I recently asked readers at my blog for some help with fresh topics and my friend Cathy McDonald asked this:
I know you read a lot...how do you keep the plots and twists and characters that you have previously read about from becoming a part of your book? I mean the leftover spaghetti from Sunday, the corn and green beans we had Monday, and the roasted chicken leftover from tonight will become chicken vegetable soup tomorrow...each part recognizable from some other dinner. How do you make it a "new meal" in your head rather than leftovers you remember?
Good stuff. I like this vegetable soup analogy except the part about the spaghetti noodles. But if I were having dinner at Cathy’s house, I’d eat the chicken, vegetable, and spaghetti noodle soup and love it. Mmm!
This isn’t the first time I’ve thought about her question. I’ve heard authors address the same thing at writers’ conferences. At least two panelists have said that they refrain from reading mysteries while they are working on a book because they fear committing what one speaker dubbed “subliminal plagiarism.” I subliminally plagiarized that guy and used his phrase as my title today.
So I guess now this has happened to me.
But seriously, I count myself among the lucky ones because this hasn’t been a problem for me yet. Maybe that’s because I’m only working on my second book. I’ll be interested to hear what the other, more prolific, Stiletto Gang ladies have to say about their reading and writing experiences in this regard. Since it takes me about a bazillion years to finish a manuscript, refraining from reading mysteries anytime I’m working on a project would basically mean taking a vow of whodunit chastity.
Even though it takes more than a year for me to write a book, the whole time I’m working on the story I already know what I’d like to happen. The struggles, conflicts, clues, and ending have already been imagined if only in a crude form. The real work lies in getting the words on paper and bridging the gaps in the story. In other words, I’m not at a loss for ideas once I’ve started a story. The idea train has already left the station.
When I read other people’s books, I’m relaxing and being entertained. In fact, I’m usually reading those books because I’m putting off working on my own. The last thing I want to do is make any connections between the polished, engrossing novel in my hands and the horrid, incoherent rough draft waiting on my laptop. A link between the two would only remind me of what I ought to be doing instead.
But perhaps the most compelling reason that ideas never mix for me is that when I’m reading, I’m not in my world anymore, I’m in the story world. I’m not thinking about my manuscript challenges because I’m too caught up in the action on the page. When I’m away from a story I’m reading, I’m more inclined to worry about its characters or try to find time to sneak in more reading than I am to draw parallels to my own work. I think because, to some degree, I view the story I’m writing as work and the ones I’m reading as fun.
Here’s the best way to explain. I wouldn’t enjoy a pool party with my co-workers. Part of that scenario is fun but the other part is work. Mixing them together is just a bunch of unsightly researchers in Speedos.