19 September 2008

Reading and writing

Sometimes we get students who apply for our course who hardly ever read a book. They seem surprised that we expect them to read. I mean why would we? Being a writer who doesn't read is rather like being an architect who never looks at the buildings around you, who never browses the latest in the architectural magazines. If you were hiring an architect, wouldn't you want someone who was up with what was going on, who felt inspired by the amazing things that other architects were doing, who wasn't just peddling the same old, same old? I know I would.

Some writers use the excuse that they don't want to be influenced by what other people are doing -- as if they would have no control over what they were doing and might be impelled to copy ideas or plagiarise actual phrases or sentences. That's a rather naive attitude. Ideas sometimes seem to have a currency -- there's nothing worse than finishing a short story or a book, feeling that satisfaction, then picking up a new book for relaxation -- and there's your idea! What a gut-sinking moment. Only, you know they didn't copy it from you, because your version isn't even out there yet. And you didn't copy it from them, because you hadn't read this book before.

Still, if the book's been published, people might think you've copied whether you have or you haven't. So aren't you better off being aware what's out there so that you can make sure yours is different? How else are you going to become aware of the cliches of your genre?

Fine, so you should read widely in the genre you're writing in -- and I maintain you should write in a genre you know and love, not one that you don't respect but think is easier (is there such a thing?) or that is more likely to make you money. If you don't have absolute respect for the genre, it will show through in the writing. Fans will sense the disrespect and respond to it -- even if they can't put a name to it. But is reading widely in your genre enough?


You need to read widely to teach yourself how to write well, and if you are already writing well, to keep raising that bar. Different types of fiction will teach you different things. Want to know about suspense? Go read some crime. What about language use or characterisation? Look at lit fic. Plot? Try a thriller. Experimental fiction might help you take risks you'd never even thought about. Who knows where you might end up? But if you don't read, you won't ever know.


Leah-Mae's Scribbles said...

Hiya Tracey,

like the new post, tres inspiring!
anyhoo, ta for the advice.
-i tend to read to the exculsion of all else-

also, i was wondering what your "policy" is on the borrowing of character names.

-i will tend to see a name as "fair game" if i've read it in more than five books as infuential charaters- is this okay?
there is a point where a name becomes common enough to share, but no-one will give ma a clear answer.

ta for the advice,
Leah Mae

Sherryl said...

Why would you borrow someone else's names? I need to feel a name really fits my character, so I use baby name books and the phone book.
Or are you talking fan fiction? Just curious.

Leah-Mae's Scribbles said...

No, not fan fic, just names. (nonsense names and such)
I have alot of nameless characters floating around in my head, and often i'll find a name that fits, (their attitude or personality) but it's copywrited to someone else!

there needs to be a line drawn somwhere saying "okay, once it's been used this many times, you can use it"

Agree or disagree?
Cheers, Leah Mae

Tracey said...

Leah Mae, generally, names aren't copyrighted -- they're too small to constitute a literary work, but characters can be, so I would be wary of using someone else's first-and-last-name combo. If you want more information, have a look at the Australian Copyright Council website http://copyright.org.au -- they have free information sheets all about the many different aspects of copyright.

I'm like Sherryl -- I have a great baby book and use this. Or I make them up. (But that's the beauty of writing fantasy -- I have leeway to do what I want.) I think if I took a name from a character in a book I'd read, I might subconsciously draw on aspects of that character as well, so I'd rather start afresh and, as Sherryl says, make sure they fit -- or else use them as a contrast. That can work well too.

Tracey said...

I should add though, that with names other laws such as those to do with trademarks and fair trading can come into effect though, so it's not necessarily a free-for-all! You do have to be careful.

Leah-Mae's Scribbles said...

Thanks for the advice,
I will definatley look up the site, i have a "names book" too, but it's only common names, but still a time-saver.

When I'm looking for a "different" name for a character, I'll find or make one to suit the personality of my character, the right name can make or break!

Leah Mae