Try Not to Write Like Hemingway
A friend of mine recently told me they wanted to write a fictional book and wanted to pick my bonkers mind for ideas. I answered her questions, and one stuck out, “Should I read a bunch of Ernest Hemingway books to write like him?” I told my friend not to pattern themself after other writers, and I thought it would be interesting to explain my opinion.
Talented authors like Emily Dickinson, Charles Dickens, and William Shakespeare have a style and storytelling ability that define the literature benchmark. Writers should be well-versed in famous books to learn about character development, descriptions, plot structure, and flow. However, I think it is a huge mistake to copy their writing style.
The problem is twofold. First, readers know these works and copycat books are not appreciated. Second, master authors are called masters for a reason. Only 0.001% of us have that writing ability, and attempting to write like a master is a recipe for failure.
Instead, I recommend reading a variety of books from many authors. This list must include bad authors (we prefer to be called up-and-coming). Their books contain flawed stories, dismal characters, no flow, flimsy descriptions, grammmmar, and awful dialog.
Why? Poorly written books are a tremendous resource because beginning writers can think about solving apparent problems. This book dissection is a fun activity, and it is also reinforcing. “Hey, if I can spot this problem, maybe my writing is alright.”
Let me provide an example. I met a fellow author through Facebook who asked me to critique his first book. It is a spiritual awakening autobiography like The Razor’s Edge. (If you have not seen the 1946 movie, I recommend it. The 1984 remake is so-so.) From the first page, there were many problems.
When I provided feedback, I recall focusing on one sentence, “I gave a speech on the topic.” Ok… Where did this speech take place? How many people were there? What was their reaction? This lack of description was so big that a bus could have driven through it. When reading a book like The Grapes of Wrath, spotting glaring mistakes is impossible.
Yet, I know I have not convinced you, so I want to focus on the Hemingway book, The Old Man and the Sea. “I want to write a book just like that.” Alright, a similar plot is not out of the realm of possibilities. Let’s tweak the base story. A female sheepherder deep in the mountains guards her flock. Suddenly, a wolf attacks, and they battle to the death. The book contains epic scenes, grand descriptions, and powerful emotions. The result would be very similar to The Old Man and the Sea.
What would critics think? “Weak plot, but good writing.” Why? Now, with powerful AI tools, excellent editors, and grammar checkers, the minimum benchmark is a well-written book. Readers now expect bold and unique plots to rise above the latest TikTok cat videos. Does this make The Old Man and the Sea obsolete because the plot is dated? I prefer to consider it a high-quality writing benchmark but concede the base story no longer holds up.
Why? Today, the old man could have called his friends or the Coast Guard over a cell phone or radio to rescue him. Who cares about a silly fishing story? According to YouTube, you can buy fish at the grocery store. This classic has a slow pace, and today’s readers travel at the speed of the internet. But what if the writing goal was a slow-paced book? Such books have a limited market.
Let me attack this from a different angle. A new author is a huge Tom Clancy fan who wants to write a similar novel. The problem is that readers are not static. They want fresh plots that rise above the noise. “I wrote a spy novel exactly like The Hunt for Red October” is not a recommended read. “I wrote a spy novel better than Tom Clancy’s best works” is an annoying boast. “I wrote a spy novel with dragons.” Dragons? Really? I might have to check that out.

You’re the best -Bill
March 20, 2024
Read my next blog.
The Balls of Christmas

Follow me

Copyright © 2024 Bill Conrad