Monday, August 16, 2010

Writing Under The Influence

To read books similar to yours, or not to read. That is the question.

I’ve heard many writers say that they don’t like to read books that are similar to their own, because they don’t want to be influenced by that author. As in, they don’t want to end up with another book that looks/sounds/feels just like someone else’s work. To which I say, yes, you don’t want to write a book that’s too similar to what’s already out there. And, yes, reading a book similar to yours could (consciously or unconsciously) influence your style and story.

BUT. Yes, of course there’s a ‘but.’ :) The same thing can still happen even if you haven’t read books similar to yours. How? Quite simply, it’s possible for two separate people to come up with two similar ideas, and then write two similar stories. For example, Fallen by Lauren Kate and Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick are very similar, yet they were written and sold independently. They even had release dates within months of each other. How’s that for bizarre coincidence? :)

What if you write a book that’s similar to something that’s already been published? If you don’t read books in your genre/subject matter/age group, etc, then you won’t know about this book. And then, when you’re querying, you might come across as uninformed, which could also translate into unprofessional (maybe, not definitely).

So, now we have a dilemma: read and possibly be influenced by other authors, or don’t read and possibly come across as na├»ve or uninformed. What’s the solution?

There is a solution, but it’s not an easy one because it requires a lot of time and effort on the writer’s part—read widely, broadly, across the spectrum, anything and everything you can get your hands on.

How does that help?

Well, look at it this way. If you read one book that’s very similar to your own, then, yes, it could easily influence your writing. Especially if you liked that book. But if you read, say, ten books that are similar to your own, then it will be harder for just one style to jump out and dominantly influence you. Instead, you’ll have several influences all mingling together, and the end result will definitely not be a clone of one of those books. Plus, once you start querying, you’ll have a large array of books or authors whose fans might also enjoy your book. Presenting this information will show the agent or editor that you are involved in the book community, which means you’d step up to the plate with your own book when it’s time.

Of course, if you want the other books’ influence to be watered down enough so they don’t make such an impact on you, that means you have to read a lot of books. A lot. Some people don’t have time to read so much, plus write at the same time. I’ve seen writers read extensively before starting their own books, and then set reading aside until it’s done. I’ve also seen writers find a way to balance both. I, personally, have more time to read than to write because my kids are home with me often. So I end up reading a lot while I’m working on a project. But if I had more writing time than reading time, I’d probably go the other way.

What do you do? Do you read while you’re working on a project? Or do you set it aside until you’re done?


PJ Hoover said...

LOL! Before I got to your solution part, I was going to respond with exactly that! I read a ton and don't feel influenced in the least by any one book. There are just so many and they go by quickly.
Great post!

Brian James said...

I agree in that I believe you have to read books similar to yours. You have to do know what works in the genre and what's out there. I also think you learn a lot from those books.

"But" I think reading too many can be a bit constricting. You don't want to overwhelm yourself. It's possible that way to feel like every story has been told.

My one rule is that I never read a book similar to what I'm working WHILE I'm working on it. Before I start and after the first draft, that's when it's most helpful.

Karen Strong said...

I'm a bookaholic so I can't NOT read books while I'm writing.

I do agree with Brian. I try not to read something similar when I'm working on a draft. But it is helpful during the revision phase to see what's out there and what's been already done. It's forces me to work and make my project more unique.

I love reading authors I love though. It's like having a master craft class in a book.

Tabitha said...

PJ - there are way too many books out there to read!! I feel like I'm reading *all the time*, and yet I'm still not making a dent in what's available. It's crazy!! :)

Brian - I guess it depends on how people process information. I think many people would find my planning/researching stages overwhelming, but I feel like my work would be incomplete without it. That's how I feel about reading, too. Though I will say that when I first started writing seriously, I couldn't process information like that yet. It's taken years and years of practice.

Karen - I love that both you and Brian have found ways that work *for you*, and still keeps you abreast of what's out there. It's awesome! :)

Marcia said...

I'm always reading. Some books are like my work and lots aren't. But I wouldn't deliberately avoid reading something similar to mine. In fact, if anybody ever told me they thought a book was similar to mine or to my writing, I'd die of curiosity if I didn't go get it right NOW. Also, I just plain would rather know than not. Your solution is perfect, I think.

Bish Denham said...

I read all the time. And I read just about anything from adult on down. Fiction and non-fiction. I'm sure my writing has been influenced too. No doubt everyone's has, consciously or unconsciously. Can't be helped. And I refuse to fret about it.

Natalie Aguirre said...

I love to read and read all the time. I follow the advice to read a lot in my genre though I do like to branch out. I mostly read at night when I'm way too tired to write. In fact, that's where I'm heading now.

Mary Witzl said...

I read all the time too, though seldom in the genre I'm writing in at the time. So right now, for instance, I'm writing a boys' MG, but reading a war memoir. Last week I worked on my own teaching/traveling/language learning memoir, but reread an MG novel I love -- and so on.

I'd read a lot more MG and YA if I could get it. MG and YA are lumped into one category here -- 'Teenage Fiction' -- and there is not a particularly good selection in our town. I really need to learn how to order on Amazon.

Anonymous said...

Once I've started a project, if I hear about another book that sounds similar to mine, I avoid it like poison. It's not so much a conscious decision as a strong, visceral aversion. It's as if I want to make sure the book I'm writing is truly mine.

Then, when my book is done, I'll usually read the other book so I know how to distinguish it from mine when pitching or summarizing it.

Danyelle L. said...

I read while I write.

When I was younger, the author's voice of the book I was reading would find its way into my prose, but now that I've got my own that doesn't happen anymore.

As for ideas bleeding in, I'm not so sure. I could see being influenced, but I don't fell that I am all that much. Reading a lot helps. But I think even if we were all only allowed to write one type of story, there would still be a rich well to drink from. Voice and characters can turn a common plot into something else. :)