The first question I ask a writer I’m working with is “Who are your writing inspirations?" The second is "Whose book(s) are you reading now?”
I get inspiration from many different authors and always have a stack of at least three books I’m currently reading. I have inspirations for style, content, character development, action scenes, suspense building . . . and I try to read from pretty much every genre and topic out there. I’m a writer, so I need to immerse myself in writing. And I expect this from other writers.
For the record, I don’t count those abridged versions from apps like Blinkist. While these types of resources are great for learning the content, the process is not the same for learning how to write. Audiobooks are okay, but not for learning the actual art of writing. You can learn about content and structure from audiobooks, but there’s something to be said about looking at the words. The sentence structures. The turns of phrase.
If a writer can’t tell me about their writing inspiration, I’m going to ask them to think about it and get back to me before I will work with them. If they don’t read, I’ll tell them to read. Writers are readers first. And if someone tells me they don’t want to read other people's works because they will get them mixed up with their writing, I will run screaming into the night.
Because God forbid you get a little bit of Neil Gaiman mixed up into your book with no discernible plot line. Or Ernest Hemingway comes in to help you with your comma splices and your train of thought going off to Mars.
I’m going to let you in on a secret of the writing industry: There is nothing new under the sun. There is nothing left that is an original idea. In fact, there is no such thing as truly original in anything that is creative, whether invention, writing, interior design, or painting, and I’d even go as far as to say in other areas like science and business.
Why? Because everything has already been done.
You can’t pitch a story to me that I haven’t already been pitched. You have an unknown farm boy who saves a princess with the help of a hairy giant and a smelly thief? Well, I just gave you the basic plot of both Star Wars and The Princess Bride.
Everything we do is based on the work that has been done by people before us.
So, if everything has been done, then how can you be creative? Creativity isn’t about coming up with something entirely new; it’s about taking things that came before and combining them in new, different ways.
The farm-boy motif has been around for thousands and thousands of years. His storyline started probably around the agricultural revolution. Oral storytelling + agricultural revolution + mom wanting to tell farm-boy son adventure stories at night.
George Lucas knew this story line and took it. He asked, what happens if we mix space travel and Buddhist philosophy into the farm-boy plot? Well, you get a big payday for Disney. I would argue, as would every creative mind I can think of, that the wider you read, or the more input you take in, the more creative you can be.
When you’re looking for an agent, the way they ask for new books and authors shows that they understand this idea. They want The Princess Bride but for middle grade and with a farm girl who saves the prince (which, by the way, would be a lot of the books by Tamora Pierce). One of my favorite series that’s getting turned into a movie this year is Artemis Fowl. It’s the same story that’s been written a billion times: kid finds fairies. But Eoin Colfer asked what no one else ever did: What happens if the kid is a billionaire evil genius? Now, wouldn’t you want to know what an evil genius twelve-year-old with a billion dollars to spend and no parents would need fairies for?
So, there you go. Do you want to push your creativity with writing to the next level? Go to the library and ask the librarian what her favorite modern book, kids’ book, and old book are. Read all three and then combine them into a wacky plot line or a short story. Or even some mixed-media art piece.
I’m serious. Go to the library now. Then let me know what you’re reading and any fun ideas that come from it. Some will not work. Some may be fun. And some might spark the greatest novel of the century. But you won’t know until you read and try.
This post first appeared in Jeannie’s literary consultant blog on May 17, 2019.