Aphelion Issue 274, Volume 26
July 2022
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Thoughts on Writing

#42: The Very First You

by Seanan McGuire

To provide a little bit more context, here's today's expansion:

You are not the next Stephen King. You are not the next Emma Bull. You are not the next anyone. You are the very first you. Comparisons are wonderful things, because they tell people whether you're working in a style or genre that they enjoy ("If you like Warren Ellis, try..."). But don't let comparisons turn into a prison. You are always allowed to bust out with something new and amazing and blow the roof right off the goddamn nightclub.

It's common to hear a new author described as "the next (insert latest hot thing here)." The next Stephanie Meyer. The next J.K. Rowling. The next Tom Clancy. Even our fictional characters get it. They're the next Harry Potter, the next Harry Dresden, the next Harry Houdini if he were secretly a teenage werewolf with telekinetic super-powers, the next new versions of the last big thing. So how do you deal with the pressure having everyone tell you that you're the next somebody else? Is that even possible?

I don't think anybody is the next anybody, and it's time to look at that in detail. Ready? Good. Let's begin.

The Next Big Thing.

I'm going to start out with a statement, and we can discuss from there:

You are not the next anyone. You are the first you.

While I am happy to allow that you can definitely style yourself after someone, I don't think that anyone can be the next insert-name-here. Not without absolute proof of reincarnation, and even then, the whole nurture vs. nature argument is going to come into play. You can tell stories that are similar to the stories someone else tells, has told, or will tell in the future; you can create characters similar to characters someone else has created, still creates, or will create somewhere down the line. This is not going to turn you into that person, for which you should, quite honestly, be grateful. While it would be fantastic to enter the writing world with someone really successful's entire fan base already primed and ready for your glorious creations, it probably wouldn't go as well as one would hope. If by "not as well," you mean "everyone getting pissed off the first time you do something their idol wouldn't have done, and dropping you like a hot rock in the process."

Writing poetry in the style of Edgar Allen Poe or Dorothy Parker is awesome. Writing stories in the style of Mark Twain or Mary Shelley is a great way to really force yourself to think about your word choices and your own personal style. But if you really want to live and grow as a writer, you're going to reach a point at which you need to stand up and say "I am not the second coming of any of these people. I am the first coming of me, and if you'll excuse me, I'm going to do something incredible now."

Comparisons Have Value.

I'm not saying that comparisons are worthless. They are, in fact, extremely useful. If you liked Night of the Creeps, you will probably like Slither. If you liked The West Wing and Dawn of the Dead, you will probably like Feed. If you liked the first album by the Counting Crows, you will probably like the first album by We're About 9. Comparisons allow you to put things into a familiar frame of reference, and they are an absolutely essential part of any good marketing plan, because they can be used to set expectations.

"Did you like War for the Oaks? Oh, you have to read Fire and Hemlock."
"Did you like The Stand? I think you'll enjoy Under the Dome."
"Did you enjoy Dr. Horrible? Well, take a look at Evil Dead: The Musical."

Comparisons are a tool, a form of shorthand that lets us establish a cooperative hyperspace model without sitting down and plotting out every possible aspect of the work. They shouldn't be allowed to be the only thing that defines you.

Comparisons Are Dangerous.

If I say "oh, if you enjoyed that, you'll love this" to someone, I am assuming that they will find pleasant similarities between the two things. What if the only things that are similar are, in fact, the things this person didn't enjoy about the first thing? I know people who liked everything about Night of the Comet except for the cheerleaders. I, on the other hand, loved the cheerleaders so much that they became a permanent part of my internal landscape, and were probably the genesis of the Fighting Pumpkins (so now you know who to blame). If you like everything about Sparrow Hill Road except for the ghost story aspects, I promise you, you're not going to like the upcoming installments in the series.

Because comparisons set expectations, it's important to be very, very aware of what you're saying when you use them. If my agent went around telling everybody that I was the next Stephen King, some people would make immediate assumptions about my writing, my personality—and, yes, my sales figures—that probably weren't true for the first Stephen King until after he'd managed to sell five or six books. If, on the other hand, she said "Seanan has a Stephen King-like sensibility and a storytelling style that's entirely her own," she'd be setting much more reasonable expectations (and I'd probably hug her the next time I saw her, because dude).

I describe Feed to people as "The West Wing meets Night of the Living Dead meets Transmetropolitan." All three of these aspects are important. Not everyone I make them to is going to recognize them all, but having a list says "this is not exactly like any of these things; it will have some similarities, and it will have some differences." If I said "oh, it's The West Wing with zombies," on the other hand, people would be perfectly justified in getting annoyed when the social media and scientific aspects took center stage. You can't make comparisons that are so broad that they become misleading—not unless you want to pay the price of hubris.

Hubris requests exact change.

Be You.

At the end of the day, all I can say is that you need to find your own voice, your own position, and your own way of handling all the wacky things the writing world will throw at you. Don't let comparisons become the prison that keeps you trying to be something you're not...even if the only thing you're being compared to is you.

Now get out there, and rock that joint.
© 2012 Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with three cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded three albums, and published several novels. In 2010, she was awarded the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in the field of science fiction and fantasy. She is nominated for four Hugo awards in 2012, including Best Related Work for her music album, "Wicked Girls".

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