If Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery, What Does it Say About the Imitator?

When I sold my first novel, one of the first things I was asked by my editor and Berkley’s editor-in-chief (at that time) was: which authors did I most admire? Which books did I think my book was most like?

DANCE OF THE GODS coverThat was easy. I was a big fan of Sidney Sheldon. I’d learned a great deal from reading his novels and was quick to say so. I didn’t realize I’d opened my own personal Pandora’s Box. The marketing chimps took that and ran with it–to the extreme. I was launched as an author of glitzy romances with knock-off Sheldon titles that made no sense whatsoever, when what I had meant was that I wanted to write fast-paced thrillers with an international backdrop. The glamorous backdrops in my first two novels simply suited the plots–it had never been my intention to always look for glamorous settings. But it seemed I’d painted myself into a corner as far as the marketing department was concerned.

I’m still trying to figure out those nonsensical titles. Sheldon’s came from the epigraphs in his novels, but mine? I have no idea. A Time for Legends? I guess that was taken from The Sands of Time. Angels at Midnight? The Other Side of Midnight and Rage of Angels. Dance of the Gods? Windmills of the Gods, of course!

No author who wants a long-term career wants to be a copycat of someone else. Trying to be the next Stephen King, the next Dan Brown, the next J.K. Rowling, or the next anybody never ends well.

I was thinking of this the other day. Collin and I were watching Iron Man 2. Tony Stark found himself butting heads at a Senate hearing with a longtime rival, dorky Justin Hammer. Hammer is a Stark wannabe, but he never quite makes the grade. Why? Instead of being himself, drawing on his own strengths and abilities, he’s constantly trying to be something he’s not: Tony. He fails because he lacks Tony’s genius, his charm, his wit.

Even when he shows up at the Stark Expo with a whole platoon of battle drones, doing a little dance onstage onstage–again, in an attempt to emulate Tony–Justin Hammer just ends up looking foolish. He’s trying too hard to be something he’s not, and it shows.

It never works….

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19 responses

  1. I love Janet Evanovich, and I’m happy when people compare my writing style to hers, but I never want to be considered her clone.

  2. Perhaps it’s the category we want to belong to. Perhaps it’s the readership we want to share. Perhaps it’s the genre we want to associate with. That’s the way I think – I do not imitate or emulate another author, but I do watch where that author’s books are parked, and see whether there are any free spaces.

  3. Well said Norma! We admire people, and they might have an influence on us, but we never want to be just like them. It is always better to be original. Norma, you really are unique and original! Chasing the Wind, is just one example of something different, fresh and that really works well!

  4. Writers we’ve liked are certainly influences on us, but there comes a point when we write for ourselves, and move in our own direction.

    And marketing chimps are most silly creatures… and when possible ought to be tossed off rooftops in a Coen Brothers film.

  5. I never did like the question what author I write like, or what other books mine would be campared to. It’s actually hard to pin down. But really we do write for ourselves, so William is right about that. Silly ppublishers anyway.LOL

  6. I feel the same way, Karla! I’m flattered to be compared to authors I admire, authors who are writing books in the same genres (though I never really got the Danielle Steel connection), but I’m not the “next” anybody.

  7. Exactly. Parroting anyone gets us nowhere. The one doing the copying just ends up looking like a cheap imitation. Better to be an original, for better or worse.

    I knew someone, years ago, who wanted to be Farrah Fawcett. She copied Farrah’s hair, her tan, her makeup, even her smile. It was kinda sad, because she was never going to be Farrah, and she wasn’t letting anyone know who she really was.

  8. I was once told the marketing chimps don’t actually have to read the books to come up with ways to market them–supposedly they don’t have time to read every book! They ask for this information to find shortcuts to market them. Pretty dangerous, huh? An author could give them all kinds of misinformation!

    I used to say publishers got their marketing staffs from Bellevue, heavily medicated, every Monday morning, and the bus returned to round them up every Friday evening.

    They didn’t call it the S&M department for nothing!

  9. That’s fascinating. I wouldn’t have guessed marketers would do that. What a mess. I can think of authors I love to read who don’t write in my genre.

    I love this post! It’s a wonderful reminder to tune into our own strengths instead of trying to imitate someone else’s. I’d rather fail on my own merits than succeed on someone else’s.

  10. Interesting. That was one of the questions I was asked at the Signing. Fortunately, not one author influenced me. It was several. I’m sure that confused everyone and I left out Pearl Buck. The marketeers must have thought it would sell.

  11. I think it depends upon the publisher, too, Mari. I know that the large houses operate differently than the small houses. The so-called Big Six are all owned by conglomerates that are only concerned with their bottom line: profits. Authors and books are products. I think smaller houses still operate the way publishers started out. They still want a good book they believe people will want to read.

  12. At the risk of sounding bitter there was a time I’d have been happy just to have an entourage make me look like *anybody.* That was about 2 seconds ago. And now. Still there… I’m sure I’ll get past it with the next blockbuster 😉

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