Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Pull(maning) from Others

Monday I went off on a bit of of tangent about advance copies and how I used to basically feed my soul with them. Today I want to talk about what inspired the story about Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass advance reader copy in the first place.

Philip Pullman is known for speaking his mind and telling it like it is, if you will. This past September in an article in the Guardian, he said that "...the use of the present tense in fiction had been getting more and more common, and I didn't like it."

For Pullman to say this gave me pause. I liked that he said something so critically bold, and because he's a great storyteller and a great writer, I listened. He goes on in the article I linked above to clarify that he thinks present tense is a great device in contrast and then lists some wonderful examples of what he means. You get the sense that Pullman has studied his craft and read widely. And that's what I really wanted to talk about today.

One thing that has always touched me about Pullman as a writer is something he wrote in the author's note to the completion of the His Dark Materials series, which begins with The Golden Compass, continues with The Subtle Knife, and ends with The Amber Spyglass.*

*I just used present tense in the way that he described it working; note the contrast in present in my sentence and the events of the past (writing the books in the series).

In that author's note, he says the following, which floored me completely:

"I have stolen ideas from every book I have ever read. My principle in researching for a novel is 'Read like a butterfly, write like a bee,' and if this story contains any honey, it is entirely because of the quality of the nectar I found in the work of better writers."

He goes on to list three works that particularly influenced the creation and writing of that series (The essay "On the Marionette Theatre," by Heinrich von Kleist, which Pullman says he read in 1978, John Milton's Paradise Lost, and the works of William Blake.)

We all pull from other writers, or we should. Les Edgarton's book Hooked talks about (and recommends) this concept of stealing from other writers. NOT plagiarizing, you understand, but learning from others and using what you learn in your own writing. Maybe it's a theme, or style, or word, or a style of voice, maybe it's a trick of character, maybe it's a clever use of adverb. Whatever it is, it's not plagiarizing when you read something that delights you, internalize it, and make it yours.

What I loved is that Pullman puts it out there and admits it, and he didn't have to.

Some authors I have appropriated elements, ideas, or tricks from:
  • Maeve Binchy
  • Marian Keyes
  • Gerald Durrell
  • Bill Bryson
  • Nick Hornby
  • Kate Morton
  • Mary Kay Andrews
  • Anne Tyler
  • Anne Lamott
  • Ian Rankin
These authors aren't the only ones I've pulled from, but they are but some of the ones that have influenced me most recently--and who influence me every time I re-read them, or read something new by them.

What do you think--do you do this? Should you do this, do you agree with Philip Pullman (and me)? Who are some of the authors you've pulled from recently or over your life as a reader and writer?


Linda G. said...

Heck, yeah, I do this. I think every writer does, either consciously or unconsciously. How can your writing not be informed by every written word you absorb?

Admittedly, sometimes I absorb what NOT to do...which is just as helpful in its own way.

Roni Loren said...

Great post and I love those quotes! I think it'd be pretty impossible not to pick up things from others unless you become a writer without ever reading (which hopefully is rare, lol.) I think this is why when I hit a writing wall, I take a break and go back to reading for a while. Even though I'm not reading to "steal" something, it stimulates that part of my brain and helps with idea generation at the subconscious level.

Teri Anne Stanley said...

I do this all the time. I start writing something, realize I'm not sure how something (tense, POV, dialogue, whatever) is supposed to work, so go read someone that I like and try to do it like they do.

Ditto on how NOT to do it.

Elisabeth said...

NOT plagiarizing, you understand, but learning from others and using what you learn in your own writing. Maybe it's a theme, or style, or word, or a style of voice, maybe it's a trick of character, maybe it's a clever use of adverb.

Exactly! I've tried to explain this lots of times with no success, but you put it into words just the right way. One example...I have a mystery story sitting on a back burner that I'm trying to gradually develop - one afternoon I sat down and read a Georgette Heyer mystery, and when I finished, all of a sudden I was flooded with new ideas for my mystery plot. My story didn't resemble hers in the slightest way, but something about reading a good mystery suddenly made mine look a lot clearer.

Lt. Cccyxx said...

I agree with Linda and the others: to some degrees, you're going to do this whether you like it/know it or not. I know some writers don't read while they are writing because they tend to subconsciously pick up stylistic elements from whatever they are reading (I'm not like least I don't think so).

I don't know about you all, but the first things I wrote - as a teenager - were very much derivative of the authors I admired at the time.

Elisabeth said...

That's true too...I have an old story written when I was about twelve that's basically a cross between E. Nesbit and Marguerite Henry. :)

Travener said...

It's only natural for those of us who aren't geniuses to steal from others.

roh morgon said...

I usually avoid reading recent works in the same specific sub-genre as my WIP until I'm done with my first draft. Just don't want to sub-consciously incorporate elements that are in current works in the vain (and probably useless) hope that I can create something original.

On the other hand, I read a 1932 short story written in a very unusual style that made quite an impact on me. So much so that the next morning I had a new story pouring out of my head in a similar style, but different enough to call my own. Should it get published, I won't hesitate to credit the original story and author as an influence.

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