Life lessons on the craft
The Blue Square Writer
I grew up skiing on the east coast. When I moved west, I was easily identified as an out-of-towner. It was my style. Gone were the tight, neon snowsuits. Out west, baggy was the style. I bought some new gear. But what I considered baggy then is, today, pretty form-fitting. The clothes grew baggier and baggier and now some skiers are wearing jackets clear down to their knees and hats under goggles under headphones under helmets. When I tried to fit in with the styles, I realized that they change so fast that emulating the currently popular one didn’t work. Pretty soon, I wasn’t worried about fitting in because I had created my own style.
Writing is no different. Popularity of writing styles changes just like anything else. Compare any 19th century novel to the new releases at Barnes & Noble. This ephemera is especially true with the specialization in today’s society. The most world-renowned sci-fi writer might be unheard of to a romance writer, and vice-versa.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But it’s also a lot like copying. Now, before it looks like I’m lambasting anyone trying to imitate The Greats, let me tell you that I empathize. When I first started writing, I tried very hard to write like the authors I was reading in school (both high school and college) and, to be perfectly truthful, it really helped me become proficient at writing. I learned story, conflict, character development, etc. Near the end of college I started experimenting with combining those copied traits from disparate writers (unsuccessfully, I might add). It was here, while failing more and more, that I grew the most. I learned what I could and couldn’t do.
Example: The Great Gatsby is a favorite. I tried to write a story with an unreliable narrator, like Fitzgerald’s Carraway. It did not work out. My narrator didn’t seem unreliable – I looked like an unreliable writer. But the story was not without its strengths... strengths created by me, not copied from Fitzgerald. By failing to write like someone else, I learned how to write like me. And once I could do that, I felt I had really advanced as a writer.
For people really wanting to work on their craft, mimicking a favorite author’s style can be a useful wrung on a ladder. But, ladders were not meant for standing, they were meant for climbing. Get everything you can from mimicking favorites, but eventually move on to something unique. If you’re trying to write like someone else and then sell it – stop. Not only are the odds significantly against you, it’s also unoriginal. The world already has a John Grisham and a Danielle Steele and a Tom Clancy. And there are tons of style copycats out there. Some of those copycats have been (and will be) lucky copying them. But most won’t.
Anyone trying to write a vampire novel after 2010 was likely laughed at – and not without good reason. Why did it work for Stephanie Meyer (an author I consider one of the worst) and not for the millions of others? She wasn’t the first to write vampires nor was she (even close to) the best. Mr. Stoker takes the trophy for first, and Mrs. Rice takes the trophy for best. Meyer had a catchy idea, and it caught. However, you don’t hook two fish on the same hook at the same time, and all the garbage that came out in the vampire craze was just fish biting at taken bait. If you’re writing an imitation of a hot-in-the-market-right-now book, you’re likely wasting your time. Readers don’t want what’s already out there. They want what’s next. Plus, you have to take into consideration that if you just signed with an agent today, it’ll be several months (if not longer) until your book hits the shelves. Hot today does not mean it’s hot tomorrow. Fads pass. Originality is always appreciated.
What worked for others won’t work for you. Deal with it. Understand, too, that what works for you won’t work for them. Also, realize that you don’t want their ideas to work for you. You want your ideas to work for you. Learn from the best to become your best. Don’t copy the mediocre to make a buck.