Is Your Reading Beating Up Your Writing?

The books you’re reading can and do inform and influence your writing. We like to believe that this is a good thing. That just like kicking an annoying teenager out of your house, the tough love of getting away from your creation can make for a more well-rounded individual in the end.

However, the books you’re reading – especially if they’re very good – can also play havoc with your writing. For instance, they might make you feel inadequate or inferior. And by far the most nefarious thing a good book written by someone else can do, is stop you writing altogether, through sheer distraction.

The last time I was reading book heroin – well, let’s call it baby book heroin. It wasn’t the full high, but it did in a pinch, so it was kind of more like book methadone really – it told me a lot of things about what I was writing. Things I didn’t want to hear, mainly. Granted, I was at a difficult stage of what I was writing. That point after the first draft is down, where you realise at least 40% of it is guff, with nothing happening, half-assed characters, and a holey plot. That point when you realise that 50% of it is going to have to be excised with a rusty shovel. But, to be fair, I would have realised that even without the book heroin by my side.

No. Much like an addictive substance, what the book heroin was telling me was far more disturbing.

Is Your Reading Beating Up Your Writing?

**************************

Baby Book Heroin: Pssst. Tara. C’mere, my sweetie honey love.

Me: Not now, Baby Book Heroin. I’m formulating a plan to make this work-in-progress a work of astounding beauty and intelligence.

BBH: But that’s what I wanted to say to you. It’s just that I have that. In spades. Astounding beauty and intelligence. Just look at my spiiiiiine.

Me: Maybe later. I’ve just had a surprise mojo injection and I need to do this now.

BBH: But look at me, here. At Chapter 16. It’s so niiiiiice. Your favourite characters are having a verbal sparring match.

Me: You mean Alfonsus and The Bishop finally meet?

BBH: Yep. And they have an argument. But they’re not fighting really. It’s more about The Bishop telling Alfonsus what was in his bag the night he—

Me: Oh, God. Not the night Ermintrude disappeared.

BBH: The very same.

Me: Well, maybe just one chap—wait! No! I have to do this first. Stop tormenting me. I know it’s Lent, but this is hardly fair.

BBH: [shrugging] Well, if you’re sure. But just so you know, the sooner you read Chapter 16, the sooner you get to Chapter 17.

Me: Why, what happens in Chapter 17?

BBH: Ermintrude comes back.

Me: Fecking hell. I didn’t see that coming.

BBH: And she’s got the bag. With the thing.

Me: YOU SHUT THE HELL UP RIGHT NOW! I’LL NEVER GET ANYTHING DONE WITH YOU AROUND!

BBH: [sniffing] My point exactly. Much easier to get it over and done with. Give yourself a shot of me. Come, Tara. You know you want me…. Chapter Sixteeeeeeeeeeeen…..

Me: But if I don’t rewrite my own stuff now, it’ll never be good enough!

BBH: Precisely.

Me: I thought I told you to shut up.

BBH: Frankly, I’m surprised you can’t see the greater problem here.

Me: What’s that?

BBH: What does it tell you, that you want to spend more time with me, than with your own work?

Me: That my WIP isn’t even holding my interest?

BBH: Exactly. [Fanning pages smugly]. Just sayin’.

Me: But if everyone stopped because of that, nothing would ever get written.

BBH: Hey, why do you think it took me the guts of a decade to get published?

Me: That’s not helping.

BBH: I’m not here to help. I’m here to entertain.

Me: What’s the word for something which is simultaneously entertaining and soul-destroying?

BBH: Modern politics?

Me: Smartarse.

******************************

Is Your Reading Beating Up Your Writing?

Nine times out of ten, baby book heroin won. Frustrated with what my characters weren’t doing yet, I kept retreating into what someone else’s fully-formed characters were doing, and doing beautifully. Scenes in which people did unexpected things which were also somehow inevitable. Intoxicating dialogue, where people said things which gave you the impression might even have surprised their author. Through my fingers, I chose to read about destructive acts I wished someone else’s characters weren’t doing, instead of using my fingers to write the ruination of my own. It became addictive. Frustration with my story drove me to hide in someone else’s.

The moral of the story is that no matter how much I say I want it, there is a downside to book heroin, particularly if you’re a writer. Say no to drugs, kids. And do your bloody homework.

*************************************

P.S. – ATTENTION ANYONE WHO KEEPS ASKING ME WHERE THE HELL MY ACTUAL WRITING IS…

A short story of mine is being published tonight (I’ve been told) at 8pm (GMT) in The Bohemyth. I’ll update this with the proper link once it’s up. The story is called “The Narcissist” and is a bit of a departure from my ordinary stylings, so I’m officially branching out. I hope this begins a very long answer to the question asked above by some of you lovely readers.

