Friday, January 17, 2014

Posted by Laurel Garver on Friday, January 17, 2014 15 comments
As a writer, should you be especially careful about what you read?

It's a question that's been plaguing me recently, as my reading binge continues (thanks to a respiratory infection I can't seem to shake that leaves me with little energy for much else). My current read isn't an identical scenario to the one I'm currently writing, but there are numerous points of intersection. This puts me in a bit of a quandary. Will continuing to read help me work out my own story, of will it derail me?
Photo credit: dave from morguefile.com

In her nonfiction book on writing, Escaping into the Open, Elizabeth Berg makes an interesting assertion about influence I've never seen anywhere else:

"While drafting, avoid reading books on the same topic as yours." 

Her reasoning? "...no matter how aware or sophisticated or experienced you are, no matter how determined to write your own story, there's a very real danger that you will start to copy. It may be unconscious, but it can happen. And if that happens, it's a shame...because it denies the reading public the pleasure of your originality."

Part of me disagrees. If I don't know how others have tackled this topic, how do I know if my ideas are original? How do I avoid just repeating what has been said before if I'm ignorant of it? How do I not end up leaning on tired clichés? Berg seems to argue here that clichés crop up because you read others' takes on your topic. You can't help but copy.

The funny thing is, I could argue the opposite.  Knowing how others have treated a topic might constrain me to try too hard to take a new direction in order to seem original. In so doing, I risk creating an inauthentic experience with inauthentic emotion.

But either way, the conclusion would be stop reading that similar book.

But other possible good lessons could come from continuing. I can have distance from another's story I can't yet have from my own. I can more easily sense the kinds of details I might include as a writer that as a reader I find superfluous or boring.

Similarly, this other author could open my eyes to dramatic possibilities I'm not yet exploring in my work: places where conflict might erupt or alliances could form; ways of delivering, delaying, or withholding information. Berg would likely say I should learn these latter lessons from books on topics quite different from mine.

What do you think? Is it a help or a danger to read books on a similar topic?
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15 comments:

  1. Hhmm, interesting question. I agree on both views. Do we start to copy or do we become inspired? When I am working on a book, I don't read much, because it takes away my focus.

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    1. I think you might be on to something. It's probably a little of both!

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  2. I've wrestled with this question, too. What I usually do is avoid books that are on the same topic, but seek out ones with similar structures to what I am trying to create.

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    1. In the case of this book I picked up, the description didn't initially sound that similar, so sometimes it happens by accident. I like your idea of seeking similarly structured stories. How do you go about finding out that kind of information about books? I'd love to know.

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  3. I read just about every Regency romance out there when I was younger (30 years ago). Because this genre is my passion, when I started writing, I heard this same advice -- read what others are writing. However, what I found when I started writing (5-10 years ago), was that I DID copy and that isn't good. Don't get me wrong, I also found that I don't like much of what is being published now and therefore I don't read it. There are two basic niches Regency romance falls under, ones with sex, and ones without. I write without, but with more grit and real life nuances than the "sweet" Georgette Heyer flavor. I've tried to capture the Jane Austen quality, a study of human nature, rather than write a comedy of manners. I'd rather read something from 30 years ago, rather than what is being pubbed now. Put it this way, I'd rather read something that was written by a "master".

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    1. As an indie, you're not hobbled by trends to the same degree, but you are at least familiar with what the trends are in your genre--even if you choose to work outside them (you rebel, you. LOL). I'm not sure how much topical variation there is in Regency Romance. I imagine not much, but perhaps I'm wrong?

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  4. I don't read similar books while I'm writing my own, but that's mostly because I feel so protective of my own story while it's first hatching. I want to hear what it has to say, free of other influences. Later, during revising I often read similar books, just so I can delete any coincidentally too-similar points during revision.

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    1. That's an excellent idea--wait until the revision stage to allow influences in.

      It turns out the book I was reading isn't so terribly similar, so I'm no longer worried it will alter my approach--other than making sure I don't leave some characters as underdeveloped as this author did.

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  5. Really interesting topic. I have some writing friends who won't read anything in the same genre when they're writing.

    As for me, it usually turns out that the book that I thought was going to be similar to mine ends up being very different.

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    1. I think Jenn's suggestion above, that we protect ourselves from influences while drafting, then let them in during revision, is a pretty good idea.

      Descriptions can be deceiving, can't they? Authors can go so many different directions with a similar-sounding premise. It's a wonderful thing, right?

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  6. That's a tough question. When I'm writing the first draft I avoid anything to similar. I will seek books outside my chosen genre. I worry that I will be influenced. Once I'm in to re-drafts and editing, I don't worry. I have the bones of the story.

    Great post!

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    1. Sounds like you and Jenn (above) have a similar philosophy. Makes sense. In all fairness, I realized the similarity of my project with the book I was reading many chapters in, so I'd say our central premises diverge, though some themes intersect.

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  7. I go through weeks of non-stop reading, no writing. Then I spend weeks to months writing, barely reading. Plus, I usually read dystopian or paranormal before I get going on my writing (contemporary). Then I allow myself to read contemporary just to keep up to date on the genre I write in. BTW, thanks for stopping by our blog today! AND I LOVE your book trailer! Christy

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    1. I find reading binges to be very mentally nourishing, especially when I'm trying to figure out to a gap in the plot--those in-between big scenes material, or I need to revise before I can draft further but don't know how to fix the problem. But like you, when I'm on a roll, I tend to read less.

      Thanks for your kind words about the trailer. I did it on a shoestring using PowerPoint, believe it or not.

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  8. That's great to know (about the book trailer!). Someday I hope to make my own! I think what made yours extra great was the story description. The whole effect was perfect. :)

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