All Those Old Guys

When I first began writing (serious writing that is, for entertainment, not for scientific purposes or to hand in to a teacher) I heard that a serious, competent writer had to read other writers and authors in order to advance his own work.  On the face of it, that’s a good idea: learn from the experts, learn from those who’ve been published, from those who’ve been through the process of writing and know the ropes, from those who’ve worked with agents and editors and publishers and have gone the whole nine yards.  But in my naiveté, I brushed aside that advice and told myself I wasn’t going to read the others in my field (science fiction) because I didn’t want to be influenced by them.  I was afraid I’d wind up writing like them or trying to put their plots in my books, or that I wouldn’t be able to think up a plot for my story because I’d have someone else’s story line running through my head.  So, for a long time, I didn’t read much even though I was trying to write a sci-fi novel.  I did read books and magazines on how to write, and they helped, but getting down and reading Heinlein or Asimov or Wells or Verne or Le Guin or any of a number of other well-known sci-fi authors just wasn’t on my schedule.  (As an aside, I’ve even heard other newbie writers say the same thing.)

A few years later I changed my mind, and I’ve been reading books and magazines in the sci-fi genre for over ten years now.  The idea of being influenced by other writers isn’t as much of a problem as I’d thought.  I can come up with my own plot lines and I don’t have to worry about someone else’s story getting stuck in my head and not going away.  If you’re a new writer contemplating the same thing, forget about it.  It’s not a good reason not to read other works.

But that’s not all there is to the subject.  In fact, I was right in my original assumption that I might be affected by other writers, at least in one particular direction.  I finished reading Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson about two weeks ago, and, since it was written over a hundred years ago (first published as a book in 1883), it was written in the style popular at that time: long sentences, outdated and unusual words, syntax we’d never use now.  But what was most unusual about reading that book (as well as other older authors) I found myself thinking and even writing in a style reminiscent of that time.  This tendency lasts for about a week, and finally evaporates.  So I was write (sorry, right) the first time.  I can be influenced by reading other writers and authors.  I try not to write like those older authors, and try to maintain my own style.  But some influence does happen; it just remains to be seen how long it lasts and whether it’s permanent or not.  I do tend to write long, involved, convoluted sentences (though nothing like Dickens or Proust)  to the extreme dismay of members of my critique groups, but I feel there’s a place for them.  Some sci-fi writers use short choppy sentences which I don’t care for, especially when they follow one right after another, and that may be a remnant of the reading of older authors.

Who knows?

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