Six Ways to Avoid Becoming a Literary Mimic

JR ParsonsGuest Blogger: JR Parsons

Call me Katniss. Some seconds ago–it’s not important how many–feeling lonely and cold in my bed, and finding not the warmth of my sister beside me but only the rough canvas mattress cover, I thought about the bad dreams that must have disturbed her sleep and caused her to search in the dark for the comfort of our mother. It was a way, I knew, of warding off fear of the coming reaping.

Sounds familiar, right? But is it Suzanne Collins or Herman Melville? Neither–unless Collins fell prey to the literary mimicry trap or Melville wrote dystopian YA fiction. Thankfully neither did. And the world reaped Moby Dick and The Hunger Games.

I sometimes work with writers who, in hopes of discovering their own voice, listen to well-intentioned advice. Read the classics, the bestsellers, the award winners. Rewrite your scenes in the manner of Hemingway, Hunter Thompson, Amy Tan or Angelou. Study this master traditionalist or that stylish modernist.

That advice isn’t necessarily wrong, but often it’s incomplete.

Why should writers read Hemingway? For his disdain of adjectives or for his ability to strip a sentence bare yet layer emotion and conflict. Angelou, for her love of metaphors? Or for the way she weaves elements of blues music—off-beats, repetition, call and response—to give her prose depth and rhythm.

Absent this direction, many new and aspiring writers get it wrong. Jessica inserts a metaphor into every scene of her historical romance. Ray kills any adjective lurking in his mano o mano adventure novel. Kerry takes it further, adopting unnamed-superstar author’s complete writing style.

The result: literary mimicry.

Jessica’s metaphors remind one of Angelou’s, but don’t sing. Ray’s sentences are straight-forward, but don’t go anywhere. And Kerry, unfortunately, becomes the writer’s version of a bad impressionist at open mike night.

So how do we, as writers, learn from authors we admire? Six Dos and Don’ts will help you avoid literary mimicry.

  1. DON’T separate words from context. Great writers choose the right words. Words must fit a story’s setting, illuminate a character’s personality, and carry and reinforce thematic elements. Imagine, if instead of writing “It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done…,” Victor Hugo had penned, “It is a good thing I do because I have never done much…”
  2. DON’T separate dialogue from character. We’ve all run across brilliant dialogue and thought, “Damn, I wish I’d written that.” No harm done. Unless, you figure brilliant dialogue stands alone. It doesn’t. Dialogue must fit a character like a bespoke suit. Consider how the main characters introduce themselves in two well-known books-turned-movies: Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale: The name is Bond, James Bond. And John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night: They call me Mr. Tibbs. Each statement perfectly fits the character; switched, they hang like cheap suits.
  3. DON’T confuse plot devices with plot. Some best-selling authors weave complex plots that rival Turkish carpets. Channeling these master plotters, new writers throw in every possible twist and turn—and end up with their story in a jumble. Instead, concentrate on how your favorite author handles conflict, rising-falling action, crisis-climax, and resolution. These form the thread that holds plots together.
  4. DO read with your ears. Our eyes easily detect structure: short sentences, long paragraphs, an abundance of speech tags, an absence of quotation marks. Our eyes also process the words so our minds can grasp the story. But our ears allow us to feel the story. We hear not see the cadences—how words and sentences sound, how dialogue and narrative resonate and unfold—that make fiction seem real.
  5. DO identify choices the author makes. How does your favorite author handle character growth? Is it through dialogue, narrative, internal monologue? How does she build tension? Through foreshadowing, interrupted action, an unreliable narrator? Why did he choose a constricted versus a sprawling timeline? How does the author achieve story movement through dialogue and emotional impact through narrative?
  6. DO realize that you are not Toni Morrison, John Cheever, Danielle Steel, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Judy Blume, Jhumpa Lahiri or any other writer you can name–young, old or dead. But you can learn from them. Just understand that what you can learn is the craft of writing. The art comes from inside you.
Have you become a better writer by studying classic writers? What have you found the advantages and pitfalls to be?

