The Second Reason to Read Widely: It’s Probably Been Done

*The First Reason to Read Widely: because reading is fun.*

And now on to the second: because what you’re writing has probably been written already.

I give you Exhibit A:

It begins, as most things begin, with a song.” ~opening line of Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Seems innocuous enough, right? It’s a very intriguing opening…and Gaiman riffs on for about half a page on the importance of song, the way it interacts with human emotion, the way song tells a story. All very beautiful.

So now, imagine, if you will, that you have a great idea for a novel. (I have many of these, and there’s a long list of novels-to-be-worked-on.) Imagine further that you have gone so far in your plotting of said novel that you’ve constructed a title, an opening sentence, a final sentence, and the general structure of the book itself. You know how you want it to work – and the opening sentence and the closing sentence resonate for different reasons.

Now imagine that you’re reading a book by a very famous author, Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman for instance, and the first sentence of your brilliant book – which you haven’t gotten to write yet because you’re busy working on other novelistic projects – is syntactically identical to said famous author’s opening line.

Say it with me now: AUGH!!!!!!

(By the way, I despise using exclamation points. But this feels like  the only accurate way to express my melodramatic sadness.)

I do not begrudge Gaiman his sentence. Obviously, I think opening a story with such a sentence is a good idea. Genius even. That’s why I wanted it.

My planned opening sentence was this:

It begins, as all things do, with a gamble.”

Perhaps not as brilliant as riffing on song. Perhaps I could even convince myself to still use it…but I would feel like a copycat.

Because, look, though I talk a lot about stealing/borrowing bits from successful authors (even going so far as writing blogs about it) I don’t actually want to lift sentences in such a direct fashion. That is not the art of concealing your source. And the art of concealing your source is important.

So, in spite of my frustration – and my frustration definitely slowed down the reading of the first pages or so of Anansi Boys as I came to grips with the opening sentence – I’m glad I’ve read wide enough to catch this kind of thing. Having seen where Gaiman went with his opening and having followed it all the way to it’s conclusion (a.k.a.: I read the book) made me rethink what I was trying to do with my own story-to-be. (Because, oh yes, it will still be! I lost a sentence, not a book.)

Anansi Boys is a mass of folk-tale telling skill. The opening sentence is lovely and puts the reader in that frame of mind. The book that I want to write is not that, and so now I’m wondering, as I go back to the drawing board, if there isn’t something a tad serendipitous to the reading widely idea – that you come across what you need, when you need it, and learn what you need from it.


1. Read widely. Because your Brilliant Original Idea is not. And you need to figure that out but quick. This is important for things like plot and whatnot, that goes almost without saying. But it’s also important for small things. By reading Anansi Boys I figured out something else about the story I want to tell, just from reevaluation of the first sentence; it made me think about the tone and how similar or different I want it be in relation to Gaiman’s book.

2. Write fast. Because if you do have a Brilliant Original Idea, you’d better lay claim to it before someone else does.

3. You should read – because reading is fun.



, , ,




5 responses to “The Second Reason to Read Widely: It’s Probably Been Done”

  1. Debbie Avatar

    Another reason to have others look at your stuff, too. One person can't possibly read everything that's already out there–although you certainly tried last year. And the agent and editor process helps as well.

    But I like any excuse to read more. Especially more Gaiman. Now if we'd just get a new novel from him. Pleeeeease.

  2. Ajay Avatar

    The first reason should be enough. I guess everything follows later (wasn't it Bellow who said that a writer is a reader moved to emulation?).
    The point about exclamation marks was funny. I generally avoid using them but sometimes being unsure of how it may be read by others I do employ them (at the risk of making my sentences sound like the written version of the canned laughter).

  3. F.T. Bradley: Avatar

    Great advice. I check all my Great Ideas on the interwebz nowadays. It's a 50/50 shot that someone has already done it…

  4. Deniz Bevan Avatar

    Aww, but I like your line too. Still, the idea of thinking even more deeply about your story, and what you hope to accomplish, is a good one. Better go check my first lines again…

  5. Deniz Bevan Avatar

    Wait wait wait!!!
    I've read this part now (I'm on Chapter Seven – and I agree, wonderful chapter titles he's got), and you know what? It's been done before. Tolkien's Silmarillion begins with the world being sung into existence 🙂

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: