3.16.2006

You're not doing this on your own

Dear Miss Snark,
Whenever you suggest someone read "so-and-so's" work, I cringe. The more serious I get about writing, the less I read other books, and here's the reason. If I was a painter and visited the Dali Museum I can guarantee you that in the next dozen or so paintings I did, each would have a clock dripping over something. That would change when I visited the Grandma Moses Museum. I can't help it, if I like something I latch onto it. If I cram my head full of other peoples work, guess what my stuff is going to sound like? I'm afraid that I'd get rejections simply because what I wrote would sound like a cheep imitation, and not a personal creation. Do you have any clients who have this...disorder? I sure hope so. Also, should I be hitting the Valium harder than I am?



Every artist goes through this phase. It's called "being a student". As you write more, you'll develop your own voice and nothing will sound quite like you and you won't sound like anyone else. It can take years so I'm told by people who are artists, musicians and writers.

That said, it's important to read good writers. They will help you be a better writer and a better reader. Read outside your 'realm'. I know most mystery writers don't read other mysteries when they are "in progress". Or ever even. They do however devour non fiction and poetry like you would not believe.

Good writers read and read a lot. You're not going to be the exception to this. And the most brilliant composer I know listens deeply to all kinds of music, takes notes and thinks about what he hears. He also goes to the Met and MoMA frequently. You cannot create art in isolation no matter you've heard about starving artists in garrets.

21 comments:

pinch said...

I agree with Miss Snark; it's as though she sees into my writing soul. I now have a wonderful agent and am waiting PATIENTLY while she sends my novel to editors. When I first started writing crime fiction, I read James Lee Burke's books twice and actually found a collector's copy of The Lost Get Back Boogie at Shakespeare & Co. when I was in Paris. Years later, nothing makes my heart flutter like finding a new author with many published works that I can settle down with during the long nights of insomnia and marvel at, learn from. I am reading Jodi Picoult's Second Glance....and have the list of the rest of her books on the night stand. Advice: read, learn, have good nights, have faith, live.

Miss P AKA Her Royal Cliqueness said...

I used to suffer a similar issue.

When I started my first novel, I was told to read other YA authors, get a feel for what was selling etc..

My problem wasn't that I'd end up sounding like other authors. But I could barely get through a book without analyzing the voice, POV, and style to death!

It was so distracting that it stripped the love from reading. And I've loved reading since I was a teeny snarkling.

But Miss Snark is right, reading what I love vs. what I write, helped.

So what I do is - when I'm in the middle of a project I stay away from reading any other YA. I'll only read something that's strictly for pleasure - horror, true crime, anything but YA.

But if I'm in between novels, I'll read YA. It's still for pleasure, but more like pleasant research.

This way, I'm much less critical and much less likely to compare my work to what I'm reading.

I don't know why, but it works for me.

kaytie said...

Try reading more books instead of fewer.

The more (widely) you read, the less likely someone's style is going to stick in your head because there won't be room.

Added benefit:
Reading widely among recently published authors will make it that much easier to research agents because you'll know the work of the authors they've represented.

Anonymous said...

I always enjoy hearing from people who "don't read" when they're writing lest they be influenced. Maybe if you live in a cabin in the Pacific Northwest and eat off the land using nothing that has touched civilization, completely cut off, you can limit your contacts with the world but otherwise, we're surrounded by influences. So why not be influenced by something good -- a good book -- instead of the bad influences like advertising and other marketing.

One thing I found is that of the published writers I've come in contact with, the best of them are the best readers. They read constantly. When we write, we have roughly 700 years of English literature that we carry on our backs. Why try to reinvent the wheel by pretending none of that exists?

Eileen said...

I'll chime in with everyone else- keep recommending any and all good reads. Let us know what you and Killer Yapp are reading. Inquiring minds want to know.

Anonymous said...

If I read a book once and absolutely love it, I read it again for pleasure and then I read it at least one more time to see how the author pulled it off. It's as instructive as it is enjoyable, and even if my writing voice is temporarily affected, it always returns to normal in the next draft.

