Friday, February 19, 2016

Another Fine Mess

When you’re elbow deep in a first draft, can you read other fiction, or does it mess with your own writing?

by Paul D. Marks

If I didn’t read while working on projects I’d never read ’cause I’m always working on projects and
then I’d really be in a fine mess. This applies to TV and movies as well. It’s impossible to avoid the buzz in the air...or over the air.

In terms of the question “does it mess with your [my] own writing?”: I don’t think so. In fact, I’d say just the opposite. Since ideas can come from anywhere—we just pluck them out of the air, a newspaper, TV, a snatch of conversation—we can also be inspired by what we’re reading. Of course, we don’t want to borrow something directly, and that’s not what I’m referring to. But a line, a turn of phrase, a character, an incident, etc., from something we’re reading might inspire us to get over a hump in our work-in-progress.

I often run into roadblocks when I write. One thing or another isn’t working the way I want it to. I do all my little tricks, take a drive, let the words flow stream of consciousness, walk the dogs, take a shower—yeah, for some reason that opens up the brain valves. But sometimes none of that works and lately we’re limited here in CA on how much showering we can do, which cuts down the brainstorming. (It’s a good-smelling state...and still another fine mess.) But another time I’ll be watching a show, having a conversation, walking them dogs…or maybe reading something and an idea just pops into my head, because something in what I was doing made something click. Then it’s, “What if I did it this way?” or “What if I change that action to this?”

Sometimes, when reading something by an author you admire you get inspired by them, not to copy
or steal, but to take their inspiration and spin it in a different direction or take it to another level. Like reading Ross MacDonald and wishing I could dig into the psychological depths the way he does or being envious of Chandler’s descriptions and metaphors. I think reading some of these great authors has helped me to become a better writer.

James Ellroy doesn’t read fiction anymore (though that was a while ago so maybe it’s changed). But I like reading fiction and crime fiction in particular. It’s a good escape. Often the world comes out better in the end than in real life.

But the question asks about reading fiction, not just crime fiction, and I read that too, while I’m working on projects. The worst part is finding the time to do the reading. Seems I used to have tons of time for that, but not so much these days. But when I do read I read all sorts of things, from various non-fiction subjects to literary/mainstream and crime fiction. I don’t read a lot of sci-fi or fantasy, YA, things along those lines. To each his/her own, right?

And I suppose the question can be applied to almost any activity, even just sitting in a café listening to people. Inspiration and ideas, whether for a whole novel or just a snatch of dialogue can come from anywhere, so why limit ourselves? Sure we want to create something from whole cloth, so to speak, but even if we were to shut ourselves off in a hermetically sealed room we’d still be influenced by things we’ve read, watched, seen and lived. So there really is no “escape” from having things “mess” with our writing.


Please check out Pam Stack of Authors on the Air Interviewing me a couple of weeks ago: 

And my reading of my Anthony and Macavity-nominated story Howling at the Moon, from Ellery Queen. I don’t think the Barrymore clan has to worry: 

And look for my post on Drinks with Reads at Mystery Playground, going live on Wednesday, Feb. 26th, but one of the pix is already up on the front page: 

Check out my website:


Evelyn Moore said...

Very thoughtful. I'm writing a first draft crime novel and have sworn off reading fiction, mostly because I love reading s much I'm afraid I'll just read and not get any writing done. I still do read a lot of non-fiction. Thanks Paul for the insights.

Art Taylor said...

Good point about movies here too, Paul. I often find that watching a movie sparks something in me about storytelling, about what I'm working on, in a different way than reading does--the structures of scenes, the timing, I don't know what.

Enjoyed reading, as always!

GBPool said...

I read in the morning before eight o'clock and in the evening after eight o'clock. Usually other people's work doesn't influence me at all. When it does it comes in two forms: 1. Don't EVER write that badly. 2. Try to be that good. But I don't want to be like somebody else. As Sammy Davis Jr. sang: I gotta be me.

Susan C Shea said...

It's been thought-provoking to read my fellow Minds' responses to the question this week. I think most of you are more confident than I was when I began my first book. And, while I'm getting there, I still set aside a few authors whose voices are enough like what I'm striving for to tempt me, however unconsciously, during that critical first draft. It's not that any of us would deliberately copy. It's that we admire those other writers' talent and success. But I'm okay now, 4 and a half books in!

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. Sorry I didn’t respond sooner.

Good luck with your novel, Evelyn. I know what you mean about wanting to read so much that you don’t get the work done.

Thanks, Art. I think, as you say, movies do have a different structure and timing. But I think those can be translated into prose form and certainly can be one means of inspiration for us.

That’s a good method, Gayle, reading before and after the 8s. And good writing does help us to strive to be better ourselves. And the bad writing, well, it gives us things to avoid. Stick with Sammy’s sentiment, it’s the only way to be.

Susan, I think we are consciously or subconsciously influenced by other writers. Someone said, can’t remember who, that everybody’s first novel tries to be Hemingway, or something along those lines. But we just have to take what inspires us and make it our own, I think. And you and your writing are definitely okay! I think everyone here is, from what I can tell. :)

Stephen Buehler said...

I read crime fiction even when writing a mystery. When I write my PI novels I write in the first person. During that time I like to read other author's first person. It keeps me thinking about how say things, what not to say and just keeps me in that first person frame of mind. I don't intentionally steal anything but I think subconsciously I absorb some style and voice. But when it's down on the paper it's my own voice.
Good post.
- Stephen Buehler

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Stephen. And I think you hit the nail on the head. When we read other things we don’t intentionally or consciously steal anything, but through some kind of osmosis it filters through us and once it’s down on paper it’s in our voices. Besides, you know what they say, Good artists borrow, great artists steal. I’ve seen this attributed to too many people to name one here, but that sort of proves the point, doesn’t it?