Whom do you write like? You have to know to be viable.
Do you know whom you write like? Have you thought about it?
Okay. I’m going to lead you down a garden path now. You can think about those questions as we walk.
Feel it — the dew from that leaf as it brushes the back of your hand, the crunch of the shale underneath your shoes.
It’s okay, I’ll hold your hand. I’ll show you.
It feels weird doesn’t it, holding my hand? You don’t even know me yet.
But you will if you make it to the end of this journey.
I apologise; my palms are clammy. I’m nervous.
Imagine your literary heroes’ faces have all been chiselled from stone and the path I’m leading you down is lined with these sculptures — your favourites and some others too. Others that haven’t made the shortlist but you like them, you’ve read some of their stories twice but they’re not the ones. The ones you look up to, aspire to be, the ones you use as saltshakers to sprinkle the magic into your work.
Who are they though? Tell me. I don’t know them like you do. What do they stand for? Why do you try to emulate them? What do you borrow from them? Their long sentences? Their vernacular? Their genre? Their style? Their world?
See, I did a writing course recently and when we talked through the process of getting published, our course lead asked us which author our work was most like. I remember thinking: Fuck, I don’t know — I’m my own special kind of mediocre. She told us how important it is to know whose your work is like and include that in the pitch so the publisher can see that your work is viable.
Who is that for you? Pick her from this pathway lined with your idols, feel the cold stone beneath your hands, cup her cheek. It’s not their real face, only an effigy, but say thanks if you wish.
As we carry on walking down this path, your heroes lined up on the right, mine to the left, I can see you’re wondering who I’m going to select. How they’ve influenced my writing, though as I run my hand along their heads I can almost imagine them crumbling — rejecting my touch — or coming to life to take a bite out of my hand.
You can feel my palms and fingers getting sweaty, can’t you? It’s making you nervous too, isn’t it? You already know it’s someone too big for me, too incomparable. It’s that moment at the karaoke when the lady with the little lungs and the lovely voice takes on Adele.
I stop now in front of him and you see his face. I’m looking at him, not you, and yet I can almost feel your eyes cartwheel three hundred and sixty degrees. You laugh.
It’s Charles Dickens. It can’t be. Then you look into my face and you see that I’m serious and you go silent.
I can explain, I say.
Please, you say. Your eyes are kind.
He’s just someone who has influenced me. I write literary fiction. I write about the under class, the victims of capitalism.
OK, you say, and you lead me away to the next.
It’s not long before I stop again. You see her face now and you can’t decide if this is one is funnier. It’s serial bestseller, Martina Cole.
She writes about the criminal underworld. She writes commercial fiction but she writes about gangsters and low lives and underground heroes fighting it out, I offer defensively.
Okay, where to from here? I would really like to just stop. I’m just not sure I can take you any further. I look at my watch, hoping you might take your cue to leave.
You don’t and I continue to the end of the line.
What do you know about British Grime? I ask.
You look at me like this is a trick question, or like it’s a joke you have no hope of guessing.
Grime is a genre of rap specific to the UK. Bugzy Malone is an artist who has put Manchester on the map. The pictures he paints take place in my landscape. He’s from my world, too.
You nod with your lips tight together.
This question has touched a nerve with us both. It’s addressed every insecurity we have as writers. It’s stripped us naked — exposed who we are and who we want to be. Oh God. The shame. But why not be inspired by the best, the greats? We’ve got a lot to learn, that’s a given. With each step we become closer to those who inspire us. We might never get to be anywhere near as good but at least we’re trying.
You may not see even a trace of a Dickens, a Cole or a Bugzy Malone, not a speck of their dust in my words. But you’ll see me. All bright eyed with fear and wanting.
I don’t know which is more terrifying — if you don’t see any of them or all of me.
Aimee Coleman is a writer of no frills literary fiction — and that’s just one of the contradictions she loves to play with. She’s a staunch supporter of the underdog and a self-styled dog with a bone.