For the last week or so I’ve been reading Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles, starting with ‘The Name Of The Wind’ and now ‘The Wise Man’s Fear’. The genre is fantasy, about a hero that goes to a University where he studies (among other things) magic. Here he makes a couple of friends, woos a girl or two, tries to find the immensely powerful wizard who killed his parents, and jousts with the rich dickhead student and antagonistic teacher who make his life miserable.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? I cherry-picked the parts that line up with Harry Potter, of course. The actual book is far more interesting. However, it got me thinking about my own writing: in the first Wizard and Warrior book, Belan finds himself apprenticed at the ‘Collegium Arcane’, and–as it happens–has his own share of problems there, including a student bully and a mysterious master wizard. I approach it somewhat differently: in fact, I completely skip over the first year of Belan’s apprenticeship, and only about two weeks pass between our reintroduction to him and his departure from the Collegium.
Nevertheless, as I read I found myself thinking about how Rothfuss approaches situations at the University, how he builds Kvothe’s character and challenges him, and how he does his world-building and describes magic. Inevitably I started comparing it to my own work, thinking up new scenes where I could do similar things.
Now some writers may say ‘So what?’, and others will say ‘Run like hell’, and still others fall somewhere in the middle. The question really is, how much is too much? Can you read while writing?
I find I can, especially if it’s in a different genre than what I’m writing. It’s very easy to disassociate in that case. When it’s the same genre, as in my example, it’s more difficult (obviously) but the long and short of it is I very rarely turn the ideas I have while reading into actual prose: and when I do, it’s months or even years later, after the idea has had time to germinate and grow and be influenced by a dozen other things.
That, to me, is the real secret. Nothing we write is born in a vacuum: everything comes from bits and pieces of other things we’ve seen over the years. In my opinion there’s no issue with reading while you write: just don’t write about what you’ve read, at least not until it’s had a chance to be warped and changed by the next thing you read, and the next; and that movie you saw, and the news story on the internet, etc., etc.
Because really, the last thing you want to do as a writer is stop reading. That’s what got you here in the first place. Don’t ever lose that.