Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Ways of the World: Under the Influence

There are many conflicting opinions on what one should read as a writer. Some authors-like David Eddings-claim to never read in their genre. Though he contradicted himself when he wrote of his love for the forms of medieval romance in the Introduction to The Rivan Codex. He was heavily influenced by this classic genre, and it shows in the similar plot structure of his books. It is better to admit to the influence your reading habits have on your writing, for then you can use it to your advantage.

The Writing Excuses podcast this week was on the proper way to steal. We have to be careful of plagiarism, and if you do not acknowledge and pay attention to how your influences texture your writing, you may be accused of being too derivative, as Eddings and Christopher Paolini often are.

The trick to harnessing your influences without getting caught is blending them in original ways. It's not the best of ideas to read in one genre to the exclusion of all others, it can lead to a sameness in style that will be noticed. My strategy to ensure I blend many different influences is to read multiple books at the same time.

Sure, I focus on one book occasionally, but for the last few years I've had a stack of about seven books that I'm reading. Sometimes more, sometimes less. I try to keep it on a set list of genres/styles, to ensure that I am not all over the place. The categories I settled on are: Religion, young adult, poetry, fantasy, reference, author criticism, and plays. These general headings cover the majority of my interests, and give enough leeway to plug in any book. My current reading list is the Bible, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, A collection of Shakespeare's poetry, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun by J. R. R. Tolkien, The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy, A Field Guide to Narnia, and A Raisin in the Sun. There's also a collection of Faulkner's work and Spenser's poems on the stack, as well as my continuing quest to get through Tales Before Tolkien. Another trick for ensuring you get to at least three of your chosen books a day is to scatter them about the house, anywhere you sit down is my decorating plan.

This is a heavy list, but I'm playing catchup as well. It suits the procrastinator in me. The theory behind the list is what matters, and that can be tailored to suit your needs. For example, one of the best ways to steal without getting caught is to borrow from history. This would be a section of my reading list, but as I already have to read a lot of history in the course of homeschooling my son, I omit it from the stack. The important piece to remember is to have a set list of forms and styles you read in.

Get a list of forms, styles and genres together that you want to explore and have at it. It helps to set aside a set time for reading every day, and to decorate with books. This reading to expand your writing style can be considered separate from casual reading, and don't be afraid to take notes. Happy reading!

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