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
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
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
"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.
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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