Apples and Oranges (Or Why Comparing Yourself to Other Writers Doesn’t Work)

Whether we’re looking up to our heroes, competing with our rivals, or just reading someone’s work, it’s somewhat impossible to avoid comparing yourself to others. In some cases it can be healthy – competition can stimulate improvement – but today I want to talk about a few things that are important to keep in mind when you start looking at the writing of others in contrast to your own.

Are You Running the Same Race?

It’s easy to compare your work to your favourite author’s and (as is often the case) feel like your stories fall short of the standards they’ve set. You may do the same with your peers, or indeed any writer (I do this constantly). It’s natural, if somewhat unhelpful.

Recently, I was speaking with a friend and she pointed out that comparisons between her writing and mine were almost entirely impossible because of just how different our work was. As just one example, she’s aimed at the YA crowd, whereas I’m aiming for an older demographic, and this is a significant difference – not even taking genre, style, philosophy, plot, subtext, and more besides into account.

It was an excellent point – no sense in measuring who’s ahead in the race to quality if you’re running on different tracks at different times in different events. The 100m dash and the 100m hurdles are both races, but they’re fundamentally different and require a different set of skills – comparing a hurdler to a sprinter just doesn’t work. Sure, there might be some overlap when it comes to the audience, but there’ll definitely be an in crowd for either event.

(Said friend, by the by, is one Mel Sayre, and extraordinary writer who is doing some awesome things with both words and pictures. I highly recommend checking her work out by clicking here.)

So next time you’re comparing yourself to Abercrombie or Brennan or King think to yourself – am I aiming at the same audience? Am I writing in the same specific genre? Is my focus and style the exact same as theirs? More importantly – am I writing the same book?

(If the last answer is “yes” then I think there’s a more serious issue here…)

The answer to at least one of those questions will be no, so stop comparing yourself to them. You’re running a different race, playing a different game.

Whose Story is it Anyway?

Following along the lines of the above, I find a surprising number of people who seem to misconstrue the meaning of the oft said “write-the-book-you-want-to-read” phrase. As an editor I’ve spoken to a number of clients who can cite various popular authors as their inspiration, and there seems to be genuine concern in some of them that if they don’t do more or less exactly as that author has done then they’ll fail to capture the attention of their target audience.

While it’s admirable to want to match the success and quality of your idol, it can become something far less positive. Writers can, consciously or otherwise, begin to mimic another’s style a little too closely. Plots become to be congruent, characters are essentially duplicates (either in essence, theme, or the role they play), and/or settings are different in ways that closer inspection reveal to be all too subtle.

There are a few key offenders (for want of a better term, as I’m not saying this automatically leads to bad writing or is indeed done intentionally) of this that come to mind – some of them fully published works.However, I’ll not further distract from the topic at hand with names, though one day I’ll write a review of an example of how this is done in a way that remains highly entertaining.

But I digress.

Try to remember, as you write, that it’s impossible for you to be the next Rowling, Stephen King, or Tolkien, and that that’s a good thing. You’re trying to be the first you, and while there is a widely held cynical outlook in the world saying that people want the same thing over and over, originality can and does prevail.. Doing something new is always a risk, but it’s a risk worth taking – write what you want to write, tell the story that you want to tell.

Who’s Behind the Curtain?

A lot of the writers that I speak to are in the nascence of their careers – they’re usually just getting started, with the first or second manuscript done and their nerves barely conquered enough to send it to an editor like me.

In response to edits and notes I make I frequently get messages like “Oh, I should have seen that” or “I’m kicking myself for missing that”. While natural, these comments are inherently self-deprecating, and all too often they’re born of comparison. Thoughts like “[INSERT FAVOURITE AUTHOR HERE] wouldn’t have made a mistake like that” can run through a writer’s brain, but that’s missing an important point.

Nine times out of ten when you read a story that’s been published in any way shape or form (particularly with full on books) you need to remember that you’re seeing the final product of a long and time-consuming process you’ve probably only just started on. It’s almost certainly gone through a slew of proofreading, editing, polishing, and rewriting. The comparison is unfair, and you’re being too hard on yourself and your own work.

Behind every accomplished author is an editor, at least, and likely a team of beta-readers, and even just people who’ve commented over the years and helped reshape and improve the work. Add years of work to polish and further editing. Chances are if you’re reading this then you’re not there yet, so don’t be so sure that your favourite author didn’t make the exact same mistake that you did.

Learning from Success

Now, competition and comparison can be healthy. You like what Joe Abercrombie writes? You like the way he writes? Then sure – learn from his style, look at his use of language, and what kind of phrases he uses to make his sentences flow. Look at how he sets up his chapters, how he builds his plots. Study his work.

What you can learn from this can serve you, so for all my rambling about telling your story don’t be afraid to adapt techniques. Likely you’ll do this automatically, without thinking about it, but it’s worth taking the time to look at the key things that make you like what you’re reading in the first place.

When writing, when storytelling, I think it (that is to say all of my ranting) can all be summed up in a single line: Don’t try to be your idol, but don’t be afraid to let them influence you.

Imitation, after all, is not the greatest form of flattery. Inspiration, on the other hand…

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