Friday, July 17, 2009

Imitation

Last week Vonda McIntyre, author of the Nebula-winning novel DREAMSNAKE, and I did a joint presentation to Clarion West as "surprise mystery guests," a weekly feature at the Seattle Clarion. We said a great many things to the students, and Vonda had the additional gift of a crocheted stress ball for each writer. This colorful object will undoubtedly come in handy as the students struggle for the fourth week with writing, reading, critiquing, and advice from at least ten different pros, some of which is certain to be contradictory.

However, Vonda and I agreed on a point that I also then encountered yesterday in Stephen King's book ON WRITING. This book, half memoir and half advice, says that King began his writing career by imitating writers he admired. So did Vonda, and so did I. My very first stories were attempts to imitate Fred Pohl's polished, fast-paced little gems. No one ever saw the resemblance. My later short stories tried to imitate Ursula LeGuin. Nobody saw that resemblance, either. But my first novel was a different story.

I was enamored of Peter Beagle's writing (I still am), and although my favorite Beagle novel is A FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE, at that time I was reading THE LAST UNICORN. And reading. And reading. I reread the book compulsively while writing THE PRINCE OF MORNING BELLS, making a dead-set at capturing Beagle's lush, wry, wistful style. I must have succeeded because when the book was published, every single reviewer noted that it was (pick one) a pastische of, homage to, influenced by, or in the tradition of Peter Beagle.

I don't write like that any more. Style evolves as you practice it. That's true of choreographers (Balanchine's early ballets differ from his later ones), of composers, of writers. But you have to start practicing on something, and imitating a style or structure you admire is a fine place to begin. Besides, Stephen King agrees.

7 comments:

Wealthedge said...

I would go far to say that those early influences inform your later endeavors.

I picked up my first guitar when I was 11 years old, and to this day, I still use right-hand-tapping like Eddie Van Halen and bar chords like Stevie Ray Vaughn ..

Same type of thing with fiction, it seems to me ..

Mike Flynn said...

A reviewer of my story collection The Forest of Time commented that each story seemed to emulate a different writer. He went on to name some, many of which I had never even read.

Tempest, the ABW said...

Intersting :) This story was my attempt at imitating you. Though I think overall I've attempted to imitate Cat Valente more often. Someday I'll be good enough to imitate Connie Willis.

Chad said...

I couldn't find the author who said this, but when learning to write while he was in the Navy, he took someone's novel and copied it by hand as he said, to learn how to write. Then he threw the large manuscript overboard. Because now that he knew how to write, he needed to find his voice.
On the topic on imitation, what are your thoughts about doing this exercise? Would anyone by chance know which author it was that said this?

Nancy Kress said...

Chad-- I think a number of writers say they've done that. But I don't think that copying out one novel -- even the whole thing -- will, in and of itself, be enough to teach anyone "how to write." It might be one useful thing to do among many, the chief of which is to write. And write more. And more after that.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Could Chad's writer be Herman Wouk?

Chad said...

I cannot recall exactly which author it was. It seemed to be a well known author. I think they copied a Hemingway novel.
Very good points. I may try copying a couple chapters and see what kind of benefit I get out of it, if any. ;)