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“You cannot be a successful writer if you don’t read. That isn’t opinion; that’s fact.”

The sheer volume of original concepts, storylines, and characters on a bookshelf can quickly become overwhelming. How do so many talented writers seemingly crank out masterpieces? As readers, it’s easy to assume that what we see on the page came wholly from the authors’ heads. Obviously, this is not really the case. Even the masters have their mentors: classic or contemporary artists they look to for writing inspiration.

Just as it was wise of published authors to take notes from those who came before them, so too, could all aspiring writers stand to learn something from the “pros”. “studying-and-learning” is an invaluable way to strengthen one’s writing, but to be effective, it requires some special navigation. Let’s break it down:

Like any art, story-telling is an indiscriminate, universal medium of personal expression. It is truly amazing that anyone can speak or write using words of a common language to make something wholeheartedly unique. Whether or not they are conscious of doing so, all story-tellers use their personal authorial voice, life experiences, and influences to shape their work, regardless of the genre. This makes replicating someone else’s story very difficult. Unfortunately, however, some aspiring writers still try to do that.

Many of us have a natural tendency to look to other writers for tips, tricks, and inspiration, especially when we long to be published. If you count yourself among this inquisitive group, you’re on the right path, well done! The best way to improve your writing is to read avidly so that you become familiar with a genre’s characteristics. Where this research technique becomes tricky is when we emulate a writer’s work to the point that our stories lose that priceless, personal touch.

When we look to others’ work, we often unwittingly copy their style, topics, or even their words or ideas (hopefully not!) We don’t need to tell you that this “we see and we do” act is a slippery slope. On the most extreme end, we can find ourselves outright plagiarizing another artist’s work; not good. The alternative may not get you in trouble with the law, but it is arguably just as bad from a publishing perspective: our work becomes derivative.

Publishers everywhere are nothing, if not well read, and they cater to audiences of passionate readers. Even more so than any other genre, the short story is meant to evoke an emotional response from readers. That said, a short story which employs the “same-old” way of doing things, take on a tale that is unlikely to catch a seasoned reader’s eye. To avoid this conundrum, it’s best to look for inspiration while constantly considering how you can add your personal touch to traditional conventions. Really, if you want to be a great writer, two things are unavoidable: read a lot and write a lot.

The tips below suggest ways you can use published stories as free lessons to enhance your own work:

Find Your Own Voice. Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, you must find and have your own unique writing voice. Now, what does that mean? Your writing voice is not your particular writing style, although the style is part of the voice. It’s also not the tone of your writing, though the tone is part of voice as well. Your writing voice is your unique way of looking at the world; and that ‘unique’ part is absolutely essential. A writer who sees the world the same as everyone else has either lost their voice or never found it in the first place.

Ever wondered why people continually line up for every new release of the Harry Potter book? Because the author, J.K. Rowling has a unique way of looking at the world. She revealed a hidden world, filled with extraordinary people, secret wars, and magical creatures. Her writing voice is intriguing and pulls you to stretch your imagination beyond what you can see. So, for starters, consider your favorite novels. Do they employ a voice that breaks the thick wall, or do they have a traditional narrative voice? Pick up a pen or your digital device and write whatever comes to mind, then review your work. What voice did you naturally use?

The Beginnings. Novelist and Professor of Creative & Life Writing, Blake Morrison, and Novelist and Professor of English Literature, David Lodge have both written about the importance of getting the beginning of a novel right and the different ways in which a writer might choose to open his or her novel. Speaking by experience and gaining insight from their teachings; indeed, beginnings are extremely important; they are the make or break of your book. Middles have no limits, they can keep the flow or they can slump. Endings may be left open, ambiguous, incomplete. But no book has ever not begun; and if it doesn’t begin right, the suspicion for most readers is that the rest of it won’t be right either, and right there you lose the audience, while you’re just getting started.

In one of his teachings, David Lodge talks about different ways to begin a novel. It may begin with a set-piece description of a landscape or townscape that is to be the primary setting of your story; it may begin in the middle of a conversation; it may begin with an arresting self-introduction by the narrator; it may also begin with a philosophical reflection, or pitch a character into extreme jeopardy with the very first sentence you write. Many novels begin with a frame story which explains how the main story was discovered.

Whichever way you decide to begin your book, ensure to spend quality time effectively developing that beginning, because it’s there that the theme, style and tone of a book are defined. Solve that and the rest comes easily.

Examine the Structure. The most common elements of the narrative structure are setting, plot, and theme. Parts of a narrative plot include exposition (the beginning), rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. The setting and characters are introduced during the exposition, and readers usually learn some background information to help them have a good understanding of the setting and characters of your book.

Never force a story structure that you liked in another tale onto your narrative. Find what works best with your story’s direction first; and always start with what feels most natural to you, so you can keep the easy flow, rather than struggle with it.

Exploit the Teachers. Use other stories to learn tricky grammar and syntax rules and get familiar with historical or geographic speech patterns. For instance in a fiction writing, unless someone inspired each of your characters, it’s hard to develop a variety of exotic individuals without reading about how they speak and act; for unique characters, you can borrow brilliance from subjects such as biology, chemistry, physics, geography. Take a virtual trip through another author’s story, then use the patterns and behaviors you learned to make something unequivocally your own.

We know it’s hard, but don’t get caught up on what else has been published and obsess over ways you can emulate those pieces. Instead, use your literary resources, a lot of which you can find on our website, as tools to enhance the stories inside of YOU, and the perfect tale will doubtlessly come along.