Friday, December 19, 2014

Posted by Laurel Garver on Friday, December 19, 2014 38 comments
Today, I'm participating in DL Hammmons's Deja Vu Blogfest, in which we share a post from the previous year that we feel got less attention than we'd like. My recycled post is from January.

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Anxiety of Influence


As a writer, should you be especially careful about what you read?

It's a question that's been plaguing me during a reading binge. 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, or 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?

38 comments:

  1. I think it's helpful to read similar books to see how you can come at things from a different angle. Good post!

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    1. Yeah, I'm not convinced that ignorance will produce the kind of uniqueness Berg envisions. But her argument is certainly thought-provoking.

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  2. I think reading similar books is not only helpful, it's necessary! You can't know if you're being original if you don't know what's already been done. I especially read books that sound like my story to make sure that I am doing it in a different way. After all, ideas are rarely original, it's how the writer executes the idea.

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    1. I believe she thinks it's okay to do comparison reading after a first draft is done, but that seems to set folks up to have to gut and rewrite, when doing your homework first, as you suggest, might help prevent similarities.

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  3. I find it helpful to read similar books to make sure my take on an issue is unique from someone else's. I would hate to get to the end of a manuscript and find out it is too similar to an already existing book.

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    1. Right. That seems like doing your homework before committing to a particular premise, so you don't waste a lot of effort.

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  4. I think it's helpful to read similar books just because they usually inspire me to work on my own. And I do think it helps to make sure you're not writing something that's already been written.

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    1. I think Berg sees taking inspiration from other author's takes to be tainting somehow. I guess some writers are more sensitive to influence than others. I often do the similar-topic read long before I draft, so I know what's out there, but sometimes I've tripped across a similar story without meaning to.

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  5. I don't read anything while I'm actively writing b/c I don't want someone else's influences filtering into my writing. But I read a lot between projects, and some of that may still leak into my own stuff, but at least the reading of it isn't fresh and the idea is more likely my own version. I can see merit to both sides of the argument, but I know my own mind is easily swayed by a fresh reading so I don't tempt my muse to take the easy way out :)

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    1. Ah, so you agree with Berg. I've found some benefit to reading a completely different genre when drafting. Dipping into the world of words seems to keep my creativity awake. But you're right that knowing yourself, and proneness to being swayed is an essential consideration.

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  6. Let's compromise...I'll read the book after I've finished the first draft of my own. That way there's no chance of unintentional plagiarism...and if I find similarities I can go back and alter how I handle them.

    Excellent topic...and choice for a re-post! Thank you.

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    1. Thanks for hosting! It has been fun to meet folks. I believe Berg advocates your compromise--to wait until the revision phase to read comparatively.

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  7. I've always thought that if my novel idea is strong enough, I'm not going to want to copy anyone else's similar idea. Indeed, I'll be a bit put-out if the book I'm reading comes close to what I'm writing. So, far from subconsciously copying, as you suggest, Laurel, I'll consciously avoid all those similarities I've been made aware of.

    I've seen this advice come up time and again, and, frankly, I ignore it. I'm glad I'm not alone. Thanks! :)

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    1. As one of the readers above noted, whether this idea is useful depends entirely on how prone one is to take on another's style and approach--how "spongy" one is, so to speak. But sometimes consciously avoiding all similarities might make for a less emotionally true experience, because there are some strong universals in the world of emotion. Going too far afield might make readers not connect to your work.

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  8. I tend to read widely, but when I'm actively writing something, I do shy away from ideas that are too similar ... then again, when I'm writing, I don't have too much time for reading anyways.

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    1. Yeah, I like to have done that "market research" type reading while finishing up another project, before diving in to the new one. With the new, I like to read other genres just to keep feeding my muse.

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  9. Great question! I think it's important to read a lot of books in your genre, but well before you start writing your own. I'm working on a mystery, and for several years, I read almost nothing but mysteries. Now, I'm avoiding them while my story germinates. I don't know if I'll "copy" anything, but it does generate a lot of cross-talk and noise in my subconscious if nothing else. I want my "mystery" channel to be clean while I'm writing. :)

    Happy Deja Vu!

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    1. Yes, it's really important to know the tropes and conventions of your genre so that you can meet reader expectations and create spins on the norm. I think your approach of research-reading apart from the drafting process makes sense.

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  10. I dare not consider myself to be a 'writer,' but if I were a novelist, I would probably avoid reading similar books, so that I wouldn't be distracted by any of them.

