|It never ceases to amaze me. I’ll meet someone at an event who says, “I always wanted to be a writer,” and I’ll ask, “What do you like to read?” – and that person will say something like, “I’m really not much of a reader.”Why would anyone want to be a writer who doesn’t like to read? And how does anyone figure out how to write without reading everything they can, first?It’s basic primate behavior: monkey see, monkey do. We learn to speak by imitating adults who speak to us, and we learn to write by imitating what we read.
Here’s a secret for first-time novelists, in particular: it’s okay to be derivative. It’s okay to imitate what you think is good. As long as you’re not plagiarizing – as long as you’re using your own words and telling your own story – it’s not only fine, it’s helpful to try to write in the style of authors you admire.
We all do it, and it’s one of the most frequently-asked question any author gets: “Who are your influences?” It takes a long time to find one’s own voice, and even then, we’re all products of every other book we’ve ever read, and every person we’ve ever spoken to.
It’s not just writing; all artists do this, whatever the medium. Picasso’s early work, for example, borrows heavily from the old masters – and then, when he felt he’d learned as much as he could from them, he used what he learned to create his own unique style. How many times have you heard a band described as “Beatlesque,” or “the new Dylan”? Brian De Palma’s movies started out as faithful homages to Alfred Hitchcock, and Peter Bogdanovich acknowledges the heavy influence of Orson Welles on his early work.
It’s tricky, of course. Harold Bloom looked at this phenomenon in The Anxiety of Influence, a book about modern poetry. Bloom looked at the work of modern poets such as Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery, and argued that their work evolved first as a product of, then as a reaction to, their influences. Creating lasting work, Bloom argued, requires a poet to create his own voice, fighting against influences while still drawing knowledge and skills from them.
You can see this for yourself in the works of several top-level mystery authors. Robert Crais’ first novel, The Monkey’s Raincoat, is a wisecracking homage to the great hard-boiled novelists, somewhere between Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane. The tone of his books took a major change in L.A. Requiem, and the voice of Crais’ protagonist, Elvis Cole, in his most recent novel, Chasing Darkness, is very different from the way Cole sounded in The Monkey’s Raincoat.
Lee Child talks openly about the influence of John D. Macdonald on his Jack Reacher novels – like Travis McGee, he says, Reacher is rooted in the ancient tales of knights-errant traveling the countryside, correcting injustices. I’ve heard Harlan Coben talk about the influence of William Goldman’s Marathon Man on his own work, and you can see it – the protagonist caught up in events beyond his understanding or influence, a premise I’ve used once or twice myself (Paranoia, Company Man, Killer Instinct…).
So the key is, if you’re writing, to read good stuff – and then to trust your own instincts. Many authors I know can’t read within their genre while they’re writing, and I’ve become that way myself; if I’m writing something, I need to know that it’s come out of my own imagination, and that I haven’t borrowed some cool plot twist from Harlan Coben or Lee Child.
But when I’m not actively writing, I’m reading everything I can in the genre. A couple of years ago, I had the privilege – and responsibility – of serving as Chief Judge for ITW’s Best Novel Award, and had to read all or part of about 300 thrillers within the span of about six months. It left me in a daze, but it also was a phenomenal master class in thriller writing. At the end of all that reading, I knew exactly what worked and what didn’t, and had learned a lot that I could use in my own writing.
Before I started writing novels, I set out to teach myself how – and I did that by reading and rereading the best of the genre, picking apart the books to see how writers introduced characters, what information they revealed when, how they wove subplots together, and so on. Every writer has to find his or her own inspiration, but if you want to learn from the best, here are some books that helped me:
…. check out the rest at Joe’s blog