Envy or Inspiration


Have you ever read a book and been so amazed by it that it made you feel like you were a crappy writer and could never begin to write anything remotely like that and why bother? I think it happens to a fair number of writers. We are often unable to judge our own work, thinking it’s either better than it is, or much worse. We are frequently more likely to believe that we suck than that we are really good. So then we read something we love and womp! we’re bashed over the head with our own inadequacy.


I’ll admit it’s happened to me where I’ve read other books and felt a bit hopeless. But that response is really a sad one. First, we ought to be able to read and celebrate great writing without judging ourselves. We ought to be able to just enjoy ourselves like everybody else. And often it’s possible. I often read just to enjoy. But when the writing is particularly good, then I have to step back in my head and admire it, and that can lead to envy. Or, inspiration.

Case in point. I was recently reading Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina. It’s a debut YA novel and I thoroughly enjoyed it. What first caught me was the almost effortless and yet deep and thick worldbuilding. The characters were round and vibrant and I kept wishing I’d written that. And that. And that. It didn’t hurt that it didn’t read particularly YA. I picked it up because it sounded good and didn’t pay much attention to the fact that it was YA. I will admit that sometimes YA stories are a bit young for me, but this wasn’t one of them. This was one where I both got lost in the story and at the same time, marveled at the story and the writing.

Did it get me down? Not at all. It inspired me to write. Instead of feeling that I could never do this, I felt that I wanted to reach for words, to play, to create story. I wanted to go be in my worlds and rub shoulders and dig and taste and feel everything. I wanted to immerse in a way that I haven’t been able to for months, what with life, family, and other stuff going on.  So I did. 

The things is, it’s really easy as a writer to start feeling like your work is the worst ever. Especially when you’re in the middle of writing and struggling with everything from characters to plot to description. You want your vision to make it onto the page, but sometimes you feel like it doesn’t translate very well. That you failed make it live and worse, you doubt that you will ever be able to. 

When you look at someone else’s book, you see the final product, but not their blood, sweat, and tears. You can’t see their doubts and fears, their sense of failure, their middle of the night struggles. It’s easy to compare your messy, dirty process with their bright, shiny finished product and yet if you could stop yourself for a moment and think about it, you’d realize how crazy that is. But that’s writing–it’s crazy-making sometimes.

I don’t have any advice today. Mostly I have just this: if you’re admiring and enjoying the book you’re reading, then do your best to keep enjoying and don’t think about yourself and your writing. Let yourself have that delight and that pleasure. It feeds your creative spirit and it will turn into inspiration for you.




27 comments to Envy or Inspiration

  • Hear, hear! 😀 That is exactly how I feel. The only negative emotion I usually experience is guilt that I should be writing. (Which is silly, because I need to read, too, but I think the fact that I’m getting so much enjoyment out of it makes it feel like an indulgement.)

    Oh, and congrats again on your audiobook contracts!

  • A Game of Thrones left me thinking myself inadequate. I’d read all of Robin Hobb’s stuff, Robert Jordan’s and David Eddings and thought: “Wow I want to write, but my style is to be a little more involved and a little darker.”
    Then I read George R.R. Martin’s series and though: “Wow, that is the sort of complexity and darkness I simply can’t reach but want to.”
    I read over my work and in my ears it sounded child-like and empty. After a number of beta readers commented that they thought more was going on, but had no idea what was really happening in my book I had to reassess. My work wasn’t lacking in complexity or colour but rather I’d been so taken by my efforts to keep up with Martin that I’d drowned myself.
    So I’m going back to being inspired by the other guys and I just read (and now watch) A Game of Thrones because it really strikes me.

  • I totally get where you’re coming from! I’ve read stuff and though “Wow. I won’t ever be able to do that…” but, I’ve also read stuff that’s made me want to be a writer, too. The first book I read that did that to me was Clive Barker’s “the Thief of Always” It’s a YA book (and it was before YA became a big thing–I read it when I was around 14). And the opening, something like “Harvy [last name] was being eaten alive by the great grey beast called February…” just stuck with me. His description of the month being a monster, a great abyss where you’d forgotton Christmas, and summer was aeons away… I wanted to write like that. (I still want to write like that!) I reread it every now and again just because I love it so much. It helps, too, that I like the themes and all, as well, along with the fabulous writing and amazing ideas.

  • Ken

    Patrick Rothfuss does that to me. The man made me laugh out loud and then moved me to tears in a single freaking chapter. Talk about writers envy. At the time, I felt that the strongest stuff I’d ever written was the literary equivalent of overdone pasta.

    Then, I found out that it took him 14 years to finish his first book and that put things into perspective. It takes quite a bit (Well it did for me anyway) to stand up in the face of all the great stuff out there and shout (Mostly to yourself) “I’ve got some game here too!”. The great thing about that shout is that there usually isn’t much around to interfere with the hearing of the person that most needs to hear it.

