Maybe the first question I should ask is “Why do we stop reading?”
There’s a problem here. Do you see it? Here, I’ll help you find it: When you stop reading, you don’t SOLVE problems, you CREATE problems, problems you can’t even see coming, because you’ve put on blinders to keep out all the other voices, voices that could teach you things, voices that tell you what to avoid. And yet, this is a thing that many writers have done. Do you see how this might be a problem for you? No? Then how about this: As a writer, when you decide to stop reading, it’s like thinking you’ve figured out the key to never having body odor again is to stop showering.
Take me, for instance. No, I didn’t stop showering. But, I know I’m not the only writer to have stopped reading the work of others in an attempt to keep the ol’ brain pallet clean of outside influences. The problem with that, however, is that the avid reader I was when I was a child, the reader who couldn’t put down a pencil and stop writing to save her life (despite also not being able to finish any story she started writing), became a shriveled up old hermit lady grumbling in some forgotten recess of my mind while the writer in me starved. The world builder and imaginist thrived well enough, but in the years I wasn’t reading (yes, years), I also wasn’t being very productive, either.
It seems to me that for some reason we think it’s okay for an artist to be influenced by other artists, to have artists producing similar work considered to be part of a movement, but when speaking of writers doing the same, we’re either derivative or “the next <famous author of the same genre>”. Yet H.P. Lovecraft quite openly borrowed from his peers, writing what he called his “Poe pieces” and his “Dunsany pieces” (better known as his Macabre stories [approximately 1905–1920], and his Dream Cycle stories [approximately 1920–1927] respectively). Though he perhaps perfected his unique voice when telling the stories in his Cthulhu Mythos (approximately 1925—1935), it was not for this decade alone that he’s remembered as being one of the greats, or as having a distinctly unique way of telling stories. So why are we so afraid of the influence other writers might have over our work?
Because we’re afraid of that blasphemous term “derivative”. Some of us don’t want to hear that a reader is reminded of Harry Potter, or of Issac Asimov, or of The Last Unicorn, but we don’t really have any control over what a reader’s exposure and experience will impose on the writing once it’s left the carefully crafted shelter of our minds, and limiting our own exposure to these sources only ensures that we’ll be completely incapable of identifying them, and thus incapable of removing or modifying them to avoid the inevitable comparisons.
Writer, teacher, and editor Lori L. Lake once wrote about two aspiring writers she had in a creative writing course who came in with a partially written fantasy story each. During a critique session where the class read sections of each writers’ work, it was expressed that they found their work was “derivative, repetitive, boring, and that it had already been done, re-done, and over-done.” They were crushed by what was news to them. These two aspiring writers had no clue they’d told stories as old as storytelling itself, as neither had read, nor had any exposure to fantasy stories prior to their own forays into the genre. “They spent a lot of time imagining worlds with evil dark lords,” Ms. Lake wrote, “and creating characters who may as well have been Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.” But, when you spend no time acquainting yourself with what already exists, this is exactly the sort of obstacle you face.
But what if you just don’t have the time to read? What if you’re a busy playwright with three murder mysteries on the line, and a three hour tragedy in the works and you can barely find the time to work on those, let alone find time to read someone else’s stuff! To this imaginary and not at all real person I spoke to last night about this very thing, I think Mr. Stephen King has something to say to you.
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”
Yes, that was a smack down from one of the masters of modern horror. If you don’t have time to read,
you don’t have time to write. The same five minutes you snatch here and there to scribble on your note pad could be given occasionally to reading a few pages of a book. It’s harder to write while you eat lunch than it is to read, and that right there is pretty compelling as far as arguments go.
But what about these “tools”? Well, our tools are words, aren’t they? When an artist wants to improve their craft, they study the masters. When a writer wants to improve their craft, they read.
Consider this the next time you’re thinking about not opening a book: How, exactly, do you know what a well written story looks like if you’ve stopped exposing yourself to them? It’s easy to decide that most of the books published these days are rubbish, but do you even know why you think that? Have you sat down to really look at what you dislike? Is it the way the characters are written? The sentence length? The sentence structure? How can you avoid the things you hate reading if you aren’t sure what they are? You need to be a critical reader.
A critical reader is one who can analyze the prose in a way that opens up opportunities to learn new methods that might improve their own writing, and methods they might prefer to keep away from entirely. The successful writer is a critical reader. See, it’s not all about reading your favorite authors and saying “Golly gee, if I just use more metaphors about clouds, I’ll be a better writer!” Sometimes it’s about picking up a book by someone you can’t stand and pin-pointing all the little things that make them so difficult to enjoy. It’s not enough to say you hate the short protagonist, though; you have to really take a hard look at what you’re writing and ask yourself if you’ve been doing the same thing, and then correcting it.
In addition to asking yourself what a writer has done that you really enjoyed and practicing those methods, there are a couple of exercises that can help you grow both in your craft and as a critical reader. The first is to take a passage from an author you like and rewrite it with a new focus. Keep true to the events and plot, but change what is meaningful to the reader. The second exercise is to take a passage from an author you dislike and change it into something you wish they’d written. Personally, I think the second exercise is the more helpful, as it forces you to really focus on the methods the original author used to convey the ideas first, and then apply what you think to be better, all the while trying to consciously avoid what you disliked in the first place.
There’s a particular Australian fantasy author whom I personally cannot read. We’ll call her “Terrible”. I made it about six pages into Terrible’s first book in a series before I had to stop myself from setting it on fire. Now, Terrible hadn’t been doing well for herself at any point in those six pages, so she was already on literary probation, but when she used the word “doomed” in three consecutive paragraphs to convey the exact same concept with little to no variation, I threw the book across the room. What did I learn? Other than the fact that Australia needs more writers to challenge her and paperbacks have far too much wind resistance, I learned that repetition without variation infuriates me, and that I think Terrible stole the manuscript from an exceptionally talented five year old before slapping her own name on it. I learned that the opposite of prose I enjoy is the sort that reuses words that really stand out at the same time it picks words that stand out, and reuses them.
By contrast, two of my favorite authors taught me not only that I can love a story written in first person, but one of them also reminded me that the journey is sometimes more important than the destination, and that it’s okay to take your time getting there.
Writers have a responsibility to themselves and to the readers they hope to garner to always keep perfecting their craft. You’ll hear time and again from various sources that there are no new stories, that every story there is to tell has already been told a million times. That sentiment isn’t wrong. When you choose not to educate yourself on the methods used for telling that age old story, you shoot yourself in the foot before you even join the race. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to run a race with a shot-through foot, but winning is pretty difficult. Mostly you end up passed out on the ground from blood loss just a few yards away from the starting line. Professional athletes call this a “disadvantage”. You put yourself at a similar disadvantage when you decide that reading is only going to distract you, or influence your style beyond your control. I argue that not reading limits your resources, inspiration, and that very same control you think you have in spades, but have diminished through ignorance.
So go on and read already! What are you waiting for?!