UPDATE: Story is now live! Read The Narcissist here.

Yesterday I also inflicted the first instalment of a regular column on writing.ie upon the general public. It’s about book covers, and how they say things about readers we really wish they wouldn’t. Officially it’s an ongoing guest blog, but I’m calling it a column, because I have notions. Please reach out to your nearest Irish person if you’re unsure as to the meaning of notions. (After you read the piece, obviously.)

Aren’t I just full of news this week! Please keep the excitement down to gargantuan levels.

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  89 comments for “Is Your Reading Beating Up Your Writing?

  1. Carl Rackman
    March 28, 2017 at 8:04 am

    Reblogged this on Carl Rackman and commented:
    Never had this happen to me (much)!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. March 28, 2017 at 8:22 am

    Conversely if you read a really bad book (and there are some I’ve managed to read all the way to the end) you can end up thinking to yourself “well if that piece of (insert expletive of choice) managed to get a literary agent and publisher interested then my first draft doesn’t even need editing before I send it off. Which truthfully might be just as bad as giving up completely. So I think the answer is to find a book that is neither too bad, nor too good, but just right. Goldilocks and the three books if you will. Although my hair is entirely the wrong colour to pull off that metaphor…

    Liked by 4 people

    • March 28, 2017 at 10:03 am

      A Goldilocks book! Brilliant. And in fact, seeing that there is already a story called Goldilocks, I could just keep reading that over and over again instead of other books, and as long as I keep bears out of my own fiction, nobody will know! Genius! But then you knew that, James.

      Liked by 1 person

      • March 28, 2017 at 10:26 am

        I hate to brag, but you’re right, I did know that.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. March 28, 2017 at 8:25 am

    Sparling! Why have you not alerted me to your publishing deal. About bloody time those publishers saw your value.
    Now, get back in the office and craft those characters.

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 28, 2017 at 10:05 am

      Conor, you get the official title ‘Gargantuan Of The Week’ for calling it ‘a publishing deal’. Would you like to be my Chief of Hyperbole? Y’know, while I’m working hard in my office, like?

      Liked by 2 people

  4. weebluebirdie
    March 28, 2017 at 8:50 am

    Ah, at last I have grasped why my notions of being a writer or an artist – either will do – have not amounted to anything. Firstly, I have kept the teenager, despite his disparaging remarks. Recently these have focused on how my friend I’ve known since art college is making his living as an artist – while I am not. As a mother, I have risen above this and chosen not to mention that my friend is a kept man while I have always paid the rent and assorted other bills. Secondly, I read too many good books. I think of it as a time saver really, so much quicker to read someone else’s than to write one’s own novel. I tried to come off the books last week by picking up That Girl Book in the charity shop – would never have paid Real Money for it, and have left the charity shop sticker on it. I knew the book would make me angry with its pointlessness, and it did. Had to read it in less than a week just to lessen the pain. Do you think I should go back to writing posts at my own gaff, or just fill up other people’s comments box?

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 28, 2017 at 10:07 am

      Well, now, if that’s a binary thing, Birdie, I’m afraid one of us has to lose. Because if it’s a choice between you commenting here OR writing your own posts, I’m more than selfish enough to demand your commenting genius. But if you can do both, we might all win… (there’s still time to ditch the teenager btw)

      Liked by 1 person

      • weebluebirdie
        March 28, 2017 at 11:27 am

        Well yes, you do enjoy a bit of adulation – but who doesn’t? After all, that’s the real impetus behind our notions. No one jots down a novel to keep boxes of books in the garage; just like no one opens a teashop to eat their own cakes. Doing my own posts again, eh? There’s a novel idea….

        Liked by 1 person

  5. March 28, 2017 at 9:12 am

    I always catch myself in that dilemma. Consumer or producer? If only the day had 40 hours…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. March 28, 2017 at 9:43 am

    When I see great blogs and I think about my own one: “What were you thinking?!” Yet, shortly after, I continue. Just because I love it.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. March 28, 2017 at 10:33 am

    *sets alarm to wake me from afternoon nap at 8pm*

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 28, 2017 at 10:55 am

      Glad to see you have your priorities straight, Depterness.

      Liked by 1 person

      • March 28, 2017 at 9:14 pm

        Tara, just read your story. What a treat to finally get some of your fiction. I’m going to read it again. Gave me a dose of the feels, as you’d say yerself.

