Writing Excuses 4.3: How to Manage Your Influences

How do you avoid letting other people’s work creep into your own? We’re all influenced by the media we partake in whether we admit it or not. How much of those influences should we allow into our own work? How do we control that?

As we engage the topic, we admit that sometimes we want to be influenced, and that letting those influences do their work is a good thing. But this isn’t the podcast where we cover that. This is the podcast where we talk about tuning that out.

We also talk about tuning out the influence of those who are critiquing or commenting on our work. These might be fellow members of the writing group or other early readers, or they might (especially in Howard’s case) be outspoken members of your audience ranting on web forums or wikis.

And then we talk about whether or not we should allow Brandon to influence our work. Take that, Brandon! (Take it, in fact, all the way out to nineteen minutes and six seconds!)

Audiobook Plug: The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Writing Prompt: Write a story, and pretend that a famous historical figure is looking over your shoulder and offering advice while you write.

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29 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 4.3: How to Manage Your Influences”

  1. Well I just finished Elantris (about time too) and I found the use of of the Multiple 3rd Person POV to be very similar to the way I used it in a current project although completely unrelated.

    I also thought that the book would be similar to the Death Gate Cycle, as they both have god-like wizard races, but beside the mench/mugles/normals thinking that X race was godlike they were nothing alike.

    It even reminded me of Dune, in its emphasis on politics and social structure although not as pessimistic and certainly Brandon wrote the world building into the story with a far lighter (and efficient) touch than Frank Herbert.

    Talking off which my current project is heavily influenced by Dune, a sort of homage of sorts, although it has many influences all mix together, and far more action (I hope).

    Great podcast, keep ’em coming!

  2. I was working on a fantasy story, and someone commented that it was a lot like Terminator 2. This surprised me, because I’d never seen the Terminator movies and had an inaccurate notion of what they were about. After watching them, I realized the story as I had planned it was going to look like a rip-off. I haven’t worked out how to correct that yet.

  3. Part of this made me think of the two professional level writing workshops I’ve attended. Both were wonderful experiences and I wouldn’t trade having attended for anything! If you are a “newbie” writer and want to apply lessons learned or methods demonstrated at such a workshop, but find your brain chock-full of advice, how do you just DO that and silence your “Internal Editor”? (“So and so said I should do this..”).

    I realize the irony of my question and that I’m asking three professionals! Thoughts, anyone?

  4. Seeing a concept done well is inspiring. It’s a good thing to be influenced by works that you consider to be impressive.

    Keep in mind, though, that everybody has a strength, an individual niche if you will. I’ve found the best thing to do with the focus that a great work gives you is to direct it to what you are already doing, and instead of imitating directly, aim for equivalence of quality. To use the example from the podcast, if you liked Avatar, then let it inspire you to create something with as good of a pace, with just as much vivid detail, color, etc.

    Also remember that, now that this other great story has been told, that particular story has been “mined” of its greatness. There are more great stories waiting to be told, but it is up to the writer to do the work to put the ideas together. Tolkien worked hard to make elves so recognizable, but that doesn’t mean that the fantasy genre ends with elves. Go off in your own direction, and make it worthy of where the genre has gone before.

    My approach to superficial similarities and reader input is just let it be for the first draft, then go back like Brandon said in a second draft and make any changes necessary.

  5. The ending discussion really hits home for me as a software developer since I regularly deal with suggestions of what clients want. It’s all about figuring out the real problem and trying to solve THAT. And boy is it a tough nut to crack, no matter how deep a knowledge you have of the domain space, because odds are the advice giver does not have as deep a knowledge as you do, NOR do they have the correct vocabulary so you have to try and get it back into your own knowledge set.

  6. “No, no, a murder like that will scare the readers too much. You can’t just have him shoot the guy right there in the middle of the movie,” Abraham said to me. I adjusted the ribbon on the typewriter and glanced behind me to find him carefully peering over my shoulder at the text.

    “Well, Abe, sometimes things are scary. That’s just the nature of a story like this,” I replied calmly. I turned around to face him, hoping he’d at least back off a foot or so. No luck. “Besides, I’m going for realism here.”

    “Realism? What kind of idiot would just jump some guy in an enclosed area with hundreds of people around?” His words suddenly hit home, like….well, I think you know what they hit home like.

    “Abe, I’m going to take the high ground here, and pretend that was a terrible rhetorical question.”

    “Yeah, good call,” said Abe.

  7. Mike- don’t let yourself be overwhelmed by advice! There are a few different things to keep in mind here:

    The advice that you hear or read, in particular the advice that you hear or read multiple times, will trickle down into your subconscious and bubble up again when you write. So go ahead and shut down the voices bouncing around your head shouting adivce and just write. Trust your subconscious.