***

Jim Parsons is a fiction writer and business and editorial consultant who recently started a new company called 9 Crossings.

  1. I love this post! Mimicry is a really easy trap, especially for newer writers. Often, it comes down to lack of deep analysis. You like some sort of effect an author employs and try to incorporate it into your work, and it reads like a cheap copy because you haven’t analyzed it to figure out WHAT the author is doing and HOW they employ that device. Thus, you’re unable to adapt said device to fit seamlessly into your own work. Context is important. You can’t just cut and paste technique and style and expect it to work.

    Once you analyze what a particular author is doing and why that works, you’ll have a better understanding of their techniques, which will allow you to adopt and apply them in a way fitting your context. They’ll become yours and your work will sound much more organic and natural.

    • Jim Parsons says:

      Exactly…look behind the curtain. Thanks for your comments, and thanks for thinking me capable of metaphysical chicanery:-)

  2. H,G, Ferguson says:

    Learning from writers we admire without plummeting into the abyss of mimicry or imitation (sometimes to the point of verbal cloning) is tough. One of my mentors, HP Lovecraft, is not someone to imitate in terms of style, since his style was laced with the 18th Century flavor and verbal convolutions that he adored. What a writer can LEARN from Lovecraft is the use of SUBTLETY, of SUGGESTION, of the primary importance of MOOD and ATMOSPHERE whether you write speculative, horror or historical romance. If your heroine is in a creepy place or a dire situation, it’s the mood and atmosphere that will bring the depiction to life and hold fast your readers with serrated hooks. Learning what is important to your favorite writers and then assimilating — not duplicating, for you are not them — this is the key. Don’t try to replicate the sparkling imagery of Robert McCammon or the gallows wit of Stephen King. But do absorb the importance they put on these things — your writing will be enriched if you do, and in doing so you will avoid the abyssal plummet.

  3. vrabinec says:

    I’d feel creepy, mimicking someone else’s style. I dunno, maybe years from now when I’m a frustrated Saliere calling myself the patron saint of mediocrity or something, but at this point, I’m way too egotistical. We’ll see, I guess.

    • Jim Parsons says:

      Vrabinec,

      Thanks for commenting. I think the modern day equivalent is writers I work with or read who make the mistake of jumping on the Suzanne Collins, Jo Nesbo, James Patterson, JK Rowlings wagon and try to write to whatever tune is hot at the moment. Nothing wrong with entering field, but as one of the posters above mentioned: the story’s the thing. What’s often missing is originality of story and voice–two sides of the same mimic.

      Jim

      P.S. The funny thing is that some are good, strong writers…or would be if they stayed true to themselves.

  4. Neil Larkins says:

    I once read the classics but was afraid of becoming a literary mimic so didn’t write. Then I thought of being a literary critic so read their work. Then was afraid I would become a literary critic mimic and started reading literary critics who only wrote on the classics. Afraid I’d become a literay classic critic mimic I got depressed, then got happy. So now I’m bipolar about it all as a literary manic hysteric classic critic mimic. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist. OK, yes I could but didn’t want to.)

  5. Neil Larkins says:

    I once read the classics but was afraid of becoming a literary mimic so didn’t write. Then I thought of being a literary critic so read their work. Then was afraid I would become a literary critic mimic and started reading literary critics who only wrote on the classics. Afraid I’d become a literay classic critic mimic I got depressed, then got happy. So now I’m bipolar about it all as a literary manic hysteric classic critic mimic. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist. OK, yes I could but didn’t want to.)

    • Jim Parsons says:

      Hi Neil,

      I guess not resisting would make you a literary manic hysteric classic compulsive critic mimc, then?

      Jim

      • Neil Larkins says:

        I had that comin’. Great post, by the way. I was once too embarrassed to admit I didn’t read much and still don’t. Glad to find out that many other authors are like me…though not sure if it’s a good thing.

  6. Jill says:

    This is just a part of the maturing process, I think–at first mimicking mentors, and then growing apart from them.

