This morning I couldn’t resist sharing a few thoughts about certain aspects of the Cassie Edwards plagiarism scandal over at my personal blog. Apparently she took dry lines from textbook research on ferrets and copy-pasted them wholesale as pillow-talk dialogue between two lovers. Take a look at this small example quoted from this article by Paul Tolme, the original author of the ferret material:
“I read that ferrets stalk and kill prairie dogs during the night. Using their keen sense of smell and whiskers to guide them through pitch-black burrows, ferrets suffocate the sleeping prey, an impressive feat considering the two species are about the same weight.” Shiona shivers, upset by the thought of the cute animals locked in mortal combat.
Sensing her vulnerability, Shadow Bear knows just what to say: “In turn, coyotes, badgers, and owls prey on ferrets, whose life span in the wild is often less than two winters … They have a short, quick life.”
This clearly illustrates several things. One, even if plagiarism seems easy, boy can it make you look dumb. As pillow talk goes, that’s about as non-sexy as it gets. And two, if you take one type of writing and insert it into a totally different type of writing, you get something utterly wacky and often hysterical.
Today, take two totally different pieces of writing. Preferably your own, but since these are meant to be private warm-up exercises and not pieces of writing that you’ll publish, you can actually get away with using other authors’ material. (Just make sure you note that this is what you’ve done, so ten years from now you don’t uncover your little exercise and inadvertently use that material as your own.) You might choose a cookbook and a short fantasy story; a memoir and a how-to home-improvement book; or a young adult novel and a science textbook. Take material from one and substitute it into portions of the other. Substituting for dialogue in the manner of the above example is a great way to go, but see if you can’t find other possibilities as well. Get strange, get wacky, and get wild!
Besides the traditional creativity burn that mixing and matching unlikely materials often causes, this exercise can teach you a lot about style, voice, tone, and consistency.