Feeding the Muse: The Powerful Impact of Your Reading Habits on Your Writing Identity

As a writer, you are what you eat!

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The Velvet Sledgehammer by author Edward Savio with floating similar books behind it.

Editor’s Note: Our guest writer, author Edward Savio is an award-winning novelist. He is also a screenwriter and has been the wordsmith and storyteller behind several film projects for Walt Disney Studios, and Sony Pictures Entertainment, among others. After having his books narrated by the incredible Wil Wheaton and Ray Porter, Edward is back with his fourth novel — and this one’s a hard NSFW — The Velvet Sledgehammer.

You want to know what the best advice I ever got was? Spoiler Alert: I didn’t take it. Not at first. But eventually, stubbornly, I did. Here it is:

“If you wanna be a writer, you better be a reader first.”

The first time I heard that was from my English teachers in high school. Each said it in various different ways, the wording doesn’t matter. I refused the advice because I knew what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to write books. I wanted to write movies. And so I took most of my cues from studying films, watching them, breaking them down, and getting my hands on — which at the time was not easy — actual screenplays in script format. (Something aspiring screenwriters should do if you haven’t already — it’s much easier now to get them).

But even once I got myself in the door, meeting with studio executives at the highest levels, it began to dawn on me: maybe my English teachers and professors might be onto something.

It wasn’t what the executive at Warner Bros. said to me, it was what he implied. “Edward, this screenplay is as good as anything on the screen right now.”

I took great solace from his praise.

Until the Vice President of Development looked at me, seeing my reaction, and added, “You misunderstand me. This IS as good as anything I see.” What he wasn’t saying, what he had to spell out for me is that there were a thousand other all-ready WGA member screenwriters out there, known entities with track records that could easily do what I had done in the screenplay he had read. If he wanted a script as “good” as that, he could (and would) hire them. Instead of taking a chance on a new, unproven writer.

Sure, I had snappy dialogue. I had fun characters. I had good story ideas. What I didn’t have, what I didn’t bring to the page or to his desk, was a unique point of view.

If you are a singer and someone tells you, “You are amazing, you sound just as good as Beyoncé.” That’s a great compliment. You’d probably be feeling pretty good about yourself. But there already is a Beyoncé. She already has millions of fans. Giving Beyoncé another record contract isn’t much of a risk. Giving one to a new, unknown artist definitely is.

I needed studio executives, producers, and directors to open up my script and say, “That is an Edward Savio script!” Watching movies and reading screenplays wasn’t enough. I had to go beyond. So, I begged my past teachers for a crash course in literature. And I began, slowly, painfully at first, a journey of discovery through novels — from the classics to the contemporary. I had to feed my mind in order to level up my writing — until I had created a singular voice. My voice. When I got to the point where my writing read and sounded like my writing and no one else’s, that’s when I went from getting $10,000 options here and there and minor independent rewriting gigs to selling my screenplays, and then my novels to the major Hollywood studios.

To get to that point, I had to do more than what I had done, which is write, write, write. I began voraciously devouring novels, books inside and outside of the genres I was writing.

One of the mistakes novice writers make is only studying the genre they write in or the types of stories that are similar to their current work.

Reading had an effect on my scripts. On the depth, I brought to stories and characters. I continued and accelerated my reading journey as I turned to writing novels, which helped me further define my style in a new medium, which coincidentally redefined my screenwriting as well. Again: a deeper understanding of story and character. A clearer picture of who I am as a screenwriter, and as a novelist…

Let me reiterate the point: You can’t simply write something as good as what’s generally out there. Well, I mean, you can, but you’re unlikely to make much of a mark. What will make your writing different (and therefore, in its way, “better”) is finding your voice. And the best way to find your voice is to study and deconstruct other writers’ voices and then construct your own. Not by copying, but by learning what works and what doesn’t for you. By the way, style and voice are often mistaken for the same thing. I have a style and a voice. My style can change depending on what I’m writing — the genre, the medium. My voice does not. It may develop. I may become even more well-defined, but it is unmistakably me. Once you find your voice (just so you know, you already have one), you can look back and see it in your earlier work.

This will be an ongoing series of articles where I’ll not only list books you might want to read, but I will give you a brief look at how each of these books has affected me as a writer, which may help you better understand how to attack that pile of novels you’ve been threatening to get to. Sometimes these books influenced my work years after I read them. Sometimes I chose books intentionally because of a particular project.

You may think you don’t have enough hours in your busy day to read, but trust me, the amount of time you invest will yield manifold returns by reducing the time you spend struggling through the creative process.

Here are just a few of the books that influenced how I wrote my latest novel, The Velvet Sledgehammer.

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

A yellow bird and a man in a red shirt and green cap, in the original illustrated book cover of A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.
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A comedic masterpiece following the misadventures of Ignatius J. Reilly, a larger-than-life, eccentric, and pompous character navigating New Orleans. Ignatius grapples with various mishaps and absurd encounters while vehemently criticizing the world around him.

