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.