Writing Excuses 17.7: Dissecting Influence
Key points: Dissecting influence, aka learning from the things that inspire you. Find what you love, then take it apart and figure out how it works. What do you need to do to practice that? Look for commonalities, themes that call to you. Approach your self corrections with a generous heart. Pull feelings from your inspirations, and feed them into your work. Trust your voice. To avoid being too strongly influenced, go adjacent. Remember, no one can do me like me. Do your research ahead of time, and let it settle.
[Season 17, Episode 7]
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Dissecting Influence.
[Kaela] 15 minutes long.
[Sandra] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Megan] And we’re not that smart.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Kaela] I’m Kaela.
[Sandra] I’m Sandra.
[Megan] And I’m Meg.
[Howard] This episode was pitched to us by one of our guest hosts, Megan Lloyd. Megan, take it away. What are we talking about?
[Megan] Today, we are talking about dissecting influence, which is, how do you learn from the things that inspire you. You’ve seen the masters of their craft create masterpieces. You want to make one of your own. What are some tips and tricks to studying how other people do the thing?
[Howard] Part of the problem is that I don’t get to see them make the thing. I get to see the thing.
[Laughter. This is true.]
[Howard] It’s… I mentioned this in the expectations intensive. I talk about the Dirk Gently TV show. I don’t know what that writers’ room looked like. I don’t know what the outline looked like. But it has… It is incredibly influential to me, because of the way all of the things connect. I want to be able to build that. But I don’t get to watch it being built. So how do I learn? Tell me, Meg, how do I learn from it?
[Megan] So, you’ve got to take the thing and you literally have to dissect it, cut it open and take all the little pieces out and you have to break it down into little bits and find out, okay, why do I like this is much as I do. While you can’t see them make the thing, you may have to reverse engineer it a bit yourself. Because, I believe how they would make it and how you would make it would be very different, but you’re coming to the same purpose. So, I come at this, I’m both a writer and an artist, working in the animation industry, so a lot of the references, a lot of the work that I like to look at is other visual art. So I look at something and be like, “What do I love about this? Do I love the thin line art, or do I love how they depicted the light?” A lot of what I do is, in my sketchbooks, I also write out lists of things I like and what do I need to do to practice doing this thing.
[Sandra] One thing that’s coming to mind for me… Back when I was coming back into being a creative person, after a very fallow period, I kind of stopped writing when my kids were little for about nine or 10 years because I was fullbore mothering instead of being a writer. As I was coming back to creativity, I discovered a hunger for visual inspiration. Which was exactly when Pinterest launched. So I was doing Pinterest boards. They’ve reconfigured now, and Pinterest no longer works for me in the same way. But I was just collecting images. I was just listing… I like this, I like this, I like this. The fascinating thing about having it collected all into one space is that then I could suddenly see patterns. I could see that so many of the images I liked had an implied journey in them. A boat about to launch, a path through a wood. I realized, oh, wow, here I am trying to launch a creative career and I’m being drawn to images with an implied journey. You could pull the same thing with… If you take a look and say, “Well, I love this show, and I love the show, and I love this show. What do these shows have in common?” One of the things that I discovered I really love is a sense of comradery and found family. So you can discover what are the themes that call to you. Then, once you know what… That helps you begin to decipher why do I like this thing, what is it that draws me. Then, how can I then make sure I pull those themes into my own work.
[Megan] Yeah, I think that’s a… Aggregation of themes is really helpful. I know that I definitely use that as my compass when I’m looking like… About when I want to make stuff is like first gut instinct, oh, my gosh, I love this, it resonates with me. How does it work? Sometimes, I think that like being outside of the writers’ room and things like that can be a benefit in that way. Because if you’re with the person, sometimes… There is a certain level where you need someone, like a mentor, or you need mentor text or things like that. But there’s a point where it’s not helpful, because you just do what they say without knowing why, without knowing how it connects. You’re just following instructions. Versus, like opening the guts of something and, like, rummaging inside. I mean, like, “Ahah. I see. This connects to this, which makes this happen.” Like, with characterization, looking at… Or with worldbuilding, like Avatar The Last Airbender, I will always bring it up, because I love it. One of my favorite things is Katara bloodbending. That was such a genius extension of how the world works, and it resonated with me so powerfully because it did the thing that I love. I dissected it, and was like, “What is it that… Why do I love Katara bloodbending so much?” I realized because it was going a step deeper, answering questions they hadn’t answered before about how waterbending works. Like, yeah, there’s water in blood. We’ve seen Katara bend her own sweat before. We’ve seen her bend the water out of a cloud. Like, how does that apply? It’s not that we didn’t talk about it before. Like, the medium was hiding it or anything. It’s that we hadn’t gone into it. We had… No one had asked that question before in the world at that point. I… That’s why I learned like going deeper with your magic system can be very satisfying. Especially to people who have been following something and become fans of it. Whether… They started to ask themselves questions like that. It’s like addressing what people might want to write fan fiction about. You’re like, “Yeah. That exists. Right? Aren’t you excited?” You’re like, “Oh, my goodness, I am.”
