Writing What You Read

BFQ6OC9CUAARMjsMy office assistant, Isabel. At least she’s not on the keyboard, right?

The other day, I saw this tweet:

D’ya think it’s poss to write a YA zombie book without ever having read ANY zombie books at all, like ever? Recommendations please folks?

This isn’t anyone I follow or who follows me – I saw it because someone I follow retweeted it. So, Unknown Person who asked this question by flinging it upon the waters of Twitter in good faith, if you see this, please don’t think I’m dissing you here. I had a long answer to your question. Longer than Twitter permits.

Plus I admire this person for asking the question in the first place. So very many people don’t. And I think it hurts them as writers.

See, there’s this idea that there’s an artistic purity in working from a vacuum. I’m not quite sure where it comes from. But people love to tell stories about the guy who never studied painting, ever but produces this amazing, unusual work. Or the young girl who spontaneously starts creating symphonies. We’re fascinated by the idea of this kind of genius, that seems to spring out of nowhere.

It also maybe is alluring, because we get the idea that we can skip a few steps and be successful anyway.

Really, I think this rarely happens. In fact, I suspect it never happens and stories meant to convey that idea are heavily massaged. There’s a reason interviewers ask bands about their influences, why people are forever asking writers who they read. Creativity comes out of richness, not a vacuum. Ideas lead to more ideas. Also, learning your craft means studying others who’ve gone before.

After all, no one really wants to hire an architect who says “Oh, I didn’t go to school because I didn’t want my creativity to be influenced by the establishment.” No CPA should touch your taxes who says she hasn’t read all that IRS stuff.

It’s great to want to be a rulebreaker, but you have to know what the rules are first. For a writer, that means reading. A lot of reading.

A few years back, I had a friend who was writing a vampire book. Only hers was a going to be a special vampire book – not like all the others. In fact, she’d never read a book with vampires in them. She had a fair amount of contempt for the genre. When I suggested a few books or authors who’ve greatly influenced that genre, she dismissed the idea. First of all, she didn’t want to waste her time reading books like that. Secondly, she wanted her book to be unique, untainted by the tropes. She planned to mix it up and do something Fresh, Exciting and New.

Who doesn’t want to do that?

Thing was, because she hadn’t read, she didn’t know which rules she was breaking. So, she would ask me, hoping for the benefit of all the energy I’d invested in reading those stories. I found that, not only was it difficult to answer a question about vampire nature – after all, according to which author, which tradition? Laurell K Hamilton’s vampires are not Charlaine Harris’s vampires are not Anne Rice’s vampires are not Bram Stoker’s vampires are not Stephenie Meyer’s vampires – but I resented that she wanted to write a genre she didn’t care enough about to read.

That’s what it really comes down to. If you’re writing something you don’t love to read, why the hell are you writing it?

This is a kind of literary carpetbagging. The sort of person who swoops in on the lucrative opportunity, with no real investment in the thing itself.

Not that you’re thinking that way, unknown Twitter person. Because you, at least, cared enough to ask. The short answer is sure, it’s possible to do it. There’s no guarantee for how your book would turn out if you do or don’t read. But why wouldn’t you? Take two weeks and read everything you can get your hands on. If you’re feeling the YA zombie love, then it should be a fun assignment for yourself. Spend a little time enriching yourself, creating a nice thick stew of ideas and images and emotions to draw from.

Don’t worry that you’ll be derivative or duplicating – if your creative heart is in the right place, your own story will come out of it. But do spend a little time studying the genre.

It will be an investment you’ll never regret.

6 Replies to “Writing What You Read”

  1. Reading widely–but especially in the genre you’re writing–is essential. Even if you hate everything about what you’ve read and want to do the complete opposite, just having read the genre will better prepare you to write the best book you possibly can.

  2. Here here. Read everything. And if you’re worried about copying or being overly influenced, go read another genre for a while to cleanse your palate. Then write YA zombies.

    Great post again, Jeffe. =o)

    1. What a good idea the palate cleanser is! I’ve kind of been doing that lately – reading books *not* in the genre I’m writing. It helps!

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