As a novelist, it’s hard to be original. How do you learn to be more original, when it feels like your writing is too much like the books you’ve been reading?
H.B. posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I’ve been reading lots of YA recently (hunger games, divergent etc) and recently started writing my own novel. I am only a teenager, but I write in the hopes that I will edit my work and publish it when I’m older. Anyway the book I’m writing at the moment seems too close to other books I’m reading – it has attributes that are very similar to novels in the same genre but I’m not coping on purpose, it just happens as I’m writing! What should I do?
Randy sez: There’s an old saying that when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
I suspect that the problem is that you’re reading books that are too similar to each other. You’ve read the Hunger Games series and the Divergent series, but those are quite similar books. Naturally, when you go to write your own novel, you’re going to produce something like the things you’ve been reading.
Solving the Problem
The solution is pretty simple, but it’s going to take some time.
Read stuff you like.
Read stuff you don’t like.
The more you read, the more you’ll expand your horizon on what can be done as a novelist. That will keep you from getting into a rut.
Some Recommended Books
I’ve tried to read at least something in practically every major category, even categories that I don’t particularly like. Here is a random collection of books that have helped broaden my horizons. It’s a very small selection from my library, but it cuts across all the main categories:
- The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. The quintessential fantasy series for adults.
- The Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling. The quintessential YA fantasy series.
- Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card. An exciting science fiction novel about an earth-orbiting Battle School where pre-teen military cadets are groomed to save the earth from an alien invasion.
- The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett. A massive historical novel set in 11th century England about the building of a cathedral and the internal politics of a monastery. Most of Ken Follett’s fans think this is his best novel.
- The Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean Auel. A long historical novel set in ice-age Europe about a four-year-old human girl adopted by Neanderthals.
- Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon. A time-travel romance novel set in 18th century Scotland about a British nurse in 1945 who falls in love with a Scotsman after finding herself unexpectedly transported to 1743.
- Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell. The quintessential historical romance novel, about a strong-willed self-absorbed young woman growing up during and after the Civil War.
- The Chosen, by Chaim Potok. A literary novel about a pair of genius Jewish teen-age boys from rival religious communities who start out as enemies and become best friends.
- The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. A dystopian futuristic novel about a young woman being used as a concubine in a world where most people are infertile.
- The Godfather, by Mario Puzo. The quintessential Mafia novel about an organized crime family fighting for survival in the brutal New York underworld.
- The Firm, by John Grisham. This was Grisham’s breakout novel about an ambitious young lawyer hired to work in a cushy law firm who discovers that his company is a front for a money laundering operation.
- The Hunt for Red October, by Tom Clancy. This was Clancy’s first novel about a Soviet sub commander who tries to deliver the latest submarine intact to the Americans at the height of the Cold War, with the entire Soviet navy in hot pursuit.
- The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, by John LeCarre. In 1961, a washed up British spy is approached by East German spies hoping to persuade him to defect. In my opinion, the best spy novel ever written.
- The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, by Arthur Conan Doyle. The quintessential series of mystery stories and novels.
- The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. A non-linear story about a man with a genetic defect that yanks him back and forth in time—and the woman who loves him.
- Pride & Prejudice, by Jane Austen. A classic romance novel about a young English woman who has the audacity to want to marry for love, and the three very different young men who pursue her.
- Vampire Academy, by Richelle Mead. A bestselling YA novel about a group of young vampires in a special academy where they learn how to defend themselves against the evil Strigoi.
I could go on much longer, but this is enough for now. Most of these are classics in their category, and I’ve read almost all of them several times. These cover most of the major categories of fiction. Most of them are not suitable for children, but I will note that most of my writer friends were reading books not suitable for children at a very early age. And so was I. People who are destined to be writers tend to grow up fast and read books that would horrify their parents.
How to Be More Original
My opinion is that every novelist needs to read thrillers. And romance novels. And fantasy. And science fiction. And classics. And dystopic novels. And YA. And horror. And historicals. And mysteries. And religious fiction.
You don’t have to read a lot of books in a category you don’t like. But you should read at least enough to prove that you really don’t like the category. The goal is to learn what’s out there, and what can be done with the written word. My list above is tilted a bit towards thrillers and historicals, because that’s what I like.
Reading in a wide variety of categories is the best inoculation I know against the dread disease of accidentally writing like your favorite author.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.
You are so right Randy, we tend to write what we read (and consequently like). I believe there’s a saying that if you copy from one source is plagiarism, but if you copy from multiple is just research. I have found deep within my creative core the influence of comics I used to read before I was ten. My passion for watercolors also comes largely from those comics artwork. It is so important to read different genres and watch different movies/ tv shows, you never know what might influence you down the line.
Most of the stories you listed are among my very favorite ones. Lord of The Rings is my favorite movie (the books are a bit slow for me, but I still enjoyed them) and Richelle Mead is my absolute favorite writer, and I’ve read Vampire Academy for the first time over 10 years ago. It was the first time I really connected deeply with a story because the characters were so well developed. After all this time her writing still influences me and the first VA book still is my top favorite (along side Frankenstein).
I knew I wanted to be a writer from a very early age (probably around 6/7 years old) but it was only when I was introduced to Richelle’s books that I found my writing nyche sort of speak. Since then I have been wetting my feet among other shores as well, but paranormal YA fiction will always have a special place in my heart, right along side fantasy and historical fiction. Also, when you mix and match your favorite genres, you likely will find something only you could have written. Sure, maybe your plot is similar to other books, but what I’ve learned while getting my masters in History is that even though the subject has already been studied your point of view might shed some light in a completely different way. You will only know this if you try it. The important thing is to keep writing and keep reading, one feeds of the other.
Davalynn Spencer says
Great list. Though I might argue that Gone With the Wind is more of a historical love story than a romance, considering the ending.
Janet Ann Collins says
It has been years since I read some of those books. You’ve inspired me to read them again. Thanks.
Peter Trott says
You accidentally left “War and Peace” off your list. :>)
That’s an excellent list to start with Randy. I think everyone should make their own list and try to at least review the books regularly. I try to read one of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books every year around Christmas.
I’ve actually defaulted to focusing on reading books that my girlfriend and best friends suggest to me. This pushes me out of my favored books and gives me a wide range of novels and non-fiction books that I would have never looked into myself.
Reading books on writing is helpful, but it will only go so far. Being able to see the lessons in the wild of a good book is even more educational.
Also, props to your teenage reader for sitting down to write and actually asking about how to improve. I was no where near that level at that age!
Tiffany Dickinson says
Great answer to a question that should probably be asked more often Thanks for the insights.
Like others, I’ve read most of the books on your list as well. I would add Frank Herbert’s Dune.
One nitpick on your blog post. Re: Clan of the Cave Bear…Ayla was a Cro-Magnon and her adopted family were Neanderthals. Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon are both members of the human race; two among the numerous branches, some of which co-existed during the same time period.
Medieval Mythbuster says
So happy I found this blog. I can tell you teach because you love it. Thanks for recommending Pillars of the Earth. I watched the TV series but never even knew it was a book. As someone who obsessed with the medieval period I must read it now.