writers I’ve learned from: Gaiman & Saunders

I feel that my own identity as a writer is actually an amalgamation of nearly every writer whose work I’ve ever read, which I’d like to believe is true of most other writers as well—quite simply, I believe we learn through imitation. The technical, writing-studies-world term for this is “modeling.” By modeling others’ writing style or borrowing ideas for fun (yes, I’m talking about fanfiction again, surprise surprise), writers gradually learn to develop their own talents and will (hopefully) find their own voice.

So I want to focus this blog entry on two writers: Neil Gaiman and George Saunders.

The first Gaiman work I read was written in conjunction with Terry Pratchett: Good Omens. I loved it. I had lent my copy out to a number of people and then had to get a new copy because my original was so beaten up from borrowings and re-readings. From there, I bought a few books by each author, and while I love Pratchett’s sense of humor, Gaiman’s ability to write convincing (but not cliché) fantasy stories completely captured my attention (and once led me to stammer incoherently at the back of his head at an Edgar Oliver poetry reading; I still regret not having captured his attention just to say hello). He has a lot of great advice to offer for writers, too:

For a while, I tried to mimic Gaiman’s style. I wanted to create funny, complex, fantastical characters who lived in these sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrifying (and sometimes both) worlds. I didn’t succeed much, at least as far as I was concerned. For some reason, I just couldn’t seem to do it; I could see the fairies in my head, but they refused to be put down on the page. The dark alleyways remained empty, the spells went uncast. I guess that at the time, fantasy just wasn’t my “thing,” which I think is a legitimate reason for why I wasn’t succeeding at writing those stories and eventually moved on—something just wasn’t clicking.

So while I continued loving (and envying) Gaiman’s ability, I went on to read other writers. (Which is not to say that I went through an entire period of my life just reading one writer’s work, but… I came close.) That was when I found George Saunders, whose writing style seemed similar to my own—or I guess it’s that my writing style seemed similar to his, since he’s older. But instead of taking the approach I took with Gaiman’s writing, which was to read all the things at once, I staggered my reading of Saunders’s work with other authors. I think everyone should try that; I know it’s hard to resist the temptation to devour one author’s body of work (note to self: calm down, Hannibal), but I think that helped me not try to emulate every aspect of one author’s style.

On top of writing stories I happen to love, Saunders–like Gaiman–also has a lot of (what I perceive as) excellent writing advice to offer.

Here’s one of Saunders’s stories: “Tenth of December”

And here’s one of Gaiman’s: “The Case of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds”

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