Common writing advice states that you should, “write the book you’d like to read.” I think that’s lovely, true advice. But it’s not always as easy to follow as it sounds.
The parts of the mind which engage in reading can be very different from the parts of the mind that engage in writing or creating. When we receive a story as a reader or viewer, we are passive, accepting, curious or surprised, admiring or entertained. When we create a story from within ourselves, we must be active, questioning, deliberate. We cannot just sit back and let a story entertain us—we must go out and chase it down, force it to dance, coax it when it won’t.
A story that we enjoy reading finds us; a story we enjoy writing, or would enjoy reading once written, is something we have to go out and find ourselves. These two different processes can produce wildly varied results in story types—meaning, basically, that a story you would love to read may not be a story you would love to write, and vice versa.
I generally divide my influences into three categories (and here I limit myself to books, since I think TV/movie influences can sometimes lead you astray): books that I love and reread over and over even if no one else in the world likes them; books that I like and enjoy but am maybe a bit swayed by hype or success into letting them influence me more; and books that I admire and respect and that knock me over with their brilliance but I could never write anything like them—and if I’m honest with myself, I don’t want to.
That last category may just be me—while I admire literary novels, the types that get named on “Best of the Year” by critics (and there are a few that I really love), I have to admit that I much prefer a cheesy romance novel or an adventurous urban fantasy. So I may read a literary novel and respect its beauty and skill, or I may read about a literary novel and be a bit envious of the critics’ praise, but when I let that influence my writing too much I end up with a project that I wouldn’t necessarily enjoy reading as much as other things. I’ve gotten better, over time, about being able to stop myself and say: “Do I want to write that, or do I think that’s what other people want to read?” When it’s more the latter than the former, I have to grit my teeth and push past that feeling, even if what I want to write is a bit less shiny.
Because stuff like the first category tends to… embarrass me a little, which holds me back when I’m trying to free myself to find the story. I shouldn’t be embarrassed, but society as a whole and some of the fandom circles I lurk around throw a whole lot of shame at some of the things I… love as a reader. I’ve talked about my cognitive dissonance over romance and feminism before, a lot, because I think it’s a prominent part of my process and psychology. I’m not going to go on about it here, other than to say that I’m not even sure I could write the kind of books that I, if I’m honest with myself, love to read the most.
So if we eliminate the books that I would like to have written but may not love to read, and we for the moment put aside the books I love to read but may not be able to write, what’s left?
What I end up with is… well, I’m not fully sure yet. A whole lot of trial and error. Something sounds interesting or fun to write, and then I question why, and if it passes that trial as something I’m writing for me and actually want to write, then I give it a try. It might still fail eventually. I’m trying to get better about letting the writing do the deciding rather than just the thinking, but I’m not there yet.
Thinking about what you like to read is a good start, but when you realize that you can read all sorts of different things that don’t speak to you as a creator, that’s when that advice gets less and less useful. I think it’s better, for me, as a measurement of the negative than the positive—if I for sure wouldn’t read this, then that idea is probably not ‘me’ talking.
So where, within all the stuff I like to read, is what I like to write…? I don’t know. I guess the only thing I can do is keep writing and finding what I like.