This book is perhaps the one that changed my life as a writer more than anything. I realized for the first time that something can be both literary and hilarious. It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. My first novel, Idiots in the Machine, was inspired by this book. The Velvet Sledgehammer does not have as much in common with Dunces or Idiots except for the fact that I tried to write a book that was both meaningful and comedic.

A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley

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A semi-autobiographical novel chronicling the struggles of its author, Frederick Exley, who grapples with alcoholism, failed ambitions, and a deep obsession with football. Through a blend of fiction and memoir, Exley delves into the complexities of identity, masculinity, and the American Dream.

The triumph of A Fan’s Notes is that it exists at all. That the person living through all of these struggles was able to overcome them enough to write such a beautifully written story. For me, the triumph of Velvet is that I could be open enough to tell it. Much in The Velvet Sledgehammer is true. Even in places that are not literally so, it is still the Truth. Those who enjoy my other writing may disagree about which one or what genre they like better, but The Velvet Sledgehammer is certainly my most personal work to date and something that I hope defines me as an author.

Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

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A satirical and provocative novel narrated by Alexander Portnoy, a young Jewish man undergoing psychoanalysis. Through his sessions, Portnoy recounts his tumultuous upbringing, his struggles with sexuality, and his complex relationship with his overbearing parents, offering a critique of American Jewish identity in the mid-20th century.

Portnoy’s Complaint is one of those books that is mind-bogglingly funny. It’s just flat-out hilarious. Because of that, it’s had a huge influence on me. If A Confederacy of Dunces showed me how something could be funny and literary, Portnoy’s taught me how to bare my personal thoughts, my desires, and my demons. The Velvet Sledgehammer is much more story-driven than Roth’s seminal book, yet Alexander Portnoy’s ranting freed my inhibitions, allowing me to deliver Billy Garrick’s interior struggles in my own voice, granting Billy the ability to rant and rave about his life and love and everything around him. It gave me license to create something much more personal than I ever thought possible. Something funny and poignant that could connect others to their own experiences.

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

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A coming-of-age novel that follows Holden Caulfield, a disillusioned teenager expelled from his prep school. As he wanders through New York City, Holden grapples with the phoniness of the adult world, wrestling with themes of alienation, innocence, and the loss of childhood.

Catcher in the Rye is told from the point of view of a disillusioned teenager. Billy Gerrick is a man in his early 30s and far beyond Holden Caulfield’s situation, but there is still a hint of that Holden view of the world as Billy looks back on his childhood. Many who’ve read The Velvet Sledgehammer have talked about how they connect with Billy Gerrick’s past. I didn’t realize anyone else would understand it — other than find it (hopefully) funny. Learning that others have seen themselves in Billy and his struggles has been my favorite surprise of this journey.

The Art of War by Sun Tzu

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An ancient Chinese military treatise that offers strategic and philosophical insights into warfare and conflict resolution. It emphasizes the importance of understanding one’s enemies, leveraging strengths, and exploiting weaknesses, providing timeless lessons that extend beyond the realm of military tactics into various aspects of leadership and competition.

This one might seem like an outlier, but it proves my point about looking outside your genre. The Art of War is a plan for how to defeat your enemy. In The Velvet Sledgehammer, Billy Gerrick has a set of rules to defeat the world’s best negotiators. “Business is war” goes the saying. He must win the battle to ensure this treaty comes to fruition. An agreement that will affect the lives of billions of people, and the world economy for decades to come. But Velvet is also about the opposite of a well-planned campaign. The Art of War teaches a very singular view of the world, but the world is not — and never has been — that simple. And Billy Gerrick learns the hard way that a rigid set of rules will not protect you from life.

I hope that by offering insights into how these works influenced me it can illuminate ways for you to explore your own creativity and expand your vision.

They say you are what you eat. As a writer, you are what you read. See the books you chose as both your fuel and your co-pilots, shaping your writing style and helping to build the foundation of your unique voice. So the world can hear you loud and clear.

Edward Savio

Edward Savio is an award-winning novelist and an award-losing screenwriter. He has written numerous film projects for Walt Disney Studios, Sony Pictures Entertainment and others.

Wil Wheaton narrated the first two books in his humorous Science Fiction series, the Battle For Forever (Alexander X, Ancient Among Us), with the third of four planned books, League of Auld, narrated by Ray Porter. His latest novel, The Velvet Sledgehammer is definitely NOT sci-fi and NOT safe for work but IS funny and poignant and he performed the narration himself because he couldn’t in good conscience ask anyone else to read what’s in it out loud.

He divides his time between the East and West Coasts. He once nearly drove Val Kilmer over a cliff.

If you enjoyed this article, we think you’ll love these powerful tech tool recs (and they’re not AI!) by author Edward Savio, that’ll take your writing to the next level!

To get all the books mentioned in this article, head to our dedicated bookshelf carefully curated by author Edward Savio; check out Bookstr’s shop on Bookshop.org, here.