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The sincerest form of flattery?

Updated: Aug 28, 2020

Reading other people's writing is a double-edged sword for a new writer, as I've said previously - inspiring and depressing in equal measure. There's nothing wrong in admiring other authors.  Learning skills in our society is essential and therefore, those with skill and talent are viewed positively.

But the word 'admiration' means more than just passive contemplation, respect and warm approval.  It can also mean emulation.  And as Charles Caleb Colton, an English clergyman said, 'Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery'. This certainly seems to be the case in publishing - anyone want a best seller? Put 'Girl' in the title. Even Amazon promotes books on the basis of 'If you liked that, you'll like THIS...'

Of course, most people are so time-poor that we have to enjoy our time spent with a novel and therefore, we eagerly grasp the opportunity to have our expectations pre-set. Even before we read the first page, we know (at least roughly) what's coming. Our enjoyment is at least partly primed.

However, talk to any editor, agent or publisher and they'll be asking for at least something a little different. The 'me toos' who write cynically to cash in on the newest best seller don't last very long, it's said. (listen to the entertaining and informative The BestSeller Experiment Podcast for comments from Juliet Ewers and Sam Eades). Readers may read you once, but possibly never again. (I'm truly not sure about the last point, which will be the topic of another blog soon.) In essence, you may have a merry life as a writer but a short one as you disappoint those people who invested their time in you.

Some of this strikes me as disingenuous from the industry. The titles of many books are chosen by publishers (here come the Girls) and the psychological thriller and romance markets have a fairly tried-and-tested formulas from which you stray at your peril. It's the balance which is crucial - the balance between what the public wants and expects and your own creativity; between something new and ground breaking and something that sells because it's familiar.

It's worth bearing in mind the words of Oscar Wilde, who has a different take on imitation:

"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness."

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