Know Who You Want To Be
Writing is an interesting job, because there’s a built in assumption that anyone pursuing it has heroes they look up to in the field. You can be an accountant without having studied the works of other accountants, or a mailman without having posters of people from the Pony Express days. But writing, and most other art, actually, demands that you be swept in before you create. No one goes into writing without having read, usually at length, and felt inspired to create. We all have our literary heroes, the ones we want to write like, and the ones whose careers we’d like to emulate.
A while back I talked about the importance of knowing your natural style, because it gave you a home base to work from. Today, I want to talk about knowing who you want to be, in terms of your literary heroes, because it can shape a lot of the way you make project and career decisions down the road.
Now it goes without saying that we all want success. Personally, I’m aiming for being so rich that I can buy a yacht which is so big, it has a smaller yacht docked inside of it, for when you want to make a quick run to an island but don’t feel like moving the big yacht. Some, like my financial planner, call this “impractical to a degree of mental illness” but hey, don’t let anyone tell you how to dream. The point is that I’m not talking about wanting to be like someone in terms of their career achievement, but rather the achievement of their work.
Maybe you really love Stephen King. For you, his books were terrifying in a way that left you feeling energized and excited, like a whole other world had opened up before you. You fell head-over-heels for that sensation, chasing down more horror books and devouring them, but for the sake of the example Stephen King was your favorite. When you began writing, you tried to follow in his footsteps, turning to horror right away, because you wanted to be like Stephen King. Not just in terms of success or money, although holy shit who wouldn’t take that bargain, but in what his work achieved. How it made you feel when you were reading it. For some other person out there, or people if possible, you want your work to do the same. To give them the thrills they’re jonesing for and leave them just the right amount of scared even after the last page is turned.
This matters a lot more than people realize, because it speaks to the intent of your books. I’m not saying every novel is meant to shake the foundations of what people think about the world, but all of them are written to tell a story, to make people think and feel a certain way. Going in to the tale knowing what impact you want to have is more helpful than an outline, sometimes, because when you hit a crossroads you can always look to the end goal and ask yourself, “Which direction will help get the reader to those feelings? Which will stir up the most powerful moments?” And just like that, you now have a compass.
Maybe you loved Stephen King, but horror turned out not to be your style in terms of writing. There are other ways to scare people, to leave them feeling unnerved. Tales of love cut short, or a life unfulfilled, or aliens drunkenly crashing into a field just as the climax was reaching a peaceful resolution. I don’t know, this really isn’t my wheelhouse. You think of something, it’s your book. The point is that even if the style changes, the intent doesn’t have to, and that’s a big relief when you’re searching around to find the style you work best with in the first place. Sometimes, switching it up is all the better, because it lets you evoke those same feelings from a new angle, taking the reader unexpectedly by surprise.
What I find most fascinating about this approach is how personal it is. Let’s go back to Stephen King. You loved his horror books, and that’s who you want to be as a writer. But someone else loved the Dark Tower series, and that is what they based the emotional starting point of a novel on. Both of you want to be Stephen King, and neither of you is wrong. It’s what the books meant to you that resonated, and that’s what’s guiding you forward.
That’s why this isn’t the same as trying to write like a specific author, and I didn’t advocate copying their style. The truth of the matter is that you’ll probably want to be a lot of different authors, from project to project, or even chapter to chapter. You’re trying to take the best parts of all of them and smash them together with your words, evoking new combinations of horror, joy, love, and loss in your reader’s minds. But it all starts with looking at what you loved, at who your heroes were, and deciding who you want to be.
For me, in case anyone was wondering, the most compelling answer is Gordon Korman. It’s okay if you haven’t heard of him, he writes mostly youth-to-teen books and even when I was a kid, I was the only one of his readers in my school. Granted, there weren’t a lot of heavy readers in that school anyway, but that’s a story for another day.
What matters is that Gordon Korman has probably shaped my work more than any other author, because the things that stuck out to me the most were his characters and his humor. No matter how bad things got, I could always pick up a Gordon Korman book and feel better. They made me happier. They gave me hope. And while not every work I do is always cheery (we’ve all read the end of Year 3 by this point, right?) I do always want the reader to end with hope. That things can get better, if you’re willing to fight for them. That being an oddball can sometimes be better than fitting in. That you’re never quite as alone as you think you are.
I owe that sentiment to Gordon Korman, who will probably never be on the best-seller lists or have universal acclaim (though I’d love to be wrong) yet is still one of the main people I grew up wanting to be. That colors my writing in every project, and I mean that in the best possible way. There are plenty of others in there as well, but he was the first and biggest, and when I feel lost in a project his are the examples I look to.
That’s just me, though. Every writer out there, we’ve all got our heroes, and the more we look into why we loved them, the stronger our own works become.
P.S. If you want to check out a Gordon Korman book, my highest recommendation would be to read Son of Interflux, if you can find it. Damn fine read, and a serious contender for my favorite book of all time.