Communicators model Loren D. Estleman
Last month, I invited readers to model this passage from Loren D. Estleman’s The Midnight Man:
“It was one of those gummy mornings we get all through July and August, when the warm wet towel on your face is the air you’re breathing, and the headache you wake up with is the same one you took to bed the night before. Milk turns in the refrigerator. Doors swell. Flies clog the screens gasping for oxygen. Everything you touch sticks, including the receiver you pick up just to stop the bell from jangling loose your tender brain.”
Eleven communicators took me up on the challenge, delighting me with their results and, I hope, picking up some new writing tricks in the process.
Modeling the masters is a great way to polish your skills, practice your craft and come up with new techniques. Here’s how it works.
Take it apart.
The first step in modeling the masters is to take the passage apart to find a template you can model. There are at least three ways to do this:
1. Identify the beat. One of the first things I notice about this passage is the rhythm created by the long and short sentences. So you have to consider sentence length. Here’s that pattern:
45-word sentence. Three-word sentence. Two-word sentence. Seven-word sentence. 21-word sentence.
2. Look at the language. Another way to model the masters is to study the language and meaning in the passage. John G. Ackenhusen, creative director of Mission Solutions at General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems, nailed this when he noticed the:
- Descriptions of “unpleasant physical sensations”
- Second person. Putting the reader in the position of experiencing those sensations is definitely part of the code here.
- “Anachronistic metaphors.” Nice catch, John! We usually write metaphors moving from target to base: Ann [target] is a snake [base]. But here Estleman flips that structure, making the metaphors feel backward: “The warm wet towel on your face [base] is the air you’re breathing [target].” It’s a fresh technique to notice and steal.
3. Explore the structure. My favorite way to model the masters is to deconstruct the sentences into a pattern I can follow, making kind of a fill-in-the-blanks model. Here’s the pattern for the Estleman passage:
It was one of those [adjective noun] we [verb during timeframe], when the [adjective, adjective, noun metaphor] on your [something] is the [noun] you’re [verbing], and the [noun] you [verb] with is the same one you [different verbed another time]. [Noun verbs] in the [noun]. [Nouns verb.] [Nouns verb the objects verbing] for [noun]. Everything you [verb verbs], including the [noun] you [verb] just to [verb] the [noun] from [verbing] your [adjective noun].
Put it back together.
Taking it apart is the easy stuff. The second step is to reconstruct the template using your own words.
The winner, Washington, D.C.-based communicator Leslie Jewell, takes advantage of Estleman’s first-sentence pattern to express the relentlessness of partisanship. Notice the rhythm of the three middle sentences and the creative use of the passive voice in the second. Best of all, though, is that extended metaphor with internal rhyme in the third. Wish I’d written that.
“It was one of those die-hard partisan battles that arises whenever there are too many stridently naïve freshman on the Hill: where the ‘overthrow the regime’ fanaticism becomes choking gridlock and the arguments you listened to on the nightly news are the same ones you’re force-fed with your cereal the next morning. Fingers are pointed. Tempers flare. Obstinate popinjays swarm the airwaves pecking at their competition. Everything you hear, read, watch about the insipid bickering sinks into your ears, eyes, brain like dirty tar, including the informationless workforce messages sent to your inbox in reluctant acknowledgment of the annoying human costs of legislative extremists.”
Well done, Leslie. Estleman should be modeling your writing! Congratulations — and watch for a package from Amazon. I’m sending you a copy of Newspaper Blackout by Austin Kleon, another creative writer.
And thank you to the rest of the contestants for playing along and making my day. I hope you learned some new techniques from modeling Estelman’s passage. I know I’ve learned some tricks from reading yours.
Write like NPR, The Wall Street Journal or your favorite author
Joan Didion does it. So did John Gregory Dunne. And W. Somerset Maugham.
They studied the world’s best writers, learned their techniques and adapted those techniques to their own work.
You can do it, too. In Model the Masters, my latest writing workshop, you’ll learn to turn your favorite writers into personal writing coaches. We’ll cover a seven-step system for finding mentors among the world’s best writers, then you’ll practice modeling the masters yourself. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:
- Become a better reader: It’s the best way to become a better writer
- Avoid ‘creative incest’: Get out of your own backyard
- Read like a writer: Look for technique
- Clip, dip and rip:Create an library of masterpieces to model
- Find the DNA: Figure out the code
- Take ‘modeling lessons’: Learn your favorite author’s tricks
- Stuff your toolbox with techniques: Adapt — don’t adopt — others’ approaches
To bring this workshop to your team, contact me personally.