3. When you’re finished, read the original passage out loud. Then read your own rewritten passage out loud. Important: Don’t skip this step! Or you’ll miss that delicious aha effect.

4. Now let that author, and the work that you’ve just done, influence and direct your own story. You now have an intimate relationship with this writer and the piece of writing you’ve just worked with. Take out your story draft and find a specific sentence to start from. It could be the first line of the story, or a sentence from somewhere in the middle.

5. Write this sentence at the top of your blank notebook page.

6. Starting from this line, write in the style of the writer you’ve just practiced with. Write a scene in your story with the musicality or rhythm of this other author’s voice.

What can you learn about your story when you let go of your viewpoint and style?

What it should feel like.

You know when your leg muscles learn a new stretch, it doesn’t feel right at first, because you’ve put your body in a weird position and it doesn’t know how to do it? Right. This is the way you strengthen muscles.

Now, since you’ve spent so much time honing your intuitive faculties when you are writing, it might feel wrong to squeeze and stretch your sentences into new shapes and lengths.

That’s because what you’re learning isn’t intuitive yet, that’s all.

Give yourself time to feel the discomfort. Note the discomfort and do the exercise anyway. This is how your writing voice will learn to be itself. This is how you will find your style.

Have fun with this. Write like someone else, and enjoy how exhilarating it can be. This is one of the great things you get to do because you’re a writer. Think about it: language is your medium, just like clay. Now go see what you can do with it!

Come back after you've done the exercise and tell me how it went. I’ll see you here next Tuesday for Part Four of Deep Revision.


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ps. If you loved this work, Lesson 7 in the Story Course takes you through it even more deeply, and gives you examples of short stories written under the influence, including connections between Zsuzsi Gartner & Amy Hempel and Lee Henderson & Rick Moody (and more).    

Read the rest of the Deep Revision series here:
Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart Five —    

The Little Bird Salon
Cut it up. Deep Revision: Part 4.


Patricia L. Morris

Hi Sarah, I am writing a eulogy for my Dad who is still living so I am reading Sandra Martin's Working The Dead Beat: 50 Lives That Changed Canada. It feeds the eulogy for sure.
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This is really wonderful advice for writers at any stage of their careers. "Write what you know" is such a misnomer. Great writers turn to other writers to remember the sound of language, to steer a faltering story to an end that is an opening, not a precipice, to be more playful with form, to take more risks. One of my deep pleasures (and I love revising) is to finish a story in the Best American Short Stories anthology and then read the back to find out how the author arrived at his/her story. A writer with 10 years of writer's block finally cracks her world open with the help of Toni Morrison and a glass of wine. A story germinating for years sprouts in surprisingly new form when the main character changes gender. To be a strong writer, you should be a deep listener. Write what you know is the stuff in your bones, and in the echoes of other writers and stories heard on street cars. Open up to the unexpected and your stories will take on dramatic new shapes.And what you take in, as Sarah suggests, soon becomes intuitive.
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Jennifer Manuel

Thanks, Sarah. The first short story I published, Glass Balloons, in Room Magazine started out as a blatant imitation of Audrey Thomas's The Man with Clam Eyes. I had struggled to find a voice, a structure, a rhythm, and in modelling my story after hers in a similar and methodical way to what you suggest here, something opened in my thinking. Of course by the time I was done, my story was nothing like Thomas's. By confining your parameters in this way during the early stages of a story, imitation is in fact an expansive approach. Which may on the surface seem paradoxical.
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Gabriele Kohlmeyer

Love love love! :-)
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I love this exercise. It helps me really pay attention to the nuts and bolts of how a piece of writing is working, and it always shows me something interesting. Thank you!
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Sarah Selecky

I’m so glad to hear that it’s been helpful, Lindsay! Thank you. <3
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