My alternate title for this post was 'Why does reading other writer’s work sometimes drive me insane?'
I consider myself well-read. Although in the past nine months or so with a baby underfoot I haven’t had quite the chance to read as much as I’d like. (My new goal is a book a week. We’ll see how that pans out.) I read a wide array of works from comic books and graphic novels to classics. I don’t particularly enjoy Westerns much, and Romance novels often leave me cold. I’ve even waded through Twilight, TWICE, despite my issues with its plot, characters, and repetition of the same seven words, but I digress. With my latest venture of writing a young adult novel, I’ve put a special focus on reading excerpts, if not whole volumes, of as many award winners and well-received ones as possible.
They are all incredible and beautifully written, and I don’t write a thing like any of them. So I race back to the drawing board and add waterfalls of detail in the style of the book I just finished where the characters drown in adjectives. Nope, in my story it sounds awful. The characters prefer not to have the hair on their arms described as little black soldiers standing on edge when they get scared. It’s vaguely like watching a favorite movie on a big screen, high def television where you can see the chip in the actor’s tooth or one eye that droops a smidge. Too much detail can kill the fantasy.
On to action then. My characters are moving. Dancing. Fighting. Spinning. Twisting. Ok, not only are they dizzy, but there’s no room to breathe on the page. I’ve forgotten how to keep track of the characters when they all appear to be scattering in entirely different directions. Sorry Jackie Chan et al., but action-packed does not work for me.
One last try. Bring on the internal monologue. Now my characters are full of angst. They think and speak to themselves in Shakespeare-worthy rants. Forget to be or not to be. My lovelies agonize over how their lives will be deeply and profoundly affected by wearing the blue as opposed to the red shirt. What harm will befall their worlds should they dare to choose the wrong outfit. The tragedy. The humanity. The miserable writing. Excuse me while I go cry for a few minutes and find preemptive Tylenol for the impending migraine.
I think I’ve learned a valuable lesson. I need to be confident in the choices that I make for my characters and my writing. I would argue that artistic folks are a terribly self-masochistic group who often rake themselves over the coals for not finding the right word or placing the correct brushstroke on the page. Emulating someone else’s style is like sliding on jeans that are not only two sizes too small but also the wrong color, the wrong style, and the wrong species. I’m not advocating ignoring other works or influences. We study the masters for a reason. Rather it’s best to take these works for what they are, other peoples’ things. Look at them. Turn them in your hand and appreciate their shiny newness, but remember that at the end of the day the writing needs to be yours. It should be as familiar as an old friend and rarely, if ever, make you feel like a stranger to your own creation.