Imitate to Learn

In an article on creative writing, Sam Jordison recently commented on how writers often start to imitate the stuff they’ve read. As a creative writer myself, I’ve experienced this problem frequently. Just as I find my accent to adjust to the people I talk to, my writing reflects what I read. The author obviously pokes fun at this by randomly enumerating how several authors write. This activity could be continued ad infinitum, and great fun can be had by excessively imitating certain easy-to-spot styles.

However, what I find intriguing is not how certain authors influence us, but rather entire genres. I had my first experience with this phenomenon when I became involved on fanfiction.net’s Voyager corner. I started reading AU stories, mostly because I had become so attached to the VOY characters. Before long, I was inspired by the few good stories I read and aspired to write my own. My style closely followed that of the stories’ I had read – although they were by different authors, they all had a similar style of writing. Looking back I realize that because my stories are almost indistinguishable from theirs, they also became more popular and received encouraging comments. I had imitated well and fulfilled the expectations of those hungry readers. What flattery!

But after a while, it gets old. I can write five more stories where Janeway and Chakotay romantically get together, and they’re all going to be fundamentally similar. I even poked fun at this by writing a list of commonly used themes, such as “Oops, we got stuck in an elevator together again!” (I still think that list was pretty funny.)

I guess fanfiction was a bit of a stepping stone. It provided a neat, pre-created environment to practise in. There were enough characters to use, so you didn’t necessarily have to invent your own. And the general quality of fanfiction is so abysmal that if I wrote badly, I was probably still better than the average raving 14-year-old. It was gratifying and fun. I am pretty embarrassed by my earliest attempts at love stories – but I could see how I got better! That was the best lesson I learned from fanfiction: practise really does help. No matter what kind of practise.

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