How to Keep What You’re Reading Out of Your Writing

I read a lot of non fiction, mainly social psychology books on the cutting edge of our understanding of the human condition. I’m interested in why we do what we do, why modern society still enjoys a public shaming, why we follow charlatans into oblivion, and why a certain segment of the population falls asleep after copulation. I consider these books general research materials. I don’t use them to inform any specific projects, but rather all of them. I read them before the conception stage and they educate my characters’ behaviors.

When I read social psychology books as I’m writing something else happens. I get so enthralled by these new concepts that I feel an urge to include them.

I just finished Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance. The book started as a joke about texting in Ansari’s standup act, but it’s become the definitive volume on dating in the information age. Ansari investigates gender ratios in the online dating scene, Tinder hookups, texting etiquette, social media breakups, and sexting. What he uncovers was surprising.

The entire time I was reading Modern Romance I couldn’t help thinking, “That’s an interesting stat. I wonder which of my characters might know that?”

This desire to use Ansari’s ideas in my work in progress creates problems. One of my characters uses a dating site in the story, but he isn’t very well informed. If he was privy to Ansari’s information he’d make better decisions. As it stands, the character has a quick aside on the climate of online dating, armed with Ansari’s information he’d have a full on rant. My character could put his own spin on Ansari’s observations but without a citation, even in fiction, I run the risk of committing plagiarism.

This got me thinking about all the media I consume and the checks and balances I use to prevent it from appearing in my writing.

2. So You've Been Publicly Shamed
Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

Never Steal from Similar Stories

When I’m working on a book I avoid reading stories with similar subjects. This wasn’t always the case. When I first tried my hand at writing a novel, a werewolf story, I rented every werewolf movie I could find. My original concept was a memoir about my dorm experiences at an arts high school, with a wolf-man thrown into the mix.

I decided my villain needed to contract werewolfism from an STD, because I liked the idea so much when I saw it in Ginger Snaps. He’d also be haunted by each of his victims, because I was convinced that was part of lycanthropy lore by An American Werewolf in London. I decided that the security staff needed to be members of a secret werewolf society after watching The Howling.

My idea, as I’d conceived it, involved the student body coming together to conquer the lone wolf that was preying on them. Now it was a convoluted mess, filled with ideas I couldn’t justify, because they were no longer my own.

I wasn’t confident enough in my own scribblings. I felt I needed these borrowed beats to help prop them up. I wasn’t writing anymore. I was remixing, trying to find my voice in other writers’ tunes.

Had I stayed away from the video store and dug deeper into my own experiences, I might have found a story that was my own.

Similar Stories Can Kill Your Ideas Before They’re Fully Formed

In an effort to curb my creative kleptomania I find myself censoring my own ideas. I’ll discover a story that’s similar to something I’m developing and go back to alter the resemblance.

For instance, Twin Peaks, Under the Dome, and Wayward Pines are all mysteries that take place in small towns with a 50s-style diner. Since my current story takes place in a small town I want to set it apart. That’s why I zoned all diners out of the plot, excluded waitresses from my cast of characters, and froze the town’s design scheme in the 1980s. I replaced all the neon signs audiences usually see in theses environments with text written in desert chrome. I ripped out the classic checkered tiles and tore down the diamond wallpaper, replacing them with magenta grids and glowing triangles.

Sometimes this self censorship forces me to be more creative. Sometimes it takes story elements off the table that are more universal.

The cenobites that skulk throughout the pages of Clive Barker’s The Scarlet Gospels wear their flesh wounds like military stripes. They sport nails through their skulls, chains through their nipples, and rods inside their open craniums. Barker’s cenobites take body modification to a whole new level. The more gore they sport the higher their station is in Hell’s ancient Order of the Gash.

I read The Scarlet Gospels and realized I had to deny all the demons in my story similar accessories, or else it would look like I was trying to stand on Barker’s shoulders.

Chuck Palahniuk's Make Something Up, Stories You Can't Unread
Chuck Palahniuk’s Make Something Up, Stories You Can’t Unread

Avoid Picking Up Another Author’s Accent

Sometimes it isn’t another author’s ideas, plot, or characters that want to infiltrate my stories. Sometimes it’s their voice.

I’m bewitched by some of my favorite authors’ obscure word choices. Every time I read Edgar Allen Poe I feel a strong urge to use words like: turgid, cacophony, and phantasmagorical in my prose. When I read H.P. Lovecraft I want to use words like: eldritch, and effulgence. He also makes me want to preface every sensory description with the word faint. When I read Clive Barker I want to use words like: rivulets, torrents, tempest, and din.

When I binge read all three I want to write things like:

“Eldritch winds carried phantasmagorical shapes out of the turgid blackness. There was a din, followed by a cacophony of deafening splashes. The tempest came down in effulgent red torrents. Rivulets spilled over the roof, until the walkway was slick with blood.”

It’s one thing to borrow another author’s favorite word choices. It’s another thing to steal the voice right out of their mouth.

Chuck Palahniuk uses a device he calls choruses. These choruses are stock phrases his narrators use, ongoing inside jokes that he calls back to throughout the story.

In Palahniuk’s book Choke Victor, the hero, uses multiple variations of this phrase:

“Parasite” isn’t the right word, but it’s the first one that comes to mind.

“Stalking” isn’t the right word, but it’s the first one that comes to mind.

“Vandalism” isn’t the right word, but it’s the first one that comes to mind.

I found this chorus so infectious that it worked its way into my casual speech. I’ve used it so often that I’ve mistaken it for a thought of my own. I’ve had to prevent myself from letting it appear in my writing.

