Guest Post from Viccie Corby

Musings on Reading and Writing...and Life

By Viccie Corby

Recently I read an interview with a reasonably well known writer who declared that she never read novels while she was in the middle of writing because she wanted ‘her style to remain pure.

        I can’t help wondering what she’s so afraid of. True I can see that if she’s writing a thriller which has a short, sociable, butterfingered hero, then maybe she ought to lay off reading Lee Child lest she find her protagonist morph into an immensely tall loner. Is she worried that if she picks up Philip Roth her sentences are going to become longer or that if she relaxes with a formula romance (a surprising amount of high achieving women do) she is going to start gaily leavening every sentence with colourful, descriptive, meaningful adjectives? Why? She’s published with her own style and several books under her belt.

        When I was younger I’ll admit I was often influenced by my favourite authors, sometimes beneficially, other times less so. I started writing halfway decent dialogue after discovering Evelyn Waugh and Ian McEwan has set a standard for tight writing that I can only aspire to. I also adored Georgette Heyer and my first novel was littered with poor imitations of her wit and sentence structure. The upside was that even though I knew it was derivative I had an absolute ball writing my 100,000 word story and I proved to myself that I could go the distance.

        The more you write, the more you develop your own voice and the less you’ll be directly influenced by what you read. You’ll probably be influenced a little which is as it should be. Does anyone seriously think Monet never looked at a friend’s painting and thought, ‘That’s a clever way with brushstrokes…?’ While it’s probably wiser not to binge read novels set small town America while you’re in the middle of crafting your own small town masterpiece, reading Margaret Atwood while you write that novel is not going to turn you into Margaret Atwood manqué. You have your own style, your own voice and it’s not hers but why shouldn’t you examine the way she puts her stories together, her sentence structure, anything you admire and see if some of her techniques might not improve your own craft? It’s not plagiarism. It’s not copying. It’s what all craftspeople who want to go on improving do. It’s called learning from others.

        Reading master writers is a pleasure, the works of the less skillful possibly less so but ploughing through absolute lulus can be an object lesson in how not to write (as well as the source of enjoyable discussions about how did this rubbish get published). That’s why it’s such a good idea to belong to a book group because being in one makes you try books that you’d never normally even look at.

        I read about 18 books a year for my two book groups and at least four or five would be abandoned in the first few chapters if I’d picked them up in the normal way. However I’m forced to make a stab at finishing the horrid things because I’ve got to discuss them later and talking about why books don’t work is very useful even when you’re the only writer in the group. One word of warning: non writers aren’t critical in the same way as writers. A novel about the Spanish Civil War was loved for its subject matter and none of the others noticed that the narrative was littered with phrases such as “His feral brows hung over his eyes like a pair of awnings” or “Had it been their nature to reflect and expand, there would have been the genesis moments of bovine religious movements” (he’s describing cows). To be honest I’ve never written like that so I didn’t lean much from the writing aspect but this month’s book was different. It was light fiction about climbing Everest and another I didn’t enjoy. We all agreed it had potential but was dragged down by too much back story, an extraneous romance and an avalanche of detail about the mechanics of mountain climbing. My current work in progress is totally different but there was a lot of back story. There’s less now.

        Don’t feel guilty about indulging in page turners and not always burying yourself in literary fiction either; variety is the key and genre novels are often very well constructed. They might not be what you want to write, even if you enjoy reading them, but their better authors know how to catch your attention, how to keep up the pace and how to put in loads of detail without it coming over as info dump or as if they’ve got through the local tourist guide and dropped in whole sections.

        So the next time someone catches you reading something fat with a brightly coloured cover say blandly that it’s research. The only thing to watch out for is that sometimes the need to finish the next chapter or three in your “research” can seriously cut into your writing time. 

Victoria Corby heads up the Bordeaux Writers Group s English and has been living in the area for (gulp) 25 years. True Bordelais have picked grapes. Victoria is one (it's very hard work).  She’s lived in Australia and Hong Kong as well as the UK and has worked in sales, advertising, magazine editorial, the wine trade, and currently as a tour guide. She has had three novels published by Headline in the UK --Something Stupid, Seven Week Itch and Up To No Good -- which were translated into German and Thai. She currently has two very different works on the go. 

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