Read What You Write

For the  last week I’ve been reading cozy mysteries. For anyone who doesn’t know what a cozy is, think of Agatha Christie’s books or the TV series, “Murder She Wrote.” The books usually involve a small town or community, an off-stage murder, some quirky characters, and an animal—a dog, cat, or whatever the author chooses to include. Also the main character is not in law enforcement, though she may have a good friend (romantic or not) who is in law enforcement, and the main character has an interesting business/talent, such as doll house designer, herb gardener, writer, bookseller, stain glass window creator…the list goes on and on.

These are quick reads and usually become a series with readers/fans wanting to read more about the main character (who is usually female) and her friends. They are not action packed stories, the animal often helps in the solution of the mystery, and by the end of the story, life is back to normal in Cabot Cove (or wherever the story is set).

I’m reading these books right now because this year I’m on a panel during Sleuthfest 2017 ( discussing (or arguing) why some writers are making cozies grittier. I’m one of those grittier people. Actually when I started writing the P.J. Benson mysteries, I didn’t realize I was writing a cozy (or a series). However, my “Crow” books do have several of the elements I listed above: rural setting (P.J. lives near a very small village), a quirky mother (who is schizophrenic and often goes off her meds), P.J. has just started a home-based business (she’s a CPA), and her dog (a Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy) often plays a part in solving the mystery or saving P.J.’s life. Where I go astray is those books include sex, some bad language, and on-stage murder. Also, I try to make my stories fast paced.

My problem right now is my work-in-progress (wip) isn’t a cozy. My main character is a former assassin, and someone is trying to kill her. I want an edge to the action, narrative, and dialogue. I want a level of tension through the book. I don’t want it to be a “cozy” read.

But today, as I worked on a new chapter, I realized I was adding nice, leisurely described passages that slowed down the action and took away the tension of the scene. I realized, what I’ve been reading was influencing my writing.

Now, I know as long as I don’t continually read cozies, at some point during an edit, I’ll either cut those leisure portions or somehow or other I’ll ramp up the pacing and tension. Nevertheless, it surprised me how much the style of what I’d been reading had slipped into my writing.

On the other hand, it shouldn’t have surprised me. When I started writing, editors, other writers, and my agent all told me to read what I wanted to write. I had an editor send me four books she felt best indicated what they were publishing. She didn’t want me to copy the storylines or imitate the writers’ styles, but she did want me to absorb the structure, pacing, and tension in those books. She didn’t want me to copy, but to emulate.

So, my advice is: Read the type of books you want to write. You’ll pick up the language of the genre, the pacing, and the structure. Read the best. If you’re going to be influenced by what you’re reading, make sure your model is a good one.

P.S. This doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t read books that aren’t in the same genre as you want to write, just don’t immerse yourself in that genre as I have lately.

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23 Responses to Read What You Write

  1. Another terrific blog full of ideas to give me thoughts about my current WIP. Thanks, Maris. Once again you’ve made my day and it’s early morning here.

  2. Excellent topic, Maris. I write both contemporary romance and cozy mysteries and totally agree with what you’ve said. If I read romance exclusively while I’m writing cozies, the romance element slides into my prose quite easily. The same happens in reverse. But I have to be careful when I read within the genre I’m writing. I don’t want to copy a particular author’s voice or plotting style unintentionally. I try to read outside of my genres occasionally. That helps to keep me from falling into a reading rut.
    Thanks for bringing this topic up for discussion.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Your point about reading outside of your genre is a good one, Loralee. It’s one reason I belong to a couple of book clubs. The books chosen by those members force me to stretch my reading preferences.