I have noticed, though, that a lot of the writers who don't read much also don't do multiple drafts. Coincidence? Maybe not ...

rkcooke said...

Orson Scott Card wrote a wonderful short story (titled something like "Unaccompanied Sonata") about a musical prodigy who was not allowed to hear other music for fear it would pollute the purity of his work. I won't spoil the story for you, but when he hears Bach he composes music that purposely lacks all obvious Bach-like influences (e.g. fugue) so he won't get caught, but unconsciously incorporates the subtleties of Bach.

A fun take on this subject, and one of Card's best works. (And he's done some good ones, you know.)

I keep reading Card in hopes of unconsciously incorporating some of his talent....

dink said...

I agree with kaytie.

Linda Sue Park emphasizes reading as the single most important thing a writer can do for her work.

She tells the story of an editor who told her (paraphrasing), Read a thousand books in the genre you want to write in --THEN, write yours.

She's been saying this for years--even before she won the 2002 Newbery Award for "A Single Shard"

It's good advice.

Amra Pajalic said...

I get bewildered by writers who say that they don't read because they don't want to be influenced by other people. Presumably they started writing because they love stories and therefore they have already been 'corrupted' by other influences. Also as anonymous said there is no such thing as an original idea. It's all be done. It's your spin on it based on your life experience that makes it original.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I was advised by a very prolific writer to go to my bookshelf when I'm stuck. Pull out a book, read a few lines, and it will get you going again. Edit the voice on revision, but remember, there are no new ideas. Read read read!

NL Gassert said...

I love reading. I am a voracious reader. But I do limit my reading while I’m working on my own writing. I just don’t have enough time to write AND read. Sometimes, though, I seek out other people’s writing precisely for the influence. If I’m having trouble with an action scene for instance, I read plenty of action by a variety of different writers to see how they handled it. Then I sit down and write my own.

It’s like Miss Snark said. Of course, it is! There’s no need to worry about this influence. My own voice and unique style will make whatever I might inadvertently copy sound like me, not the writer I read.

Anonymous said...

I'm finding I can't read fiction while I'm still finishing the first draft, but not for the reasons of being afraid I'll lose my voice. (Actually, I cheat a bit and listen to a book on CD while I'm driving.) It's because I know if I start reading a really good book, I'll end up reading it instead of reading it and writing. (Do bathroom breaks count? I am sneaking a book in while I have nothing better to do--don't have a laptop.)

But once my first draft is done, I'll be hitting my TBR pile with zeal--it keeps growing. I think it's kind of an award system for me, to force myself to not read while I'm writing the first draft. This helps insure it will get done.

Anonymous said...

Anon said her TBR pile is an award pile! I'm not alone! I too have a huge TBR pile. Most books were picked up hither and yon because they caught my eye, but some are gems that I know I'll get lost in. They're buried in there, waiting for me to keep the compact with myself: when I (finish the rewrite; send out five agent queries; get those edits done for that anthology; line up the interviews for next year's issues) THEN I can read one of the treasured few.

Those are all mysteries, and by my favourite authors (most of them Grand Masters of the genre). Sometimes a new book will be out for a year (and covered with nose-prints) before I've met the self-imposed conditions and can crack the cover.

While I'm actively writing a short or long mystery, I generally read something unrelated. I find SF&F a good distraction since it's an entirely different genre with largely different conventions than mystery. But I'll also get sucked into literary novels by the simply stunning sentences laying on the pages. Then I have to remind myself strenuously that I'm not writing 'literary' and force my prose to serve the story I am writing rather than vice versa.

The more I read, the more the process of constructing a coherent sentence, scene, chapter or novel is spread before my wondering eyes.

Jeb

Anonymous said...

I know of one writer who attempted to write a Southern novel with a distinctly Southern voice even though she was not Southern born or raised (though she had lived in the Deep South for a couple of years, long before writing the book). She made it her point to read only Southern fiction while writing her own book.

