You’re Derivative. Get Over It.

How similar is my own writing to that of the authors I like?

Right off the bat, I was not a fan of this question.  It really turned me off.  Maybe even pissed me off a little.

I was all like, “[BLEEP] you, voice on high” (otherwise known as the Café’s editors).  “I don’t write like anybody.  My style is my own.  Maybe you’re the ones who are a bunch of derivative mother-[BLEEP]ers.”

I’m not going to lie.  It wasn’t pretty.  I went on like that for a good, solid five . . . days, but really who’s counting?  The point is I had this immediate protective reaction for not only the stories I create but the way I create them.  The thought that this voice I’m trying to cultivate might have its origins with someone else was upsetting and disheartening, and it sent my brain spiraling into what I can only describe as a mental hissy fit.

Eventually, the freak-out fog began to clear, and I could hear the voice of reason again.  I try to keep a sliver of rationality on a shelf in my office in case things like this come up, and as that little nugget of non-crazy began to whisper to me in that low, soothing tone it has, it dropped some serious knowledge on me.

“You’re being a dumbass.”

Simple, I know.  I have no idea how this hasn’t found its way into a fortune cookie yet.

Hidden inside the humble packaging of this message is a broader truth: we are all influenced by the things we read (and watch and hear and so on and so forth).  You don’t have a choice.  Period.  End of discussion.

For writers, the tricky part can be trying to incorporate the things you like without sounding like a knockoff of your favorite author.  I think most inexperienced writers will fail at this, but I also think that’s part of the learning process.  To quote Dr. Hannibal Lecter, “And how do we begin to covet . . . we begin by coveting what we see every day.”

If you are moved by a story and you desire to create something that will touch someone else in a similar way, you will begin your writing path by imitating what you saw.  I know for a fact that my early work was almost entirely derivative.  I have the as-of-yet-unburned manuscripts to prove it.

As a teenager drunk on my own literary potential, I wrote the beginnings of a story that absolutely proved (to me at the time) how bright my future would be.  It was eerily similar to The Gunslinger by Stephen King.  When I completed my first novel in college, a sci-fi story about a civil war between the Earth and the moon, I was reading Robert Heinlein for another class.  Guess which author was suspected of traveling forward in time to rip off some poor, defenseless undergrad?

My Ed McBain phase had me believing I should write straight-up crime novels, and my manuscripts were almost entirely made up of short, simple sentences.  In an effort to strip away unnecessary prose, I would often toss out things like setting, description, and internal motivations.  If you liked disembodied voices on a green screen, then I was your author.

Thankfully, things have gotten better.  These days, rather than imitate styles, I tend to study an author’s approach to his or her story.  I still enjoy a good Stephen King novel, but now I focus on why I like his characters.  I think his strength in storytelling stems from his ability to make a reader care about what happens to both the heroes and the villains.  I love Tana French’s books for the same reason.  Her characters are often obsessed to the point of self-destruction, but I want to be there when their worlds come crashing down.  I am angry about their life choices, but I care enough about them to be there at the end.

On a lighter note, Christopher Moore gives me the courage to be silly.  Anyone who can write a story in which a B-movie starlet pleasures a sea monster with a weed whacker deserves a little study.  He’s also not afraid to let some of his characters be offensive because you know what?  Those people, they walk among us.

I also think you can pick up a few storytelling tricks from other media.  I love it when TV shows like Family Guy talk directly to the audience.  A well-timed aside can be comedy gold.  I know some people hate breaking that invisible wall between the author and the reader, but I’m not one of them.   I’m trying to create a two-part illusion here.  First: that we’re just a couple of people hanging out in your living room, even if one of us is always invisible.  (Don’t worry.  Just keep taking your meds and it should pretty much stay that way.)  Second: that you want to hang with me.

As a guy whose mom used to dress him in western shirts with imitation pearl-button snaps, I understand my desperate need for cool points.  If you’re willing to carve out a little time for me, it’s probably because I’ve made you chuckle.  And who doesn’t think the funny guy is cool?

Larry Jenkins is an aspiring Word Pimp. Has laptop, will travel. Let's make this happen, people.


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