    But part of that trickle-down/bubble-up process is conscious practice and repetition. Which means that at some point, you do need to practice and put that advice into action.

    So which is it?

    Well, there are a few ways to approach this. One is to ignore all the writing advice/your internal editor and just write when you go through your first draft, then review the advice and approach editing with it in mind. Editing is a different mental process than writing, and can better accomodate a more conscious approach.

    The other way is to simply choose one specific piece of advice, or one aspect of writing, and practice it. Sharper dialogue, stronger characters, more vivid description, whatever you might want to work on–concentrate on that goal in whatever you’re writing. Let it sit in the back of your mind as you write, without thinking about it too hard. This will aid the bubbling-up process. Then when you’re done writing, again go back and edit with that goal in mind. If you have a critique group, you might ask them to focus a little more on dialogue or character or whatever you were working on. Trickle down, bubble up.

    And hey, you know what works nicely for this second method? A once-a-week podcast focusing on a specific aspect of writing, that gives you a writing prompt at the end of it. :P

  8. Great podcast everyone!
    While writing, my mindset is stuck in one mode…I am writing this story for ME and nobody else! It may seem a bit selfish but it helps me to get through the initial stages of the process. As long as I like where it’s going and how it sounds, then great.

    Howard had a great way to see the advice that Brandon gives him. He’s a professional and a teacher who is more apt to give well thought out nudges in the right direction. Seek out people who know what to look for in the revision process and trust them. They will give you the best shot at getting your work published.

    Of course you could just just keep it all for yourself and be selfish!

  9. There are some good points in this podcast that shows why some series fall apart after several books. There is always a large difference between what the reader/audience wants, vs what they are asking for.

    Giving the reader what they want instead of what they ask for. Is there a podcast in that? :)

  10. Great podcast! Thanks as always, it makes me feel better about some influences I have chosen to incorporate and worse about others ;-). Time to make some revisions…

  11. This podcast had one or two things to say about “voice”. N0w, while I know that, when we talk about “voice”, we’re not talking about the author’s literal, vocal voice. But ever since I began listening to Writing Excuses, a strange trend has started to crop up.

    The first few times I listened, I could not distinguish the three voices from each other. But as I began to read more of Brandon’s books, I found I could pick his voice out from the three. By the time I finished The Gathering Storm, I could always distinguish his voice from the others, but Howard and Dan I couldn’t tell apart.

    Then, I began reading Schlock Mercenary. I started from the beginning and read through a thousand or so strips. Now, I can always tell Howard’s voice from the others in the podcast. And I can tell Dan’s by comparing his voice to Brandon’s and Howard’s and realizing that his voice belongs to neither of them. Otherwise, I still can’t tell who’s speaking when I hear Dan’s voice.

    I’m willing to bet if I read Dan’s book, I would probably be able to recognize him more easily in the podcast. Am I just fooling myself, or is there a connection between the author’s Voice and the voice of the author?

  12. I once wrote Tron.

    Then watched the movie the following month. I think that was my first piece of fiction–if you can call it that.

    I do wonder how unique a voice is. I can see that I’m bound to write a story with a plot that may have been used (and not just any plot but THE plot where the whole story hinges on…) But if the voice happens to be the same… then readers won’t be able to distinguish it.

    Anyone had that issue?

  13. I agree with Brandon that the entire body of created works out there is so huge its had not to write something that is completely original, or at least doesn’t remind someone of something.

    What I feel is that as long as you know you weren’t unduly influenced your in the clear. Having someone say this is just like book X and you’ve never even heard of book X is going to happen no matter what you write. What I would say is that just make sure that you know what influenced you and change the stuff that slipped in by accident.

  14. Brandon, when you say unconscious I believe that you mean to say subconscious. It’s kind of tough to write (or do much of anything really) when you’re unconscious. ;)

  15. I found it to be highly amusing that _Avatar_ was used as an example of what might influence someone. The plot to _Avatar_ was so derivative as to be almost pure cliche. It was _Fern Gully_, it was _Dances With Wolves_, etc. What made _Avatar_ so memorable was the incredible visuals and the expertise of the director.

  16. I’m starting to almost believe in Jung’s Collective Unconscious idea.

    I do this thing once in a while when I’m stuck on a writing project where I just come up with first sentences. One after another. Just until one “strikes” me. And one night, it hit. And I wrote about 1800 words of the beginning of what has now become two novels (the second of which was my NaNoWriMo novel for 2009).

    About 30,000 words into the first of these novels, someone in my writers group mentioned The Dresden Files, saying that my writing style, sense of humor, and genre were similar. I had never heard of The Dresden Files*, Jim Butcher, or the TV series. So I got the books and started reading them.

