I might have mentioned a few hundred times that I'm a fan of A Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin. One of the many, many things I love about his work, is that I can see threads of influence from some true literature greats. Tolkien, Shakespeare, Conrad, Bronte, White, Hugo, Dickens. Some of these are conscious - like the Monty Python references - but I'd imagine some are not. Heck, some may just be me projecting another story on top of what's there. And then some are straight from history - The Red Wedding was inspired by a particular story in Scottish history. I'd even go so far as to say there's some influences from comics, too, since he's a fan. Long story short, the man has read a lot. And instead of his books being another Lord of the Rings rip off, they're maybe the most original things on the market. The books he's consumed have fueled an imagination that is an amalgam of all the things he's absorbed from all the stories he's read. The parts were melted down and re-forged to make a new whole, a unique weapon, the steel shaped and tempered. Think of a book as a blade. It's not as simple as pouring molten metal into a mold and letting it set up. No, that wouldn't have any strength. Just like a book that's an echo of another doesn't stand on its own. So instead, you become a swordsmith, a master of your own craft.
Stephen King has the best advice for writers: you must read. There's all these step-by-step writing guides and blogs that swear they can teach you exactly how to write...or you could listen to a talented, successful author, like King. And read. I love that - it's not pretentious, not know-it-all, not yanking the ladder up behind his success. It's literally the simplest way to better your writing. I think he's absolutely right.
This is my take on the reading issue, and it's just my two cents. Er...five cents.
Going back to Martin, reading is about adding to our own personal canons as authors. I bump into lots of writers on the web who say they just don't have time to read. Or they limit themselves to only one or two authors or genres - they don't want to read anything that isn't directly relevant to their own stories and characters. Lots of people don't have time to read these days, with work and kids, but if you're an author, Stephen King says that excuse won't fly. And that's hard to hear. When your brain is mush, all you want to do is surf Pinterest or Tumblr or stare off into space. But...Your business is telling stories, and the best way to keep your mind honed, is to feed it with words.
“A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge.”
― George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones
― George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones
I think as writers, we all have those stories I think of as formative. Those stories we always go back to, the ones with the themes that really hit home, the ones that tickled our childhood imaginations and have stood the test of time. (For me, the biggie is the Robin of Locksley tale. Go figure.) Life adds its own special flavor of hell. And the rest of the gaps, we fill in with books, movies, comic books, poems, songs. The more you read - and the more variety you read - the more you build on what's already there. You learn what you like, what you don't like. You build this collection of stories that you can draw on at random, in an unconscious way. You learn something little with every story, so the more stories you read, the more those little things add up to big things.
There's something to be learned in all genres. Stephen King taught me about subtle atmosphere, and dread. Tolkien taught me about fellowships, and juggling large casts. Jane Austen taught me it's okay to tell small, personal stories. Michael Crichton taught me about selling the unbelievable. Conan Doyle taught me I loved finding clues. Dickens taught me patience. I've studied Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology, because it's fascinating, and fun. I'm always reading. Even if it's just ten minutes a night before I fall into bed, even if I'm knee-deep in my own writing, I make time for reading, because I'm adding to that canon all the time.
I think it's important not to rule out possibilities. Writing can go in directions we never anticipated; inspiration can come from any direction. You're only holding yourself back if you limit your reading experience to a very small collection. I've found that it's better not to lean too heavily on one source. I love Tami Hoag, but I don't want to write just like her. I've read so much, and I feel like my own writing voice is stronger for it. You're not in danger of copying anyone too closely if you swim in a great big sea of words. Reading teaches us about language, about the sensual way words roll together; it shows us the limitless ways to tell a story, and allows us to find our own route.