Why reading widely won’t hurt your writing: 3 tips from Francine Prose

1024 576 Writer and the Wolf Editorial

Author Francine Prose wrote an excellent craft book in 2006 called Reading Like a Writer and I urge you to pick up a copy if you haven’t come across it before. In chapter one she talks a little about the various excuses authors give for not wanting to read too deeply or widely while writing their own novel, and I’ve heard these excuses in writing groups so many times that I wanted to address them now for any authors nervous that other books may negatively affect their own work. TL;DR: they won’t.

1) ‘Reading amazing books make my writing look rubbish in comparison!’

I hear ya. Every time I finish a brilliant novel, after first rushing off to Goodreads to mark it ‘complete’ and give it five stars, I sit for a minute and think, ‘Well, my book is never going to be anywhere near that good. I think I’ll stop writing it.’ This defeatist attitude usually subsides after a while and is replaced with determination to at least try to write something nearly as fabulous but what if that feeling of inferiority puts you off reading altogether? Francine Prose says:

To be truthful, some writers stop you dead in your tracks by making you see your own work in the most unflattering light. Each of us will meet a different harbinger of personal failure, some innocent genius chosen by us for reasons having to do with what we see as our own inadequacies. The only remedy to this I have found is to read a writer whose work is entirely different from another, though not necessarily more like your own – a difference that will remind you of how many rooms there are in the house of art.

I love this approach. Instead of never reading brilliant writing in case it reminds you that you can’t possible measure up, read even more brilliant writing and remember that there is space for all styles, all voices, all stories. There isn’t one way to write a book; there’s room for all of us, even if our work is completely different from that perfect novel you loved.

2) ‘What if I read a brilliant author and accidentally start ripping them off?’

I’ve also heard fellow writers say that they cannot read while working on a book of their own, for fear that Tolstoy or Shakespeare might influence them. I always hoped they would influence me, and I wonder if I would have taken so happily to being a writer if it meant that I couldn’t read during the years it might take to complete a novel.

Like Prose, I’m all for being influenced by better books! It’s human nature to mimic others, even in conversation, and it’s almost impossible to read and enjoy fantastic authors without absorbing some of their style and habits by osmosis. When I watch too much of a particular TV series, I find myself not only speaking but thinking like the characters for days afterwards. A couple of years ago I watched all nine series of Peep Show and just couldn’t get Mark and Jeremy out of my head for weeks: I’d meet up with friends and think, ‘Oh great, yet another social function where I have to pretend to be a normal human interested in popular culture when I’d much rather stay home and watch a World War I documentary in my pants.’ I don’t even like World War I documentaries. Every time I watched an episode of Derry Girls I slipped into a northern Irish accent.

So yes, you might be influenced by other authors if you read while writing your novel, but that’s exactly why you should. If you’re reading widely, you’ll absorb elements of each book and mash it all together into your own unique style. Maybe, when it comes to editing, you’ll decide that that three-page soliloquy in rhyming couplets doesn’t quite fit the tone of your lower middle grade paranormal fantasy after all. Or the cute talking fox you were inspired to create after reading Pax feels a bit out of place in your YA slasher horror. No big deal, that’s what editing’s for.

3) ‘Reading the classics always makes me feel stupid’

A friend told me that her students had complained that reading masterpieces made them feel stupid. But I’ve always found that the better the book I’m reading, the smarter I feel, or, at least, the more able I am to imagine that I might, someday, become smarter.

I agree with Prose here – challenging yourself with tricky material should make you feel smart, not inadequate and this advice is particularly applicable to reading 21st century kidlit. I’ve already talked about the importance of devouring recently published novels rather than getting too caught up in ticking off ‘the classics’ and if you’re reading a middle grade or YA book that you find impenetrable or difficult to decipher, chances are it’s at least one hundred years old and doesn’t reflect what’s being published today. Unlike the books we were assigned for GCSE and A Level English Literature, modern middle grade and YA novels don’t typically require CliffsNotes summaries in order to understand their language or context, so you shouldn’t feel intimated by them if they’re written well.

QUESTIONS FOR YOUR READING NOTEBOOK

What are your excuses for not reading other authors when you write? Not enough time? Don’t want to confuse yourself with too many stories in your head at once? Worried your plot idea has already been done and you’d rather live in blissful ignorance a little while longer? Write them down and ask yourself how realistic they really are and whether they’re holding you back from improving and deepening your own craft.


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Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes