My Own Personal Grey

Writer’s Disease

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I am suffering from a relative of “Book Hangover”–that inability to start a new book because you’re still lingering in the world of the last one. See: I’m trying to work after almost two months of being unable to (and coming out of a year that was utterly terrible after three previous bad years) and yet I’m also trying to take it a little easy and catch up on my reading. But… I just finished a couple of fantastic books (Big Fish by Daniel Wallace–yes, I know it’s old–and Valour and Vanity by Mary Robinette Kowal) and have started (finally) on Django Wexler‘s The Shadow Throne and it was hard to pick these up at all because I have a terrible fear (OK, two, but I’ll get to the second later): disappointment. When I’m facing a book in a series that I’ve adored so far, I am always conflicted: dying for it, but scared of starting the next one… What if it’s not as good as the last one…? What if it’s good, but also rather depressing (Arrgh, Scott Lynch!). This is true also for a new book by an author I admire so much they make me cry (hello, there Nicola Griffith‘s Hild) and sometimes I let the better books sit on my shelf for a long time because I just can’t face them. I want to love them, but I’m afraid Something Bad Will Happen…. And so I often read easier, less-challenging books (note I don’t say they aren’t good, they’re just good in easy-to-take ways) instead of the ones that are sitting prominently and patiently on the TBR shelf awaiting my full attention.

This is complicated by my other Terrible Fear…. Let me start by saying, as a writer I know I’m not in the same class as these folks. (No, don’t pat me on the back here–I’m a talented hack, but that’s the truth of it. I am not a brilliant writer, an artistic writer, or great writer–I’m good and my craft is adequate to the task, but it’s not the same thing as being Really Good, much less Great.) I want to read better books by better writers because I want to be a better writer and you can’t improve without both action and example. So these are among my examples. And the action is to write–to write harder, better, more personally-challenging work. But man it’s hard to write my own stuff when someone else’s prose lies sparkling and compelling before me and my own is… well… not.

In the past, I’ve always avoided reading books in my own genre sub-niche while I was in the rough- or revised-draft stage because I have another funny little fear: inadvertent plagiarism. I’ve always tried to avoid copying other people’s work or details. That means regulating those influences. And I do, but it means I miss a lot. Alas I would miss a lot anyhow–there’s too much to take in. But that’s a different problem and at the moment there aren’t very many writers working in the odd little sub-niche I seem to have fallen into with the current Work in Progress, so I’m not worried on that score.

Still… There is always the problem of “I’ll never be as good as X,” which is stupidly crippling. Of course I won’t, because I’m not X and even were I “as good” comparison would be impossible–the apples and oranges problem–but still tempting. Very tempting….

As a group, writers don’t seem to be very objective. We all think we suck (well, many of us do) at one thing or another or that we’re just not doing very well, or that we’re not doing something right. Everything we read that isn’t complete dreck hints that we’re not as good, or not doing all we could. A writer can’t work in a vacuum, but sometimes the dazzle of other work is difficult illumination.

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