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.
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!
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?
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.