Category Archives: Reading

I Read, Therefore I Am

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve found that one of the biggest drawbacks to being a professional writer is that all of the time I spend at the keyboard, or staring at the wall, or walking around in a seeming daze as I work out just how high up a tree I’m going to chase my character and how sharp the rocks that I throw at him are going to be-well, let’s just say that it really cuts into my reading time. (How’s that for a first sentence?) And that puts me on the horns of a dilemma, so to speak: because I really really really want to write, and I also really really really want to read.

I’ve always been a reader, for as far back as I can remember. Partly genetics-Mom was a pretty avid reader-and partly environment: for a lot of reasons, I typically didn’t have many friends growing up, so I turned to books to fill the void.

I’ve said before that I came to a desire to write relatively late. I was not someone who knew he was going to be a writer at age 8, or 12, or 18, or even 28. But my reading prepared me for it nonetheless. I estimate I’d read 2000-plus novels by age 21, and kept on at an increasing pace. Somewhere along the way I soaked up a lot about writing, so that when I did finally begin writing, I had observed many examples of the craft, good and bad; all of which stood me in good stead.

When I finally did begin writing, I also began to read writers writing about writing. It wasn’t too long before I ran into a comment that worried me: an author stated that when he was writing a novel, he didn’t dare read anyone else’s fiction, because he didn’t want to run the risk of his work being affected by another author’s work and style.

I was new enough in the craft, and the author who made the comment was someone I liked well enough, that I accepted it as almost gospel. I immediately tried to change my habits so that I only read non-fiction while I was writing. And it didn’t work. I don’t mind non-fiction-I occasionally go on non-fiction binges, in fact. But I can’t live in non-fiction. I can’t lose myself in a story in non-fiction. So I kept sneaking away to some of my favorite authors and reading favorite chapters over again, feeling guilty, and all the while worried that I was somehow ruining my writing by doing so. (Truth is, I wasn’t good enough to sell yet so it didn’t matter, but my mind didn’t know that.)

Then some time later, I read an interview with another author I liked who was asked if he read other fiction while he was writing novels. His response was words to the effect of, “Sure! Doesn’t everyone?”

Great relief! My guilt evaporated, and I started enjoying fiction again while I was writing. And the take-away I got from that experience was that there is no One True Way when it comes to writing methods and styles and practices. Whatever works for me is what will work for me, and it may or may not work for you. What matters is that we find what works for each one of us, and that we write. To quote Kipling:

There are nine and sixty ways
Of constructing tribal lays,
And every single one of them is right!

So I still read lots of fiction. Not as much as I used to, though, because the writing really does take away a lot of the time I used to devote to reading. And sometimes when I’m reading I do still feel a little guilty, but it’s usually because I know I should be pounding the keys to finish my current project.

I’ve concluded that the reading provides the loam from which my stories sprout. Or maybe a better metaphor is the reading is what the muse uses to charge up the batteries of my writing engine. If I don’t read, I don’t write.

Pardon me; I just bought the latest novel by Elizabeth Moon. I need to go charge up my batteries some more.

Self-consistency and Maintaining the Fourth Wall

When many, if not most, readers enter a fictional world, they want to stay there until they’re ready to leave. For us writers, that means having to avoid doing anything that pulls the reader out of our world. Failing in this task may make it difficult for a given reader to buy into our creation. They may set it down and move onto something else. If this happens, we’ve lost them.

Any aspect of storytelling is vulnerable to this. Someone breaking out of character, the introduction of a deus ex machina, and even poor handling of point-of-view are all good ways of infuriating readers, and rightly so: they are violations of an unspoken trust with our readers that the stories we are telling them are self-consistent.

Setting is an aspect of storytelling which is particularly vulnerable to this kind of violation, especially in genres where setting is important, such as in fantasy, sci-fi, and historical fiction (by setting, I mean all things related to world-building, such as culture, dress, geography, the laws of physics or magic, etc.). Read enough reviews in any of those genres and you will see that one of the widest criticisms is that the author described some event that could not or would not have happened in that context, and thus the reader was pulled out of the story. There’s a good reason for why this can be such a problem for a writer: setting, by its very nature, consists of a vast number of interrelated concretes. Consider the difference between a character arc and a city, full of people, buildings, roads, belief systems, cultures, and so on, and you should see what I mean. It’s very possible (and necessary) to track the shape of a particular character’s arc, but far more complicated to track the goings-on of every person and thing in a city. There are many ways we can forget a detail that affects the story later on, and thus cause one of those reader-losing violations.

