Friday, May 8, 2009

Reading and Writing

What I'm Listening To: Hey Pretty - Poe

What I'm Doing: Still reading The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams, and enjoying my theft of the fan from the living room. Not hot for once!

First of all, I have to share this absolutely mind-wrenching link from Meg Cabot: My Little Pony, Live Action Thriller.

My childhood.

Moving on. I was thinking of popular bloggers, and what they do, and came to the conclusion that they blog. Brilliant, wasn't it? I think so. In that vein, I've decided to actually do so, myself, and as I was casting around for something to talk about that wasn't a rehash of yesterdays blog (a friend on LJ was talking about how bad her first chapter is, and it reminded me of what I was saying yesterday.) my roving eyes fell upon the novel I'm reading.

The Dragonbone Chair, by Tad Williams. It's an absolutely fantastic novel, and a long-time favourite of mine. It seems I'll be rehashing a bit of yesterdays blog, anyway; one of the commenters on said-friends' LJ said something to the effect of 'chuck the first chapter, and start right in on the action if you want readers hooked.'

That's a good idea, I suppose, but I can't really recall any books that started, "My sword cut swathes through the hordes of vampires like a hot knife through butter..."* can you? No. Most books start out something like, "The vampire scourge has walked among us for thousands of years, but it's only been recently that they've come forth from the shadows and made their presence known; recently that they've moved themselves from legends to reality. My childhood was a happy one, and I grew up neither knowing nor caring what happened beyond the walls of my house, so long as my family was safe within... " etc, etc.

They give a little bit of back story, and introduce you to the main character before the action starts. Because even if you've got an action-packed thriller for a novel, if people don't know your main character, they're not going to be interested in the book.

Take Tad Williams' trilogy, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, of which The Dragonbone Chair is the first. Quite literally, no action begins until approximately 200 pages in. The first two hundred or so pages are just introducing Simon, the main character, and his home life, and some of his back story, and by the time you get into the action, the meat of the story, you feel like you've grown up next to Simon, and have always been dealing with him, and are maybe a friend of his, and once the action starts, you're on the edge of your seat, wondering what's going to happen to your new friend, and whether he's going to make it or not. This makes it a little bit harder to get into, I suppose, because you've got two hundred pages of Simon catching beetles and bringing home birds' nests, and knocking over suits of armour in hallways, but interspersed with that is the tidbits that make it interesting; the old king is dying, and his two sons don't quite get along, and then suddenly the younger son disappears and some people think he's dead, but what's going on? Mr. Williams achieves two separate things before the action even starts; he lets you into the life of Simon, and he drops hints and sets up for later story points that grab your attention and make you think.

There's another book in a totally different setting that I absolutely worship. It's called Sunshine, by Robin McKinley, and when I first picked it up, I got about two pages in, and then didn't touch it again for about four months. It starts right in on the action, or at least, AN action: "I didn't hear them coming. Of course, you don't, when they're vampires."

This tells us two things. There's vampires, and the main character is involved with them in some way. But then instead of continuing on in this vein, the main character (whose name is Sunshine) immediately launches into a ten-page jaunt of talking about her family, and her youth, and where she works and lives, and it's all very interesting, but it's a bit like talking to someone who can't quite come to the point. The entire book is like that; it's less of a story you're experiencing as you read, and more a story that you're sitting down with Sunshine, and she's telling it to you after it all happened. Sunshine, as a character, tends to go off on rambling tangents for pages and pages, before she finally comes back to the point, but the author, Robin McKinley, doesn't always write like that. If you pick up Beauty: A Retelling of the story of Beauty and the Beast, The Blue Sword, and Sunshine, and read through them all, you'd probably think they were written by three completely different authors. Not one of her books has the same 'voice', but they're each engaging and interest-snagging in their own ways.