    And to people who won’t read classics or study rhetoric because the story is the ultimate thing: I’ve known painters who have the same philosophy, who think it’s all about creating a picture (I work in an art gallery). These painters will never be great artists, period. But they probably don’t care to be, either. There is something to defining yourself at the outset.

  7. Deb Atwood says:

    My favorite, favorite book was Age of Innocence. And my favorite line something like: “It is not the custom in New York drawing rooms for a woman to get up…”

    I loved how Wharton took me by the hand like some gifted anthropologist and guided me through late Victorian society. When I wrote my first novel (currently in drawer phase), I thought that approach would work perfectly to convey post-war Korea. But all I heard from other writers was, “Too authorial!” Sigh.

    • Jim Parsons says:

      Hi Deb,

      Getting the balance right is always a challenge. One way is to have a more authoritarian (in the author not dictator sense) supporting character to convey some of that information without breaking characterization and narrative pace. Write on!

      Jim

  8. Patrick says:

    I never consciously studied great writers to emulate their style, I just read them voraciously all my life. Now when I write I can feel them leaking out of me.

  9. Heather says:

    I recently read Bleak House and Persuasion, classics of literature. The most annoying part of reading them, was the way both took a full chapter at the beginning to set up a scene where nothing happened. I think it’s wise to read the classics, but not always to follow them.

    • Jim Parsons says:

      I agree. A different time, a different audience, but every “classic” does not stand the test of time or changing readers’ tastes. Thanks adding to the discussion.

      Jim

  10. W. V. Kahler says:

    Perhaps the above advice, (in plural), is why I’ve not been able to write/publish the (latest) “great American novel”! I have never read any of the afore mentioned books or authors.

    My early reading (started before there was a TV in the house), has been Poe; Shakespeare; Gontran de Poncins; Dodgson; The Brothers, Grimm… and influenced by Fractured Fairy Tales.

    (Yes, I am (nearly) older than dirt!)

    “Do read with your ears” is excellent advice. It let’s your brain hear what your fingers have written. For many years I have read aloud to my Nieces and Nephew (and to any other child I could rope and hog-tie. It gives you an insight into the sound, pace and sentence length.

    One should also remember that what you see in your mind, is not being seen by your reader! Yes, you know what you meant, when you scribbled, “he fell off the cliff, into the river”, but really – what do you “see” right now, as you read that? Tall or short fall? Mild or raging river? In the mountains or in the jungle? Winter or Summer? Thus the adage, “show me don’t just tell me!”

    But, I must say, and willingly, that I have just discovered a great blog; not only for the article, but the intelligence of the comments! To quote three famous individuals (in historical order): “I will return; I shall return; I’ll be back.

    The RymRytr
    rym (rhyme) rytr (writer)

    • Jim Parsons says:

      Good comments, W.V. I think you’re on the mark with your comments about visualization and possible disconnects between writer and reader. Thanks for commenting.

      Jim

  11. I don’t want to answer the questions. I just want to remember this all day; “Just understand that what you can learn is the craft of writing. The art comes from inside you.”

  12. Julie Daines says:

    Absolutely superb! Thank you for this thoughtful and insightful post.

  13. Michelle says:

    “Just understand that what you can learn is the craft of writing” is dead on. Thank you for your post, for it shares truth. I do read to learn, but I also know that what I read, is not me.

    • Jim Parsons says:

      Glad you enjoyed the post. I appreciate Rachelle giving me the chance to submit to her excellent blog. Good luck with your writing.

      Jim

  14. Great post. I spent a lot of time imitating great writers a couple years ago as an excercise in order to learn about word choice, flow, characters and such. Practicing such opposits as Hemingway and Dickens gave me a deep appreciation for a well chosen word!

    • Jim Parsons says:

      Hi Abigail,

      It’s funny looking back, isn’t it? Sometimes you wonder what you possible can take away from an author’s work…sometimes it’s hard to find anything. And sometimes you take away more than you realize at that moment. Thanks for reading my post and commenting.

