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The Mastery Path for Writers: a new way to learn the skills you need

Story Lesson 18: Learning from the Pros

Several times so far in these lessons, I have encouraged you to turn to a story by your favorite writer to see how some aspect of it works, and then to imitate that technique. I want here to emphasize how important for your learning this study and imitation of a master writer is.

Although completely neglected in our educational system, imitation is one of the main ways humans learn. Just think of an aspiring baseball pitcher modeling himself on Pedro Martinez or Roger Clemens. In oral cultures, too, beginning storytellers start out by imitating more experienced tellers. So I invite you to consider that through your own reading, you have many potential master storytellers you can learn from. Whether you’re trying to learn about character or theme, story-time or images, one of the best things you can do is to try to figure out how your favorite writer uses the technique and then imitate what he or she does.

Is there any writer or writers you admire to whom you might “apprentice” yourself? Read as much of this person’s work as you can, and study how she or he tells stories.

While you are learning, you can imitate this person’s approach and technique so that you can, over time, make it your own. Such practices will help you develop your story-making skills so that, eventually, you will be able to write in your own way.

Once you have familiarized yourself with some tales from oral tradition, I encourage you to explore the work of writers who have re-told traditional tales or who have taken elements from traditional tales and made use of them as material for written stories which “sound” like traditional tales. (These are the stories Jane Yolen calls “art tales.”)

What do you notice about how these writers handle their material? Do they, perhaps, keep familiar elements but change what happens in the story? Do they keep what happens but change the characters or the point of view? Is there anything about the way the re-tellers or writers of art tales use traditional material that appeals to you? Make some notes to yourself about this.

You might also look for—and learn from— writers who, while not using materials from oral tradition, are still primarily storytellers rather than “literary “ writers. (Some examples: John Grisham, Maeve Binchy, Rosamund Pilcher, Agatha Christie.) Read some of their work and think about what makes them good storytellers? What skills do they have? How can you learn those skills?

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