    Not only did I somehow arrive at almost the same formula, I “lifted” entire characters (his Murphy became my Norris, for instance, in almost every possible way, right down to physical description) and plot lines.

    But my magic system is different, my characters are in a world where magic is known, but not widely accepted, and I don’t intend to use vampires and werewolves and faeries and such. So they’re enough different that I think I might have a chance, but similar enough that it was VERY distressing when I started reading.

    Of course, NOW I’ve READ his books, and I can consciously NOT imitate him when the temptation becomes too great. But then I worry…am I going too FAR in NOT imitating him? :)

    * I had actually heard the name “The Dresden Files,” but confused the name with a perfectly DREADFUL spy novel I attempted to read, once, and therefore completely disdained them without ever realizing they were different.

  17. Howard’s comments about totally ignoring outside influences have historical precedent. Since Brandon & Dan disregarded this advice I think it is important to note this.

    The example that I would cite is the band Pink Floyd. Some people regard them as among the best examples of the progressive-rock genre. What is interesting about this is that they very specifically cloistered themselves while working on albums. They have stated in interviews that they did not listen to the radio nor to any outside music during the process.

    The product of this approach is work that is inherently original and can only be derivative of any influences that existed prior to the undertaking.

    NOTE: This does not mean that what you produce might not resemble other people’s work, but it will prevent you from being distracted from your own purpose during the process.

    I think it is relevant to reference the South Park episode “Simpons Already Did It” which addressed this topic as well. Anyone who is creative by profession must acknowledge and accept that ALL art is derivative in some capacity and recycles cultural memes.

    The trick is to find your own niche – to put a different spin on an existing trope or to offer a fresh perspective on an existing topic.

    How many re-tellings are there of the Arthurian legend, for example?

    For another example, what about the concept of the blurry line between man and machine? This has been used in the last 30 years by Star Trek (repeatedly), Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who, Ghost in the Shell and countless others. It could be correctly said that they all recycled the Jewish Folklore tales of Golems or the automatons crafted by Hephaestus. But each of those stories modified the concept in their narratives.

    The point is – you can consciously remove conscious influence and there is benefit from doing so but you must also consciously work to craft your unconscious influences into meaningful elements of your story.

  18. Hi,

    Thanks again for another great episode! Shel Silverstein comes to mind as somebody who went out of his way to make sure other writers didn’t influence his work. From what I understand he didn’t read much because he didn’t want other people’s ideas to dribble into his own poetery. I guess things turned out okay for Shel but he was working with a whole different animal than the people that tune in here. But I’ll got on record and say that I think reading is an essential part of the writing process.

    Anyway…Brandon mentioned a fantasy book that came out in 2000 that was “a tremendous failure.” Apparently written by somebody that only read Tolkien. Does anybody know the name of the book he’s alluding to? (Are we allowed to mention such things on this forum?) Just wondering–my morbid curiosity getting the best of me.

  19. I have a huge problem with this. I watch a movie, and then I say “I want to write that!!” So, this episode was especially helpful to me. I have noticed that I have this problem, so my solution has been to deliberately pick things that will help what I am currently writing.

  20. Avoid influence eh? So…does that mean that I should not listen to Writing Excuses any-more…?

  21. In regards to managing your influences, I believe that it is a good idea for a seasoned pro to be very careful and not to be drawn in by their influences to much. But for the newbie, being influenced by great works is not a bad thing while you’re learning. What kid when given their first guitar for their birthday doesn’t start out by learning to play their favorite songs before they start writing their own? I thought writing should be no different and to some extent it isn’t.

    Studying books that influenced me, taught me a lot about writing. I would break them down line by line until I understood how a particular author did his/her magic. Next I would take a book that influenced me and read a chapter, then write a chapter that was similar in length but with my own characters and a slightly different plot. I basically did this to help me break out of my Chapter One cycle as I was one of the perpetual chapter one writers for a long time. Also doing this helped me to develop a better sense of pacing and how to fill a chapter with fluff while keeping it interesting as so many great authors do. I no longer need to do this, but it was a great help to me.

    The moral of the story boys and girls is don’t be afraid to study your influences to understand why they influenced you in the first place and try to learn something from them.

  22. Gord Vidal wrote, in one of his essays, “Write what you know will always be excellent advice for those who ought not to write at all … “

  23. This was my first podcast–I know, I know, I’m a little late in the game. I absolutely loved it, however, and it won’t be my last. Keep up the good work, boys. Much appreciated.

  24. Does anyone know who the writer they almost mention is? (The one who decided to try to write fantasy after only having read Tolkien and it was a disaster.)

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