On the other hand, Anne Bishop has written several inventive and interesting trilogies, and one 'twosome', but they're all the same. Notably, The Black Jewels Trilogy and what's listed as The World of the Fae on her website, are like reading two different versions of the same novel. Both trilogies are good, but they have exactly the same 'voice', and basically the same characters, rehashed, and the same basic idea, rewritten. It's like she's got cookie-cutters for her books, and when she starts a new one, she just recreates her old worlds and characters and renames them before setting them into a new plot. Even her Ephemera novels are slightly similar to the other two trilogies, but not in exactly the same way (which is something of a relief.) The world of Ephemera is utterly different than the worlds of the other two trilogies, but she undoes her good work with the world building by plopping the same, cookie-cut characters into those worlds. There's the dark, mysterious main male lead, the ditzy/clueless/otherwise innocent female love interest, the dark, mysterious, super-powerful outcast main female lead...

They're good books, don't get me wrong, but I don't like the feeling of rereading the same thing over and over again. If I want to reread the same novel, I'll open it back up and reread it. I don't want to spend money on three different sets of novels, only to find the same underlying themes and people running through them all.

This is a good way to improve your own writing. After you've gone through the bookstore and read the first page and decided why you'd continue reading or not, pick two or three off your list, and buy them, or get them out of the library, and actually read through them.

Did they live up to the expectations of the first page? Would you read them again, or was it a waste of money? Did you learn anything to incorporate into your own writing?

I own dozens of books. Scores of them. If I sat down and counted them all out, I'd probably have well over a hundred. And even for myself, looking over my collection, I think I must be slightly schizophrenic in my tastes, because there's no set genre. They span the range.

An example:
Directly behind me (I have no bookshelf, so the coffee table in my room is crowded over with books) there is approximately thirty books. (probably more; I didn't move any of the stacks, just briefly glanced over them.) Clearly visible are books like The Bride and the Beast, by Teresa Medeiros, Reliquary by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling.

I make that one historical romance, two suspense fiction, and a YA fantasy. And that's just a sprinkling. Other favourite books of mine include The Crystal Singer Trilogy by Anne McCaffrey, and The Hot Zone by Richard Preston.

A sci-fi trilogy and one that I have no name for, (it's about ebola and marburg, the effects, origins, and outbreaks.)

My book tastes run the gamut, and it's made me a better writer because of it. I don't limit myself to just one or two authors (though I do admit to seeking some authors out repeatedly. If I see something by Michael Crichton that I haven't read yet, I pick it up. Likewise, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. And Teresa Medeiros is my absolute favourite historical romance author ever; I'm well on my way to owning every single book she's put out to date). Because of this wild and eclectic taste in novels, I have no shortage of places to turn if I'm feeling the dreaded Writer's Block. It's amazing how a little reading can turn that around. After staring at a blank word document for an hour and a half, all it takes is for me to sit down somewhere quiet with a book, and about ten pages in, I'm itching to go write for myself.

What amazes me is the amount of people who don't read, who can't read. I inherited my love of reading from my mother, and it's something I've never regretted. But then I look back on people I went to high school with, who struggled to read to themselves, and made me want to snatch the book out of their hands and beat them with it when they tried to read out loud. That these high school seniors - people about to graduate from mandatory school and either go on to further schooling or unleash themselves upon the world at large - can't read...

I suspect that many of these people who never willingly picked up a book in their life are the ones who attempt Nanowrimo and then immediately upon finishing their 50k words send it to publishers and editors and the like. It is, I'm firmly of the belief, utterly impossible to be a writer if you don't read.

*Addendum: I ammend that. Certainly there may be some books that start off that way, but it would be followed with something like this. "My sword cut a swathe through the vampire horde like a hot knife through butter. I'd been fighting them since I was fifteen years old, and my mother sat me down and said, "Michael, daddy's not coming home." and into the shocked silence this statement produced in me, went on to explain that he'd been taken by the vampires on his way home from work." Sure, it starts off right into the action, but then it takes a step back and introduces the main character, and gives you the reason he's currently 'cutting a swathe through a horde of vampires.'

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