Saturday, March 19, 2016

On Choosing to Read Books that Sound Similar to the Book You're Writing, and Book Review: Suite Scarlett, by Maureen Johnson

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Many writers say that, out of fear of being influenced, they don't read books that may be similar to the book they are writing until they have finished writing it. This has never made much sense to me.

Firstly, it is highly unlikely that what you're writing is that similar to what other people are writing. Neil Gaiman summarises this very well in the intro to The Good Fairies of New York, a book that he avoided reading for five years because he was afraid it would be too similar to American Gods, and that of course was totally different to American Gods.

Secondly, how are you going to know if it is similar unless you read it? How can you accidentally be influenced by something you are reading and paying deliberate critical attention to? I have never had much patience for the 'writing comes from somewhere outside of me, it's not something I do so deliberately' idea. I think it is an excuse. It's often trotted out to explain a lack of diversity in books. 'It's not my fault all the characters are white and middle-class! The story and the characters just came to me'. No it didn't. You made it up. You continued to make it up as you were building it from the germ of an idea into a full-length novel. It's your job, as the writer, to turn a critical eye on your work and correct the unconscious biases that you expressed through it. It's not a sacred gift from outer space/the gods/the muse that you may not alter once it arrives.

Similarly, I think that writers should read books that sound like they might be similar to their own current projects - with the resolution to learn from it and then change the book they are writing if necessary so that they are more distinct. If you go in with this attitude, how can you be influenced by accident?

That said, I can understand why a writer might not want to change their ideas in response to another book - if they really love the idea as it is. It does kind of make sense, although that's not how I feel - I know complete originality is impossible, but I can give it a good go! And maybe that's why I haven't finished writing my novel yet!

I first heard about Suite Scarlett on the blog Reading With Tequila (No link as it's long gone), and wanted to read it because it's about a girl whose parents' business is failing and the YA novel I've been working on is about a girl whose parents' business is failing. I wanted to check for similarities, maybe pick up some pacing guidelines, that sort of thing.

Nuh-uh. Foiled. Suite Scarlett is completely different from my novel in almost every way. It was obvious from less than a chapter in. So I got to put the writing part of my brain on hold and just enjoy it, which is always good.

Scarlett Martin lives in the Hopewell, a formerly glamorous, but now faded and decrepit, New York hotel with her parents, elder sister Lola, brother Spencer, and younger sister Marlene. Although they still just about own the hotel, they've had very few guests in recent years, which means that Lola and Spencer have had to get jobs in addition to helping out at the hotel. They each hold a key to one of the suites, and it is their responsibility to clean and maintain it and look after the guests. On Scarlett's fifteenth birthday, she is presented with two very exciting gifts: a mobile phone, and the key to the Empire Suite - the biggest, most luxurious, and most commonly-empty suite at the Hopewell.

It should be an easy job, allowing Scarlett plenty of time to enjoy her summer, but all too soon she has a guest, the eccentric, demanding, and extremely meddlesome Mrs Amberson...

I absolutely loved Suite Scarlett. I'm a complete sucker for books in which teen characters have to deal with money problems (which is why I'm writing one) and I love weird and wonderful families, difficult siblings, and above all, secret plots! Mrs Amberson is a complete busybody and is delightfully frustrating - just when you desperately want her to stop sticking her oar in, she'll redeem herself. Scarlett's relationship with witty, obstinate Spencer is lovely, and I found Lola and her rich-but-dull boyfriend fascinating. It's a very easy read, one for when you want to relax and be charmed by a book, and I'm really looking forward to getting my hands on the sequel, Scarlett Fever.

I'm hoping that the novel I'm currently editing will be less cute and have a bit more grit to it, but if any reader likes it as much as I like Suite Scarlett, I'll be very pleased with myself.


  1. This is a great post to read and share with other writers that are writing books.
    Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thank you and you're welcome :)

  2. Fantastic review :) I don't think anyone should be wary of reading something similar to their own work - everyone's unique, sees things differetly, interperets things in their own way.

    This book has been on my TBR for years, and I did start it but put it down because it was a bit too cutesy for my mood at the time. Thanks to your review I think I'll bump it up a bit.

    Cora @ Tea Party Princess

    1. Thanks! It is definitely cutesy, but a lot of fun :)



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