There’s nothing new under the sun.

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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.

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4 comments to There’s nothing new under the sun.

  • I apparently made a…*tries to remember* Seinfeld, I think, reference in one of my books, which my editor thought was pretty funny and commented on, and it took me a long time to figure out what she could possibly even mean, because I’ve never watched Seinfeld. :)

    I think, in fact, that part of the joy of being a writer is the chance to take an old idea and do something with it that no one else has done. I’ve got a YA fantasy novel that’s *extremely* traditional in its tropes–5 children go from our world to save another–and which I *know* slots into the CS Lewis/Susan Cooper/Lloyd Alexander school of traditional fantasy, because that’s *exactly* the kind of book I set out to write. I *love* those books, and I love what they brought to my life, and I also know that I can tell that same kind of story in a way that none of those three ever did, and to do it *well*.

    I also think that my book is the better for me /knowing/ their books, because it’s … they’re my springboard. Certainly people can write fresh stuff because they don’t know anything about the genre, but I think at least as often, not knowing the territory means you’re writing something that’s been done a hundred times, and possibly you don’t know how to make yours stand out.

    Besides, if you don’t read, how can you care enough about books and stories to be writing them? I mean, I guess it’s possible, but … o.O

    -Catie

  • I actually find it hard to write my own stuff when deeply into someone else’s fiction, particularly if theirs is alternate world fantasy and I’m writing in one of my epic fantasy worlds. But I see this as probably the worst thing about my job. I miss reading half the year. As for TV, I have series that I love, but I don’t like to be anchored to the TV at certain times of the night on certain days of the week, so I watch far less than I once did. Again, I know that I’m missing out, because I agree with the premise of your post. We authors should know what’s out there. But there’s just so much I can absorb and still write. I don’t know what the answer is.

  • Oh, yeah, me too, David. I pretty much don’t read while I’m writing. Graphic novels and magazines, that’s about it. I miss reading horribly.

    I have entirely given up on watching TV on TV. I only watch it on DVD these days. Yeah, so it means I wait a year before seeing the latest show, but it also means I can watch it when I want, without commercial interruption. I love that. :)

    -Catie

  • Catie, I LOVE watching TV on DVD! We just saw both seasons of “Rome” over the course of a month, because a friend lent us the DVDs.

    I’ve also discovered the wonder of watching shows on the internet. Fewer commercials, and I can watch when it suits me. I can also use it as a reward. If I reach my page goal for the day, I can watch a show I like.