Role Models

I remember reading a useful guide to life the universe and everything — at least as a 16 year old perceived the matter — with a great deal of attention paid to a central formative figure – some sportsman or another who was apparently a great roll model.

So now you know: if you need to shape your life, all you need is a rotund sportsman.  I am not certain if a steep slope and being downhill from them is also required to do this.

But there is no doubt that role models do form a major part of almost all writers’ development.  It’s particularly noticeable in the ones that editors and critics (particularly ones who need movie or TV references in proposals) proclaim as startlingly original (or perhaps I just read too much, and am a rather catty individual).  All writing is de facto, derivative — like it or not (because that is how language and the human work).  If you’re clever about this, you derive from many sources, and the remix can be startlingly original. Odds on that this will not be considered such… but that is just life. Most of us, however, do have our ideals as authors that we’d like to imitate.

I’ve been part of an authors discussion, recently, where various writers were holding up their role models as examples of how to write a first line. I’d like you to venture on this exercise…

All done? Good. Please volunteer them.

Now… ask yourself several hard questions.

1) Was this their first book, or were they a known quantity?

2) Are you a known quantity?

3)Are you addressing the book at the same market segment as they were? (for example are you writing YA and using Stephen King or Tim Powers as Role models. Or writing literary fiction and using RAH as a role model).

4)What do you want to do with your work? Appeal to editors? (i.e. It is no use writing like Terry Pratchett. Editors ignored him for 25 years.) Appeal to readers? – and what kind of readers?

In other words what I am saying is you need to tailor your choice of role model for a book to the type of book, your status as an author, and what you want to do with it.

Now – did your role model/s fit these criteria? And if so… how?

Mine (for the record) and depending on the book, range from Roger Zelazny , Terry Pratchett,  DWJ, Tom Sharpe, RAH and Georgette Heyer  – depending on where I was, what I was aiming at, and the type of book. And yes, I tried to learn from books that matched my circumstances.


  1. One really good opening line that I’ve found particularly good is
    “The man who was not Terrence O’Grady had come quietly”
    (Lee & Miller/Agent of Change)

    This was not I believe their first book but it was one of their earlier ones (as in third of fourth) and actually is rather more memorable to me than nay of the lines they subsequently came up with

  2. I don’t remember opening lines. Ever. They just don’t stick in my head. Role model authors on the other hand. A certain RAH comes to mind as the guy who got me well and truly hooked on SciFi. Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October was what got me hooked on adult books in general. I think I read that when I was 14 or so with one exception. What was the first RAH novel I ever read? Starship Troopers you say? Nay. Verily, it was Stranger in a Strange Land. Go figure. 🙂

    From there role model author I read ranged from David Weber, to Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman, to a certain Dave Freer and Sarah Hoyt.

  3. “He shouldn’t have taken the shortcut.”

    My very favorite. Not DW’s first book. I try to keep in mind his use of small groups for interactions. Often groups of very good friends or about to become such. I’ll never match his body count, and I need to batter my good guys a whole lot more than I do. I know I don’t have the technical expertice to carry off his detailed weaponry, but I’m aiming at the rest of his readers, who want a story with good friends and good fights.

    My husband, finding me agonizing over “sounding stupid” over a particular fight scene did point out that I had just as much zero-G hand-to-hand combat experience as David Weber. Which made me laugh, even if I didn’t believe him. And anyhow, I was channelling E. E. Doc Smith for those.

    1. I’ll bet you’ve got just as much technical expertise with DeLameters as Weber, too!

      1. Yeah, but he’d make up details about caliber and power and range and effects and make it sound wicked. I’d be bound to say something silly and get comments from readers like “…enjoyed the story until you had a hand pistol with more power than the average nuclear reactor that not only failed to burn through to the outer shell of the spaceship, killing the entire crew, but apparently couldn’t even put a hole through an ordinary door.”

  4. My introduction to Neil Gaiman was the Sandman graphic novels. Then I read Stardust and some of his other novels. I saw him give a live reading of a performance piece last year at the Mona Foma Festival in Hobart.

    But like most other influences on my writing, I don’t want to be like him, follow his market or produce similar work. He’s just that, an influence. There are several writers whose career paths would like to emulate, but I don’t write like them.

  5. If I could write half as well as Pratchett… Although that’s not quite the same thing. I try to work a mix of techniques, and anything I read is fair game. It tends not to be be preplanned, more a case of “I need to be able to do this thing for this book, now who does something similar somewhere?”

  6. Some of Laurell K Hamilton’s first lines in her first 4 books were excellent. Don’t have her books with me now.

    The problem with a great first line (or any line) is that because I’m a writer I get thrown out of the story thinking, Wow, what a great line!

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