The Introverted Writer and Other People's People

Watched Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lighting Thief with my mom and dad (whom I’m visiting this week). And it brought up a whole bunch of thoughts for me.
First off, on the subject of watching movies in the first place. I don’t do it often. I go to see maybe 5 movies a year, typically on opening night as a social sort of thing (Harry Potter, Star Trek, etc) and once in a while because everyone has raved (Inception). But my parents are retired and they like movies. My dad has always loved movies and thinks the Turner Movie Channel is the most awesome thing ever. Well actually he finally just got a DVR, and THAT is now the most awesome thing ever. Since he knew I was coming to visit, he has been SAVING UP movies on it that he thinks I might like watching.
Also right now, I am in the middle of reading a PILE of books, as I’m on a couple of award juries right now. So I’m reading things like Katharine Beutner’s ALCESTIS (Greek myth retold from a female point of view, and just one step to the literary left of Jacqueline Carey, good stuff) that I would not probably have gotten around to picking up in a bookstore.
But the thing is, although I do buy a fair number of books every year, the majority of them are nonfiction. I don’t buy a lot of fiction. I’ve been telling myself for years it’s because if I’m going to read a novel, I should read one in my slush pile instead of one for fun. For fun and enjoyment I actually read 5-6 published novels a year. About the same number as I take in movies, actually.
This may not be a coincidence. Sitting here with my dad, who has saved up movies I might like, it’s becoming clear to me that I am not just “too busy” to read or to watch movies usually. (I also have no TV.) I make a real effort to stem my intake of fictional media. This effort used to be unconscious, but I’m becoming more and more conscious that I do it on purpose. The question is, why?

Well for one, there’s the issue of unconscious plagiarism and influence, but that’s not the main one for me, I think. There’s the famous story about William Gibson walking out of Blade Runner because he didn’t want it to taint what he was writing at the time. It is a concern of mine; no writer writes in a vacuum.
In fact, now that I think about it, I’ve been simultaneously interested and wanting to avoid the Percy Jackson “Lightning Thief” movie ever since seeing the trailer and thinking, hm, what if he’s too much like Kyle? The protagonist of my Magic University books is a hero-type who discovers late in his teenhood that he has magical heritage. Also, there’s a whole lot of lightning in Magic U.
Anyway, we sat down and watched the Lightning Thief movie. (I haven’t read the books.) As it turns out, Percy and Kyle have less in common than I might have thought (though they’re both cousins of Harry Potter, make no mistake), and no one is using lightning quite the way I do. Although I was highly amused that Poseidon comes right out and calls Zeus “impotent” in the opening scene of the movie, just because Zeus has lost his lightning bolt. No, not the slightest bit phallic or metaphorical for male power, is it? Hah. Yeah, okay, so there is a similarity there… I’m hardly the first one to use that metaphor. Heck, the ancient Greeks weren’t even the first.
What I hadn’t expected was that the story would use the American landscape in the Tim Powers vein. If Harry Potter is quintessentially British, this was classically American, canonically American ever since Tim Powers (and later Neil Gaiman) defined modern American fantasy. Being classically American, the story begins in New York, where so many immigrant tales begin, and ends with Hollywood as the entrance to Hell. These metaphors are not subtle and I don’t think they’re meant to be. On the way we have the lair of the Lotus Eaters as a casino in Vegas, and you find scary old Medusa… where? The suburbs of New Jersey. Yeah, go figure. (Also, what is up with the mystical secrets of Upstate New York? The summer camp for demigods reminded me a lot of the X-Men, no?)
Anyway, yeah, classic abandoned child issues, et cetera, it all plays out (in the film at least) as a fairly classic quest story in the Greek mythological mold. (Except with a happy ending, and no one goes mad or eats their children or anything like that, as tends to happen in the myths…) The film was fun. I enjoyed it. My dad enjoyed it. (What’s funny is he thought he had Tivo’d the new Clash of the Titans, but I think he’d gotten this instead. I think he might have liked this even better, actually.)
But anyway, back to the issue of why I limit by fiction intake no matter what the medium, but especially books. I used to read dozens of books a year, and write less than one a year. Now? I write 250,000 to 350,000 words of fiction a year–exceeding the amount I take in. Why? Here’s my theory:
All the “common wisdom” is that if you’re going to write, you have to read. Read read read. But you know what? All the “common wisdom” in the world also says being extroverted is normal and being introverted is “anti-social.” I don’t buy into that anymore. I’m an introvert and although I have excellent social skills and can work a room like nobody’s business, being with people is exhausting to me and makes me need to recharge ALONE. What I’m starting to think is that I’m a “fiction-consumer introvert” as well. Taking in a lot of outside stories is exhausting to me and just makes me need to spend more time with my own imaginary friends.
It does mean I feel like an outsider a lot. All my friends are talking about TV shows and books they’ve liked. I don’t join new fandoms easily since I don’t consume new things very fast. It’s pretty much the same experience as being the introvert who doesn’t like going to parties or hanging out at the mall like everyone else, so you miss out on what’s going on. And people look at you funny when you say you haven’t read this or that thing.
And there are a lot of books I would like to read, because I’ve met the writers and admire them and have heard wonderful things about their books. But sometimes I just can’t. Sometimes it means I read part of a book standing in a bookstore, usually a chapter or two, just enough to confirm usually that a writer is as awesome as I had hoped (Confession time. I’ve done this with Catherynne Valente, N. K. Jemisin, Charles Stross… and many others I can’t think of off the top of my head.) I always figure at some future point I’ll read the whole books.
This is also true of books of writers I know I admire and know I would enjoy because I’ve read previous books of theirs. I’m a fan, too, no? Tim Powers’ Last Call changed my whole conception of what was possible in American fantasy. I think there are at least five books of his sitting on my shelf unread, though, since then. I think I’m at least one book behind on Neil Gaiman, too. I’m seven or eight books behind on Laurell K. Hamilton at this point. I have a pile of unread Jacqueline Carey. I have unread Ellen Kushner on my shelf. The only two series I am actively waiting for the next book are Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman books (buy them buy them buy them they are so very awesome) and Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books. Aaaand actually the latest Temeraire is out, but only in hardcover, so that’s my excuse why I’m waiting on that one.
So there you have it. I’m an introvert for fiction as well as real life. Other people’s characters can drain me as much as real people can. So I limit my interaction with them, controlling my exposure carefully.
Which makes being on a fiction award jury a lot like… being at a big convention. When it’s over, I’m going to sleep for a week.
And now that my parents have gone to bed, I’m going to spend some quality time with Kyle. Magic U book 4 awaits me.