  3. What you read does affect your writing. I write gritty westerns about hard men. Grew up reading Louis L’Amour and watching almost nothing but westerns. Have never read “cozy” and have no interest in that type of book. Be that as it may, I “grew up” reading those Louis L’Amour books – BUT – when I started writing I STOPPED reading almost completely, other than my historical resource books. Why? Because I was so afraid I would mimic someone else’s writing or inadvertently use something from someone else’s book. I always wanted my stories to be totally “me,” so in all these years I have read very little – usually books so far removed from what I write that they can’t possibly influence me – and for a mental break from what I write. Enjoyed your blog. Right on.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Thanks, Rosanne. I know what you mean about being afraid to read too many of an author’s books. If I did, I’m sure I would pick up that author’s style. I sample, and that keeps me aware of and in sync with the language and pacing of a mystery. Also, there are so many great mystery writers, I want a sampling of each.

  4. Good post, Maris. Some of the earliest advice I received years ago was along the same lines. I was having trouble with dialogue and a friend suggested a few writers who are brilliant at dialogue. I’ve continued to read others “to absorb” what they know how to do.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Good point, Susan. Every so often I’ll read a description or a scene written by another writer and it’s like a light bulb goes off. I see a new (and often better) way of writing something. What I love about writing is I’m always learning–about the subject and about the craft.

  5. Melissa Keir says:

    I love to read paranormal but I don’t write it. I am too worried about 1) comparing my writing to theirs and 2) using any of their writing in mine. I do like to read things that enhance my writing though and I can always learn from what I read.

  6. I agree with your post this week. I do think words and phrases linger in our minds as we write. I guess that is not all bad. I don’t think we would write what we would not want to read.
    I read and enjoy your blog each week.

  7. Very good advice! We do tend to be influenced by what we read even when we don’t realize it.

  8. Kathy Crouch says:

    Hi Marie,
    Funny, I just read this same post from Savvy Authors. I didn’t notice who wrote it. But, I did share it and I agree.
    I can’t write sweet romance, I don’t read it. I love gritty. I enjoy paranormal, suspense with romance, thrillers, but I can’t think of a single sweet romance I have ever read. I thought I was strange.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Kathy, I didn’t see the Savvy Authors’ post. I hope mine wasn’t too close to that one. I have noticed that several of us who blog seem to hit on the same topic at the same time. Must be one of those weird experiences where the idea is simply in the air.

  9. Cara Bristol says:

    I know some authors say they don’t like to read in their genre because they don’t want to be influenced by what they read. I think they need to be influenced. You need know what’s happening in the genre, what tropes are trending. You can choose to do something different, but at least you’re aware.

    Also, I believe strongly in supporting one’s fellow authors by buying their books!

    • Maris Soule says:

      I agree with you, Cara. I always tell others (new writers, especially) not only to read what they want to write, but to read current works so they can see what is being purchased/making the best sellers’ lists/incorporating new trends.

  10. Julia Masters says:

    Thanks for another thought-provoking blog, Maris. I often wonder how much of my writing style has been influenced by authors I’ve read over the years.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Julia, I have discovered that even though an author might influence my style right after I’ve read that author, and I might have a few thousand words that show that influence, later, when I start doing edits and rewrites, my own voice takes over and by the time I’m finished, the other “voice” is gone and the work is all mine.

  11. Terry Spear says:

    I don’t read the kinds of books that I write because I don’t want to accidentally copy someone else’s style/voice/words.

    I saw negative reviews for an author who had copied too much of two well-known authors’ time travel works. The problem is that readers who love a particular genre can end up reading all the books in that genre, and then the author is outed.

    I’ve read a lot of them myself, and I’ve written a couple, but mine are nowhere near what anyone else has done. It’s just so important to keep integrity.

    Plus, by reading something entirely different, I sometimes get great ideas that could work in such an alternative world. Not the same plot, hardly: a Regency compared to a paranormal contemporary, but just something that triggers an idea. Oftentimes though, I will watch a movie, or see a news report, and I’ve got a story. 🙂

    • Maris Soule says:

      Terry, I agree with you regarding reading too many books by the same author. I sample, and even in the sampling, some might be cozies, some thrillers, some police procedural, etc. The sampling keeps me aware of what’s being written without tricking me into copying a particular style.

  12. Sue Myers says:

    Another great post! Love your “Crow” series!