How do you manage your influences?
Most writers are also voracious readers—and if they’re not, they should be. We love reading new stories, discovering new writers, immersing ourselves in new worlds, and admiring other styles.
But how do you keep what you’re reading from leaching into your own personal style?
When I read my first, never-to-see-the-light-of-day novel (more on that in another post) I can see the various influences. Here is where I was reading Harry Potter, and everyone says something dryly or flatly or bemusedly or adverbially generally. Here I was reading Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, and the main character has Claire’s sardonic wit or Jamie’s frankness. Here I was reading George R. R. Martin, and, well, my style falls flat because I don’t write like Martin. Here I was reading Guy Gavriel Kay, and attempting (and failing) to make everything poetic.
When I wrote Shaken, though, I avoided like the plague anything similar to my plot or world. I hardly read any urban fantasy. I put off reading Zoo City until I’d finished writing. I didn’t touch Kim Harrison’s work. Ilona Andrews and Diana Rowland? No way.
It seems to have worked: I’ve gotten lots of compliments on the main character’s voice, and I’m told the style is pretty good. But there has to be a better way to accomplish that. Denying yourself similar works is just masochistic, because a) you’re giving up a chance for fun and b) those writers could always teach you something about your own writing.
Here are my few suggestions:
1. Separate your writing time and reading time. Don’t read on your lunch break for instance, or on your commute home right before you sit down to work. Save books similar to your own work for bedtime reading.
2. Read your own work, too. This one works for me: if I sit down and read a couple chapters of my own writing when I’m about to get to work, I can get my main character’s voice back in my head.
3. Set the mood. Make a soundtrack that suits your books atmosphere, have an appropriate beverage (like tea!) if that helps you, look at images that remind you of your world, do whatever it takes to immerse yourself back in your creation.
4. Play up the differences. No two works are ever the same. Notice what the other writer does with your book and ask yourself why they did it. What do you like about their work? What do you dislike? What would you change? If the other book gives you ideas about how to change your work, ask yourself why, and make sure you’re not copying: that might tell you some ways in which you’re dissatisfied with your own work.
What do you do to separate your influences from your own voice? How do you keep your voice your own?
Although I don’t write fiction, I have so many stylistic influences in non-fiction. Rather than avoid sounding like them, I embrace their styles. For example, as I work on my memoir, when I get stuck I ask myself “What would Anne Lamott do?” I might write like her for awhile, but that’s just to get me out of a difficult spot. I make it my style with a revision.