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    1. Berg would be very much in favor of that approach--keeping your own vision clear by not letting it be clouded by others' visions.

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  11. I lean toward reading similar stories. I had a book turned down by an editor because it was "too much like____", a book I hadn't read. Perhaps if I had read it, I could have avoided the similarities.

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    1. Right. Doing some "due diligence" is helpful. I think Berg objects to writers doing that while they draft.

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  12. This used to be a concern of mine too. But I've learned from a number of people in the publishing industry that you should read in the category that you write in. I find a certain kind of validation in some of my ideas when I read books similar to what I aspire to write in.

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    1. Berg's argument is about WHEN is the right time to do that market research. She'd likely argue after the first draft.

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  13. I also think that it could be helpful to read similar stories. There are risks involved either way, so I would want to be as prepared as possible. Thanks for re-posting this! Happy Holidays, Laurel!

    Julie

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    1. Well said. Risks either way. I think which route is best has a lot to do with how much you tend to pick up others' turns of phrase and such.

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  14. Very thought-provoking post! Thoughts are very rarely original, or at least that's how I've come to see it. So many times I have had these "brilliant" ideas, thinking "Wow, I can make some serious money if I do this/manufacture this/patent this..." only to find out when doing research that someone else has had the same idea and already has patented/manufactured, etc. So then the job becomes "How can I do this better than anyone/everyone else?" I can see both sides of this coin that you present here but I think it's always best to know what's out there first before diving in. Just my two cents.
    Happy Deja Vu weekend!
    michele at Angels Bark

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    1. Thanks. I'd hoped to ignite some interaction here. Influcence, as Berg characterizes it, seems impossible to avoid. Every film or book we come into contact with will leave its mark on our imaginations. I like your thinking of "how can I do it better?"

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  15. This is an interesting issue, but I find myself leaning more toward your side than Berg's side. I think as long as you read with awareness you should be safe from copying, and it can help you avoid cliches and maybe explore new unexpected directions, too. Merry Christmas!

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    1. I felt like I waffled a lot in this post, but okay, I guess at heart I see ignorance of one's competition as unhelpful, especially in the current market.

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  16. Interesting everyone's thoughts on it. I must admit when I decided to write I read a lot of YA for a year, so that I had some idea of what is accepted 'in a book for that group. However, more recently I have avoided them for the reason Berg mentions. I would hate someone to read something I read and think 'hold on, that's similar to X' x

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    1. That sounds like a sensible balance. Educate yourself first, then do your drafting alone, without similar books interfering.

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  17. I heard Laurie Halse Anderson speak once and she very clearly stated she never liked to read YA by other writers because she didn't want to be influenced by them. I'm not sure she sticks with that, but her words stuck with me.

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    1. I'm not sure how to react to that. Why would one want to write in a genre you don't like to read? I guess I see her point about feeling bound to follow the crowd, but without knowing what the tropes and cliches are, it seems to me easier to accidentally end up using them. But Berg here was actually talking more narrowly about topics--for example death of a sibling, losing one's faith, recovering from a life-altering accident--rather than broadly about genre.

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  18. My CP and I were JUST talking about this the other day, Laurel! I think you should read whatever you like, whenever you like. There may be a chance you unconsciously copy - but isn't that chance always there anyway? Reading in your genre might be a positive thing...it might help inspire or spur you on to new ideas you wouldn't otherwise have. So I'm on your side of the argument, too! I think this is also a good reason for taking a break after you finish a manuscript. When you come back to it with fresh eyes, you might better notice spots that are similar to something you recently read. Also good to have honest CPs who point it out!

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    1. I think Berg sees the drafting phase as particularly delicate or something. As suggested by others above, reading comparison titles between first draft and revisions would likely please her more. Not that she's my nanny... Anyway, I've heard others say they read NO other fiction of any kind while drafting for fear of influence, but reading is so creativity-feeding for me I can't imagine that ever working.

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  19. I might not read books exactly like mine while I'm drafting, but I tend to read books like mine before or after I draft. It's a great way to make sure what you're writing is unique and also to get comp titles too. Sometimes I also read books like mine to see how authors have handled certain elements that are in my book as well. Like every "rule," you need to evaluate if it works for you.

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    1. If Berg's assertion is a rule, it's fairly unique to her, I think. The consensus you lovely guest so far has been that one really needs to be knowledgeable about comparison titles at some phase of creating a new book.

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