As a writer’s coach, I often advise new clients to learn how to “read like a writer.” In other words, dissect every book as you read to see what makes it work. And if you don’t like a book, don’t just set it aside. Keep reading and ask yourself why? What is it that’s not working? The plot? The characters? The pace? Then ask how would you do it differently.
Inevitably, new writers counter with the same question I once asked . . . “But won’t studying other writers on that level influence my own writing? I want to sound like myself, not someone else.” We want to discover our own genius. I get that.
But think back to when you were a kid. You learned just about everything from watching someone else do it, then from mimicking their actions. If your mom or dad taught you how to make a grilled cheese sandwich, you watched first, then made it exactly as they showed you. But over time, you changed things up a bit. You cut off the crusts or added tomato. You gave it your own flair. So even if you do mimic other writers to begin with, you will eventually find your own voice.
Ah, but if I do that, shouldn’t I be afraid I might plagiarize other writers, people ask. I tell them that if you had to ask the question that proves you are aware it’s a possibility and you will work hard to make sure that doesn’t happen. Most plagiarists know what they are doing. It’s rarely an accident.
None of us are born knowing everything we need to know in order to do our art. We need teachers and mentors and masters throughout our journey. Don’t be afraid to let other people show you what they know. And someday, they may learn something from you in return.