Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Good books: the writer's worst enemy

Not a bad read.
Lately, I have come to realize that the writer's worst enemy is a good book. Granted, a good book is many wonderful things: it can teach you how to write better; it can enlarge, stretch, and otherwise exercise your imagination; and, much more generally, it is a fun and relaxing way to spend one's time. However, this does not change the fact that good books are incredibly dangerous for a budding writer, namely for two reasons:

One, because they're awesome, and, two, because you suck.

The last book I read, "A Very Private Gentleman," was awesome. Similarly, Joe Abercrombie's "Best Served Cold," which I'm reading right now, is awesome. And, on the one hand, that's awesome. There's no greater feeling to have when you're going about your day than knowing that you have a phenomenal book to get to at the end of it. Indeed, I sometimes find myself quite literally shivering - sometimes even dancing in my chair - at the prospect of a good read.

But, by all the darns in the heck, a good book is a terrible thing for a writer. The whole time I read Martin Booth's assassin story, I just wished I could write an assassin story. Now, reading Abercrombie's fight-fest, I just want to write really bloody heroic fantasy.

This actually happens to me quite frequently. Sometimes, it can be a real pain, because I will actually start projects in whatever genre I'm reading just because the book I'm engrossed in is so darn good. The problem is, just because someone else can make a good go of it, doesn't always mean you can. Every writer tends to be stronger in some genres than others; I, for example, write really terrible magic systems, whereas I tend to write absolutely deadly puns.

(What? Don't bereave me?)

You want the solution? Please allow me to tell you: read books unrelated to your current project. While reading "A Very Private Gentleman," I worked on an epic fantasy story; now, reading "Best Served Cold," I'm writing steampunk. This means that these great books, while they might encourage me to write better, won't induce me to... plagiarize.

How about you kids? Do you get charged up by the books you read? Are you an insatiable copy-cat at heart like me?

Wait. I didn't say that last one. I got it from... another author.



  1. When I read a really good book, I often tend to write myself into it in my head. While this is fun, I often berate myself for wasting my creative energy on that, as it's already a complete work that doesn't include me (or the "me character") and, of course, I can't do anything with it. But regardless of whether it's just a fun pasttime or a waste of my time because I'm not thinking about/writing my own work, I'm never tempted to write any of it down because it isn't original. But yes, it can be distracting from my own projects and reading stuff far from my current genre does help keep the worlds separate. (Most of this is theoretical these days, as the longest works I get to read most of the time are Dr. Seuss and Lyle the Crocodile.) :)

  2. Speaking as someone who just plowed through A Game of Thrones at the expense of the writing schedule I had so carefully crafted for those three days, I...your blog has a dragon fruit at the top now. Classy.

    My coping mechanism for 'I want to write in that genre! NOW!' is to have lots of different projects going on in lots of different genres at the same time that I can jump into when I'm in the right mode.