Can writing make you afraid to read?

I wonder if I’m the only writer with this “problem?”

A few casual remarks on some board of which I don’t remember the name intimated that there were some similarities between a serialized story called Captive Prince and my Dark Tales. Later I got questions about that in private conversations. Not that anybody even remotely suggested that there had been copying going on either way. Just some general themes were more or less parallel.

I can’t answer. I haven’t read Captive Prince. What I do know is that it has a huge following and most people who have read it think it is a fantastic story. I’m reluctant to read it because I’m afraid for what I call, for lack of a better word, contamination. Given that there seem to be some similarities already, I don’t want Dark Tales to be influenced, not even on a subconscious level, by another story in more or less the same vein.

I know, it is impossible to be completely original. All stories have already been told. Over and over again. We can only hope to tell them in our own, distinctive voice. Maybe we can arrange the flowers somewhat differently, but ultimately we’re always working with the same elements to tell our stories.

Most people would agree that Merlin, Gandalf, Dumbledore and even the older Obi-Wan Kenobi are, if not brothers, close relatives. So are their respective protégés. They are all orphans — or they have been led to believe they are — and they grow up in Suburbia of their world. Privet Drive and Tatooine are both as far from the center of power as you can get. As is the Shire. All of the main characters are unprepared for the task that awaits them, and they are equally reluctant at first. They all make the right decision in the end, when confronted with their heritage. “You are a wizard, Harry.” “Your father was a Jedi Knight, Luke, and the Force is strong with you.” “You’re the rightful heir to the throne, Arthur.” The decor changes, the basic story remains the same.

So, this is not my problem. I know, and accept, that we all try to tell the same stories, hopefully giving them just that more depth or discovering an until now hidden aspect in them. We can try to give them other faces and new voices and perhaps offer a new perspective on the same landscape, pointing out other landmarks. But there is a difference between this and outright copying storylines.

Then a reader wrote that Dark Tales reminded him of Game of Thrones, but with gay protagonists. Although another reader had written earlier “George R. R. Martin this is not.” It wasn’t meant in a flattering way. I seem to have broken some laws of how one should tell a Fantasy story. Not that I care. To each his own. But it goes to show that readers have their own, individual take on a book. Nevertheless, now I’m afraid to read Games of Thrones as well, or watch the televised series. I understand the story is rather brutal, complicated, with battles and a lot of political intrigue. Those of you who’ve read Dark Tales will see why I’m more than shy to embark upon reading Martin’s epos.

I positively abhor imitation for imitation’s sake. I can appreciate an homage. I can savor clever paraphrasing of the classics. But the most certain way to make me not read a book is by promoting it like e.g. “If you like Stephen King, you’ll love this horror story.” When I’m in the mood for a hard-boiled detective, I will read Ross Mcdonald or Dashiell Hammett, but not someone who tries to copy one of them.

Of course, there is another reason as well why I am reluctant to read Captive Prince and Game of Thrones. Maybe I would discover that I am just Salieri to their Mozart. Maybe I would find that they are so brilliant that I would lose whatever confidence I have in my own abilities to tell a decent story.

Writers, not known for their unflinching lack of self-doubt.

So, I wonder. Am I the only one?

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18 Responses to Can writing make you afraid to read?

  1. Harper Kingsley 2012-07-01 at 00:20 #

    Sometimes I get scared that my stories sound too much like someone else’s, then I just shrug it off. I have my own distinctive voice, so no matter what I do, I don’t think I’m ever going to sound like the original. Either not as good or better, I’d still not be the same as them.

    I wouldn’t worry too much about what other people have to say. As long as you’re not actively trying to copy someone else’s ideas, it’s no harm no foul.

    There’s only so many stories in the world. It’s only the settings and characters that change.

  2. Andrew 2012-07-01 at 00:29 #

    Yep. I think you’re right. Still, I think I’m going to postpone reading those books until after I’ve finished writing my own.

  3. Clodia 2012-07-01 at 02:56 #

    I can relate to the idea of wanting to avoid cross-contamination. I am a little reluctant to read other historical novels set in the same period and with the same characters I am working on, in case it influences my perception and reconstruction of the period rather than being primarily influenced by my own research. Yes, there is also the insecurity of fearing that someone else has done it much better!

    • Andrew 2012-07-02 at 03:14 #

      Exactly my feelings. Besides, there are enough interesting books that aren’t in the same genre(s). Still, I can’t help wondering…

  4. RDoug 2012-07-01 at 16:10 #

    I don’t worry about it. I’m as original as a fiction writer can be, considering that all basic fiction plots are derived from Shakespeare.

    All I need know is that I don’t allow my stories to be influenced by others, so if my work appears derivative of someone else’s, then it’s entirely by chance (and probably something I’ve never seen, or I would have avoided it).

    • Andrew 2012-07-02 at 03:16 #

      Similarities can’t be avoided, I suppose. As for Shakespeare, I don’t think the man wrote one original story. He plundered history, England’s and Rome’s, and reworked older plays and stories. He just did it better than others had done it. :)

  5. Kathryn Scanell 2012-07-01 at 16:45 #

    I don’t worry too much about themes and ideas. If the book is done well, and the approach is the author’s own, it’s all good. It’s not about the idea, or the plot skeleton, it’s what we do with it. I’m pretty sure that if I handed my local critique group a high level plot concept, and convinced them all to try write a short story using it, that we’d all produced something wildly different.

