Our Writerly Roundup blog series features a curated collection of articles on the craft of writing and the creative life that we don't want you to miss.
Writing Exercise: 3 Reasons to Write Imitations of Your Favorite Authors, Karen Krumpak, Writer’s Digest
As soon as we learn to write in elementary school, we’re taught that copying others is wrong. We’re told, as we mature, to find our own writing style, to find the voice that is uniquely ours, the one that will stand out to readers and publishers. But as this Writer’s Digest piece by Karen Krumpak considers, it’s worth your while to take a stab at “imitating the masters.” After all, they’re masters for a reason. Not only is it good practice to get out of your own style, your comfort zone, but it’s an excellent way to improve your technical skills.
Once you’ve finished reading a book, a story, a poem, or any other type of written work, write just a few paragraphs or pages in the same style. You can imitate by writing a “missing” piece—whether that be a scene that occurred offstage, a rewrite from a different character’s perspective, or an event that could have fit plausibly within the world of the story—or you can write an imitation that takes place within a separate story. The point, whether using your own characters and settings or not, is to notice the qualities that make that piece of writing unique and emulate them.
Krumpak goes on to list a few reasons why this endeavor is a good exercise. Not only will you learn to read like a writer (you’ll notice mood and tone, pay closer attention to punctuation, and consider character traits), but you’ll find yourself practicing skills you may not use on a regular basis. And perhaps, most importantly:
Paradoxically, imitating the styles of other writers can help you find your own niche. If you love reading many different styles and genres of writing, you may not know what—or how—you want to write. You may even assume that you should be writing in the style or genre you most like to read. That could be the case, but it isn’t necessarily true for everyone.
As you’re writing imitations in different styles, pay attention to the ones that come most naturally to you and that you truly enjoy writing. What about that style works for you? If you want to write in a different genre, what type of reading experience would result from the combination of that style and your genre?
We all have a writing voice. Ironically, though, we may have more luck finding it if we take some time to follow in the footsteps of others.
Staying Out Of The Headlights: On Finding My Own Writing Process, Kara Daly, Brevity
In this guest piece on Brevity’s blog, Kara Daly writes about her writing process. And while I come across a lot of these kinds of pieces—and I read and appreciate every one because it’s so important to connect with other writers and take a look at their proccesses—this one spoke to me.
I’m more of a binge writer. I have to pull way back and let my creative pulse breathe. Then, at some point, I go in and I write and write and write. For so much of my life I’ve known this about myself, but I’ve resisted it because I didn’t see this trait in serious writers. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to respect the cyclic nature of my creative life. To know what stage I’m in and act in ways that are supportive.
When I’m in the writing stage, then I can push. I can cancel plans and stay home to produce. After the writing stage, I’m revising and reflecting and finding homes for my work. After that, I need to be out in the world, being social. I also need to be studying and reading regularly. That’s where I collect my material and eventually become inspired, and the process begins again.
Daly also notes that we tend to spend too much time envisioning our audience. Yes, we need to know who they are. But that may backfire and become a target of obsession or distraction. A writer can become so focused on who will be reading that she loses sight of her role as the author.
Any writer who’s been through academia knows that you have to know your audience, which implies you have to have one. But this is another headlight that freezes me in my place. It brings questions like “Where will this be published?” and “Is this word going to stop an editor from accepting this?” and the whole system shuts off.
I’ve learned that I write best, and sometimes write only if I write for myself. My new protocol is to aim to please me, and me only. Of course, we have to go back during the revision process and check ourselves, or reckon with the person who wrote that, especially if we’re privileged. But in draft one, I’m only comfortable saying what needs to be said if I’m writing to myself.
Daly writes the way I do, and the blog helped me to feel more secure in my own process, as weird as it feels to me. In the solitude we face during the writing hours, it’s easy to ask ourselves if we’re doing it wrong. Perhaps the constructive criticisms of our graduate school faculty still ring in our ears. Perhaps we think we should be doing it the way Very Successful New York Times Bestselling Author XYZ has done. There’s a reason to examine ourselves up close, though: until we understand how we write, it doesn’t matter so much what we write.
