Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Sharpen Your Prose by Imitation and Innovation

The sincerest form of flattery is imitation, and it’s a great way to learn how to write better, too, long as you bring originality to the process.

Once upon a time, there was an annual writing contest called the International Imitation Hemingway Competition, also known as the Bad Hemingway Contest, where writers could submit a “really good page of really bad Hemingway” in the clipped, minimalist style of the Nobel laureate. There were only two rules for the competition: Entrants had to mention Harry's Bar & Grill, one of Hemingway's favorite haunts, and their stories had to be funny.

Whether for competition or practice, the savvy writer might go a step further and try out Hemingway’s iceberg theory, which he learned in journalism and retained in writing fiction, where a story’s meaning has greater impact when buried under the surface of the work, with just enough significance visible above the waterline to point to more beneath. Practicing this approach helps writers sharpen and condense their prose toward a subtler and stronger overall impression on the reader. The next step then is for writers to discover and use their unique voice in conveying the stories and topics that excite them most.

Several years ago, I attended a Connecticut Authors & Publisher’s Association Writers Conference and had lunch with four longtime literary agents who represented both fiction and nonfiction. As they began talking among themselves, I became a fly on the wall, listening as they described the challenges of sifting through hundreds of queries a day. Yet, what the agents lamented most was less the work of responding to email and more the dearth of fresh ideas—for novels and nonfiction. No one bemoaned writers using classic themes for their stories or popular nonfiction topics for their books but that comparatively few writers took the time to develop these ideas using fresh perspectives.

One classic novella employed innovatively for film was Joseph Conrad's 1899 Heart of Darkness as inspiration for the 1979 epic film Apocalypse Now, on the Vietnam War. Even with a different setting and era than the original work, Apocalypse presented both a familiar archetype and an original story, on the complexities and human cost of war. While there’s nothing new under the sun, you can bring your original take to an old favorite.

As an exercise in originality and intentionality, you might choose a favorite story, song or film and craft a paragraph describing how you would “remake” the work in your style, from your viewpoint. You can use the ideas of others by imitation; just make sure to give them your unique spin.

Happy writing!