Reading like a thief

12 Jun

Good writers borrow,

great writers steal. –TS Elliot

If you don’t have time to read,

    you don’t have the time –or the tools—to write. –Stephen King

I believe many moons ago I wrote about how studying writing makes you read differently, and that there is a strange sort of loss there. Because you’re devoting yourself to something that, as soon as you devote yourself to it, changes in its very nature. What once was an escape, a way of relaxing and turning your mind off, turns into active, energy-absorbing work. But like all work that is fueled by passion, it is fulfilling on a totally different level than it ever was as an escape.

We all know that writers must read to improve their craft, but it’s important to read consciously and with purpose. Writers must read constantly asking what can I take from this to improve my writing? Or, to put it another way, what can I steal?

Some lazy, good for nothing, assholes use Elliot’s wisdom as justification for blatant plagiarism. These shameless miscreants are probably bad writers, but they are definitely terrible thieves.

What’s the difference between a skilled thief and a kleptomaniac?

(Besides sheer dashing-ness.)

When a kleptomaniac walks into a room, he may look around and think What can I fit in my pockets? or What’s not bolted down? And then he ends up slipping out the door with a gumball machine like the spiky-haired kid in Can’t Hardly Wait.

When a skilled thief walks into a room, he may look around and think that hedge outside blocks the view of the door from the road, and the lock would take me about twenty seconds. Not because he’s actually planning on stealing anything, but just because that’s how he sees the world.

But even that isn’t the real difference between a good thief and a bad thief. Any idiot can lift something and avoid detection at that moment. It doesn’t even take a genius to steal a decent car. But if you then, after stealing your cherry Jag, proceed to drive that thing around town, you’re an idiot who will be caught sooner or later. The better the car, the sooner. Everyone knows you didn’t earn that Porsche. They look at you funny. Google the license plate, just out of curiosity. And you’re busted.

(Are you following my metaphor here? Good, ’cause I’m extending it a bit further.)

So what’s the real difference? Behind every good thief, there’s a good fence.

A good fence knows how to exchange stolen goods for things you can actually use in public. The good fence will take a hoard of loot and break it down into individual pieces and sell it to the four corners of the world. A fence knows all the good chop shops to take that stolen car to. So the thief can (eventually) take his profits and actually buy his own nice car, fine art, or collection of custom-made hats.

So a fence takes stolen materials, breaks them down, and figures out how to use and profit from them. So, in this extended metaphor, a fence is literary analysis.

It takes time, patience, and effort to question, break down into usable parts, and understand a good (or bad) piece of writing. Anyone one can CTRL-C/CTRL-V. Stealing from authors well means stealing techniques, ways out of common traps and pitfalls, notions on varying styles, and inspiration. The question writers ask when they finish a book should not be Did I like it? But What did I learn?

Some treasures I’ve recently “acquired:”

Joe Hill in Horns uses a simple and accessible technique for letting a character reveal a memory slowly, revealing pieces of back story in intense little pockets spread throughout the action-narrative. Pocketed.

Tana French’s Broken Harbor has a baller example of an unreliable first person narrator in detective fiction and shows than not all loose ends need be tied—some are better left hanging. Swiped.

Jess Walter shows how to cut the stupid small talk in Beautiful Ruins.
Boosted and chop-shopped, though I kept the fuzzy dice.

Rex Stout, thank you for the fact that characters don’t necessarily have to age to change and the word vagaries. Pilfered.

And Shakespeare, well, can we say fat kid in an unguarded candy store? Looted!

I could go on, but it would be, well, indiscrete.


One Response to “Reading like a thief”

  1. Mary November 21, 2014 at 3:12 am #

    in all my years of seeing chop shops on the tv i never knew that the thief was called a fence..i love learning!

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