Einstein has been quoted as saying, “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life thinking it is stupid.” So, how does that apply to the writing life? There is no better way to learn how to write well than to read well-written books. If you fall in love with a character, you can analyze what traits the author gave his protagonist to make you feel that connection. If a plot keeps you turning the pages long after you should have gone to sleep, you can ask yourself about the types of situations the author created and the way she paced her story that kept you biting your nails until midnight. If you felt completely lost in the world created by the book, you can take a look at the description of the scenery to determine what worked to pull you so deeply into the author’s imagination. Immersing yourself in great books can teach you more than a stack of books on how to write.
But when studying the work of great authors, there is always the temptation to try to write like them, as well. If an unpretentious, colloquial voice works for Stephen King, why wouldn’t it work for you? If psychological thrillers work for Gillian Flynn, maybe you should give that a try. A flowing, lyrical style sounds great in Barbara Kingsolver’s books, so it would have to sound great in yours too, right? Not necessarily. Because you’re not Barbara Kingsolver. Or Gillian Flynn. Or Stephen King. You’re you. And you have your own voice, your own style. Maybe you loved the suspense of Gone Girl as a reader, but when you sit down to write, sentimental romance is what comes naturally. If you try to force your passionate, romantic leading man to kill someone because you think that’s what you should be writing, no one is going to be happy, especially not your leading lady. If your writing voice is folksy and laid back, write something folksy and laid back. Your big city cop is going to sound awfully funny saying “Aw, shucks” and “Golly.”
Which isn’t to say that you can’t, or shouldn’t, grow and change as a writer. But if you feel like writing gritty urban fiction, write your gritty urban fiction, not someone else’s. Do it because it feels like the right next step in your writing life, not because someone else did it. Do it because it’s the right thing for the book you’re writing right now. Because that’s the most important thing. The style, the voice, the characters, the plot—they all have to come together in order for the writing to be great. And that won’t happen if you are trying to write your great plot in someone else’s voice. Or if you drop your richly drawn character into someone else’s landscape. You have a unique style, a unique perspective on life, a unique imagination. Only you can write your book. So get down from that tree! It’s already taken. Go take a swim in the salty richness of your own ocean. The water is just right.