Guest Post: Writers are Readers by Stella Atrium

It is with great pleasure that I introduce author, Stella Atrium.

Welcome, Stella!

Joni Mitchell claimed once that she didn’t listen to music of her peers (or competitors) because she didn’t want the melodies or rhymes  to impact her style.  Music is in the air, and composers can imitate without realizing the source.

I knew a singer-songwriter who performed twice a month at a small club.  One week he sounded like Steve Goodman, and the next time he sounded like Kris Kristofferson, and later his voice had the quality of Fred Holstein.  I saw him perform again about a year later, and the young songwriter had found a method of phrasing that suited him, really and amalgam of all his heroes.

By emulating those who came before, he met audience expectations and began to step out on his own. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, they say.

Writers are always experimenting, and a turn of phrase borrowed from another writer shows that he reads, at least. Except fantasy writers borrow magic from other stories, and borrow powers for vampires from other stories; even slang in urban fantasy is often borrowed from other writers.

I had a writer friend who refused to read the Harry Potter series because she didn’t want her own work to appear derivative.  This concern is real — I can tell after devouring a fantasy series from a single author if she read Shakespeare or not.

The word skulking is from Hamlet, for example.  The young prince and his buddies skulked around the rampart until the king’s ghost appeared.

We learn to address the world by using models of success and following lessons learned by elders shared as cautionary tales. We feel engaged with the group when we identify with players or singers or actors. Rick Perry wants to be the Tim Tebow of the debates.

We know we have succeeded when the boss enters a meeting wearing your same tie.

Ray Bradbury claimed he wrote well when he fed his soul with good reading. His imagination was alive and ready for making new characters and new dialogue. Perhaps the operative word here is GOOD reading. It’s not enough to read; what we read counts for quality writing, just like museum art or music that isn’t rap.

We write what we know. The first science fiction stories grew from the experiences of engineers who were veterans of WWII and had seen the horrors people can do. Remember GI Joe comic books? Remember Slaughterhouse Five by Vonnegut?

So it’s fine to capture words and situations from reading and re-purpose and remediate (my word of the day, he, he). It’s also fine to research and dig deeper to find your truth spoken in your voice that you delineated by comparison to all those other voices, like a soloist in a choir.

Connect with Stella:

Twitter  @SAtrium
Website at http://www.stellaatrium.com
Blog at http://www.speakingincommunity.blogspot.com

23 thoughts on “Guest Post: Writers are Readers by Stella Atrium

  1. Good points. Everybody starts by imitating (in writing and in everything else, actually), and that’s fine.

    Even apart from major influences, you’re right about words and phrases. Reading back on my older work, I can always tell which things were written when I was reading Douglas Adams. I fall into his cadences all too easily.

    The problem with your friend avoiding Harry Potter is that there is always the danger that she could appear derivative anyway. After all, Rowling’s work (like everybody else’s) is based on what came before. Your band could easily sound like the Rolling Stones without ever having heard their music, simply by listening to the music which influenced them (and the music which was influenced by them). My advice would be not to worry about it so much. Shakespeare was derivative, too. 🙂

    (Also, if she’s trying to get published, I’ve been reading recently that publishers increasingly want to know who you are similar to — being or appearing to be derivative of Harry Potter might well be an advantage).

    One factual point, if I may: your general point about the origins of science fiction is true (it is always extrapolation), but science fiction long predates World War II, or even the 20th century,

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  2. Anthony Lee, you make some great points in your post. Shakespeare was famous for re-mixing old plot lines.

    It’s true that sci-fi stories pre-date WWII, like Jules Verne for example. We can go back to Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathon Swift written in the 1700’s for stories of alternate realities. I guess I was reaching for the modern sci-fi story we may find on our book shelves.

    Thanks for posting!

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    1. Some great sci-fi stories were made into movies and TV series, including Blade Runner based on a story by Philip K. Dick, or Firefly on TV that was canceled before all the episodes were aired.

      What stories can you think of where you bought the book after you saw the movie?