      Jim

  15. #6: not precisely true. I AM Stephen King. No, really. 🙂

    Have I become a better writer by studying classic authors? Well, sure. Still working through a re-read of Twain’s Roughing It, in fact, and every time I get into one of the classics I come away with a better appreciation of something to do with writing. But that’s how you learn this craft. There are only two things you can do to become a better writer: read (the assumption being that you’re reading something well-written) and write.

    • Oh, yeah, forgot:

      – TOSK (The Other Stephen King)

    • Well you can go listen to writing coaches at seminars, but if you buy their book, you get the seminar in one chapter.

      • Indeed. Having now been to three conventions and attended every seminar I could on writing techniques in my genre, I’m of the opinion that it’s pretty useless. Not the Con, but the seminar. The knowledge you think you’re gaining means nothing until you apply it, and by the time you get home it’s either gone or committed to the pages of a notebook you won’t open again.

  16. “… what you can learn is the craft of writing. The art comes from inside you.”

    Loved this line … and the whole entry.

    After I started my Happy Holly Project blog, I discovered the Gretchen Rubin Happiness Project info.

    When I blogged about it, I got many many somewhat panicky messages to NOT read the book … lest it change the voice I had naturally.

    I have a voice.

    Who knew?

    • Jim Parsons says:

      Hi Holly,

      Discovering your voice is just about the best moment any writer experiences…that, and a first sale. Thanks for reading the post and commenting.

      Jim

  17. If by classic writers you mean Mad Magazine and Tiger Beat, then yes, I lerned alawt.

    One thing I do notice about the greats, is that they are not afraid of adverbs!!!
    In 75 years, people might crack open a hard cover book and wonder why none of us used adverbs.

    “I do not compute? Why is there such a lack of adverbs?”
    “Don’t you know your history?”
    “What?”
    “Back then, adverbs were on the Endangered Species list. People couldn’t afford them, so they only used them sparingly. Like at Christmas and Al Gore’s birthday.”
    “Ohhhhhhhhhhh.”

    Another thing? Using any references to electricity in pre-Edison era writing!!!!

  18. Joe Pote says:

    I like the “DO read with your ears” advice.

    I do that..always have…

    It has nothing to do with trying to improve my writing skills, but everything to do with really enjoying reading.

    I know lots of people who read faster than me, but not many who enjoy it more than me! 🙂

  19. carol brill says:

    Thanks JR, a great list–wish I had it 10+ years ago when I started writing fiction.
    Back then, reading the classics confused me, because I did not know how to read them as a writer for specific aspects of craft.
    Learning to read as a writer has been a critical part of my development, although sometimes, it gets in the way of really savoring the story.Some days, I just want to pick up a book and be “just a reader”

    • I suspect the most effective way to successfully bring the wisdom of others into your own writing IS to just be a reader.

      Let your subconscious do the heavy lifting, while you just enjoy the story.

      • Nothing seems more boring than to read classics because you have too. Hated them for assignments. Hate reading them just to analyze. You expressed it well. I love to read classics for the entertainment and somehow the craft sinks in – especially on the re-read of favorite books.

        • Hear, hear! I loved “A Tale of Two Cities” because of the story. No one ever made me read it. An English teacher forced me to read Cat’s Cradle and I hated it. Oddly, I like Vonnegut’s other works. 🙂

    • Jim Parsons says:

      Hi Carol, glad you enjoyed the post. Like many others I suspect, I sometimes felt forced to read the classics–18th, 19th or 20th century. I discovered that what fascinated me was not necessarily the story itself, but how the author put it together–or didn’t in some cases.

      Jim

  20. Well…the last time I cracked a classic was in high school, and then only under duress.

    And I have to confess that while I’m familiar with many of the technical aspects mentioned, I don’t know how to deploy most of them, and still am a bit unsure as to the difference between an adjective and an adverb.

    I write to tell a story. The literary devices that might find there way in are not recognized – at least not consciously – and are expected to humbly do their job, holding together the verbal scenery against which the play is set.

    After all, the play’s the thing.

    Zane Grey, right? I DO remember one of the greats!

