Google has failed me. I cannot for the life of me track down who said this, or indeed, to check whether I’m even remembering the wording correctly, but I swear to you that someone, somewhere once said, “Read good books and good books will come out of you.” (If you happen to find the attribute for that quote, by the way, please leave a comment!)
There is a connection between what you consume and what you produce.
I believe that, by nature, humans are imitative beasts. Isn’t this the whole “monkey see, monkey do” thing?
Well, if you’re like me, you learn by example. So if you’re like me, always trying to improve upon your style in order to share a story in the most vivid way possible, with words that will inspire and astound, then I suggest you make yourself comfortable with copying.
Or, if “copying” insults your moral sensibilities, we’ll say “imitate.”
Imitation isn’t just flattery, it’s necessary
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the now-iconic memoir Eat Pray Love, also wrote one of my favorite books on the creative process: Big Magic. If you haven’t read it already and are a creative type, please do yourself a favor and read it.
In her section on “Persistence,” Ms. Gilbert says this about Learning:
Generally speaking, the work did go badly, too. I really didn’t know what I was doing. I felt sometimes like I was trying to carve scrimshaw while wearing oven mitts. Everything took forever. I had no chops, no game. It could take me a whole year just to finish one tiny short story. Most of the time, all I was doing was imitating my favorite authors, anyhow. I went through a Hemingway stage (who doesn’t?), but I also went through a pretty serious Annie Proulx stage and a rather embarrassing Cormac McCarthy stage. But that’s what you have to do at the beginning; everybody imitates before they can innovate.Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, page 142
I highlighted that line in my copy: “That’s what you have to do at the beginning; everybody imitates before they can innovate.”
Imitating your favorites is part of the learning process. It just is.
Experimenting allows you to see what works for you and what doesn’t. When you imitate, you instinctively change things that don’t work for you and substitute things that do. The more you do this, the closer and closer you get to your own voice.Tweet
The good thing here? You can write like J.K. Rowling or Stephen King or whoever floats your boat. That doesn’t mean you’re going to get published sounding like J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. By the time you go through the whole process of drafting a book, revising a book, polishing a book, pitching a book, selling a book, then editing a book, it will look completely different from when you first started with a ripped off first line.
So write like the ones who inspire you!
My favorite writers (for style study)
I separate writing from storytelling.
Storytelling is the plot stuff, the character stuff, the things you tell people when they ask what the book you’re reading is about.
Writing, on the other hand, is the style stuff. It’s the voice stuff. It’s the “wow this feels like magic” stuff.
These two things, of course, go hand in hand. Bad writing can absolutely ruin a brilliant story and no amount of talented writing can save a crappy story.
So when I have the story part of it but I’m struggling with the writing part of it (which, let’s be honest, is always the case for me), here are the writers I turn to for inspiration and guidance:
The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
Far and away one of my all-time favorite books, Maggie Stiefvater puts words together in ways I never would have thought of. Her images are evocative and atmospheric, creating the aesthetic of the island of Thisby from the first page.
It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.
Even under the brightest sun, the frigid autumn sea is all the colors of the night: dark blue and black and brown. I watch the ever-changing patterns in the sand as it’s pummeled by countless hooves.
They run the horses on the beach, a pale road between the black water and the chalk cliffs. It is never safe, but it’s never so dangerous as today, race day.The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, page 1
Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor
I didn’t appreciate Laini Taylor’s writing as much when I read Daughter of Smoke and Bone, but when I read Strange the Dreamer, it took my breath away with its swift, concise images. Laini Taylor paints her world behind my eyelids, I swear.
On the second Sabbat of Twelfthmoon, in the city of Weep, a girl fell from the sky.
Her skin was blue, her blood was red.
She broke over an iron gate, crimping it on impact, and there she hung, impossibly arched, graceful as a temple dancer swooning on a lover’s arm. One slick finial anchored her in place. Its point, protruding from her sternum, glittered like a brooch. She fluttered briefly as her ghost shook loose, and torch ginger buds rained out of her long hair.