3 Things Critique Groups Are Great For (and 3 Things They Really Aren't) Suan DeFreitas, LitReactor
Once a writer is out of school, the lack of structure may leave her floundering. I certainly did. Suddenly, there were no eyes on my work but my own. Who would tell me where I lacked clarity and which metaphors weren’t working?
Enter the critique group, an invaluable resource for writers once they’ve left the close quarters of academia. Many writers have a circle of support; in this piece, LitReactor breaks down the pros and cons of such a group. For example, a critique group CAN provide a butt-kicking deadline.
Whether your group meets weekly or monthly, there’s nothing like a looming deadline to help you apply butt to chair and write—especially when everyone has already seen everything backlogged on your hard drive.
A critique group can also instill a sense of urgency about submissions. On our own, we may find ourselves poring over sections we've revised time and again. Revisions can become endless. Your group can help you break the cycle of revision.
When revising work for submission to agents and editors, it’s easy to get into an endless loop. After all, any piece of writing will present a seemingly infinite number of small problems in need of correction, and couldn’t tweaking this one last comma actually make the difference between rejection and acceptance?
Alas, a critique group CANNOT be an editor. When it comes to small edits—chapter by chapter, for example—your peers fit the bill. When it comes to the big picture, however, they’re probably not up to the task.
A critique group will almost never read your entire book more or less at once, the way a reader will—and even if they’re working with a chunk of the manuscript (say, fifty pages) at a time, the nature of critique groups dictates that it will likely be a few weeks to a few months before they revisit the book for another chunk of the story. As a consequence, there are a lot of important things that can slip through the cracks.
I’m lucky enough to be in a critique group with two of my fellow Literary Mama editors and I value their input tremendously. The working relationship develops into a personal relationship, and the camaraderie and support they’ve given me keeps me writing and reminds me that I’m not as solitary as I feel. This piece is a handy reminder of what I should and shouldn’t expect from my circle.
Cheryl Strayed’s Secrets of Creativity, Tim Ferriss, Outside Online
In Outside Online, we get a peek at the writerly life of author Cheryl Strayed. She’s known for her bestselling memoir Wild, and has written three other books. She’s also the co-host of Dear Sugar Radio. It’s safe to say she’s “made it,” and in this excerpt from a podcast, we get some insight into who she is as a writer. For example, she’s just like many other writers: it’s hard for her to get going.
One of the lessons I learned is it's always hard for me to begin. And I don’t mean just the first line of a chapter or piece, which is always hard, but even like when you’ve been in that flow and then you take that break, you’ve finished that section, and then you have to begin the next one.
In writing, what I do is I take a shortcut. If I don’t have that first line or that first paragraph, I just write the part that I know. That might mean it's kind of sloppy, that I have to start writing something that's a third of the way into the piece—a scene that I've already imagined is going to be in there, or a paragraph, a description of something. And what I find is once I start writing, I relax. And then of course I can go back and make that beginning.
It’s no secret that Wild covered the most intense emotional experiences of Strayed’s life. Her mother’s death was the impetus for her trek, and she found that writing about it brought up some equally intense feelings. How does she deal with that?
I think that there are basically two kinds of people. There are those who think talking about difficult experiences or painful memories is a bad thing because it brings up those feelings again. Then there's the camp that is like, Let’s dig it all up, because that’s the only way ever to understand what happened or make some meaning of the suffering is to examine it and tell stories about it.
I'm definitely in the latter camp. Did I sometimes cry writing Wild? Yeah, I would say probably every day. And was that good for me or bad for me? It was really good for me.
The piece doesn’t so much offer specific writing advice as it does open a window to the thoughts and processes of this well-known author. I find that it often helps my own creative process to know that I’m not the only one stuck on page 43, and I’m not the only one who would rather binge-watch Netflix than get started. At the same time, her confidence and comfort in sharing these moments gives me an oft-needed kick in the pants.
10 Life-Changing Books Every Woman Needs To Read At Least Once, Noma Nazish, Forbes
Finally, a good book list. Maya Angelou, Roxanne Gay, Sylvia Plath, and more. You’ll probably see some you’ve read and some you’ve not, but now is the time to compile that spring reading list. Enjoy!
Have you read a compelling article about craft or the creative life that you think should appear in the next Writerly Roundup? Please send links to lmblogcontact (at) literarymama (dot) com—we'd love to hear your input!