I have written about the difficulties of conflicting advice for writers on a number of occasions, but one thing that always crops up everywhere is that you cannot write unless you read. You have to do this all the time, widely and critically, fiction and nonfiction, books, papers, magazines and even blogs.
There are a lot of reasons, some of which are pretty obvious. Reading other people’s stuff gives you inspiration, tools to help you distinguish good writing from bad, a wider vocabulary and information on genres, tropes, and what not to do.
However, there are arguably some cons to reading. For instance, the amount of time you need to invest – last year I found it really hard to get the time to read on top of writing and working, because when I start reading a book I find it really difficult to stop. A running joke between me and my sister is “I’ll just finish this chapter,” which actually means “I’ll be there in three or four hours when I’ve finished the book and you’ve forgotten what it was you wanted to tell me”. I couldn’t afford that luxury last year, but did it stop me writing? Hell no.
There’s a relatively famous quote attributed to Stephen King that “if you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time to write.” But I think that’s kind of an unqualified statement, partly because I found that if you’re writing a book every month and working full time it doesn’t stop you from coming up with ideas and characters and words; and partly because of voice.
When I interviewed YA author Gemma Malley last week, I asked her what she’d been reading lately. She said she hadn’t been reading much because she has been finishing the second book in the Killables trilogy, and “I can’t read when I’m writing otherwise it’s too easy to adopt other people’s styles.”
This is something that doesn’t seem to get discussed much, but I know exactly what she means. One of the first short stories I proof read for my other half was presented along with the words “Yeah, you can tell I’ve been reading a lot of Neil Gaiman lately.” And I’m not sure that I would have wanted to add footnotes into book five if I hadn’t seen John Connolly do it in kid’s books The Gates and Hell’s Bells. But then maybe he just pinched it from Terry Pratchett…
My point is, it’s already hard to know if you’re the first person to do something, or whether an idea is truly original, or even your own. After all, I thought 12 Books in 12 Months was pretty original before I found three other people thousands of miles away from me and apart from one another who’d had the exact same idea.
The more you read, the more other people’s ideas soak into your brain, informing your thoughts and views and use of language, perhaps putting you at risk of accidental plagiarism – or at the very least accusations of being derivative. If you read a book that really captures your imagination, which inspires you to sit and write your own almost before you’re finished, you might have every intention of doing something radically different – but you aren’t necessarily in full control. These things slip out without you realising, you won’t think ‘oh, that sentence is only good because it’s really similar to one in that book I just read’, you’ll think ‘wow, I am in the zone!’ – a feeling that will last only until the people of GoodReads take you down by pointing out your amazing dialogue was already published by someone else.
It isn’t all bad, though. Human beings have been having ideas and writing them down for hundreds of years, nobody is saying you have to be 100% original. Frankly that’s impossible, and it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to wear your influences on your sleeve. If anything, it’ll help people market and share your stuff if they can say “if you like James Hogg and Barbara Cartland, you will love this.”
In summary, then, writers should read widely and deeply, but critically too. You should be aware of your influences, and if you find them coming through very obviously in your own work, maybe factor that in to your schedule and read something totally different – or not at all – when writing. Or perhaps just feature them in your acknowledgements…