    Consider this example: Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks; The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay. The Sundering series by Jacqueline Carey. They’re all in some ways derivative of Tolkien. I was disappointed by the Sword of Shannara, because it did feel like the same story with more or less the same characters. Kay used a lot of the same tropes for his worldbuilding, but his characters lived and breathed in ways Tolkien’s never did for me, making it his own creation. Carey turned the whole story on it’s head without really changing the skeleton at all, and gave us a wonderful view from the other side, which I think is enhanced because we’ve read Tolkien first and know what she’s doing.

    The part that worries me in my own writing, and I have to be careful of, is that I’m an unconscious imitator of word patterns. So if I’m writing a character who’s a 20th century street punk with a high school education, I have to be careful not to pick up something 19th century, because it will start to pollute my dialogue.

    • Andrew 2012-07-02 at 03:23 #

      “The part that worries me in my own writing, and I have to be careful of, is that I’m an unconscious imitator of word patterns. So if I’m writing a character who’s a 20th century street punk with a high school education, I have to be careful not to pick up something 19th century, because it will start to pollute my dialog.”

      It’s one of the reasons my Dark Tales series is set in a Medieval setting, but not “our” Middle Ages, but rather a post-apocalyptic society that has crawled back to that level. Nevertheless, a few reviewers have commented on my use of too modern sounding language. My defense is that nobody knows how people really spoke — day-to-day — to each other. We have only scant knowledge of their ordinary way of talking, so I felt free, in informal situations, to use more or less normal current words.

  6. As 2012-07-02 at 21:35 #

    I actually read your Dark Tales before I ever knew about the Game of Thrones books! I re-read Dark Tales the other day and this time thought that there could be parallels drawn, but I think mostly because both stories have a lot of protagonists and politically motivated actions. Still there is so much different stuff going on that I would never think of either of them as a work influenced by the other, but rather as the authors being influenced by our current society and thus deciding how to portray the story they wanna tell. There’s bound to be some similarity there in every fictional genre.

    As for not wanting to read those books as not to be influenced, I understand that very well! But just for the sake of the Game of Thrones books, because they really are very good in my opinion, I wouldn’t want you to miss out on that. :)

    In my field of work there is a lot of competition and comparison between each other going on and a good friend gave me the advise: It’s like working out in the gym, don’t get upset when you see what other people look like or how much weights they can lift, do your thing the way you wanna do it and have fun with it!

    small PS: George R.R. Martin himself is reading quite a lot of history books on medival Europe and such and picking out stuff here and there to add to his stories, he himself said so! While I call that research and seeking inspiration, other people might also say that’s “copying” or “being influenced by other works”. :)

    • Andrew 2012-07-03 at 15:11 #

      Thank you.

      I think you may have discovered, and by that discovery set my mind at ease, why some people may see similarities between Games of Thrones and my efforts: history. I’ve read, and still read a lot of it. It’s an ever changing, fascinating kaleidoscope of human greatness, wickedness and cruelty.

      From the first time I read it, I agreed with the saying “Those who don’t know history, are doomed to repeat it.”

      I’ve always thought of history as the wide angle lens of human experience. Not to mention that it has the best stories. Read enough of it, and patterns start to emerge.

      Just occasionally I borrowed events you could actually identify and pinpoint. The rest are just blueprints of how civilizations and nations rise and fall, of how people in power cope with the sometimes staggering responsibilities they have thrust upon them. How power changes them, whether they have embraced it enthusiastically or whether they are only the reluctant wielders of it. And what effect all this has on their lives and on that of those who bear the consequences of their decisions.

      The last is outside the realm of history, and firmly within that of the writer.

      PS: I do have the intention of reading George R. R. Martin’s books. But not just yet. :)

  7. Alex A. Akira 2012-07-02 at 22:20 #

    Hi Andrew,
    Thanks for putting into words what I too have felt time to time. I will say that when I was a professional artist, I suffered more. Artist studios are often housed in giant warehouses with a co-op feel to them. Artists think nothing of dropping into another’s studio. I always kept my studio apart from these communities, because of the “contamination” effect.
    With writing being a more solitary pursuit, I, at least no longer accidentally pick up another’s ideas. I think what others have expressed is true, each of us have our own voice and way of expression. Unless someone is deliberately copying someone’s style, the same story can be relayed a thousand ways, but for the reader, some will always be more enjoyable than others.

  8. Andrew 2012-07-03 at 18:31 #

    Hi Alex,

    There lies the heart of the matter of course: “the same story can be relayed a thousand ways, but for the reader, some will always be more enjoyable than others“. :)

    Generally speaking this should not be a problem. And even the more unusual (or less popular) renderings have their place, I think.