    I still have those “Wow” moments, but now, they make me want to see what I can do in my own work.

  • Yesssss, I envy. Once, many many many pre-published years ago, to the point of wanting to cry, though I don’t remember who it was or the book title either. I just remember the feeling of utter inadequacy stabbing slowly through me like a green icepick. It was horrible and wonderful. And when I realized just how wonderful the book was, I went out and bought several colored highlighters and colored pens and started taking the book apart. I could not enjoy it. I had to dissect it and probe it and that was the beginning of my self-teaching about writing. (And one of the reasons I ever got published.) I tore books apart for years, marking things, using effective techniques for my own characters and stories. Using that jealousy, I became a better writer. And a better reader. But I admit that it was an analytical process, not a pleasurable one. It took many years for me to be able to read for fun again. I am there now. Reading for fun. And I needed that!

  • So true! Especially for newer writers it can be really hard to see something that you want to do and already have it already done by someone else. When I get in those moods, I stop myself and say, “I’m a great writer” until the inevitable “but…” stops cropping up after it in my mind. Then I turn back to my writing and think about how the author did what I loved so much and I can do that in my own book.

    I can’t help it though… I find the idea of How to Write almost as entertaining as the writing itself.

  • Yes. I am currently reading “Code Name Verity”, and while the writing itself is very simple, I adore the story and the way it’s told. I’m both envious and enthralled.

    That said, I have occasionally put down books in despair of never being able to write like that. Or because I got inspired and needed to write after reading some well-crafted passage. It’s a fine line, but I definitely know what you’re talking about.

  • adamgaylord

    Honestly, I’ve always been more inspired by a bad book than a good one. A poor read makes me thing, “Hey, I can do better than this!”

  • Laura: Thanks! And yeah, the guilt is bad for me too. I KNOW I need to read, but with the day job and needing to write and the kids and all, sometimes I feel so guilty about it. And then I read and I realize how fundamental it is and feel guilty that I haven’t been reading enough. I apparently have guilt issues.

    sjohnhughes: that’s rough. Caught between the proverbial rock and the hard spot. But I get it. I’m glad you’ve found some inspiration though.

    pea_faerie: never read it. But now I have to. Thanks for telling me about it!

    Ken: hold onto that. And really, 14 years is a lot of sweat equity for a book, and it shows. Like one of those million-dollar houses that started out as a shack. He got in there and turned his shack into spectacularness. The key take away is that we can do it too.

  • Faith: I haven’t done the marker thing, but have read and reread and reread to dissect. Luckily in my educational programs, I eventually learned to shut down that part of my brain when I just want to enjoy. But sometimes a book is so good, I have to open it up again and pick it apart to admire.

    BA_Matthews: It is, isn’t it? And But can be the worst word in the English language.

    LScribeHarris: simplicity is a lot harder than it seems. I’ve been trying to work at that just a bit more, to mix simplicity of style with complexity of ideas. I don’t know if it’s working yet.

    adamgaylord: I know what you mean. But I guess for me the really good books I read inspire me to strive higher.

  • sagablessed

    Envy or disgust about Twilight and fifty shades of grey.
    Definite inspiration when I first ready ‘Last Herald-Mage of Valdemar’ and “Witch World’. I almost gave up hope when I read Misty Massey’s post about the ‘Twilight-esque’ 18 yo who won a major contract. But it inspired me to remain true to my non-sparly no-vampires dream. 😀

  • I have worked very hard to separate my reading-for-pleasuere experiences from my writing, for the very reasons you mention. Either I find myself ticked off that a certain book is doing well compared to mine when I KNOW that my stuff is better, or I get depressed knowing that I could NEVER write anything as good as what I’m reading. Both reactions suck, because I love to read. So I’ve tried to put up a wall in my head. I read. And I write. But they’re separate. That’s the theory anyway. It doesn’t always work . . .

  • I remember reading Sarah Addison Allen’s Sugar Queen and falling totally in love with her words. Still am today. But I also remember reading Faith’s Jane Y book Skinwalker and thinking, gosh she did the two nature thing better than I ever could, better than anyone I’ve read to date. Great story but I had a really really hard time getting over the fact that I may never make my wolves how I envisioned them because I’d read it done how I’ve been struggling to do it. Now I see it as a learning experience; it took me awhile but I began writing again.

  • Way (way) back in my graduate school days I had to learn to separate reading for pleasure from reading for class. Now that I’m writing I’ve been pretty good about keeping that wall up. I’ll make note of a character or a plot twist or a description and come back to it later, but it rarely interferes with my enjoyment of reading for the love of reading.

    LScribeHarris–I just finished Code Name Verity and that book is haunting me! It’s also one I’m going back to eventually to study how she manages the complexity of the story with such simple style. I loved the way the plot kept twisting away from what I thought I knew.

