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Reading as a Writer
When I wrote my first novel, The Watcher of the Night Sky, a few readers commented that the style had a Jane Austen-esque read to it. I’d been reading Austen while I wrote that story, so I had obviously been influenced by her style.
Was this a good thing?
On reflection, it was a wonderful compliment, but I’d say no. Writers should be reading so that they learn from the techniques of others not sound like them. My writing voice should not have the similarities of another. It should be unique to me.
So how can we learn from other writers without unintentionally copying or mimicking them?
As part of my MA course, the first assignment of each module was to read a story or essay, pick a technique the writer used, and apply it to our own work. This did not mean to copy the writer. It meant that we should admire their chosen technique and adapt it for our own work. It is this that us writers must do if we want to improve our own skills.
I studied the opening chapter of Heartless by Marissa Meyer, analysing her description of food and the sensory experience it brings to the reader. What struck me most was Meyer’s powerful opening line: “Three luscious lemon tarts glistened up at Catherine”. Through personifying the tarts, Meyer directs the reader’s eye to what is important, not only to the scene, but to the attention of the character. Meyer continues to use personification as the scene progresses, with the aid of strong verbs like “quivered”, “trembled” and “gleaming”, helping the reader envisage the tarts.
I attempted a similar technique in the opening of a scene, centring the reader’s attention on what my protagonist is focused on by animating the piano’s description with the aid of strong verbs:
"The mother-of-pearl grand piano beckoned Hazel into the empty room. Gilded legs held it in place like a stand for a precious jewel. Mimicking thick branches, the legs twisted up and exploded into flower arrangements as they reached the body of the instrument."
You can see that I have not outwardly copied Meyer, but gained inspiration from the way she described tarts and adapted that style into a description of a piano. Animating the inanimate is a vital part of creative writing and most authors already do this, especially to prevent those dratted filter verbs from creeping into our work.
Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants has unadorned dialogue and descriptions that are exemplary examples of Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory: “If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them”. A copy of my Hemingway-inspired story was published in Flash Fiction and can be read here.
In The Sissy Strikes Back, an essay in the blog collection No Time to Spare, Ursula K. Le Guin muses on the irrationality of denying your age. By deliberately repeating words and phrases, Le Guin’s writing has cadence. It creates more urgency to read and emphasises her thoughts.
“Warriors get old; sissies get old. In fact, it’s likely that more sissies than warriors get old”.
“Look at me, I snarl at them. I can’t run, I can’t life barbells, and the thought of me in tight-fitting minimal clothing is appalling in all ways. I am a sissy. I always was”.
We writers are warned of repetitive sentences, but in her case, it is deliberate and perfect.
“They don’t want sun burn. They don’t want dark spots. They don’t want tan lines. They want brighter complexions free of blemishes.”
“Strangers stare less. Strangers flatter less. Strangers stroke my skin less”.
The sentences are short and repetitive, aiming to add cadence and accentuate my point.
All of this prepared me to read like a writer. Not intending to copy. But to admire how talented writers create something beautiful, hoping I can learn from them and do the same. I believe that my writing of dialogue, my animation of description and my use of repetition in writing have developed thanks to those assignments. I believe that my ability to write fight scenes has improved through reading some of the great fantasy writers. When I write difficult weather scenes, I research how other authors do it by reading their work, and it helps me to continue onwards in my writing journey and development.
That doesn’t mean to say I always read this way. I am a reader too, after all. I need to enjoy a book, switch off the writer in me and dive into their world for a while. But when I have my writer's cap on, I will analyse their techniques, learn from them, and adapt them for my works with the hope that I am in no way channelling their voices or by no means plagiarising their work.
Our author voices are our own. Our work is our own. But there is no harm in admiring and inspiring each other through our words.