The old saw goes, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” If you write, the odds are you’ve flattered one, or more likely several, other writers. As writers, we all begin as readers. We dig around in the gigantic atmosphere of literature that surrounds us, plucking this and that out of the air, finding what we like and what we don’t.
And when we start to write our own stories, we begin by imitating. Oh, we don’t necessarily set out to copy author X’s novel Y — though I’ve seen that happen. Once upon a time I watched a former friend grind out over two hundred handwritten pages of a clone of The Hobbit with the serial numbers barely even filed off. Instead of a ring, it was a necklace (I think), but it still had to be dumped into a volcano. The hobbits were called something different, and they were silly practical jokers. Gandalf had a different name and a different colored robe, but he still puffed his pipe sagely and set the plot in motion.
That’s way too much imitation. And it might be a waste of time — but that depends.
Depends upon what, you ask? It depends upon the writer. My former friend was convinced that he was writing a totally original story, through the exercise of some incredible acrobatics of denial. I remember pointing out the parallels, and I remember him coming up with some convoluted excuse for why he really wasn’t imitating anyone else. He was full of shit, of course, but he couldn’t see it.
Imitation is bad if you’re fooling yourself about it.
Now, take the same situation, and imagine a beginning writer who has decided to write a knockoff of The Hobbit as a writing exercise. This imaginary writer isn’t too sure of himself and doesn’t think he has what it takes to come up with a decent plot for a novel. But he still wants to practice and grow in his craft. So he sets off to imitate, knowing he’s imitating. He’s building on something earlier, and as he goes, he’s seeing what he can add to it. With that attitude, by the time he gets to the end, he may be confident enough to write a new ending, add subplots, diverge, venture into new territory.
Look, I woudn’t want to do that. But I can see that, with honest self-appraisal and a consciousness of what you’re doing, such an exercise could have value. Looking back at my writing, I notice that the farther back I look, the more likely I am to be able to identify influences on my style and tone. One story smacks of Heinlein, another has a stretch that’s dry like Asimov in the middle of the Foundation trilogy, another was probably written after I’d read some Steinbeck. That’s not to compare myself to them, but it is to say that those writers and others rubbed off on me. I admire their work. I enjoyed reading their work. And in the beginning, before my own voice as a writer really began to develop, I was prone to imitating the way they wrote — even without realizing.
Imitation is something that happens, deliberate or not, when you are developing a skill, any skill, not just writing. There’s nothing wrong with it in and of itself. But as Rowling suggests above, if you’re making a big deal out of trying to appropriate the style or stories of someone else, you’re probably just wasting your time. You’re better served working on letting your own voice develop its own unique richness and depth.