  • This is a nice reminder that I might need from time to time. Usually reading something really amazing, it inspires me to write but if I’m in the middle of a WIP then I might start comparing and despairing. All I need to do is remind myself that the book I’m reading is the writer’s final product. They probably didn’t get it that right the first time around. Part of writing is revising, after all.

  • […] a post on Magical Words today about comparing and despairing or […]

  • sagablessed: yeah, sometimes writers seem like they win the lottery and we wonder, what about us? But you’ve got the right attitude–keep on writing and become the next one to win the lottery!

    David: Yeah, exactly. Oh, Congrats on the Audible news!!!

    WaitforHim: it’s always dreadful when you read something similar to what you’re writing and it feels like they’ve done it better. I steer far away from similar things when I write. Otherwise I’d go batshit crazy. Or crazier. Let me think about that . . .

    Sisi: Yay! Grad school did us both good in that respect! Now I have to read Code Name Verity.

    jqtrotter: I find I need the reminder every so often, too.

  • Razziecat

    Oh god, yes. Carol Berg. Her books always do that to me. I love them, I get totally immersed in them, and page after page I find myself thinking, “Brilliant. Beautiful. I see what you did there!” 🙂 Like one of her characters, I “bleed envy.” He was speaking of magic, but in a way, so am I. I consider her books classrooms-on-paper, and I both enjoy them as great reads and admire them as gorgeous works of art. And sometimes I think I’ll never be able to do that!

    But I’ve read her blog and a couple of interviews she did, and I know it took her years of writing to get to this point. And when I look back at what I wrote five years ago and compare it to what I write now, I can see a definite improvement. I highly recommend that everyone who is feeling inadequate pull out some of their old stuff to compare with their current work. You’ll be astounded at how far you’ve come!

  • A. R. Gideon

    When I’m reading and I come across a passage that is amazing, I write it down in my notebook. Not so that I can copy it, but so I can read back over them and be inspired all over again. It also helps me when the quality of my prose is deteriorating, I can look back over them and it helps me get back to the level I need to be at. I’ve had a couple of times when I’ve been reading a great book and come upon a part that just doesn’t seem to work at all. When that happens I do what Faith did and I whip out the highlighters and pens and I mark it up and figure out why it didn’t work. I take notes and a lot of time re-write it myself to try to make it work. It’s a great writing exercise.

  • […] think that it’ll help me with revision more than anything else. I was reading an article, Envy or Inspiration, over at Magical Word today and it really was perfecting timing for me. Sometimes I struggle with […]

  • quillet

    Ack, yes, the envy thing. I try not to compare myself to other writers, but it doesn’t always work. Sometimes that inspires me, sometimes depresses me. But! The very best books sometimes get an enjoyable and guilt-free re-read because I get to call it “research.” (How’d the author do that? I really have to read this again… No, honestly, I’m working!)

  • Razziecat: I love Carol’s books. It’s hard to not feel envious, but then I enjoy them so much I just wallow in the delight.

    A.R. Gideon: that’s a good idea, on both counts.

    Quillet: buying and reading books–part of the job and totally justifiable.

  • Di, The Anubis Gates affected me both ways. I read it and think “I could never achieve that level of creativity,” but then in the next breath I find myself wanting to make readers feel the way Powers made me feel, and I start slamming words on paper in a wild rush.

  • Misty: That’s a book I haven’t read. It’s on my TBR pile, but ended up getting packed up in order to clear out the house to sell it. So I have to wait, alas and alack.

  • Robin.Deffendall

    I had writer’s envy in high school, where I felt very inadequate compared to other’s creativity. Later I stopped writing entirely (for other reasons) and it took 21 years for me to begin writing again. I had read Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind. I closed the cover and instantly knew that I had to write again. He will forever be my Personal Writing Deity for that reason.

    The big problem I have with inspiration is voice intrusion. The style of my work is sometimes heavily influenced by the authors I’m reading. Normally not a huge issue, but when I started my WIP, I had recently read Robert B. Parker’s westerns, Appaloosa, Resolution and Blue Eyed Devil. The voice in those is amazingly sparse, and it really affected my sytle. I just finished Raylan by Elmore Leonard. Totally different. Now I’ll have to revise those down to a more normal voice for me. One that doesn’t fight between the laconic Parker and the bantering Leonard.

    But after a 21 year long inertia, if that’s the worst trouble I have, I’ll take it. I’m writing again. And I have Patrick Rothfuss to thank for it.

  • Yay to be writing and end of inertia and entropy. Voice intrusion can be tough. There are some writers who have such a distinctive voice that I definitely avoid them when writing. Victorian novels are that way for me: Dickens, Austen, Trollope . . .

    Congrats on writing!

  • sagablessed


    May I recomend everyone watch this? One of my Reverends posted it ot my FB wall. I think she has quite a bit of what this post talks about.