As writers, we try to tell a fresh story that will entertain and enthrall our readers without repeating the same old thing others have already said. It’s tough, because people have been telling stories since time immemorial. What we all eventually learn is that it’s not so much the brand-new-never-told-before idea that matters, but the skillful, imaginative shaping of that old idea.
On another forum I visit, someone asked whether it really mattered if a writer is well-read. There are proponents of either side, busily arguing their philosophy. “Reading someone else’s work will force you to write in their style instead of your own” some say. Or (and I love this one) “No one else writes anything good enough for me to read.”
I think it does matter. The last thing I ever want to do is tell someone else’s story, even inadvertently. And I think it’s not just important to be well-read, but at least familiar with movies and television in one’s genre as well. A friend of mine was writing a political thriller, and named the president Bartlett. This was during the second season of “The West Wing”, which he didn’t watch. I watched it occasionally, enough to recognize the name “Bartlett” and wonder why he was writing “West Wing” fanfic. He wasn’t, but that name was enough to remove me from the story.
See, just because writers don’t read other authors/watch TV/go to the movies doesn’t mean readers don’t. Readers read. They have favorite shows they chatter about by the watercooler. They schedule date nights to see the latest blockbuster when it hits the screens. They’re going to notice if your book repeats something they’ve already seen. I’m not insisting we all need to stop what we’re doing to read while watching shows on our Tivo. There’s writing to do, after all. But knowing what’s already out there is just as important as all the other research you do for your book. It can sometimes be the thing that saves you the heartbreak of a rejection letter or a horrible review.