        Liked by 1 person

        • March 28, 2017 at 9:17 pm

          Of course, coincidentaly, it just makes me want to quit, or eat something. Hunger and envy have very similar symptoms.

          Liked by 1 person

          • March 28, 2017 at 10:08 pm

            I always thought if ever someone told me I made them feel something it would be followed by the words “acid reflux” or perhaps “an overwhelming urge to use the loo”. But even if it is hunger on your part I’m still overcome with gratitude, Tenderlation.

            Liked by 1 person

  8. Anne O Leary
    March 28, 2017 at 10:39 am

    Oh this is so true… and it seeps into every part of your life. I am just coming down from a perfect high. The junk: Munich Airport by Greg Baxter. I am so jealous of the way he writes, i.e. breaks every good writing rule but ends up with a brilliant book.
    Keep letting us know about your publications Tara, looking forward to reading them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 28, 2017 at 11:09 am

      The perfect high?! Now that sounds like something I can chase… oh dear. Now look what you’ve done. Another week’s creative genius out the window. Well, at least it’s not my fault 😉

      Like

  9. tbrpiledotcom
    March 28, 2017 at 11:00 am

    Congratulations on the short story publication in the Bohemyth and for the column!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. March 28, 2017 at 12:18 pm

    Ms. Sparling I hereby lodge an official and baseless accusation– ala Drumpf over here– that you are spying on me.
    I have a presentation to give this weekend (no Foolin’, on April 1st) and the subject I chose was: “Reading It: That OTHER Thing You Can do with a Book”. So send my slides back to me, that’s the first thing, with all the missing bits filled in if you don’t mind, there’s a dear.
    Since I’m coming out on the pro-side (and urging folks to read as a way to get back to writing) you may find the work uplifting, in which case you’re welcome. But your points on how destructive it can be to your habit of the moment is very well taken and I fully intend to lift a mention of it as I recommend your blog to the audience. In which case you’re welcome again. My, how generous I’m being today…
    And final point. No need to preach to my choir about how alive a book is (or an end-table, or rug-corner or practically anything else that hates my bare feet with passion). Resistentialism is fact, and all those alleged inanimate objects are out to get us. Pass the word, and stay strong. Also awake. Reading might help… no, wait!

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 28, 2017 at 1:30 pm

      Will, just because I hired someone to tail you whilst simultaneously and systematically hacking into all your digital files, it doesn’t mean I’m spying on you. I very much appreciate you mentioning the blog in your presentation this weekend, but you’re going to have to do something about the paranoia. It’s making it harder to steal your ideas.

      On the other hand, your positive attitude regarding other points is a balm. I’m going to tell the next book who talks back to me.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. March 28, 2017 at 12:32 pm

    congrats on your publications!!!
    I have a Goodreads shelf called “Books I Wish I’d Written” which I could easily call “Heroin Books.”
    Great post, as per usual.
    Cheers,
    Liz

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 28, 2017 at 1:32 pm

      I have another category, Liz – ‘Books I Wish I’d Written Which Are So Good I Don’t Even Care I Didn’t Write Them Because I’m Just Bloody Glad Someone Did’. It’s a hard shelf. I light candles to it.

      Like

  12. March 28, 2017 at 12:40 pm

    Congratulations Tara, I’m looking forward to reading your writing in other places too, so that I can feel terrible about my own again. (Well no, I’m not looking forward to that part actually). I do find it is a constant struggle to keep the nose to the grindstone, and to remind myself that I will never get any better if I just sit about feeling sorry for myself. Kids are told at school to not compare themselves to each other but we do it as adults just as much.

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 28, 2017 at 1:37 pm

      If I’d known my writing could make people feel terrible, I would have started 20 years ago 😉

      I think we’re worse as adults. Children don’t generally combine competitive inadequacy with impending doom. When it comes to obsessing about time running out, us adults are A M A Z I N G.

      Liked by 1 person

      • March 28, 2017 at 1:52 pm

        And I think women are worse. Apparently we attend writers groups – or any group for that matter – more than men, they seem to be more confident of their ability or care less what others think.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. March 28, 2017 at 2:43 pm

    I don’t know, but it feels like my shrinking attention span is stomping them both into the dirt.

    (Congrats on the story publimicaton! I shall have half my characters talking like yours in no time!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 28, 2017 at 7:02 pm

      Only half, Nige? I must be losing my touch. Surely there’s room for more foul-mouthed embittered doomsayers than that?

      Like

      • March 28, 2017 at 9:08 pm

        The other half of my characters are things like goblins and talking tree stumps. They sound like my family.

