Wednesday, 17 July 2013

What Is The Difference Between Imitation and Copying?

For a first time novelist, being compared to a well known and successful author is extremely flattering. It also gives people who read the review an idea of what to expect from your book. That is why when I received a review comparing my writing to Stephen King, I was actually a little alarmed. More than a little, in fact. I was close to panicking. You see, Stephen King is known for his horror writing; a genre which is very different to the thriller category that my book falls into.

To say that I was confused is an understatement. For a moment I was even concerned that the reader had reviewed the wrong book, but knew this was not the case when they went on to reference backpacking and Australia. There is no doubt that it was me they were comparing to the Master of Horror.
It is only recently, when editing my third novel, that I began to understand the statement. This time, I could actually see it myself.

"I think it would appeal to fans of Stephen King, as the narrative style is certainly from that school and it is very much written with the same 'write what you know' ethos."

The comparison was in style and not content. Once I understood this, I began to see more and more how my writing is influenced by Stephen King as well as many other of my favourite authors (I also see a lot of Grisham in my writing, though I have not taken any of my characters near a courtroom). The question is of course, where is the line between inspiration and imitation?

Bookstore shelves are filled with copycat writers. Books with titles along the lines of "Twenty Tones of Scarlet" abound and it is by no means a good thing. In fact, it is appalling. The publishers are shamelessly trying to cash in on successful titles and the quality is usually awful. It may seem like an enticing prospect in the short term, but I have no respect for writers who mimic others with such a lack of originality.

If we want to emulate our favourite authors, we should try to capture the "essence" of what makes their writing so good as opposed to trying to simply copy the way that they write. I have recently been reading a conspiracy thriller that tries so hard to be like a Dan Brown novel, but fails miserably. It stood out instantly as an impostor. Put simply, it has no heart (I will not name and shame, but I am sure that everybody has come across similar books. This was a trad pub novel as well, not self published, I will add.)

This takes me back to the Stephen King comparison. How can I be copying his style without being another soulless copycat? To explain, I will use an example from one of King's most popular books; Cujo. The story is truly terrifying, but this is not because of the nightmare descriptions of the eponymous St Bernard. The real horror of the story is in the fact that there is a young child trapped in the back of a car on a sweltering day, certain to die of dehydration if nobody can help him. The dog keeping him trapped there merely draws our attention to this further. King knows that the way to truly scare people is not with monsters, but by tapping into our primal fears of losing that which is dearest to us.

In The Outback, though a thriller not a horror, I also have a monstrous villain. Like King, I also know that the tension and suspense that I need to build does not lie in the hands of my baddie, but in the hearts of his potential victims. The two stories are from different genres, they are written in completely different voices and on the surface share almost nothing in common, but at their heart, they are the same. They are like songs from different eras or genres that sound nothing alike, but share the same key. For that, I am no longer concerned by the comparison with Stephen King. In fact, I am actually quite flattered. If I only I had just a tiny fraction of his sales...

I couldn't bring myself to post a picture of Cujo, so here is a friendly St Bernard instead!

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