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      1. It depends for me. I wish I would’ve watched Eragon before reading the book because I really wanted to throw the book into someone’s face for being so completely oblivious to the novel itself! Then again, I tend to watch movies and never pick up the book.

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    2. TV? How low class.🙂 Me, I’m influenced by zombie movies and comic books. Oh, and classic detective fiction, of course.

      As for movies based on books, I don’t have any rules, because situations are so different. Several of my favorite movies are based on books — in theory — but they made the movies great by mostly throwing out the source material and starting over. I’ve heard that Let the Right One In is a good book, but the movie has a very special place in my heart, and I’m not going to read the book. My mother had the opposite experience with Brokeback Mountain. She read the story when it was first published and was so moved that she didn’t see the movie, since she already had her own images of the characters and places. I’ve seen and enjoyed all three Milennium movies, but Dragon Tattoo was enough Larsson for me.

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      1. The upside of TV is pacing. Lots of reveals and twists every episode of a sci-fi series, which is also good in books. The downside is too many TV series use twists for the sake of having twists. “DA DUM! Someone else is a cylon!” It doesn’t always feel right.

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      2. I can completely agree with this! I was watching Castle (Not Sci-fi but still applies lol) the other night, and they threw in a twist they thought would be brilliant. I was like, eh. It could’ve been better.

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      3. Twists for the sake of twists always smell a little. We KNOW they were not planned out. It’s not legitimate if it was never hinted at before. I guess in the age of internet spoilers, the only way they can keep people shocked is by literally doing things that shouldn’t happen. I remember the old Scoobie Doo cartoons did this a lot. They have people wearing masks of other people. But it was Scoobie doo.

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      4. haha… Good ole Scooby Doo! That was funny though. Them wearing those masks. I remember watching Scooby Doo and never knowing who the culprit was going to be, but then again, I never really thought about it much as a kid. But yes, you’re right. The only way to keep people shocked is by doing things that shouldn’t happen.

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      5. The effect of a big reveal is one thing to learn from TV. I used to watch Dallas way back when, and there was one reveal late in one season that had obviously been planned all the way through, and I still remember how great it was. (On the other hand, it can also be fun to watch TV shows — Dark Shadows and Twin Peaks come to mind – where they’re obviously winging it episode-to-episode with no idea where they’re going🙂 ).

        Pacing can be tricky, though. I remember reading on some blog about chapter length (about whether you make them all the same length or not), and I said I liked to vary it up or it would seem too much like a TV show.

        I remember seeing an interview with one of the writers for the Nero Wolfe TV show a few years back, and he said that because the shows were adapting the stories (very closely) he had to unlearn everything he knew about how TV shows should be paced (which is fairly rigid).

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      6. I love what you said about chapters. I don’t think they need to stay around the same length. I think as a writer you just know when chapter comes to it’s conclusion, and there is really no need to try and make them all the same length and just add in fillers. But, that’s just my two cents.😉

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      7. Emerald: No zombies, I’m afraid. I have no problem with mashing up genres a bit, and I even did a vampire mystery, but you can’t mash up zombies with mysteries. Zombies are just not mysterious. I mean, look at them. No subtlety or duplicity at all. 🙂

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      8. All the new blockbuster movies are based on comic books (Iron Man) or on rides at Disneyland (Pirates with Johnny Depp). The writers for the Pirates movies, though, loved their work and provided plot twists that involved all characters. The plot worked even though the premise was “low-brow”.

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      9. Stella: I always appreciate things that are done with care and craft. I did a post recently about the Underworld and Resident Evil movie series (www.u-town.com/collins/?p=3055), including a little swipe at the Iron Man movies. The Resident Evil movies are not going to be confused with Citizen Kane, but they’re not just slapped together like a lot of blockbusters these days.

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      10. I visited your website and appreciated many of the blogs. No matter the vehicle for a story, like comics, the integrity of writing ensures popularity. Nobody wants to feel fooled.

        What’s your Twitter address so we can connect again?

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