Writers are always worrying about being original. We worry about it so much that we discard perfectly good ideas because we’d once read something similar. We don’t want to be copycats, so we’d rather not write if we can’t write something new.
Writers are seldom original. It’s nearly impossible for a newbie writer not to be influenced by the authors he reads, loves and respects. Even Stephen King isn’t immune to outer influences. As he says in “On Writing” (a book every newbie writer should read), when he started writing he copied the style of the writers he read and admired almost without realizing it.
Imitation (not plagiarism) makes an excellent writing exercise. Writing in the style of Edgar Allan Poe will teach you something about lengthy descriptions; writing in the style of Ernest Hemingway will teach you about plain, unadorned writing. You can imitate almost every writer in order to improve your writing skills. If you’re looking for good exercises on this topic, try the ones David Morley suggests in his book “The Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing“.
Copycatting, imitating and being inspired by other writers is just a necessary step on the writing ladder, one that’ll help you to hone your skills and will eventually lead to your developing your own voice as a writer.
We all write about the same basic, universal emotions: love and passion, death, family relationships, friendship, courage, being adventurous, hidden secrets and dark plots, money and greed… What make Romeo and Juliet different from Wuthering Heights is not the themes (love, social differences, passion, hatred, vengeance…) but the very personal vision of Shakespeare and Emily Bronte, the author’s unique voice. It’s the same with The Odyssey and The Lord of the Rings, or Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.
Copying an art masterpiece might be forgery, but it’s also a good way to improve painting skills. The same applies to writing. Your own style and personal voice will develop on due time, and as long as you’re respectful and honest, there’s nothing wrong with seeking inspiration in the writers you love.
If you’re still feeling uncomfortable about copycatting, take Jim Jarmush (and Jean-Luc Goddard) advice:
Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.
[MovieMaker Magazine #53 – Winter, January 22, 2004 ]”