[Sandra] I can’t remember, is Toph’s metal bending before the bloodbending or after? Because it’s like, one, they fold into. It’s like, again, both going deeper. Well, if Toph can metal bend, then Katara can bloodbend. So you’ve set things up.
[Megan] It’s before, because that’s Toph’s… That’s the culmination of her storyline in the Earth book. Because Got, water, earth, and fire. Then Katara learns from a displaced water tribe woman in the Fire Nation.
[Sandra] But again, it’s going deeper both times. I love it.
[Howard] The salient point here is not that worldbuilding by extrapolation, extension, logical conclusion is how you should world build. The salient point here is that is a thing that you loved about Avatar, so now that you know you love it, you can pick that influence apart and you can see how you want to apply that principle into your own work.
[Kaela] Yes. It’s, in fact, something that inspired that principle, being able to go deeper like that, that I pulled out of Avatar the Last Airbender or something, that I’m using in the sequels to Cece Rios and The Desert of Souls.
[Kaela] So… Great application.
[Megan] To jump ahead into how do you implement this in your own work with the same level of love and interest that you take something that you love that inspires you and being able to break it down. What do I like about it? What do I not care for? Being able to approach your own work from a… I don’t want to say scholarly or clinical, because honestly, we love what we do, but being able to search your own work for places it could improve without knocking yourself down as you do it. So instead of critiquing your own work, but just trying to go through and like plus and improve your own work. So always approach your self corrections with a generous heart.
[Sandra] I love… I think it’s very, very easy, because the world teaches us that we should be humble and we should not toot our own horn or whatever. It’s very easy to approach your own work, and, like, apologize for it is you’re talking about it. I instead love it when I see creators who are just like super excited. Fanfic writers tend to be really, really good about this, because there really, really super excited about this cool thing, and they just let themselves be excited. So… When you… If you can carry that from your inspiration you’re talking about. You’re inspired by this thing because it excites you or it makes you cry or whatever, and if you let yourself have those same emotions about your own work, that’s a beautiful way of carrying the influences and expressing them again.
[Megan] One of the reasons why I like to use the simile of dissection and study is the goal is not to plagiarize someone. The goal is not to trace someone’s art to learn how to draw, or retype someone’s book to learn how to write. But it’s to find the familial similarities between what you love and what you do, and try to put the creative juice in your brain to think up new ways to implement your own skills.
[Sandra] Yeah. It’s like you said, reverse engineering to figure out the principles that they use that you can then use. Like, if you know… It’s… So you figure out the rules on a very personal level of how and why something works so that you can then use it to your advantage.
[Howard] I think, coming back to the worldbuilding example, I think that’s why this is so important, because we talked about extrapolation in worldbuilding on Writing Excuses before. Okay? That is a principle that you can lift out of Writing Excuses and probably any number of books on writing and worldbuilding and whatever else. But if you dissect the things that have influenced you and you find that as a thing you love, now that’s a principle you own. Not just something somebody has written down for you.
[Howard] Let’s have a thing of the week. What’s our thing of the week?
[Megan] I’m suggesting the thing of the week this week, which is one of my favorite things. It is the YouTube account called Sakuga which will be in the liner notes, but I’ll spell it out here. Hobbes Sakuga. This YouTube channel is a collection of the very best cuts of hand-drawn animation compiled into category specific videos. So, like, 20 minutes of just special effects hand-drawn animation or sword fighting animation or dramatic character acting. Usually, when I’m stuck on a specific thing, I’ll just sit and watch, well, how did 20 other of the world’s greatest masters accomplish it. It gets me… Gets the brain moving and the juices flowing, and it helps me when I go back to my own drawing board.
[Sandra] This is a thing that comes very, very naturally to like dancers or musicians, the idea that you just need to go through the motions over and over until you create a muscle memory. You can do the same thing as a writer or artist too. Because you have to draw things over and over. But, writers, you can also create that in your own head. So if you need to write a love scene, maybe go watch some love scenes to get your head into that space. Pull that feeling from your inspiration, so that you can then feed it into your own work. That sometimes creates an anxiety, the influence, like, oh, no, I’m copying. But that’s where you trust your own voice, because every dancer can tell you that even though you’re practicing over and over and over the steps the choreographer gave you, each performance becomes different. Becomes your own as you do the dance.