Later, they would say these had been hummingbird hearts and not blossoms at all.Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, page 1
Broken Things by Lauren Oliver
I’ve read several of Lauren Oliver’s books now, but despite how I’ve enjoyed each of them, I don’t own any of her books. When the paperback of Broken Things releases next week, I’m going to go get my copy because the opening chapter blows me away every time.
Five years ago, when I had just turned thirteen, I killed my best friend.
I chased her down and cracked her over the head with a rock. Then I dragged her body out of the woods and into a field and arranged it in a center of a circle of stones I’d placed there with my other friend, Mia. Then we knifed her twice in the throat and five times in the chest. Mia was planning to douse her body with gasoline and light her on fire, but something went wrong and we bolted instead.Broken Things by Lauren Oliver, page 4
A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd
I either read somewhere or was told that besides being a novelist, Natalie Lloyd is also a poet. Even if I misheard or misremembered, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if it were true because Natalie Lloyd’s prose is nothing short of poetic.
“They say all the magic is gone up out of this place,” said Mama.
She looked straight ahead as she drove, past the white beam of our headlights, deep into the night, like she could see exactly what was up ahead of us. I could see anything, though: not a house, not a store, not even an old barking dog. A big fat moon, pale white and lonesome-looking, was our only streetlight. I watched the way the moonlight painted her profile: the dark shadows under her cheekbones, the tight pull of her mouth. I didn’t need to see her eyes to know how they’d look: sky blue and beautiful. Full of all the sadness in the world.A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd, page 1
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
When I first learned I’d have to read The Hobbit for my Fantasy Classics class this past spring semester, I was a little nervous. I’d tried reading it in high school and was bored to tears ten pages in. But reading The Hobbit as an adult, I was pleasantly–well, nothing short of astounding, really. (Plot twist: I did not enjoy The Fellowship of the Ring hardly at all. I struggled hard with the writing in that one.)
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, page 3
Your favorites are not my favorites
I highly recommend that you compile a list of books whose writing style inspires you, even if you didn’t necessarily like the storytelling. Usually, these two things will go hand in hand as I said before, but not always. For example, since Lauren Oliver doesn’t really write the kind of high fantasy stories I prefer, I read her mostly for her exquisite writing style. (Though that’s not to say I don’t enjoy the stories while I’m reading. Broken Things was particularly engrossing.)
This is a very personal exercise because there is no one standard of excellence: it is all subjective, and what appeals to me will not necessarily appeal to you. I place a very high premium on writing styles that use longer sentences and create atmospheric images. But you may prefer something punchier, with more interjections from the main character acknowledging the presence of the reader. Find what works for you and don’t let anyone make you feel embarrassed about it.
What to do when you’ve got your favorites
This is when having an English degree pays off, let me tell you. But you don’t have to have a degree in English Lit to be able to analyze your own feelings and responses to a book.
I very much recommend that you start reading with a pencil in hand. When I read a book, I keep a pencil nearby and when the writing is particularly grabbing, I underline the sentence/phrase/paragraph that caught me.
Obviously exercise restraint if you’re reading a library book or someone else’s copy or if it’s a book you’re planning on selling soon.
Pay attention to what grabs you and start putting those structures into your own writing.
Deliberately write a short piece in the style of one of your favorite writers. No one has to see it. Just write it and see what happens, how it feels. You’ll learn what works for you and what doesn’t: take what works, abandon what doesn’t.
And don’t be afraid that you won’t find your own voice. Trust me. You will. You just have to stick with it.
I’ll leave you with this:
It’s a simple and generous rule of life that whatever you practice, you will improve at. For instance: If I had spent my twenties playing basketball every single day, or making pastry dough every single day, or studying auto mechanics every single day, I’d probably be pretty good at foul shots and croissants and transmissions by now.
Instead, I learned how to write.Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, page 143