Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Psst. Want to Buy a Story?


Terry Shames here: 

This week we have an intriguing question for authors: Do you alter your personal reading based on what you are currently working on? 

Right now I'm working on a thriller…or maybe it’s not a thriller….but it has thrills in it. Who knows? So if I altered my reading based on I’m working on, I couldn’t read thrillers. But I am reading them, along with just about any other type of crime fiction.

I just read One Mile Under, by Andrew Gross (a true thriller in the traditional style).

 In the past two weeks, I've read: Where I Can See You, Larry Sweazy (love his writing)—a solid, traditional mystery 

 Chinaman’s Chance, by Ross Thomas (published in the 70’s as you can tell by the title, which I don’t think would fly these days). It’s hilarious. A caper, sort of a cross between Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen. 

 Sex and Vanity, by Kevin Kwan (who wrote Crazy Rich Asians)—not a mystery, but a hilarious send-up of rich people, Jane Austen novels, and romance novels. 

 And at the moment I’m reading one of Michael Connelly’s Mike Haller books, The Fifth Witness

 Every one of these books is astonishingly different from the others. Every writer has his own voice, his own intentions, his quirks of character and setting. And they are all profoundly different from my writing. 

 I read novels of women in jeopardy, private detective novels, the occasional “cozy,” humorous mysteries, historical, mysteries set in other countries, ecological thrillers, books set in different ethnic cultures—you name it. 

 I think I would stop reading a book if I ran across one that seemed too much like my “style” and subject—small-town Texas, chief of police, written in first person present tense, I might be worried that it would influence the book I was working on. I don’t read many such novels, so I don’t know if I would feel itchy reading something like that, but I suspect I would. 

 The question addresses whether reading something too close to what I am writing would in some affect my style or my plot or my characters. These days, I don’t think so. 

When I first started writing, I was a huge fan of Eudora Welty, and I wrote a story deliberately imitating her style. My writing professor said, gently. “Eudora Welty is a wonderful writer to emulate. But she’s Eudora Welty. She’s already established her voice and writing style, and subject and if you try to copy her, you aren’t your own writer—you’re copying someone.” You have to develop your own identity as a writer. It was a valuable lesson. 

 I occasionally run across a book that reminds me a lot of another book, and I always wonder if the authors have read each other and been influenced. I’ve even run across eerily similar plots. And I’ve once or twice come across instances of what looks like direct cross-pollination, if not plagiarism. For instance, I’ve read descriptions that seem to be lifted right out of another book. 

 Finding your own voice, your own style, your own tone and relationship with your characters is hard, but imperative for an author. If I thought reading someone else’s book would intrude on those elements of my writing, I’d shy away from it. I would hate to ever feel not only that I had been influenced to that extent by another writer, but that I had intruded on the ground they have established for themselves. Just as I would not want them to do to me.


Dietrich Kalteis said...

I agree, Terry, finding your own voice, style and tone is imperative — and the only way it can work.

Josh Stallings said...

Great post, must read for aspiring and pro writers. “Finding your own voice, your own style, your own tone and relationship with your characters is hard, but imperative for an author.” I haven’t heard “relationship with your characters” as
part of authors voice, but it sure is. My favorite writers (T. Shames among them) take a humanist view of all of their characters.
I’m working on a ms set in a fairly recent time period, for that I’ve been reading lots written at the time setting I’m writing in. Keeps me living in the time.

Susan C Shea said...

When I first committed to writing a crime novel, I admit I was afraid I'd unconsciously "steal" from another writer. But once I got deeply engaged in my own manuscript and found the voice of my protagonist, that fear vanished. I have noted - as you mention - the coincidences of published books that seem to mine the same plot at the same time, but since we all know there is no such thing as a genuinely new idea, I chalk that up to luck.

Terry said...

Thank Dietrich and Josh. I think we all learn that one way or another. Some authors seem to get right to it. Others, like me, have to drill down and flail around until we find it.

Susan, I know what you mean. Someone just dipping a toe in worries that there will be echoes of other work. But of course your books all have a point of view and voice that are uniquely yours.