[Megan] Well, it’s like the difference between strawberries and jam, right? Like, yeah, you’re watching strawberries, but you can turn it into jam. You turn it into something else by boiling over it, by stewing over it, by making it into something new. Now, it still tastes like strawberries… It’s still romance.
[Megan] But it has turned into something new, because it’s… You have delivered it in a new way. You’ve done it thoughtfully by having boiled on it and stewed on it. Strange metaphor, but it was the first one I thought of.
[It’s okay. Chuckles.]
[Howard] Now I want strawberry jam.
[Howard] How do we deal with anxiety of influence in light of this? Because I know there have been times when I was worried… I would not watch something because I would worry… I worried that it would influence me and I’d find something in it that I liked and that thing would just flat out end up in my own work. How do we avoid that?
[Sandra] For me, go adjacent. If you are writing an action scene and you’re worried that if you watch kung fu movies, you will port it directly across, is there some other way that action is expressed where you can get into an action headspace without being so directly… My example is not working.
[Howard] Let me state the problem differently. I didn’t watch Firefly on TV because I felt like it was too much like what I was already doing. Therefore, I just wasn’t allowed to watch it. It would influence me. Same with Cowboy Bebop. People kept telling me, “Oh, you should watch this. I know you’d love it because Schlock Mercenary is so cool.” I’m like, “I don’t want to love it. It will undo me, influence me. Go away, stop telling me about cool stuff that is similar to what I’m doing.” So the question is how do I avoid that? How do I get to have Firefly and Cowboy Bebop in my life?
[Megan] So, I have a little mantra that I tell myself. It’s, “No one can do me like me.” Where even though there may be similar elements, when you see the work as a whole with the different theming, the different staging, like Sandra says going adjacent, that… We write for a world that loves what we write. I’m sorry, that wasn’t phrased very well, but… We are writing in our genres for genre savvy people. So, I think people may say, “Oh. Another story about an orphaned wizard named Harry? I’m not even going to pick up the Dresden Files. I know this story.” You can share elements with different things. But it’s the whole of it that makes it your work.
[Sandra] Well, also, if you’re writing, for example, space opera, and the only other… You only consume one other space opera, the risk of you porting visibly from one thing to another… But if you have filled your head with 10 or 20 or 30 space operas and then let them all settled before you sit to write, they turn into a stew…
[Sandra] The likelihood that you will steal specific bits becomes less. Because, Howard, your head was full of space opera already. It’s just you didn’t want to refresh specifically… I don’t know. I don’t think you’re necessarily wrong for deciding to avoid those things at that time.
[Howard] I was a much happier person with Firefly when it got canceled before I’d even started it.
[Sandra] But, I mean, listen to your instincts. Because if your instinct says that’s not the thing for me to be watching right now, maybe it isn’t.
[Kaela] I would say that I am not careful about that at all. I’m not careful about any of those things at all. Mostly because I love doing my own riff on things like purposefully. But I will say when I was younger and when I was starting out, I avoided it more because I knew I was more impressionable because I didn’t have a strong sense of my own voice or how I wanted to do a thing. So, then, I would just… I would make sure I wasn’t writing something at the same time as reading something like it or watching something like it. I still read and watch all of those things, but I’d make sure it wasn’t at the same time. Because I was very impressionable.
[Megan] Oh, yeah. That’s something I want to piggyback off of is when I’m doing a specific project, I’ll do all of my research ahead of time. So I’ll read two or three similar books before I write one of my novels or I watch a few similar movies before I start boarding a specific scene. But once I do my initial research, unless I’m completely up against a wall and I don’t know what else to do, I’ll eat jam on toast instead of going to pick more strawberries from that point on out.
[Howard] Now I want toast too!
[Howard] Oh, no.
[Megan] But it’s the best metaphor.
[Howard] Working quite well. Hey, it’s… We’re 18 and a half minutes in here. Is it time for homework, Meg?
[Megan] It’s time for homework. I bet if you been listening to our episode, you might have a pretty good idea of what I’m going to ask you to do. For homework this week, take a slice of something that inspires you. Books, movies, art. Break down a list of the specific elements you find appealing.
[Howard] A slice of something, and of course it’s toast.
[Howard] Or thick with jam. Thank you everybody. This has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.