Imitation, Inspiration, and a Thing Called Voice [Guest Post]

I'm not sure if The Trouble with Imitation answered any thoughts writers may have on the subject of inspiration, but I do know it raised more questions!

Joy sent me a sort of follow-up email this week on the subject of, well, "imitation, inspiration, and a thing called voice."  These are all fairly elusive terms - I'm still not sure I could define 'voice' adequately if someone put a gun to my head and insisted on it (although you can bet I would try) - and ones I'm pretty sure we've all wondered about.  I don't know if I will be able to answer all the questions, but I'll give it a shot in the hopes of clearing up some of the muddle that comes with literary talk.

[Question 1]...I have also been mulling over the trouble of plagiarizing and copy-catting too much the books we cherish and authors we respect vs. going to the other extreme of not reading at all so as not to let our writings be unduly influenced! ...Sometimes I struggle with the whole art of learning from ‘The Greats’ and imbibing the skills and virtues they were masters at, without messing up with my own style and voice and especially the genre I am writing in. 

There is a lot of talk in writing and publishing circles today about "voice."  I don't know if it's always been this way and I just wasn't around to notice, or if it is a new phenomenon, but the fact stands: voice is getting a lot of press these days.  I can't count the number of publishing houses and agencies I've run across that specifically state that they're looking for authors with "a distinctive voice."  And on the one hand, that's a good thing: they want writers who are unashamedly themselves, not cheap imitations of other authors' glory.

But there is almost always another hand to consider, and this emphasis has given rise to unwarranted panic among writers who feel like maybe they don't have a voice, maybe their voice isn't distinctive enough, maybe they're losing their voice.  So I'll start out my reply by saying that I do not believe this is something we ought to sweat over.  The long and the short, and the tall and the wide, of voice is that it is your individual means of self-expression.  It does not require that you consciously attempt to be original - especially not as regards grammar and structure, because honestly, they're around for a reason.  Your voice is just you, and it no more needs to be stressed over than does your own identity.

Writing is a form of self-expression (among other things): that is or ought to be what people mean when they talk about voice.  It is not necessarily constant; it can shift from story to story and from year to year, developing in much the same way that the physical voice does.  For new and young writers, that voice has not necessarily presented itself.  It takes time - and usually more than one novel - for it to be recognizable, and more time still for it to be anything like "developed." 

In the meantime (and afterward, because an author's voice shouldn't grow monotonous), writers ought to exercise in two ways.  The first, of course, is by the repeated practice of writing.  Some people say you should write every day; I think that depends on the individual, but certainly we should do our best to keep in practice.  The second means, which brings me to the second part of Joy's question, is reading.

[Question 2] And also, to know what kind of books are helpful, inspirational and beneficial to read or stay away from reading during the process of writing one’s own particular novel has been a challenge; i.e. while writing a historical fiction is reading a fantasy by Tolkien or a mystery by Agatha Christie... or writing a science-fiction while reading a tome by Dickens or Shakespeare beneficial to one’s writing?
The critical thing when it comes to imitation, inspiration, and voice is to make sure we read widely.  What we read, at least as far as genre goes, will never be as important as reading extensively.  If we limit ourselves to a few authors, whether they be classical or contemporary, Charles Dickens or Stephanie Meyer, we will be in danger of imitating them.  It may not be conscious, but it is bound to happen one way or another.  If a stranger should come to look at our shelves, they ought always come away with the opinion that we have varied and perhaps even eclectic tastes.  Don't read only those authors who think the same way you do, or who write the same way you do, for then you will grow insulated and never learn to expand and to think: you will simply plateau.  We need the input, not of one person or of no one at all, but of many different writers in order to develop our own writing identity.  To think we need no one is arrogant; to think we need only a few is foolish.

As far as what particular genres and books we should read, again, I would venture a guess that it varies for every writer.  For myself, I tend to steer clear of similar novels until I've finished my own - not so much to avoid copying as to be able to say that no, Tip Brighton was not influenced by Jack Aubrey or Horatio Hornblower, thankee very much.  Other writers, however, like to read extensively within their own genres to get a feel for trends and cliches.  Either method has its pros and cons, and something in the middle is probably the best way to go. 

Because the process of writing a novel generally takes so long, I wouldn't advise orchestrating your entire reading schedule around the genre you're working with: it is too confining and, I believe, will only limit the range from which you draw inspiration.  Even for science-fiction, inspiration can be drawn from Shakespeare.  And inspiration aside, it can simply be a relief to distance yourself from your own story and read something completely different.  I'm reading P.G. Wodehouse at the moment, which has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with my characters, my setting, or my plot: it is just a refresher.

On the other hand, it is true that there are some authors whose style is so different from my own that I find myself floundering in my own writing while reading their books.  This has only happened one or two times, but I figure the best thing to do is either stop reading or just say, "Oh, whatever!" and finish the book.  It may gum up your writing for a little while, but in the long run no individual book will do any damage.  As long as we continue to expand our horizons through the dual process of reading and writing, the development and recognition of our own individual voice will follow.  We need not sweat too heavily over it!

Abigail Hartman is the author of The Soldier's Cross, a historical novel set during the Hundred Years' War. Her debut work, it was published in 2010 by Ambassador Intl. and is newly available in Dutch through De Banier Publishing. Abigail writes both historical fiction and fantasy and also keeps a blog, Scribbles and Ink Stains, where she posts on the topics of writing, reading, and matters in between.


  1. Good question and encouraging post! I found this blog through Scribbles and Ink Stains.

  2. Writer4Christ, thanks for stopping by and for your comment! I did indeed enjoy Abigail's answers to my questions - she is really quite brilliant, isn't she! God bless!


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