Chapter Fourteen: Learning From Other Writers

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To become a successful writer, you have to take the time to study the styles of published writers.

People often frown when I say that. They think I'm implying that you should plagiarize well known novelists. No, I'm not saying that, although there is some truth to the old joke, "Amateur writers try to imitate successful writers. Professionals just copy them."

When I began writing, I studied closely the authors I enjoyed reading. I've already mentioned how much I liked the sci-fi master, Arthur C. Clarke. He had a very clean, spare, fast- paced style. He didn't waste a word. But just when I started to write my first novel, another soon to be famous writer appeared on the scene -- Stephen King. The first book of his I read was The Shining. I was mesmerized; I couldn't put it down. That book scared the crap out of me.

Yet I didn't love everything about it; or rather, I didn't feel the need to incorporate everything King was doing into my own budding style. I loved King's ability to write dialogue, to plot, to develop characters, to describe people. But I felt he rambled; that his main characters internal dialogues went on too long. Often he seemed to spend five pages on something he could have covered in one page.

Please understand, I'm talking about an author I admire a great deal. But all writers, no matter how brilliant, have strong and weak points. I've read every book Stephen King has written and I think I've learned a lot from him -- especially when it comes to plotting a thriller. From Clarke I learned how to quickly and concisely describe a scene. Yet Clarke, for all his talent, couldn't create characters. Pretty much his hero in each book was the same guy -- Clarke himself.

I studied hundreds of writers while I worked at getting published. I'm sure many of you have heard of Elmore Leonard. He wrote Jackie Brown and Get Shorty, two novels that were made into great films. No one could write dialogue like Elmore Leonard. Pick up one of his books and you'll quickly discover that ninety percent of what he writes is dialogue. He conveys EVERYTHING through talking. The reader doesn't even have to be told what one of his characters looks like, you just have to listen to them talk -- and you know everything about them.

Elmore Leonard was once asked how he wrote such tightly plotted novels and he replied, "I just cut out all the unnecessary parts." I don't believe he ever wrote any unnecessary parts. The man never wasted a word.

The point of all this is that every successful writer has something to teach. I would never in a hundred years describe Tom Clancy as a stylist, yet I've read all his books, studied them all, and I've learned how people in the service talk -- officers and grunts -- especially when they're in combat. Have I used that knowledge in my books? Not yet but some day I'm sure I will.

Steal from every writer you love! Copy every writer you like! Take everything that everyone has to offer and keep writing your own book and eventually what you've picked up from other writers and what you're scraping out of what is hopefully the deep well of your soul will begin to appear on your page -- or on your computer screen -- and you'll be that much closer to discovering what I call your "voice."

Your voice will be unique to you. It will emulate the way your mind works. It will be shaped and colored by every book you've read -- IF you take the time to study what you've read. Yes, study -- I used to sit for hours and analyze how a particular author would set up a scene, let it play out, and then wrap it up. When I learned how to write the beginning, the middle, and the end of a chapter, I learned how to write a book that most people could not put down. I learned that from other writers -- there's no shame in that.

Yet there's a point in every writer's career when he or she no longer has to study other authors. When you reach that place you'll know it -- you won't have to be told. And if you reach that point, you'll already be published and you'll have fans writing to you, asking how you're able to write such brilliant novels. You might want to tell them it's a secret.

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