To Read or Not to Read

Kathleen DelaneyKathleen Delaney, author of Murder Half-Baked and other books, retired from real estate to pursue writing full time. She’s here today with her thoughts on why authors shouldn’t be afraid to read in their genre while they’re writing.

Murder by Syllabub, fifth in the Ellen McKenzie series, is available in bookstores now. Purebred Dead, the first in a new series, will be out in August 2015.

Over the course of my writing career I have appeared on a number of panels where authors discussed many different topics and answered many different kinds of questions. I love doing those for several reasons. It’s fun, and it’s interesting to hear the thoughts of those who read what we, the authors, write. Sometimes their questions leave me with no immediate answers.

One of the most interesting questions I’ve been asked was ‘do you read other authors who write in the same genre while you are constructing a new book?’ It seems the lady was trying to write a book and was worried that, if she read books written by published authors in the same genre, she might be so influenced by what she read she’d somehow end up copying their work.

I’ve thought a lot about this answer and have come to the conclusion she has nothing to worry about.

We are all influenced in different ways and by different things. That influence can be profound or subtle. The writer is not immune to influence, but the thing about writing fiction is, it’s fiction. Made up. It’s a world populated by people no one but the author has ever met, doing things no one but the author knows anything about, reacting to stressful situations in different ways, just like living, breathing people do. No two people are alike, no two people will react to a specific situation the same way. No two people have the same story, and that’s what a fiction author does. Tell people’s stories.

There are certain “rules” in genre fiction, and editors will look for stories within those guidelines. In cozy mysteries, for instance, murders need to be committed off scene, no children or pets die or are tortured, and if the hero and heroine get together, they shut the bedroom door. Including these things, or excluding them, has nothing to do with copying, so we can eliminate that. The beat of the story depends to some extent on what kind of book you are writing, cozy mystery, thriller, chick lit, main stream fiction, sci fi, but again, examining, and emulating, how someone else builds tension, where they let it down, how they build again, is not copying. It’s learning your craft.

It has been said, many times, there are only ten basic plots, or maybe that’s twelve or seven. Anyway, there’s not very many, but there are as many stories as there are people and it’s the people we’re interested in. If you send your heroine down that dark country lane at midnight, we all know something’s going to happen she won’t like. So what if someone else sent their heroine down a similar lane, or cellar, or up in an attic. It’s why this particular girl goes down the lane, Murder Half Bakedwhat happens to stop her, to put her in danger, or what she finds when she’s there that matters, and how she reacts. Especially how she reacts. Remember, the girl you’ve just sent down that very scary lane isn’t the same girl in the other book, in the other story. Each has her own story, her own motives, and what happens next depends on who she is and why she does what she does. That isn’t copying. That’s story telling.

So go read. Read as many books as you can find in the genre you write in, or want to write in. Tear apart the plot, see where it grabs you, where it lets you go, how the author ratchets up the ending until you can’t turn off your bedside light until you see what happens next. Then think about your book, about your character, where did she come from, what does she look like, what were her parents like, what does she expect out of life that you are about to take away from her, and think how she’s going to react to whatever you’ve decided is waiting up that dark lane. See how your favorite author drew her character, how she builds the story until she springs the worst on her. Now think about the character you’re building. How would she react in the same situation? Not the same way? No surprise there. She’s not the same person. Now go back and see if the character in the book you just finished reacted in a way you’d have expected her to. More than likely you’ll find she did. Take a look at how the author did that, how he/she built your image of that character so you knew them, believed in them, how he/she told that character’s story. Go back and look at your own character once more. Are you telling her story? Making her live and breathe as the individual being she is? Can you take something from the author you admire, something that helps you build her? That makes her come alive? If so, that’s not copying. That’s learning.

Happy reading, and happy writing.

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3 thoughts on “To Read or Not to Read

  1. I believe in reading in and outside of our genre. I look to authors I admire for inspiration and problem-solving. For example, there are only so many ways you can describe eye color — and happened upon a travel book and found terrific descriptions of characters in “Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese” by Patrick Leigh Fermor. We need to study how authors build suspense, describe action (I read books written by former Vietnam helicopter pilots), love Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum, and read great romance authors to learn how to build romance. Re-read the classics, flag pages or keep a log of great phrases. Writing is a solitary craft, and unless we open the windows to the fresh air of the great art in writing, we are limited to the sphere of our own brain. Reading is visual brainstorming to me. I “hitch-hike” off phases of author’s creating new combinations of words. I study how author’s like Jodi Piccoult create strong and clear POV’s. Authors are the combination of all of their life experiences, the research they conduct, and the authors and people that cross their path.
    Pamela Triolo, Author of Death Without Cause and The Impostor: A Medical Mystery

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  2. I don’t think any author should worry about copying another author’s wording. Unless you intentionally copy a book (and are charged with plagiarism), it’s difficult to copy short segments or phrases and drop them into anything other than the work they are already in. It’s like forcing Cinderella’s silver slipper onto the fat foot of one of her step sisters. You might try this as a test if you’re worried about accidental plagiarism. You will end up changing the wording to the point of non-recognition. Even the best words are only the best where they are. I’ve looked at other authors’ phrases to give me ideas for my own, and without having to try NOT to copy (which I don’t want), I’ve naturally ended up with a phrase or words totally different from theirs. Sure, I’ve picked up new words from other authors over the years like: padded (instead of stepped), sidled (instead of moved), footfalls instead of footsteps, but so have many other authors. We learn new words through our reading and that’s adding to our vocabulary, not plagiarism.

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