Creeping Influences

We’re supposed to constantly feed our imaginations. We do that by ingesting story as much as possible from multiple sources. Books are the best sources, followed by movies, chatting with people we meet during the day, and news items.

Yet while you’re reading a particularly good book, haven’t you noticed “bleedover” into your writing? One day you’re channeling the poetic description of L.M. Montgomery. The next day you’re using the snarky style of dialogue that Jim Butcher offers.

You don’t intend to copy. Certainly you never seek to plagiarize. But how do you avoid inadvertent imitation?

*By being vigilant for it when you edit.

*By not reading books in the same genre as yours while you’re composing rough draft. (When I’m writing a fantasy novel, I read mysteries. Once my book’s done, I dive into the stack of fantasies awaiting me.)

*By understanding that when you admire a particularly favorite author–perhaps more than life itself–it’s okay to imitate a technique in order to teach yourself. Just edit out the imitation later.

Movies are a little safer. You shouldn’t copy dialogue or plots, but you can draw on pacing and the way actors emote. I find actors to be a terrific source for me in terms of utilizing facial expressions and gestures. Just the way Al Pacino tilts his head in a particular role may give me something to work with in a very different context. Or the way Bette Davis walks across a room. The quirking eyebrow and eye roll of John Barrymore. The way Ethel Barrymore compresses her mouth as she lets skepticism fill her eyes. Or how a character actor with few lines to say can steal a scene from the star just by the way he or she is handling props in the scene’s background.

Another hazard of influence lurking for the unwary writer comes from writers’ groups. I’m not against critique groups–within reason–and I’m not against writers socializing. We’re in a lonely profession. We need to interact with those of our own kind once in a while just to keep our balance.

However, if writers are brainstorming or submitting their work for critique or just chatting about a plot problem they’re having, they’re running the risk of theft through influence.

I don’t mean that your worst enemy and chief writing rival–Nellie No-good–is lurking at your elbow at every writers’ party, evesdropping so she can rush home and steal your plot.

But someone’s idea may be similar to your own. Or, six months later, you start developing a premise that’s come to you and before you realize it, you’re pulling a few plot points that came from that past brainstorming session.

Here’s an example: a writing friend and I have been plotting a collaborative novel for a couple of years now. We each have heavy schedules, and it’s hard to figure out when we can work on this book, but we have our setting, premise, major characters, and several plot events worked out.

During the July 4th weekend, I started working on a fantasy idea that’s seized me. I let myself write a chapter one–by no means a chapter one that I’ll keep–just to get the creative juices flowing. I liked the chapter enough to then sit down and answer those preliminary questions I shared with you in my last post.

If anything comes of it, this project will be an alternative history. I was busily charting plot events and working through character motivations when a faint alarm bell rang in my mind.

That’s when I realized that I was drawing on a few concepts from the collaborative project. The time periods are different, but there were two or three parallels … too many for me to be comfortable.

I had to step back and nix several plot points. It’s not a problem. It’s forcing me to be more creative as I turn the premise in a different direction. What matters is that I caught on before I’d written a significant portion of manuscript. Best of all, the idea is growing.

You want to emulate without imitating. You want to learn from the best. You want to keep yourself attuned to what’s happening in the fiction market. You want to channel that hero worship you have for your favorite author into something productive.

Just stay alert and be ready to catch the thievery when it happens, as it will. When you do catch yourself borrowing too closely, don’t despair. As writers, it’s far too easy for us to become melodramatic and tell ourselves that we can’t think of anything better than what another author has already used. Piffle!

Instead, tell yourself that you can think of something different. That’s all it takes.

8 Comments

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8 responses to “Creeping Influences

  1. Ok, so can I take credit for inspiring this post with my comment on ‘https://debchester.wordpress.com/2011/05/19/filling-the-well/’ ? 🙂 Whether yes or no, thanks for responding to that comment and for this helpful post.

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  4. You said Piffle, and otherwise this would have been a fine post…now, with Piffle added, its fantastic.
    All kidding aside, I’m pretty certain you edit even your bloggin because that was some fine writing right there. I think you just earned yourself a follow my friend.

  5. Deb

    You’re right. I was showing off. I should have restrained myself. 🙂

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