        Like

        • March 28, 2017 at 10:10 pm

          They sound like your family, or they….? Never mind. I’d rather hang on to my myths about you.

          Like

  14. March 28, 2017 at 3:28 pm

    Congratulations on your column, Tara – a very wise addition on their part

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 28, 2017 at 7:03 pm

      Well, they might think that NOW, Anne… I like to see it as the beginning of a slippery slope for the world at large 😂

      Liked by 1 person

  15. March 28, 2017 at 3:41 pm

    Thankfully, I don’t have that reaction to book heroin, Tara, but I can see it. With those amazing heroin-like books, I do a bit of covetous hoarding of inspiration. I gobble up the words and phrases, pick the bones of every morsel, and absorb the wonder. My writing is automatically better if I’m simultaneously reading a great book. So when I’m crafting a first draft, I make sure I’m reading a powerfully written book with the same tone as what I’m working on (read dark fantasy if I’m writing dark fantasy).

    And congrats on the story! I can’t wait to read it 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 28, 2017 at 10:20 pm

      Thanks Diana! It’s up now so I hope you like it. If you don’t like it, lies are welcome. I love your idea of matching the tone of what you’re reading to what you’re writing. I just have to find some German Accountancy Noir, in the style of Japanese Noh Theatre, and I’m all set.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. March 28, 2017 at 6:19 pm

    Enjoyed the column that got published today.

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 28, 2017 at 6:20 pm

      Pressed the button too fast – meant to add that I hope this proves the first of many

      Liked by 1 person

      • March 28, 2017 at 10:23 pm

        So do I. But I’m also planning on letting everyone down shortly. Don’t you worry 😉

        Like

  17. March 28, 2017 at 7:23 pm

    I came late to writing fiction… oh the books I’ve read!! Whole groups of marvellous gorgeous delightful satisfying books.
    OF COURSE I think I’m a lousy boring bland writer with all sorts of problems in my stories – too much backstory, slow pacing, not enough/clear conflict, etc. Being a newby writer in my 70s is the pits for the ego.
    Back to revising… and I’m not going to read that intriguing Swedish mystery novel or that other one by my chair where the hot coffee is steaming. Sure, I’m capable competent efficient and exemplary and can resist. Sigh. But weak about reading books that make me believe my writing will never ever be good-enough.
    Cheers on a very important topic for writers in their solitary writing spaces. Much appreciated! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 28, 2017 at 11:21 pm

      As is your comment, Celia. Resist the temptation of books and steaming coffee if you can. Although to be honest, I don’t know if anyone could. You put ‘book’ and ‘coffee’ in the same sentence and I’m Pavlov’s dog.

      Like

  18. March 28, 2017 at 10:50 pm

    Satisfying to see that my badgering last week resulted in an actual story being published (I’ll take all the credit…). All that’s missing now is the full-length novel – if you can only tear yourself away from that BBH

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 28, 2017 at 11:24 pm

      I’m spoiled for distractions right now, Graeme. Spoiled I am. But you’re right to take the credit. I was terrified enough by the pressure you applied last week to write 18 short stories in the space of 2 hours.

      Of course I’m kidding. I’d write a novel in the space of time it takes me to get a short story together. Truth be told I hate the bloody things!

      Liked by 1 person

      • March 29, 2017 at 4:43 pm

        It’s easy to be distracted, Tara. TV, movies, alcohol and loose women do it for me every time

        Liked by 1 person

        • March 29, 2017 at 4:52 pm

          Loose Women eh? I never would have pegged you for a daytime telly fan, but it takes all sorts.

          Liked by 2 people

  19. March 29, 2017 at 11:05 am

    I loved your story – too many suds to go down the sink, the enamel casserole that decades of Sunday dinners have aged black … the Mum with the asbestos hands. I had one of those. Short stories are bloody hard to write. Harder than novels in my opinion. Hope all your writing is going well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 29, 2017 at 3:24 pm

      Oh thank you Victoria! That means a lot. I’m the same regarding short stories – I find them fiendishly difficult. But you commenters have been so very nice about all this. Have I taught you nothing??

      Liked by 1 person

  20. March 29, 2017 at 8:57 pm

    Books, blogs, duties and the rest of life all shout louder than my current manuscript. It is difficult to attend to a manuscript that can barely whimper when ignored. I read The Narcissist… I took a few paragraphs to warm to the change in style, but then was hooked by the mixture of compassion and distaste between the generations and enormous relief that my two daughters were half a generation earlier than Leah and her friends. I also read the column… a few weeks ago, when setting off for a doctor’s appointment, I made a very careful selection of what to be seen reading in the waiting room (almost certain to contain people I might know). I kidded myself that it was about what would fit in the handbag, but then I actually stopped and laughed out loud, because I am clearly a book snob.

