In the process of maturing as a writer, an individual will progress through certain distinct stages.
At first, a writer may be frustrated to feel that all of his or her writing is largely derivative: ideas depend very much for their power on the ideas of others; characters can be almost like clones of another author’s; plots can drift into being carbon-copies of plots that have been well done elsewhere. Even a writing style, when examined coldly in retrospect, can be seen to have been influenced by another. I always remember reading of famous science fiction and fantasy author Ursula K. Le Guin’s experience with Tolkien - she remarked that she felt the eye on the cover of The Lord of the Rings following her around the library. By the time she came to actually read Tolkien, she said later, she was so glad that she was already an established author with her own style, otherwise she would have found him to be an overwhelming influence.
It is only by continuing to write that one gets a glimpse of one’s own ‘voice’ coming through. This doesn’t happen overnight, or even in a few weeks: it can take a long time for one’s writing to separate out from the works of others. In a way, being a writer is like giving birth to a child at this stage - one ingests everything one needs to form a work of fiction, but must then go through the often painful process of producing a body of work which can stand alone, which has its own identifying characteristics, which isn’t an artificial clone but a new thing entirely, though it may bear general resemblances to others just as newborn children do.
Once this phase has passed, or perhaps concurrently, something else interesting usually occurs: the writer has to make a decision. Should the work move on into the world of readers? Or should it remain in the smaller world of the writer, a private pastime or hobby? Obviously it’s a key moment. Many writers push their works out into the wider world before they have developed their own voices, and so become part of the general background noise of the publishing environment. There are always great numbers of lesser books accompanying those books upon whose work they draw. But the distinctively new voices stand out. One can tell in some undefined way how one author is an imitator, while another is ‘original’.
These original, new voices have not yet finished their journeys, though. To move upwards from competency and individuality they must shake off even the shadow of other voices. The truly great authors are quite distinct from each other: one can never mistake a Dickens for a Melville, or a White for a Peake, or a Amis for a Hemingway. Their differences didn’t emerge instantly, but their voices grew organically over time and with practice. Every great writer has achieved this particular level, and some can even pretend to be other authors, such is their mastery of the tools of their trade.
The danger zone is in the early days. That early period of frustration, when everything that one writes sounds like another’s work, is often so prolonged that many writers, I’m sure, give up before they find themselves. The only way out of this phase is to keep on writing, to love the task of writing until it isn’t a task and becomes a joy. There may even be some correlation between the moment a writer finds real pleasure in his or her writing and the moment that that writer’s unique voice begins to emerge, just as in life we tend to start to come out of adolescence when we ascertain the things from which we draw certainty and pleasure distinctly, as opposed to the things we have merely been told are pleasurable. Whatever it is that happens, when it does, a new writer is born.