Copycat: write like a pro by imitating the masters

writingWriting is an essential skill for life, for college prep, and for your life right now. Plus, it’s fun. Or it can be if it’s not just for a bunch of lame homework assignments.

Writing is exciting because the more you do it, the better you become. Even if you start out writing poorly. So, turn off your internal editor and get started.

“But I don’t know where to start!” you cry. Well, then, copy something.

Copyright law

I know, I know, before you get all worried about copyright infringement, walk with me a second.

Artists learn to paint by imitating great masters of the past. They’ll copy Botticelli, imitate Picasso’s cubist style, even try out Pollack’s turkey baster paintings.

These imitations are not for sale. They’re usually not even very good. But the work of imitating teaches artists how to paint. Teaches them the different styles. It’s not until you have the paint on the canvas that you really learn how to paint light.

Same thing happens with writing. Imitate the masters. In 6th grade, one of the first things I ever wrote was a clone of Matilda by Roald Dahl, but with myself as the hero. I had another story that went from an imitation of a book–so lame I can’t even remember its title–and it evolved over the years as I worked with it, recreated it several times, until it suddenly became a historical fiction novel in ancient Greece.

The historical fiction is something I could publish. The Matilda copy is not. The first is something that is so different from the original that it’s no longer a copy.

Legally, you’re generally allowed to imitate and create derivative works like this based on the Fair Use section of Copyright law. Don’t try to sell your creation or anything, but copying others to learn is okay.

Writing ideas

  • Take the element (plot, characters, etc.) you like most from something (movie, book, song, etc.) and put it in a different circumstance. For example, take Harry, Ron, and Hermione and put them in your high school–with or without magic, whichever you prefer. Or fill Hogwarts with your classmates. How would they behave? How would life be living with those people 24/7?
  • Pretend your favorite fiction is real–write a news article on it.
  • Write a how-to article based on a book you read. For example, write an article on how to perform Wingardium Leviosa properly, as if it were real.
  • Take a front-page newspaper article and replace the names and facts. You’ll learn how newspaper articles are structured (the inverted pyramid).
  • Do the same with any other piece of writing: article, book, pamphlet, blog post, etc.
  • Rewrite stuff in different formats. Write a screenplay of a novel. Write a novel out of a movie.
  • Condense a book into a poem. I did this once in my last days of high school for The Scarlet Letter. The assignment was just to create a found poem, but I ended up writing something that deeply summed up the anguish of the entire book.
  • Speaking of, try your hand at writing a found poem. It’s fun, and eliminates the agony of trying to figure out rhymes and how many syllables what word has and constant use of an indiscriminate thesaurus.
  • Use song lyrics as inspiration for a story. I have two songs that are just dying for me to turn them into stories: Viva la Vida by Coldplay and Superman by Five for Fighting.
  • Rewrite fairy tales or other old stories. This is perfectly okay according to copyright, because everything old–say over 100 years old, to be safe–is out of copyright and yours to do whatever you want to. My favorite rewriter is Shannon Hale (Goose Girl) but other authors make their living off of rewriting cleverly. Like Wicked by Gregory Maguire (turned into the Broadway musical). And Shrek, of course. And pretty much anything by Disney (Tangled and The Princess and the Frog are rewrites of fairy tales, Tarzan and Hunchback of Notre Dame are rewrites of novels, and Hercules and Mulan are rewrites of legends).

    Actually, Hollywood is all about rewriting successes of the past into screenplays because they’re guaranteed an audience. You see how more and more movies coming out today are reincarnations of past works?

  • You could create tongue-in-cheek rewrites of books out of copyright like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith and a whole host of similar action-packed stories.
  • Rewrite endings to books. Or change the parts you thought were lame. Use the plot but change the characters. Keep the characters but change the plot. Don’t publish the results, of course, if the book is still under copyright.
  • So similar, to the point of overlapping rewrites is fan fiction. Write fan fiction of books, tv shows, song lyrics, movies–anything you love.
  • Fan fiction has actually been around since forever–before writing, even–as “epic cycles,” where people would retell the stories of Homer or the tales of King Arthur in different ways. The storyteller sometimes added to the story or parodied it, or merely used his own words. You can do this, too. Just taking King Arthur, there are books like The Once and Future King by TH White, video games, like Stronghold Legends, movies like King Arthur with Keira Knightly, cartoons like King Arthur and the Knights of Justice… I could go on and on.

    But, a warning: If the work you’re using as your base is still in copyright, don’t even consider publishing it. If you get the author’s permission, sometimes you can post it online, but that’s about it.

  • One of the completely legal ways to publish an imitation of something–even a work still in copyright–is if it’s satire and parody. AKA, making fun of something. Need examples? The Onion parodies the news. South Park is a satire of American culture. Spaceballs is a parody of Star Wars. These satires and parodies use the same ideas, same iconography, but completely mock something. Unlike fan fiction and other alterations, satire and parody are NOT a violation of copyright. You can publish them if you so care to.

    Parody and satire are actually a really great idea if you feel passionately about a topic but are powerless to actively change it. Writing satire and parody gives you some power and helps others see how wrong the thing you’re mocking really is. And since, as a high school student, you often don’t have political power or enough social power, this is one way you can work to change the world.

Series and disclaimer

This post is part of the Harvard Recommendation Series, looking at different ways to achieve the requirements and recommendations from Harvard’s admissions website. Why Harvard? I believe YOU have the ability to get into Harvard. And I want you to defy everyone who believes otherwise. Plus, Harvard’s recommendations are so comprehensive, you’ll be prepared for any college and life by following them.

At the same time, these posts are my opinion, I’m not paid by Harvard or anything. There’s no guarantee you’ll get into Harvard by following my ideas, all that. And if you need this disclaimer, Hacking High School might not be the most helpful site for you.

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