One of the hardest things for me to do over the last eleven years was basically turn my life inside out after my wonderful first wife died of cancer in July 2008. Spent time downsizing things in preparation to go…somewhere.
In my case, that means getting rid of something like 3,000 books. Let me put it to you this way, I used to measure my library by the hundredweight or cubic meter, depending. 3/4 of them went away. The old rule was 10% more stuff must leave the house every month than comes in. That went on for years.
Fast forward to “Fabulous Publisher Babe ™, Take Two” (that’s a story for a different time and a lot of beer). She convinced me that I could write commercially successful stuff. And she was right, as I’m a little over 13 months into retirement from the day job and supporting myself rather well.
But part of converting myself from a voracious reader to a voracious writer involved learning how to tell story. The nuts and bolts craft that goes under things, like 7 Point Plot Structure (Lester Dent) or 3 Act Plot Structure (or 2 or 4).
I began to read critically. I’m given to understand that this is part of the normal process one goes through, as you can’t turn the brain off and just enjoy the story, because lizard-brain at the back is analyzing constantly.
Plus, I had gotten rid of most of my books, so the ones I kept were the ones I liked and I have a hard time even reading some of those. Instead, I’ve taken up histories, biographies, and related non-fiction.
Recently, I picked up my copy of “The Dragon Never Sleeps” by Glen Cook. I had all of the Black Company books at one point, but only ended up keeping the Books of the North. Had others, but he likes to play games with a series reader that I find distasteful bordering on unethical, so only four titles survived the cut and I won’t buy any new ones he puts out.
Started re-reading this one because I want to steal some of those grand and magnificent ideas he dreamed up, for a project I’ve been planning for several years, but I had to put it on the shelf and walk away for now. Got the tidbits I needed, rather than the whole story, so that was enough. (Critical voice, but there were other issues.)
But all the mentors I listen to keep telling me I have to read in order to write. Dean Wesley Smith, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Steven Barnes.
So after the morning writing session, I decided to play hooky. Got about 3500 words of the normal goal of 4000, but brain needed a break. Drove in to Enumclaw and hit the bookstore. “The Sequel Books” The owners are friendly, and we talk business.
Today, got myself the usual mocha, chatted with them for a bit, and wandered back to the shelves for a deep dive into SFF for the first time in many years. B&N’s SFF selection is shrinking in size and relevance every year. Partly, because SF is less and less and F is growing as an overall share.
(Personally, I think SF and F should be separated into their own thing, like Mystery or Romance have done, because Fantasy tends to bore me with its predictability these days. There appear to be three or five general stories, and the only difference seems to be the gender of the heroic character, and who ends up being the dragon. But I digress.)
Stood there drinking my mocha and starting with A. Ignored folks who had published so long ago that I looked at them in the 80’s or were dead of old age. Not because I don’t like them, but brain wanted fresh inspiration, and the world of literature had changed.
Oversized paper books (trade paperback, sort of) tend to be Indie or Special Edition, so brain locked on those as I scanned. I’m looking for big SF, with Big Space Idea, rather than Science of Discovery stories (where an ordinary scientist makes an earth-shattering discovery and everyone tries to kill him to get/suppress it, usually. Those have turned into Thrillers today, for the most part).
What I have found, for doing this consciously since that time four years ago at Powell’s books which caused me to write Auberon in the first place:
- I will popcorn-kitten like mad, just reading titles or good blurbs. I emailed myself two whole new series ideas, just shopping today. Schedule TBD
- I have to just find things at random, buy them, and then start reading, rather than open the book after reading the blurb, because page one might shut me down. It’s the inspiration of the ideas being explored that fuel me, rather than the story itself.
- Concepts that sound interesting, but which I have some expertise, tend to turn me off, because one of the series I looked at was so far from able to suspend my belief that I had to put it back. Writer-brain would be “Just how the hell do they recreate all the technological tools necessary to even operate in that place?”
- Star Wars qualifies as Space Opera SF, even though many people consider it Space Fantasy. But depending on who you ask, FTL makes a story Space Fantasy, when they demand to look down their noses at people who don’t write “hard science science fiction.” (Much of which is technologically perfect, and boring as shit, which is why Andy Weir surprised the hell out of me by making such a fun story. He, however, tends to prove the rule.)
- We live in an age where cyberpunk still beckons, as does Apoc and Post-Apoc, but I still tend to prefer FTL/Space, however you get there. Aliens (which is another thing hard science pricks say makes it fantasy rather than scientific. GFY, bubbles.) give me the chance to wonder around in a whole different viewpoint that us.
- I want entertaining and detailed stories. I recently had to stop about halfway through one of those “Year’s Best SF” collections or whatever the title was, because the editor liked great ideas, and really didn’t care if the story made any sense or contained any wallpaper. As in, the female main character that I couldn’t tell if she was 14 or 44, even after reading it?
- A character. In a Setting (which includes a lot of Voice and not just random thesaurus output). With a PROBLEM. Try/Fail. Denouement.
- My mentors hammered me hard on developing rich characters with interesting foibles, beliefs, and fears, rather than “Just Another Chosen One” story. Villains that are more than cardboard scenery chewers. Places you go “huh” as you think about.
So I bought myself four books today, and only made it as far as M in the time I allotted myself. Two of them appear to be Books One, so I might have the store order me sequels if they turn out to be any good. None of them are people I know, with the exception of Vonda McIntyre, whom I have never read before. (My SF background was WAY different than most of you, let’s just say that.) But I want to read more folks, and her story struck me as something that looked fun. Plus, Vonda was a most gracious and wonderful woman the few times I met her in person. (My wife knows EVERYBODY, I think.)
So wish me luck. I’ll try to remember to post book reviews and links if I get through them. (The most interesting thing I have learned to handle better is that many books might be perfectly good, and I’m just not the reader for them. Or maybe someone is just not my writer.)
So what are you folks reading to stretch your minds?