Where is the line between inspiration and imitation? At what point are you no longer inspired, but are instead trying to emulate someone else? What’s the actual problem with imitation? They say “everything’s been done” and isn’t inspiration a part of the creative process anyway? Yes, it certainly is. But there’s a fine line between Inspiration and looking for answers through someone else’s eyes. True inspiration is the appreciation of someone else’s work which perhaps results in an idea of your own. Imitation is enjoying someone else’s technique or style so much that you attempt to duplicate certain elements such as plot structure, prose style or tone, characterizations, etc., or perhaps even the storyline itself.
Apart from obvious legal issues such as plagiarism, the most common stumbling block is that you lose your own individual voice when you try and channel someone else’s. Trying to work within the confines of your perception of someone else’s mind can severely limit your creativity. Not only that, but you’re also working within the boundaries of ideas that have already been done and methods that were chosen to fit a particular story. Without your own complete voice and the space to create from your own mind, your individuality is diluted and the writing often ends up rigid or forced. In addition, you should be thinking of your story as an individual entity, and a completely unique work. You must own your own writing, and develop on your own ideas, instincts, and style over time.
So what drives people to imitate? The most common cause I see is a lack of self-confidence. For many people, when they imitate another author there is a subconscious acquiescence to a feeling of inadequacy. They become intellectual remoras due to insecurity or a fear of failure, therefore they essentially abandon large portions of their own style and make someone else’s a part of their identity. Another common cause is impatience. Writing is a long, arduous process. You can get lucky sometimes, but there are no shortcuts. Many writers consider their manuscript “done” when they have given up and are sick of it, not when they’re actually satisfied with its condition. Also, many writers are unwilling to make large changes in editing (or sometimes any changes at all) because they know the amount of time it will take to make the necessary rewrites. And of course, some impatient writers imitate, assuming it will chop off a good amount of crafting and writing time if they can just “copy/paste” an answer from someone else’s work.
No matter where you get your ideas from or who you consider to have been your most important influence, your writing has to come from you and you alone, untainted by the voice of someone else. When I am reading someone’s manuscript, it’s very easy to see where the true author ends and someone else begins. Editors and publishers can see where elements were shoehorned in, added on unnaturally, or are incongruent with perhaps what the original intent of the book was. Sometimes a character will do something wildly out of character, the structure of the prose or syntax will wobble a bit, or the story will take a sudden turn in tone or mood. These changes read like a record scratch in the middle of a beautiful song. I often say I can see ”the author’s fingerprints” all over the story when I come across this kind of interruption. Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but flattery doesn’t get you very far in most places, including literature.
Writing requires an intense amount of hard thinking, much more than most assume. Sometimes “thinking harder” means thinking more expansively, finding a new way to restructure something large, or really coming to terms with cutting a segment you love because you know it just doesn’t work. It’s often tempting to alleviate some of that burden and try to find a shortcut or a solution without really analyzing the issues in our work. But if you continue to engage your mind and think through the issues in your manuscript from your perspective alone, you might find the solution is simpler and easier to see than you thought. You must discover what works and does not work for you. You must discover which kinds of things you can write well and which ones you can’t (you will find more of the latter, and that’s ok). These abilities and downfalls and idiosyncrasies are what define you as an author and are what shape your voice. So the next time you feel inspired, take a moment to consider what you will do with that inspiration and how you can incorporate it into your own style.