When Writers Fear Reading: The Struggle to Be Original

There are no new ideas. There are only new presentations. — Deborah Robson

I’m currently reading a book I should love (Hild, by Nicola Griffith). It’s historical fiction set in 7th c. England, only a century later than the setting I’ve chosen for my novelization of Rapunzel. Hild is full of words, concepts, and details I’ve been swimming in for years as I’ve researched pagan Anglo-Saxon England. Reading her book is like returning to a place I’ve visited many times before.

Hild

So why is this novel making me shake in my boots? Mostly, because Griffith is doing her job so well. She’s using Anglo-Saxon terms I’ve never seen before for relationships common to both centuries and has me wondering if I’ve used the wrong ones myself. She even has the thing I’ve been beating the bushes for — an unfamiliar word for “witch” — and again, it’s a word I’ve never encountered. When I’ve finished reading this book, I’ll look up the words she’s chosen to see where they’ve come from. Even if they are perfect for what I want, I may not be able to bring myself to use them, however, for fear of looking like a copy-cat.

This problem of not being able to enjoy reading books that are of great interest to me has been a problem since the day I started working on Rapunzel. Deciding to explore a well-known fairy tale meant sharing the skeleton of my story with other writers. Even Disney has put out a movie version of Rapunzel in the years that I’ve been working on my book, and every variation on Rapunzel out there has scared me. If I weren’t wading through the bog pulling my story bit by bit out of the muck, I’d be diving into these other books, hoping to love them.

My goofy fear is that someone will “beat me to it” and write the book I am trying to write. The writer who won’t tell you their idea for fear you will steal it is in this exact same boat. But no one is going to tell Rapunzel’s story exactly the way I am, and I’m pretty sure no one is going to even get close, because I’ve decided on such a specific historical setting. And yet, this is one of the reasons Hild is scary for me. The familiar world of her book makes it feel like Griffith has beat me to it, even though her heroine is a historic figure, and mine is a fairy tale icon.

The other thing that initially kept me from reading other versions of Rapunzel, and even from seeing the Disney version more than once, is the fear that I will unwittingly incorporate another’s ideas into my story. I have put so much work into this novel already that the last thing I want is someone saying I stole this or that from someone else. But as my writer friend Deb Robson reminded me, there are no new ideas. Everything in my book will ultimately be stolen from somewhere. It’s just a question of how obvious it will be.

I’m a little sad that I can’t just relax and enjoy reading Hild. It’s so exactly my kind of book! Perhaps I’ll be able to read it again in the future in a more relaxed state, maybe after Rapunzel is truly finished, or at least after I’ve made it through once and realized that the book Griffith wrote is not the book I am writing. But what I really do not want is for Hild to scare me into silence.

As soon as I finish the revision I am working on, I will return to Rapunzel. I want my fairy-tale adaptation to be a glowing tapestry, to make the rich life of the Dark Ages understandable to a modern audience as well as provide an interesting situation to help explain the odd details of Rapunzel’s story. I’m hoping I can do it half as well as Griffith has done with her Hild. In the meantime, all I can do is work at emulating her example without falling into the trap of copying her.

Are you ever afraid to read? How does the work of others affect you?

Author: Kit Dunsmore

Kit is a writer and an artist who adores living in Colorado. Whether she's hiking in the mountains or walking the prairies, she's always watching the wildlife in order to learn more about the natural world.

4 thoughts on “When Writers Fear Reading: The Struggle to Be Original”

  1. I know exactly what you’re talking about. My book is scifi and I swear every time I turn around real scientists are getting that much closer to making the stuff that I’ve invented for my book. And a few weeks ago there were lively debates going on at Hugh Howey’s blog addressing the exact same topics I’ve been working on in my book for almost three years. It makes me feel like a terrible copy cat and it adds to my (lengthy) list of fears that potential readers will scorn my book for being opportunistic. I’m convinced that writing a novel requires a huge amount of bravery.
    I can only imagine how much harder it must be to tackle a fairy tale. It seems like they’re being retold in all sorts of different ways. But I have to say–I love that! Fairy tales are timeless and classic, and sincerely good stories. Finding new ways to tell them will never go out of style, I think. I don’t know how many versions of Cinderella I’ve seen, but I’ve loved all of them. Still can’t get enough of it! I just keep reminding myself of something Charlaine Harris said, “If it pleases you, and you can write at all, then it’s sure to please someone else.”

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    1. Funny — I was just thinking how much harder it must be writing scifi than fantasy! Maybe it doesn’t matter what we write. I know I always feel like I’m racing the clock, trying to get my ideas out there, and frustrated with how long it takes to do the work. I think you should be encouraged that the issues you are tackling are topical and of interest to others. It means someone is going to want to read your book. My mother and my sister are both artists, and they both have told me this is an issue for anyone who is creative. We have a dream and run into someone who is making what we hope to make, and our fears come out to play. I believe in my story about Rapunzel, so I’ll stick with it and write the best book I know how. What everyone else thinks about it is none of my business. Good luck with your novel!

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  2. “My goofy fear is that someone will “beat me to it” and write the book I am trying to write. ”

    I remember when I was young I use to write stories all the time but was afraid to try and have it published because I felt:

    1) there was someone on the other side of the world who was writing the exact same story and would beat me to getting it published and then I would get sued for stealing their work!

    2) There was someone in another dimension who was writing the same story and they would beat me to getting it published.

    Yeah, I was and still am a bit on the crazy side!

    Liked by 1 person

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