Why writers should never read books (or watch TV)

Illustration of hooded figure - a thief - typing on a laptop.
Nige - my other half – is a singer/songwriter. He'd likely tell you otherwise, but I heard his songs (and learnt all the lyrics – it's an affliction) before I even set eyes on him, so whatever else he claims he is, he is also a singer/songwriter. I mention this to qualify something he said to me not long after we became friends: there are only so many ways to combine the musical elements; inevitably, people will write melodies that have been written before.

Or something like that. I'm paraphrasing to fit the theme of this blog post, which will be short. I'm trying to get back into the habit of posting more often than once a year.

That point about songs came back to me a couple of weeks ago when I was watching artists on YouTube demonstrate how to draw faces, and one of them said something about all art being derivative, stolen from others. The key is to learn to 'steal like an artist'.

So I don't sidetrack, I'll just add a link to a TED talk by Austin Kleon, whose book entitled Steal Like an Artist is a bestseller. I haven't read much of it…or watched his TED talk yet. However, one of the points Kleon makes is that 'nothing is original', and if we keep trying to create something new, we will fail because it's not possible. Once you can embrace that, he says, you free yourself to create. Well, I've a way go yet, hence this blog post.

It helps that all creative people share these feelings. We bandy about the term 'imposter syndrome' as if we have no right to our creativity and are merely playing at it, faking it, which is nonsense, yet we believe it. Case in point: last week, an author friend of mine was horrified (might be too strong a word) when he discovered in a book he was reading a scene identical to the one he had written in his most recent novel. I assured him it happened to us all, our conversation ended, and I thought nothing more of it, until…

Until I, too, fell face first into the pit of self-doubt about the 'novelty' of my writing. By this point, I should probably bring slippers, I visit so often. Why on earth do we call them novels?

Here's what happened (short post, she said…):

Nige and I have a peculiar, semi-binge-style TV habit. We enjoy crime series but nothing too heavy, and once we latch onto a series, we watch every episode, one after the other, until it's exhausted. We're quite disiplined, though, and make it last by only watching one episode each night, alongside whichever other series currently take our fancy. At this point, we're up to date with NCIS and Father Brown, watching Season 3 of Death in Paradise and only a few episodes from the end of NCIS New Orleans. Before those, we watched Bones, Lie To Me, Suits, Psych…and so many other series in the same way. Then it's over, and we're sad, but eventually, we move on, find new things to watch.

In the search for those new things to watch, I discovered Professor T, starring Ben Miller, and I knew right away it would be our kind of series, but why does it have to be about a quirky crime-busting professor of forensic criminology*?

Sound familiar? It should. It's the stuff of many a TV series, book series, no doubt radio play too. See? Nothing is original. And that's OK. Or so I keep telling myself. Maybe one day I'll believe me.

*(Side note: 'Forensic criminology' is not a real academic discipline; I can only assume the production company truncated, having decided Forensic Psychology and Criminology was too long-winded.)

To conclude, here's the opening to a novel (or series – that was my intent) I started writing in September 2021, although it's only one chapter long at this point. The series/book (whichever it turns out to be…if it turns out to be anything) is called Mindbender, and it's [sigh] about a quirky crime-busting professor – of social psychology rather than 'forensic criminology', admittedly, but still. Go figure.

I didn’t hate Mondays in general, but that particular Monday, I was making an exception. Only eight thirty and already it was turning into a day the devil himself could have dished up. Out of coffee at home, I stopped off at a petrol station, filled the car’s tank…couldn’t fill my own from the out-of-order machine. To top it off, the only space I could find was in the farthest corner of the university’s town-sized car park and—by that point it came as no surprise—the lift had gone kaput again, so I climbed the three flights of stairs to the social science faculty office on vapours.

“Morning, Jenna,” I called in greeting to the woman at the desk adjacent to the wall of mostly empty pigeonholes. With a large picture window looking out over the campus greenery, the office was as pleasant a workspace as any, providing one didn’t mind the constant interruptions.

“Morning, Mac,” Jenna replied stoically—her usual style. To be fair, in my caffeine-deprived state, my attention wasn’t on her but on the large, book-shaped parcel stuffed in the dark, nameless, bottom-shelf cubby I had been allocated five years ago by the dean, despite her continued refusal to make my position permanent, since I’d been there long enough for the postal service to find me.


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