A student contacted me the other day to say that she'd been reading some bestselling books to inspire her - but that unfortunately it was having the opposite effect!
She said she was feeling very intimidated by the way these bestselling authors spun words, described everything so beautifully and really got her involved in the story.
She came away from reading feeling depressed that she could never compete, that she would never be as good as these other writers.
She asked if I might read one of these authors, dissect their style and tell her how she might emulate these great writers.
I flinched inwardly. I couldn't help myself.
Because I make it a rule NOT to read great authors when I'm writing a novel - for exactly the same reasons as my student!
A long time ago I discovered that reading writers like Stephen King, Robert Harris, Michael Chrichton and James Patterson stopped my writing in its tracks.
These guys write with such flair - they make it seem so easy that yes, I found it hard to write my own material without either unconsciously emulating their styles or making me feel as though I couldn't write my way out of paper bag.
It was then I made the rule: "Don't get distracted by other writers when you're writing your own stuff."
It's partly for practical reasons too. Writing a long work is time-consuming - and so is reading a novel. There has to be a trade off somewhere - and surely the focus should be on your own writing.
I have a pile of comics I read for distraction when I'm writing - because I know I won't get too involved and looking at the pictures is something I can enjoy without compromising my own sense of artistic integrity.
Besides which, it's completely artificial to read a bestselling book and believe the text on page is the author's 'first go' at his novel. Writing that looks easy is the end result of furious editing, and ruthless self-discipline AFTER the first draft is completed.
To compare your own writing to a bestselling novelist's work is a bit like getting up in the morning and wondering why you don't look like Nicole Kidman or George Clooney on the Oscar runway.
The fact is, movie stars don't look like their image before they put on the fairy gloss! And so it is with modern fiction - the end result is slick and impressive - but the first drafts are probably very similar to your own work.
So my advice is that if you want to inspire yourself to write, deliberately read something bad. This age old practice has worked since the dawn of time, from Plato to Patterson, from Flaubert to Frey.
Writers everywhere have all read a truly shoddy piece of writing, felt good about themselves and pronounced those immortal words, "Tuh! I can do better than that!"
Haven't you ever done that? And then felt emboldened to get on with your own writing, secure in the knowledge there's always someone worse than yourself?
It works for me. I won't mention the name of the author's book I read before I began my own current novel but it was bad - shocking, appalling. Misplaced qualifiers, serious POV issues, stylistic inconsistencies, the lot - even though I did actually quite enjoy the story.
But when I put the book down, I felt a rush - a certainty my next book could be really special, my best yet. And I'm going to hold on to that feeling for as long as I can, for as long as it takes to finish the first draft!
And then, and only then, will I read a good book - for pleasure!
It's not a good idea to read for inspiration. Reading is about studying other writers but emulating them, or even feeling the need to, is bad for your creativity.
When it comes to your own writing, trust your instincts, trust your own sense of what is the best writing YOU can create - and stop comparing yourself with others - at least until you've completed the first draft.
Rob Parnell's Writing Academy
“If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster.”