    • Dude, “Major” is an adjective. “Majorly” is an adverb.
      Here, let’s use us in a sentence.
      “John, while a wonderful husband, has major issues with shaving his hideous beard. His fabulous wife, Jennifer, is majorly annoyed with his itchy grasp on a mid-life crisis. She would prefer a Ghia.”

      I am here for you!

      • You mean you married an adjective!?

        WAY cool!

        My original last name being ‘Budek’, my wife married line 6 on an eye chart…

        • Line 6? HAHAHAHA!!!
          “Budek”? Hmmm. She married 2 letters short of a wicked Scrabble score!

          We’re an arrogant lot, we can’t just say our name, we have to brag at the same time.
          With a maiden name that starts with a Z (that’s ZED) I think my family was on the line chart/Scrabble board with you.

      • Jim Parsons says:

        Hey! No beard bashing…remember who wrote today’s guest post:-)

        Jim

        • Jim, YOU can have YOUR beard. *I* don’t have to deal with YOUR beard. *I* have to deal with Mr Major(-ly Irritating His Wife of 23 Years By Keeping This Hideous Fuzz On His Face).
          I’m not anti-beard. I’m anti-John Major having a beard.
          I married a nice man. Now I’m married to a nice man with a Chia pet for a chin.

          • Jim Parsons says:

            Lol. I can see the newest Halloween costume accessory in the stores now. Add the Chin Chia to your purchase. Grow a (Jack Sparrow/Abe Lincoln/ZZ Top/add your own bearded favorite’s name) in 24 hours! Where’s the front of the line?

          • ZZTop Chia Pet Beard!! Rock bands and grass, quite a novel combination. Oh yeah, I went there.

    • Funny; I was in much the same boat. Anything my teachers required me to read (and that counts my college classes too) I automatically HATED. Chaucer and Dante? Both morons who couldn’t handle the English language worth a heck.

      While I still shudder at the names “Hawthorne” and “Shakespeare,” I’ve started really enjoying other classic writers lately. I’d suggest you start out with Twain. He wrote beautiful prose that’s more comfortable in khakis and a polo at a sports bar than in a tux at a steakhouse.

      – TOSK

    • In general (because there are exceptions!), a simple way to remember the difference is that adjectives describe a noun, while adverbs describe a verb. A main objection to the use of adverbs is that one can often find a stronger verb to describe an action instead of relying on an adverb + verb combo (i.e. “shouted” instead of “said loudly”).

      Adverbs usually end in -ly, but not always. For example, “often” in the last sentence of the above paragraph is an adverb, modifying “find”.

  21. Wasn’t it Ernest Hemingway who said:

    “Write drunk; edit sober.”

    That’s all I learned from Hemingway and it has served me rather well.

  22. The ability of the classics to bring out that which is within humans without stretching the bounds of credibility has always fascinated me. Dickens’ Scrooge is a caricature by today’s standards, yet believable in “A Christmas Carol.” The classic authors wrote simple sentences for their time and did not try to impress by their prose. Instead, they let simplistic wording of unique observations speak volumes. Consider these words of Dickens: “The whole difference between construction and creation is exactly this: that a thing constructed can only be loved after it is constructed; but a thing created is loved before it exists.” (Pickwick Papers) That is a brilliant statement in simple words. Modern writers should keep it simple, but amazingly so.
    Oh, and did you notice he used adverbs? 😛 )

  23. Anon. says:

    Great article, but, um… “It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done…” is Charles Dickens, not Victor Hugo.

  24. A tangential, but complementary anecdote…

    Years ago, I was in a band with another fellow named Michael. When we first met, we talked about our musical influences. I mentioned that the Beatles were my favorite band. They were his as well. He then said, “So all of your songs have a middle 8?”

    I said, “No. Only the ones which require it.”

    He was a mimic.

    Back to your post, I always “read with my ears.” I’ve written prose which looks terrible but sounds — to me at least — like poetry. And, I believe my musical training plays a large role in that.

line
Site by Author Media © Rachelle Gardner.