Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Read, read, read…

If there’s one pitfall many first-time writers fall into, it’s that of not reading. Since I’ve started fiction editing professionally, I’ve seen it again and again. It’s admirable that people are inspired to write, especially in the wake of highly popular made-into-film novels such the Harry Potter and Twilight phenomena. Hell, I’m biased. Anything that gets people to give fiction writing a go is a great idea. The problem comes in that often people who start writing do so haven’t grown up in a culture for loving words, which suggests having read novels across more than one genre.

For me writing fiction is therapy. Sure, most of the time I admit I write fluff, be it purely commercial fantasy or erotic fiction. Hell, my husband despairs of me creating anything “literary” and, who knows, maybe one day I will write something a little more serious, but right now I’m having too much fun. I love the English language, I love telling stories. But that doesn’t mean I’m not averse to a bit of William Burroughs, John Fowles or Aldous Huxley when the mood fits, on top of reading popular contemporary offerings.

The problem comes in when first-time authors haven’t built an awareness of the other stories that are out there. I’ve lost count of how many Twilight and Underworld clones I’ve encountered during the submissions-reading process. While it’s all fun and games to play with an existing concept, many first-timers end up with a work that’s entirely derivative. My feeling: you may as well be writing fanfiction then, which is also fine, since websites such as fanfiction.net cater for exactly that market. I understand the enthusiasm for timeless classics, such as werewolf vs. vampire conflict and the sheer joy of continuing the excitement of what you enjoyed about the book/movie in your own writing, but unless a writer puts a seriously original spin on the existing theme, it’s not going to pique the interest of editors who see this kind of writing daily.

Derivative works make slush-pile readers say “Meh” and move onto another manuscript that shows more potential, in the process dashing the hopes of hundreds of promising authors who may have stood a chance had they taken that idea one step further.

There’s a current underlying opinion that vampires in fiction are so passé it hurts. This is not the case. While the bigger publishers who have more of a capital outlay in the fiction they release may think twice about the horse they perceive to be flogged to death, there are scores of small presses willing to publish variations on popular themes. The trick is finding that X-factor in a classic scenario and putting a unique spin on it to make it your own, which means avoiding Edward-and-Bella clones, okay?

And to do that, my advice to first-time authors is to read, and read widely. Go read The Great Gatsby. Read Wuthering Heights. The Magus by John Fowles: yes, it’s a doorstopper but in my opinion it’s also one of the most important works of literary fiction to be published in the past century. Gorky, William Golding, Burroughs, the Brontë sisters… Go read them. Go visit the “classics” section at your local bookstore or library and read at least one of these titles a month.

There’s a reason these are considered timeless examples of fiction (and there’s a reason these books were foisted upon thousands of schoolchildren during their formative years at school).

If you, like me, can step back and say “This is why I don’t like Ernest Hemingway” then you’re on the right track. Learn to love words, to eat, sleep and breathe them. Then you’re already on the right path to being a fantastic author.

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Books one and two of my urban fantasy Khepera series are available at the following links:


Leatherdykeuk said...

Are beginning authors not influenced by what they read as well? But yes, I agree. Writing is one of the only things people start without doing an 'apprentishship' first.

Anonymous said...