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 30, 2017 at 2:33 pm

      Interesting you mention the change in style, Hilary, my husband asked me if anyone had bawked at it being so different only about an hour before you commented! Don’t worry about being a book snob – I’m thinking of forming a union. Glad you enjoyed the pieces. I seem to be in some sort of humour for throwing out tentacles and seeing how they sting.

      Liked by 1 person

  21. March 31, 2017 at 5:16 am

    Reblogged this on Wind Eggs and commented:
    To Tara Sperling, great books can be book heroin to distract you. To me, great books are always a learning experience. Every book is a book to study and use to improve my writing style. Is a book a piece of crap? (That’s right, there are far too many out there.) What are they doing that I need to avoid. Why does this passage drag so badly? How could I make it zip? Does the dialogue make me want to close the book and walk away? Why and how could I fix it.

    Books like Love in the Ruins, The Golden Notebook, and Gravity’s Rainbow? I don’t cringe and wish I could write as well. I ask myself, what is it about their technique that appeals to me and can I adapt it to my own writing? Even books like Conne Willis’ Bellwether or indie books like Ian Probert’s Johnny Nothing I see as learning opportunities.

    It’s okay to feel intimidated by better writing. It’s a mistake to think you’ll never write like that. Unless you fail to understand that all writers are our teachers.

    Like Tara says, don’t do book drugs. Turn them into your prescription medicine.

    Liked by 2 people

    • March 31, 2017 at 9:34 am

      Thanks for re-blogging, Phillip. That’s it. I’m off to get inspired now…

      Like

  22. March 31, 2017 at 7:52 am

    I’m just heading over to read your story before I get the urge to actually write myself. Oh and then I’ll pop in and catch up on your column😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 31, 2017 at 9:52 am

      Good woman Bernie Rose. Nothing pleases me more than someone whose priorities are as skewed as me own 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  23. March 31, 2017 at 4:50 pm

    Been out of circulation for a couple of days, but knew I had this to look forward when I got back to a workstation that actually remembers my IDs etc (d’oh…!). Off to read The Narcissist in a mo’ – love Baby Book Methadone ;-).

    Liked by 1 person

  24. April 1, 2017 at 12:11 am

    I was musing my way to the end of this (apparently I can muse in the daytime if the curtains are drawn) and I read about your Irish motions; now call me scatological but that was an unexpected twist (though twisted motions are a problem with unrestrained musing I find) to find you articulating a theory of motions – my mother was fixated by my motions even though she would often tell me to stop running around too – I found that contrary of her to be truthful. And then I realised it was notions and my eyesight was the problem here which brings us back to musing in the daylight hours..

    Liked by 1 person

  25. April 3, 2017 at 12:41 pm

    Just read your story, Tara. It’s great!

    Liked by 1 person

  26. April 3, 2017 at 10:02 pm

    Why not be the ultimate Person of Mystery and make plain brown wrappers for the books you read in public? Surely, imagining the lurid notions that observers may have when they wonder what you’re hiding beneath a kraft paper cover will be more snobbishly satisfying than the cheap thrill of flaunting the cover art of a naked (even if promiscuously cerebral) book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • April 4, 2017 at 9:31 am

      I suppose I feel too that covers are free advertising for the author, Christine – if I’m enjoying a book enough to read it in public it would be nice if it had the sort of cover I would proudly display on their behalf!

      Liked by 1 person

  27. solsdottir
    April 5, 2017 at 8:28 pm

    I don’t know if you’ve ever read any of Dorothy Sayers’ mysteries, but one of her main characters is a mystery writer. In the book Have His Carcase, she gets blocked, sits around reading thrillers for days, then sudddenly comes to in a panic, realizing she’s way behind on her own book. (She rationalizes it by telling herself she’s “releasing her subconcious”..

    Liked by 1 person

    • April 5, 2017 at 10:57 pm

      If I did that with the right books, I might never come to! Also, I have visions of releasing my subconscious and it laying waste to the entire country. Might make for an interesting experiment, eh?

      Liked by 1 person

  28. April 11, 2017 at 3:19 pm

    Tara I’m having a wonderful afternoon catching up on your posts. And working hard too of course. Congratulations on all your exciting news. I truly enjoyed The Narcissist and can’t wait to read more of your fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    • April 11, 2017 at 3:33 pm

      Thanks Donna! I’m hoping to write something else I actually like. It’s not clear whether that’ll ever be the case 😉

      Like

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