Neil Gaiman, powerful big rats, and telling your stories

WARNING: To make this blog post work, I’m going to have to give away a little secret I’ve had going in all the Monkey Queen books to date. If you don’t want to be spoiled, skip this post. If you don’t mind it, read on after the cut.

For each of the first four Monkey Queen books (and the in-progress fifth, and for those down the road), I’ve introduced a supporting character who is designed to pay tribute to someone who’s influenced me, either in my writing or in how to conduct oneself as a writer. I’m going to leave the other three to date for you to find, but in the second book, The Brigadoon Boondoggle, the hobgoblin who can only say “Powerful big rats” over and over is based on Neil Gaiman. It should be obvious, since the hobgoblin’s name is “Glien”, which is “Neil G” spelled backwards.

So why is his vocabulary limited to “Powerful big rats,” more or less?

In the earliest collection of the fourth Sandman storyline, Season Of Mists, there were biographies of all the contributors in the back, including Neil himself. Those biographies were obviously not real bios (except for that of Harlan Ellison, and even that got a bit weird), but were all written by Neil. And for his bio, he described himself as, among other things, not having been found wandering the sewers of London, muttering, “Powerful big rats, gentlemen.”

And impressionable young(er) aspiring writer me read that and thought, “He can do that for a made-up autobiographical blurb? He’s so good. I’ll never be as good as Neil Gaiman.”

It took me many, many years to get over what that one thought subconsciously did to the writing part of me.

It may be so easy to think that your writing isn’t as good as the writers you admire most, as good as Stephen King or Jane Austen or George R.R. Martin or whoever. But what it can do to you, what it did to me, is lead you to think that your writing isn’t good at all. When you compare yourself to a master, even if it’s someone you admire, you’ll almost certainly come out second-best.

Here’s the thing it took me years to realize: My writing will never be as “good” as Neil Gaiman’s because I’m not Neil Gaiman. I never will be.

I’m Robert Dahlen.

And I can’t be the writer Neil Gaiman is because I can’t tell the stories he does. I can’t be Terry Pratchett or J.R.R. Tolkien or Fritz Leiber or Patricia Wrede or Alan Dean Foster or Connie Willis or Stan Sakai or Phil Foglio or Kate Danley or any of a hundred and one other creators, because I can’t tell the stories they can tell.

I can only tell the stories Robert Dahlen tells. And that’s what eluded me all those years, until I rediscovered Michiko and Beth and broke out. My stories are my own. What I bring to the table, even with so many influences, ultimately comes from my brain and creativity and experiences and imagination and sense of humor and heart and soul. And instead of telling stories as someone else would tell them, I need to tell the stories as the best writer, the best Robert Dahlen, I can be.

I’ll never be as good as Neil Gaiman…but I’ll be as good as Robert Dahlen.

Naturally, Neil summed things up in one of his hundreds of quotes about writing: “Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that – but you are the only you.”

And the stories I tell are, for better or worse, the stories only I can tell.

That’s why Glien the hobgoblin can only say “Powerful big rats”…because I needed to acknowledge the hard lesson I learned. I’m glad that I finally learned to tell the stories only I can tell and tell them the best that I can. I hope that if you want to write, you can do the same.

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