As most writers do, I read quite a lot, even when I’m writing. Usually it’s the best way for me to know what’s happening in the industry: which trends are burgeoning and which are dying, who’s changing genres, that sort of thing. Not to mention I simply love losing myself in someone else’s world for a little while. Reading also lets the writer know what’s already been done, and doesn’t need repeating.
All of us want to write original stories that thrill the reader, full of gripping adventure and sparkling wit. Notice I said “original”. No one wants to read a review of their own work that says, “Pansy Prosescribbler’s work was good, but she was clearly borrowing the magic baby subplot right out of Neville Novelwriter’s classic quest fantasies of the 1970’s.” We struggle to make our stories unique, but sometimes we end up repeating something someone else has done. Not on purpose, and that makes it doubly frustrating. It might be as extreme as a major plot thread, which forces the writer to go back and rip out that section and everything leading to it, to come up with something else that will work. Or it could be something as small as a name. Either way, the discovery can sometimes lead to writing paralysis.
I don’t like to call it writer’s block, because that’s become a bit of a dramatic catchphrase these days. “Oh poor me, I have writer’s block!” as if there’s a pill one could take to remedy the situation. When the real problem is paralysis. The brain locks up, the story dries in the metaphorical sun and all you hear is a little voice whispering You shouldn’t write that. Someone else already said it better. The readers will think you stole that name/idea/magic item and they’ll trash your book anyway so why are you bothering?
I suffered from just such a creatively paralyzed state not so long ago. I had just added a new and pivotal character to the book I was working on. Usually my characters pop into my head with their names attached, but this one didn’t. I worked hard researching to find the perfect name for her, and when I chose one at last, it was mysterious and exotic and fit her like a glove. At the same time, I started reading Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies, and to my horror, in walked a character with nearly the exact same name. It was spelled a little differently and the two women aren’t at all alike, but the name was uncommon enough that I panicked. I had to change my character’s name, didn’t I? People would see my book and think I’d stolen from Lynch! I worried so much over that minor sameness that I completely derailed my own process. Eventually I realized that by stopping and worrying about it, I would never get my own book finished. If my editor saw the name and thought it was too alike, she’d tell me. And with that, I kept going.
It’s so easy to be thrown off course. Real life intrudes, of course, but more insidious is the internal paralyzer, whispering to us about how unoriginal we are and how we should just give up and watch reruns of Lost. It’s hard to shut that voice down, and here’s another secret for you…just because you sell a book doesn’t quiet the nagging. Last night I was reading a new book by a first-time author, and to my momentary horror, he’d given a certain skill to a magical creature, an identical skill that I’ve used in my book. Oh no! Not again! I felt my chest seize up and for a second I couldn’t breathe. Was I going to have to completely change my whole story? But then I remembered that my story is mine and his is his, and except for that slight similarity they’re completely individual stories. I took a deep breath and went back to reading.