Palahniuk’s writing style is littered with so many of these fun phrases that I have to remind myself they’re not common idioms that belong to everyone. These astute asides belong to him. I’ll just have to come up with choruses of my own.

Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance
Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance

Closing Thoughts

Every author inevitably absorbs their influences. The best time to do this is before you take on a new project. If you already know your story will dabble in modern psychology check out those books before you start writing. Research first. If you’re absorbing while you’re writing everything you encounter will be fair game.

If your imagination has a tendency to embezzle other author’s material you might want to keep it deprived. A creative fasting can keep you from plagiarizing. Writers should read as much material as they can in their genre, but they should avoid stories whose summary bears more than a passing resemblance to their work in progress.

Reading effects us all at the unconscious level. Writers need to be conscious of how they absorb that material.


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23 thoughts on “How to Keep What You’re Reading Out of Your Writing”

  1. I love your expression ‘creative kleptomania’ it’s something I’m always careful about, too. I tend to read a totally different genre than I write in, but I do like to watch movies in my genre. Reblogged this post, thanks for sharing.

  2. Interesting piece, Drew…and I love the expression ‘creative kleptomania’. It is difficult, I know, not to fall foul of this, as we are the sum total of everything we have ever read or seen, but we don’t do it deliberately if we can help it…

    1. 😉 Never if we can help it. I’m sure there’s some plot lines from cartoons from the 80s that have accidentally influenced some of my fantasy stories. It happens.

      Thanks for reading!

  3. Good suggestions. I find it easy to pick up another author’s voice. I fear my first draft of my novel is littered with different voices. I guess I’m lucky it’s a first draft! Thanks for the tips.

    1. You’re so right! That’s a huge part of revisions, cutting out the aspects of the story that feel foreign.

      Thank you for reading.

    1. I think it’s good artists borrow, great ones steal… or as I like to put it: if you steal from me, you’ve stollen twice… and in the case of that line you’ve stollen three times.

  4. My own book starts with an admission that I can’t recall where I first heard every piece of advice I’ve included in the book, and that my hope is that the advice will live on after me, even if those sharing it don’t remember that they first heard it from me.

    Drew, I will say that, to my eyes, you certainly always have a fresh and unique voice (one I’m sure others are tempted to steal at times).

    1. The good thing about advice is it belongs to everyone. The more hands it’s passed through the more universal it is.

      I can only aspire to be good enough to be worth stealing from. Hopefully someday I will be. As always, thanks so much for reading and commenting.

      1. Yes, as I’m known for saying, truth is true, regardless of who said it at which time. If it’s true, then it’s always been true (e.g., the principles of flight were true even when dinosaurs roamed the earth, we just didn’t find it out for a while).

  5. Lots of good advice here. ^-^ Oddly, I find that I tend pick up tones from things I read. One time I read a bunch of Stephen R. Donaldson, and ended up writing something that was quite a few shades darker than anything else I had written. XD Actually, it’s a story that I still like.

    Although, I definitely struggle with trying not to lift awesome words from things I’m reading and use them immediately. What I’ve ended up doing is keeping a list of my favorites for use where appropriate. I find they don’t jump around in my brain so much once I’ve written them down.

    1. Jennifer, your comment sparked something. The more I think about all of this, my advanced vocabulary is due to my being a lifelong reader who, as a kid, always had some form of dictionary with me alongside any new read (now, if something comes up, I just ask Siri). But I can think of specific books from yesteryear that were responsible for my having learned the meaning of certain words (e.g. pusillanimous, lugubrious, sycophant, etc.) – and, thus, using them in my own writing of any sort thereafter. No one owns the dictionary. So, if we’re talking about simply becoming aware of new words and using them in our own communication and writing (as opposed to copying wording), I’m not sure this is “stealing” so much as just learning and growing, as we all should be doing.

      1. Erik, I specifically recall learning the word concupiscence in a short story by the film director Neil Jordan (most of my references appear to be Irish here). I have used it once (twice, in one specific work in progress, and with tongue-in-cheek) as a tool of reinforcement/reminding. And I have often employed Word’s Thesaurus in the past. I know it’s cheating but my rule was if I’ve heard the word before, and know it already, I’d be as likely to think of it myself eventually. I’d like to think too that what I’d regard as my best lines tend to come from mainly imagination (or certainly beyond any dictionary).

        But all words have to be learned before they’re used. Everything informs, it’s all grist.

  6. For me, a turn of phrase is a No-no, but there are only so many plots. Joe O’Connor’s Star of the Sea features a Famine ship going from Ireland to New York in the 1840s. One of the passengers is a landlord marked for assassination because he had inherited his estates from a father who treated tenants badly. O’Connor’s phrase is “His family tree became his gallows.” Elizabeth Bowen has a line about a character sitting onto a chair and the chair’s creak (or whatever) is described as “discussing his weight”. I think they’re both phenomenal lines, but if I were to use them anywhere – or anything similar – it would be worse (in my mind) than taking elements like a domestic set-up, a period detail, an occupation that catches your eye and putting it in your fiction. And your werewolf stuff could be regarded as postmodern pastiche, Drew, if you felt it could be pulled off and reigned in. That’s just my view.

  7. I can’t like stuff right now because for whatever reason, WordPress is refusing to acknowledge my existence. But thanks for the comment, Erik, and the likes, Drew and Erik. All good points. 🙂

  8. I try to read books in my genre because they can help me avoid the same pitfalls or do the exact same things other books do, but at the same time, I try to read other books, too. Adds variety (much like how you mentioned removing the diner from your mystery, since it was done so often). Of course, the advantage to having a tendency to pick up certain styles is that if you want a certain style, read those kind of books. Just make sure you aren’t borrowing the exact same phrases, the choruses, as you put them. 🙂

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