Saturday, 12 April 2008

Reading begets writing, and vice versa.

The proliferation of fanfiction of course being the most solid proof of that.

I've got periods of writing and periods of reading, but until about last week I think on both the reading and writing fronts I've been in hibernation.

But work has slowed down due to the approaching resit and exam weeks; more to do for the students, less to do for the lecturers. So feeling a bit less stressed, I started Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. At the same time, curiously enough, my fiction writing picked up again too. The almost 8000 words last week (it's more already this week) are a lot better compared to the miserable counts I've had the previous weeks. Not fanfiction, not even anything related genre-wise, but just enough pleasant reading to inspire pleasant writing.

Linda made me a present of some Diana Wynne Jones books (four Chrestomanci novels) for my birthday, and once I started reading the first last Monday I've proceeded to devour them whole. (I'm saving one for the backlash that I predict is a week or so in the waiting.) I haven't been inspired enough by them to actually write about them (last novel that nearly got me there was The Historian), but I've been racing through them at an alarming speed, and my word count with it. Christopher Chant is just one of those characters that's too easy to fall in love with. And if you're in love, even if it's with fictional characters, everything goes easier. Your brain goes wild for a while, and you read and write and forget to sleep, and at some point the brain slows down, and it's time to concentrate on other things for a while. (Like photographing falconry demonstrations. Or simply SLEEP.)

But reading begets writing, and writing begets reading.
And that works on more levels than just the most obvious one. It's to do with what Dickens wanted us to think about when he wrote that "Everything in our lives, whether of good or evil, affects us most by contrast." (The Old Curiosity Shop) That quote has called out to me ever since I read it for the first time, because it strikes me as so very true. Contrast, yes, but contrast emphasizes differences, and there can only be differences (and hence, contrast), if there is a common factor for comparison.

As a budding writer, you emulate the authors you read and enjoy. Plotwise, character-wise, genre-wise. It's the reason why first-time books tend not to work when you're only just beginning. (Editing and time has to save you from mediocrity and cliché.) It's the reason why too much science-fiction sounds like Asimov and too much fantasy sounds like Tolkien. (The only genre that accepts this and has incorporated it into its very identity, incidentally, is detective fiction.) It's a way too start.

When you start thinking about your own writing, and developing and keeping your own style, and you start realising that there are simply some things you may want to avoid, like flat female characters, male heroes who have to find items (rings, swords, anyone?) that will surely destroy/save the world, and having a fantasy story that is more about developing your own made-up language than telling a story, your writing will improve. Most importantly, you'll notice the difference. You emulate what you like, but twist it until it becomes your own. You avoid what you dislike, or twist it so it becomes your own (though not necessarily more likeable).

At that point, everything you start to read will influence you, whether you want it or not. If I ever get published, I'll feel forced to thank every author I've ever read, because one way or another, they were influential in inspiring me. Some because I wanted to be like them, some because they made me realise what to avoid. Contrast again. There are no good or bad experiences, there are just experiences, and you'll learn from them. There are no good and bad writers, just writers. Some you will love, and some you will hate, and usually you'll be able to find people who can give you excellent arguments for thinking exactly the opposite, which is what makes it even more fun.

I love KJ Parker, first and foremost because she's writing against the grain as a woman focussing on more technical subjects in writing. I'd like to write like her, because she's a wizard (witch?) with plot and general evilness. Still, every couple of chapters I want to hit her for missing out on things that could very well have made a novel even better. I'm starting to wonder if Diana Wynne Jones and JK Rowling aren't two sides of the same coin. DWJ sketches worlds that go beyond anyone's imagination, but sometimes her characters seem less rounded than I'd like them to be. JKR began taking characterisation a step too far when she discovered what caps lock abuse is.

My suspicion is that there's a middle road between plot and characterisation that very few authors manage to find. That doesn't mean that that's actually really true, but that that's just what I look for in a novel or a story. Wynne Jones and Rowling have proven that their formulas are successful even though many readers will point out flaws, and I suspect Parker may get there in the years to come. But the books are theirs, they're the ones responsible, and they're the ones who decide what they write about. We can complain, but that doesn't change anything.

There's no such thing as the perfect story, and if there is, it'd probably be dead boring. But what is true is that you write what you want to read. If you can find an audience that's like you, that wants to read what you want to read, and what you're writing, you've got it made. (Well, hypothetically.) Any author writes the sum of his or her influences; social, cultural, personal. It's a bit of yourself transferring to the (digital) paper, and that's what makes it fun, and that's why so many people, most of them without any ambitions to ever publish anything, write. They started reading, because that's how you start, and then started writing, and discovered the interaction between the two.

Personally, currently, it looks like I'm reaching the downwards part of the inspirational curve right now, which is good, because it means I don't have to feel guilty or sorry about focussing on the dissertation from next week onwards again. (How many words can I write in the next three weeks, I'm wondering?) But it's nice to remember how easy it is to get into writing again. Everyone has books that they return to for comfort, that are so pleasant and so familiar that they're like that hot bath that you can sink into after a terrible day (week, month) at work. And everyone has at least one story in them, however silly, sentimental, cliché, or frightening, that has the same effect as the hot bath and the favourite book in the writing it down. Enjoy it if you find it. But don't forget to enjoy someone else's, too.

1 comment:

Niki said...

There are no good or bad experiences, there are just experiences, and you'll learn from them.

I have to agree--I got lots of advice as a creative writing student, but the one thing that still sticks out in mind most was just a visiting author saying, "Read stuff you like and stuff you dislike, and go out of your house and have a lot of different experiences, whether you enjoy them or not." Her meaning was that you can use those experiences to enrich your writing with detail or to get a better sense of what doesn't work for you and avoid (or use) those things, but I also gathered that the more you read and experience, the more kicks the "What if?" part of your imagination gets until it feels it has to act.

And I'll say that while Christopher Paolini's books tend to drive me to a lot of ranting, they did do a better job of showing me how some things work and a lot of things don't (for me) when you write a fantasy story (not to mention how an audience reacts to a story like it being published!) than say, Tolkien's or Dianna Wynne Jones' books do...