Of course, simply not knowing how an aspect of your world works can also do this. Many of our readers are smart enough to know that you can’t ride a horse at a gallop while swinging a fifty-pound sword for five hours straight. As most writers should by now know, doing some research solves most of these problems.

But there’s another related issue that can be a little subtler, and it relates purely to a world’s self-consistency. Unless you’re writing an alternate history or time travel yarn, your Imperial Roman soldier isn’t going to call his wife on his cell phone, since cell phones didn’t exist back then. An obvious example, but things get a little trickier when you’re writing in a purely secondary (or, purely imagined) world.

I once wrote an epic fantasy story in which one of my characters was exhausted, and was described as feeling as if he had just run a marathon. While it seemed pretty innocuous to me at the time, someone in my writing group couldn’t buy into it, because the word “marathon” is named for the run of Greek soldier Pheidippides during the Battle of Marathon. And since such an event never occurred in my world, he argued, how would the concept of a marathon in the normal sense even arise?

Hearing his criticism was a bit of a wake-up call for me, and now I sometimes find myself watching out for the same thing with books that I read (as much as I’d rather just sit back and enjoy them). Of course, in my hierarchy of priorities, I’m going to put a satisfying plot over catching myself using the word “marathon,” but I still keep an eye out for something like that slipping in. Whether or not you’re that meticulous about your world’s etymology, rest assured that some of your readers will be.

* For another interesting post on the topic of word choice, check out the earlier post by Mignon Fogarty, a.k.a. Grammar Girl, if you haven’t already.

The Invisible Library

I love collecting digital bits.

And I am considered an early adopter by friends.

As disorganized as I may be with files littering my virtual and actual desktops, I have an excellent track record of not losing digital data. Misplacing, yes, but my backup processes are fairly secure.

I hit the save key reflexively every few seconds or whenever I stop typing. I email copies of documents to myself to ensure they’re backed up in the cloud. I have onsite and offsite physical backups of all my files.

Ever since the advent of the Kindle and the iPad, I’ve been delighted. There are so many ways to access the rich library of documents I’ve been squirreling away for all these years. And with tools like Dropbox and various PDF viewers on the iPad, I’ve been able to have useful subsets of my digital library with me wherever I go.

Recently I’ve even begun backing up bits of my library. I’ve taken a number of big tomes and sent them to Blue Leaf Bookscanning┬áto get turned into PDFs and word documents and even robot-read audiobooks.

But there’s a cost for me to digitization.

Serendipity.

In my home I have bookshelves. Many of them. And I have an area where I keep all my language books. And sometimes, when I walk over to that part of the shelf, I feel compelled to learn some more Portuguese verbs. Or another Latin phrase. It’s not planned.

I have another shelf full of mid 1800s American “Cyclopediae”. Had I planned to look up something in that? Not really. Was I enriched by it? Yes.

I have a shelf next to my bed, supposed to be a nightstand. It’s actually a two foot wide, 5 foot tall shelf. It has possibly 50 books I’m in the middle of browsing or reading. My “nightstand” gives me that same feeling I get when I stand in front of the magazine stand at a good bookstore. “Oooh – what am I going to choose?” There are too many good choices.

To be fair, I have experienced some form of this on my iPad. I’ve loaded up a ton of PDFs into the Apple iBooks app. Sadly (for Apple), I have to say that iBooks is only used store PDFs; Amazon has my eBook business and will keep it until I can read iBooks on my computer. (But that’s a separate rant.)

And so occasionally, I have said “why look there, there’s a book on programming Ruby on Rails, I should browse through that.”

“Oh theres that manual I downloaded on Intellectual Property and patent drafting, I’ll read it. ”

But the point is, I think it will be a while before I have the scant 64Gb of my iPad chock full of ALL my digital documents. Years in fact. I just don’t see it. First theres the scanning, or re-acquiring the book in digital form. Then there’s the filling the space, or hoping that “cloud books” comes out when “cloud music” is just getting started.

