Or, “How I stopped worrying about appropriation and embraced the amalgamation of styles which is my own.”
Lately I’ve been reading all the “mainstream” fantasy novels I can find with LGBTQ protagonists, since Greencloak’s main characters are gay and bi and I need to know the market that I am attempting to break into. I started off with Kushiel’s Dart (slow, but very satisfying; great book) and then started in on Mercedes Lackey’s The Last Herald Mage Trilogy.
I’m really enjoying it, but the more I read, the more I realize just how much Lackey influenced my writing style. The Elvenbane (which was co-authored by Andre Norton) has been one of my favorite books for over fifteen years – I’ve read it so many times that the hardcover I pilfered from my dad way back in the late 90s is literally falling apart. (I remember bringing it up to Mercedes at a signing. She took it from me with a little knowing smile and said, “This book has been well loved,” which really touched me.)
Things that I am coming across that I have used – subconsciously – in my own writing are the use of the words Talent and Gift to denote magical ability and psychic ability, respectively (which is also something I remember Robin Hobb making use of in The Farseer Trilogy), the use of italics to denote mind-speech, and overall the character “tropes” she chooses to use. When I look at my own writing through this lens, I can definitely see the parallels.
This made me worry that I might have been unconsciously mimicking her. That my style was not my own. I did some real soul-searching on this – the very last thing I would ever want is to ape someone else’s work. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my own style is an amalgamation of that of all the writers I admire. I see Sanderson in my sparse prose and use of humor. I see Lackey in my characters and my magic system. I see Butcher and Whedon in my dialogue. I see Hobb and Weis & Hickman in my tragic, tortured character backstories. I see Jordan in my massive, epic plot lines.
And I realized that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Our personalities are reflections of our past experiences, and I don’t see why our writing styles should be any different. We naturally emulate that which we admire; we take pieces of what we love and make it our own. I’ve come to think of it like a quilt. I can see the individual pieces – each square of fabric beautiful in its own right – but the whole is something entirely unique and beautiful on its own. No author can say for certain that their writing style hasn’t been influenced by someone else’s writing, just as we as humans can’t say for certain that our past experiences haven’t changed our personalities and made us who we are today.
However! Each author I admire has one big thing which sets them apart from the others. This may not be true for everyone, but for me, I admire Sanderson for his magic systems. Rothfuss, Beagle, and Gaiman, their prose. Lackey, her characters. Butcher and Lynch, their humor and dialogue. They excel at these aspects, and no matter what other pieces of the patchwork they may borrow from other writers, these are their showpieces.
I think it’s important for us, as writers, to find that One Thing which sets us apart and focus on it. It’s important for us to be well-rounded, to understand all the parts of our craft, but we can’t be masters of everything. Every author has flaws. Every. One.
If I could offer advice to other aspiring authors, it is to find the piece of your writing you think is the best and hone it until it is as good as you can make it. This is what will evolve into your unique voice. Ignore the little voice in your head which wonders whether you’re copying all those other influences from your reading. They are the alloy in which you set the shining gem that will make you stand apart – the background which blurs into obscurity behind the object in focus.