  1. Oh my lord … Thank you thank you thank you! You’ve just explained to me while my own fiction consumption has gone down so much! Of COURSE! It makes so much sense now.

  2. Cecilia, I definitely get where this is coming from. I find myself reading less and watching fewer films than ever before. It’s not that I don’t have time. What I do read and watch tends to be in totally different genres than what I write, and it’s due in large part with not wanting to be influenced or accused of “borrowing”–or worse–if something I write seems like another story. I’ve twice been accused of copying films I’ve never even seen, so who knows if I actually see something relevant? I also don’t want to feel like I need to change my work if it happens to share an element with a book or film that’s completely coincidental.
    I feel like I’m missing out and I’m trying not to let this worry shut down my reading too much.

    1. There are no “new” stories, either. People will always see echoes of this thing in that thing, etc. I do once in a while feel like if something is too close to what I’m doing I ought to look into it so I can consciously avoid. Other times things that seem really similar at first turn out to have little impact. My writers group at one point insisted I had to change a scene in my baseball novel where a character gets hit with a foul ball at Fenway Park because it would seem like I was copying the Drew Barrymore movie where she gets hit with a foul ball at Fenway Park. Now, though, no one really remembers the Drew Barrymore movie (and the novel is still unpublished).

  3. Actually, I think the advice I received recently was better: read read read, but *not* in the genre you’re writing at the time. So I try to read fiction when I’m working on memoir, and memoir when I’m working on fiction… and poetry anytime, since it always feeds me (if it’s any good) and I don’t write it.
    Genre fiction is always fine, since I don’t write it and don’t want to, but I also don’t get much from it. Very occasionally I crave a detective or fantasy story, but mostly they don’t do much for me, and i’ve almost never enjoyed erotica or romance.
    Nonfiction doesn’t seem to clash. I can be reading one kind of nonfiction and writing another, and it doesn’t usually tangle my brain.
    Ymmv et al…x

    1. I still read plenty of nonfiction. But for me it’s not the genre of fiction but the fact that it’s fictional stories of any kind. Which is why even TV and movies are too much for me most of the time.

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