Finding Footsteps to Follow

I first found an interest in writing in 1997.  Paul Verhoeven turned Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers into a film, the movie Stargate was turned into a television show that would endure for ten glorious years, and a video game company called Blizzard made a charming little thing called Starcraft.  1997 was (unofficially) dubbed “the year science fiction became a black hole and sucked Mario Piumetti into the event horizon.”

So, with all this military science fiction floating around, I naturally tried to take a crack at it.  Translation: I totally tried ripping off episodes of Stargate, and luckily I was too shy to attempt publication.

Why do I bring any of this up?  Because writers do not form in a vacuum.  Everyone has someone or something inspiring them.  Shakespeare had his influences.  When writing Paradise Lost, Milton aimed to follow in the footsteps of Homer, Virgil and Dante.  When Octavia Butler began writing, she wrote the characters that everyone else wrote: “a white man who drank and smoked too much and who was about thirty”, as she put it.  But eventually, Butler and Shakespeare and Milton, as well as every other great writer, found a unique voice that suited them and went with it.

Nevertheless, a starting point is a necessary thing.  In the Sean Connery film Finding Forrester, reclusive author William tells his protege Jamal: “Sometimes the simple rhythm of typing gets us from page one to page two.  And when you begin to feel your own words, start typing them.”  This is one of the pieces of literary wisdom that the film offers to aspiring writers, and that’s why I highly recommend it, but that’s neither here nor there.

Mimicking someone’s style when you’re starting in writing helps you in a couple of ways.  First, it gets you in the habit of physically putting words on a page.  Second, and more importantly, as you look around for a style that attracts you, you expose yourself to what’s out there in the literary world.  You’re not just finding out how to put sentences together structurally, but your absorbing different ideas: the desolation of a dying world in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, change and agelessness in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, single-minded revenge in Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.

Don’t freak out if this doesn’t happen overnight.  It takes time to read and digest one book, and years to get through a large stack of them.  Speaking for myself, I think it took something along the lines of ten years before I really began developing my own story ideas, and another two or three years to find my writing voice and style.  And it’s still developing.

If you don’t think you can stand being patient for something like this, then you might want to rethink writing.

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