The result?

A New York Times bestseller -- complete with reviews drooling over her "authentic" Southern voice and writerly style.

A. J. Luxton said...

I, too, have to restrict my range of influences when I'm deep into a project. Most especially, I cannot read Harlan Ellison. This pains me, as he's one of my favorite authors, but he was also my inspiration to start really writing (at a manic fourteen) and I can't seem to pick up one of his books without sounding like him for pages afterwards.

Except, of course, that I'm not Harlan Ellison (and who could be, except Harlan Ellison?) so I sound like a bad imitation. I acquire the style but not the substance.

My solution? I read and re-read authors with certain types of clean styles. "Quiet" voices. Rosemary Kirstein, Diana Wynne Jones, Neil Gaiman, and Connie Willis often do it for me in that state.

I also read Roger Zelazny, because he's too good -- I simply can't emulate Zelazny by trying. His style is too complex and too spare to invite pastiche.

Same with Diana Wynne Jones, actually. If her plots were fiber art, she'd win the first Nobel Knitting Prize. I can't do that, and it will take years of practice to arrive at any of it.

December Quinn said...

I do limit my reading a little when I'm writing, but not much. My only big one is I don't read historical fiction set in other eras than the one I'm writing-if I'm writing medieval, I can't read Regency. I don't want to pick up other period influences and forget where I got them (it's never happened, but I noticed it felt jarring, so I stopped).

That's it, though. Otherwise I read constantly.

bonniers said...

I used to have the same "problem" and it's very annoying. But as Miss Snark says, it's primarily a beginner's problem. The more you read and write, the more it will go away. You'll absorb so many different voices that you can't possibly imitate them all -- the combination becomes part of your own unique voice.

Besides, the imitation probably seems far more glaring to you than it does to anybody reading your prose. You know what you've been reading and you can recognize where certain ingredients came from. The reader doesn't see that.

You might try deliberately imitating writing you admire. I spent several months dissecting Anna Karenina. I did a scene outline. I charted when the characters were introduced and when they appeared. I wrote several chapters of "Anna in New York in 1885." Besides learning a whole lot about how to structure a long complex novel, I learned that my writing never did sound exactly like Dostoevsky's. I studied Zola, Dickens, Ishiguro, Anne Tyler, and a couple of others in similar ways, though not so much detail.

Oddly, when people read my prose, the person they're most likely to compare it to is Hemingway, an author I didn't study and don't like very much. Go figure...

archer said...

If you don't read all the time, how else will you steal? Here's a load of technical fact; how would John McPhee handle it? Here's a POV transition--oh, Dickens does this very well using inanimate objects; that would work nicely here. Here's a big section coming to an end--you need a nice E.B. White kind of "Charlotte was both" rhythm for it. Try the rhythym, and if it works, steal it (be remorseless-- I bet he stole it from Beethoven's Fifth, the little weasel). Steal, steal, steal. You got to pick a pocket or two. Or fifty or a hundred.

Of course you adapt this stuff to what you need to do, and the next time you do it you won't be thinking of where you swiped the technique, at least not so much. I suspect this: Tom Wolfe couldn't have written Peter Fallow's hangover without having read Mark Twain, and I further suspect Wolfe knew it at the time, and didn't care.

Anonymous said...

Read, Read, Read, Read, Read...

And follow Ms. Snark's advice.

Poohba said...

I wish I could remember the quote I heard last summer sometime. I want to put it up on my wall.

It was something about "all writers are actually readers who have been awed into imitation."

But it was put so much better than that. I should have written it down the moment I heard it!

I have the same problem as a few other people on this thread. Given a full-time job and only 24 hours in each day, I have a horrible time deciding between writing, reading and things like eating and sleeping. Something has to give somewhere and it's a terrible dilemma!

Mama Rose said...

Stephen King's advice in On Writing can be summed up as "Read a lot. Write a lot." Sounds like great advice to me.

Linda