There’s no question that eBooks are rising fast. So much so that they will be the most significant part of the Western reading market soon. Ebook sales will be the driver, not just a growing segment, of book sales.

Books will go down fighting. It will probably take generations to fully marginalize books, even though digital formats are eclipsed within two decades. VHS. Tape. CDs. DVDs. Blu-Ray. These are all formats-come-lately. They have not persisted. Photographs and phonograph records are a bit longer lasting. But printed word has millennia of success.

So what of the browse? What of the bookstore? What of the random luck that comes from browsing not just a corner bookstore but of rediscovering one’s own library? Or of putting a reminder to one’s self to read a book, by leaving it in your bag?

When all books are equally accessible in a huge digital bookstore on your iPad, and when new books are constantly marketed to you, invading the privacy of your own tablet, what will this do to undirected reading? How will one continue to enjoy these essential and random encounters with books?

I don’t know. What I do know is that my family is shopping for a house right now. And after digging through probably a hundred houses on the multiple listing service, I remember just two have really stood out to me. I may make an offer on one next week. And only when I was finishing writing this article did I realize something.

Both of those homes have a library.

 

Life, Inspiration, and . . . a Red Sheep?

What a week to have to write a post for this wonderful blog (authored by some of the greatest human beings I know!). Somehow, I’ve got to write a post that follows David Farland–arguably one of the most successful writers of just about anything and everything speculative fiction–a book give away, and an insightful and scary look into the functioning of the brain?

What if I just put a cool picture of a red sheep out there and call it a day? No?

To be honest, the picture has nothing at all to do with this post. I just liked it and wanted to use it in a blog post. I probably should have saved it, using it when I had an idea for a post that would actually work with a picture of a red sheep.

And if I’m honest once again, this is about the most I’ve written in the last three weeks. And in November of all months! I competed in NaNoWriMo last year and won, finishing before Thanksgiving, but this year, nothing. So, what happened? Life happened.

And just so I don’t give the wrong impression, nobody died. But neither do I want to talk about what it was here on a public blog. What it was isn’t the issue. The issue is the lack of writing. Nay, the lack of desire to write.

For three weeks, I’ve tried on occasion to sit at the computer–butt in chair, hands on keyboard and all that–but nothing has happened. It seemed there was little I could do to will the words from my brain out onto the screen. It was a little like trying to wring water from a dry sponge.

I was empty.

Being an aspiring author, the prospect that there were no more words inside was a little frightening. A literary suffocation.

It didn’t take me long, however, to realize the only way to fill something up with whatever it is it needs–words in the case of this writer’s mind–is to feed it what it needs. For over two years, I’ve been so focused on my own writing that I’ve neglected my reading. Oh, I read a book here or there, usually new releases by certain authors I simply can’t wait to read. But my pace of a book every 3-4 weeks (I’m a slow reader with a day job, what can I say?) had slowed dramatically. I’d been on the same book for over four months.

So I read.

In three weeks, I finished the last 300+ pages of the book I was stuck in, read another hefty fantasy book–The Heroes, by Joe Abercrombie–and started A Wise Man’s Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss. Yeah, I’m a little behind. My list of books that I’ve bought and need to read is over 25 books long.

Some people might gasp to know I haven’t even cracked A Dance With Dragons. I know, I’m ashamed. I deserve to be punished.

But in reading Abercrombie, Rothfuss, and the unnamed author in whose awesome book I’d been stalled for months, I remembered why I’ve wanted to be a writer since elementary school, and why I came to the conclusion that I had to write fantasy after reading Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World for the first time.

The sheer joy of the story. The careful selection and placement of words, and the emotions they invoke. The characters who seem more like good friends than ink on paper. The anticipation of what waits on the other side of the page. These are the reasons I’ve always wanted to be a writer, all the things that made me love being a reader.

Some successful authors will tell you they don’t read in the genre they themselves write. Others will say they read a wide range of literature. Personally, I read a fairly wide range of books, though admittedly, the vast majority is speculative fiction. Namely fantasy. It’s just what I’ve always loved reading; deciding to write it hasn’t changed that fact.

So, um, yeah. Read. That’s my advice. To anyone, but especially aspiring writers. Not every reader is a writer, but every writer was a reader first.

And you have to admit, the sheep picture is sweet.