  9. Diane A 2012-07-14 at 05:51 #

    I believe it was Ozzy Osborne who said that since the first note was ever created, no one has been 100% original ever since. Perhaps the same could be said of writing? However, there are the points of view of the writer, which is just as varied as the perspective of a reader and how they interpret what they read!

    I also think this is an even bigger issue than just what you have listed here regarding your books, although I’m sure if your books were released at the same time as the LOTR movies, I’m sure someone would be comparing your books to Tolkien! Not that I think anyone would really mind that comparison though….

    However, I did warn you on Twitter about me getting on my soapbox so, ahem…… my pet peeve when this happens, is the concept that apparently there can be only “one” idea – gee, was that not what was being fought against in LOTR, one anything to rule us all?!?! And how about the fascination with the “50 Shades of Grey” series, like there has never been erotic fiction published before!!! And how limiting would our choices of reading be if once a subject is written about, no one else can write about it because someone else did it well, so no other perspective on that subject, period, genre is possible? Rather scary really!

    A more extreme version of your situation happened to another author I am a fan of earlier this year. Not sure if you have read the book “Bear, Otter and the Kid” by TJ Klune, but both he and his publisher, Dreamspinner Press, were almost in legal proceedings over allegations that TJ’s book was a rewrite of a movie called “Shelter” and both parties had to constantly defend themselves and finally TJ had to acknowledge that part of the book was based on his own life and experiences, which he had wanted to keep separate, but there were entire blog sites and discussion threads going that were constantly accusing him of ripping off the movie!
    I loved TJ’s book and have never seen the movie Shelter, so I can’t comment either way, but do I have reservations about seeing the movie now, yeah, in a way, although someone has lent it to me to watch – and I know people who love that movie that because of this hoopla, are now reluctant to read the book – fortunately many of us read it before this happened and TJ got a lot of support from the publisher and his fans on it and it finally quietened down!

    So yeah, I understand authors being afraid to read books that may be a similar genre or subject as theirs, especially when a situation gets out of hand like this one did. And I think you are very smart to want to read the books you’re being compared to once your books are done because now that the idea is planted, you could end up seeing similarities that are not really there!

    I also agree that promo’s suggesting that if you like that author’s writing, you’ll like this author’s writing – it insults the intelligence of readers, not to mention belittles the writer’s work!

    For me, you know I’m biased because I’m a fan of your work and consider you very original.

    Do what works for you, what feels right to you and know that you are your own Mozart, you are a published author for a reason, and based on the comments, no, you are not the only one who feels this way!

    And I will get off the soapbox now…. :)

    • Andrew 2012-07-15 at 20:06 #

      Thanks Diane,

      I heard (and read) about the kerfuffle around Bear, Otter and the Kid. At a given point it became very ugly indeed. Not having read the book or seen Shelter there wasn’t much for me to go on. I was horrified, though, how high emotions ran.

      There is also the well-known case of Marion Zimmer Bradley, the author of the Darkover-series. Her world (and some of her characters) were used in fanfiction. She was okay with other people playing in the garden she had created. Until one day MZB was accused of plagiarizing one of the fanfiction-stories. If memory serves, the case was settled out of court… This is, I think, one of the most horrible things that an author can live through.

      Thank you for your very kind words of encouragement. :) Your advice is sound. It’s not because Michelangelo made a statue of David that Donatello can’t make one as well.

      (I’m more partial to the Donatello, by the way :D)

  10. Martyn V. Halm 2012-08-19 at 00:53 #

    I don’t worry too much about cross contamination – I’m writing what I couldn’t find when browsing the bookshelves. And even if there are stereotypes, I think I can manage to avoid them. Still, I understand your worries. Too many stories are being retold too many times, making me feel like I’m chewing someone else’s discarded chewing gum – all flavour gone…

    • Andrew 2012-08-31 at 01:34 #

      Sorry for this late reply. I’ve had some computer troubles and then Real Life kicked in. You know how it is….

      Just like you, I try to write the stories I’d have liked to read, but couldn’t find. My main concern is to let the story evolve out of the characters and the situations they find themselves in. For the rest I agree: all too often I think “Haven’t I read this before?” :)

  11. Tiff 2012-09-10 at 00:37 #

    I think the exact. Same. Thing. Except…the opposite happens with me…I always end up reading their books because this nagging at the back of my head won’t leave me alone until I do it. For one thing, I really want to see what’s up with these books. What makes them so great? Also, I guess I like to see my ‘competition’. Do I stand a chance? Usually, the answer is hell no.
    But at the same time, like you said, I don’t want my writing to get contaminated. It becomes difficult, especially when I actually end up liking something, to not let another work influence me to the point my voice is obviously trying to be someone else’s. That was one of my main problems before, but I finally had enough confidence in my own voice to realize that people don’t want to read an imitator’s work. They want to read mine!
    Anyway, people will always point out something is similar to another. Always! It’s like, once something monumental is put out there, our brains are automatically wired to compare and contrast everything that follows to that. It hurts a little to hear my friends say it all the time. It’s almost the same as saying I haven’t done any hard work and just took snippets from other authors.

    • Andrew 2012-09-23 at 06:11 #

      Maybe it is just how we evaluate everything: by comparing it to things we know already.

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