I don’t think I’m writing enough about…well…writing on here so here’s a writing post.
Creating fiction is new to me. Well, it’s old, if you count high school and college, but as a serious career path, I just decided to try my hand at it last year. I’d spent a dozen years writing screenplays, which couldn’t be farther in process and structure than a novel. Writing Proxy was a difficult task, one that took longer than it would have a more seasoned writer of prose. I learned a lot, including the fact that my skills were rusty as hell. That you have to get into another mindset; screenwriting is all about showing, not telling, but writing prose, you have to do a lot of telling. Plus, man, there are so many more words in a book than there are in a screenplay.
All of these things I expected, but there has been one side effect from my foray into writing novels that I did not anticipate:
I haven’t finished reading a book in over a year.
I love reading. Not a surprise for a writer, I guess, but I do know several writers, especially screenwriters, who don’t read books. I love movies, television, comics, music, and pretty much every other artistic medium. What makes reading different for me is the quiet. The peace. The zen-like trance a good book can put you into, where all that exists is you and the words.
Few things thrill me more than an expertly crafted sentence. As much as I respect story, what I truly read fiction for is the prose. I love words and love seeing them used in sharp, innovative, and insightful ways. The way Ernest Hemmingway strung words together turns me on more than you want to imagine.
Hardback, paperback, Kindle, doesn’t matter. I don’t care about the delivery system; I care about the words.
I also have a particular reading cycle. First I start with:
1) A work of ‘literature’. Either a classic novel or a modern piece of serious fiction. I like novels that are challenging, like Faulkner, or epic, like Victor Hugo, or funny, like Vonnegut, or something new and awe-inspiring, like the work of the late Roberto Bolaño. I don’t mind heavy or difficult (although I admit I haven’t been able to crack Proust yet). I want something that is either going to fill in a gap in my literary knowledge or something that will enhance me as a person and an artist. A tall order, I guess.
Then, I move on to…
2) A history, biography, or other type of non-fiction book. I am a big history nut and find reading about it both enjoyable and relaxing. I usually read a lot about a particular subject in a spree; right now I’m reading mostly stuff about ancient Rome and Greece (which I do believe is a required phase for white men of a certain age). I also enjoy biographies, especially about presidents, but I’m getting ready to start Peter Guralnick’s two volume study of Elvis Presley. The best book I’ve read in the last decade, other than some literary classics, has been Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, which I guess is in the category of narrative non-fiction. His books, as well as those of Jon Krakauer, are great reads for people who find regular history too dry. I love reading about real people, real events, the past. Because how else do we learn but by looking back?
After feeding my brain with culture and then knowledge, I quickly pick up something…
3) Genre. Most would call this category “guilty pleasures” but I don’t believe in that. But this is the slot I use to cleanse my palate and read something of no consequence. Pure enjoyment. When I say I’m a Star Wars fan, I don’t mean I like the first three movies and have a couple toys. I mean that I’ve read every novel, comic, role-playing book, encyclopedia that there is in the Star Wars Expanded Universe. I have Wookieepedia bookmarked in Chrome. I know more about the in-world history of Star Wars than most people know about their own country’s.
So, usually this spot is reserved for whatever the latest Star Wars novel is. And, I’ll be honest, most of them aren’t good. But I read them. And enjoy them. Because it’s a place I like to visit, this galaxy far away, and this step in my reading cycle is for sheer escapism and entertainment.
When there’s not a new Star Wars novel sitting on my Kindle, I read other genre things. Some good, some bad. High fantasy. Science fiction. Old hard-boiled mysteries. Robert E. Howard. Jim Thompson. Edgar Burroughs. Brandon Sanderson. Dan Simmons. Raymond Chandler. All the men I listed above are good to great writers, but that doesn’t mean I don’t also pick up the occasional ‘Forgotten Realms’ novel, or a book based on a video game. Things where I’m not judging the writing as much as I am just enjoying the story and characters, even if those story and characters aren’t very good.
Then, feeling refreshed, I…
4) Go back to #1.
That’s my reading habit. I don’t always stick to it. I go out of order. Sometimes there are two history books I must read back-to-back; sometimes I’m in the mood for a Star Wars bender. But those are the three types of books that are always in my rotation.
Or, were in my rotation. All this has gone out the window because I went ahead and wrote a book myself.
People often say that in order to learn how to write, you read. In order to learn how to make movies, you watch them. In order to learn how to paint, you study the masters.
And all of that is true, for a while. But I think that at a certain point in your development, you need to embrace who you are and write in your own voice and stop trying to learn from those who came before you. Doesn’t mean you don’t learn. I learn every day. Doesn’t mean you don’t appreciate and enjoy the works of others.
But I no longer watch movies to learn how to make them. I no longer read books to learn how to write them.
Hell, I no longer read books.
I haven’t been able to finish a book in a very long time. I hate it. I don’t want to not read. Like I said, I love to read. It’s one of my favorite things. But I’m just finding it very difficult every since I started my first novel, Proxy, and still, as I write my next one, Dakota Skye. I’ve started dozens, but I never get more than a few chapters into any of them.
Why? I have a few ideas. Firstly, I don’t want to accidently subconsciously swipe something from another author. I would never do it on purpose, but phrases, ideas, even lines of dialogue, stick with you and I find that sometimes you write something very similar without even realizing where it came from. I want my work to be mine, untainted by what others have done, and just don’t want to risk any of their ideas seeping into my brain and coming back out as something I think is original.
Also, I don’t want to compare myself. This happens most often during Phase #3, when I am reading genre books while writing my own. I couldn’t stand to read science fiction while I was writing Proxy. Because I knew I would judge myself against what I was reading, against my “competition”. This doesn’t happen so much in Phase #1, because if you go into a Hemmingway or Faulkner novel trying to see how your writing measures up, you will never write another word. Those guys are so good, those masters, that if you judge your skill by comparing it to theirs, you will probably want to kill yourself. Which would be, by the way, the closest you would get to actually being like Hemmingway.
But when reading other genre stuff, the stuff where maybe the writing isn’t legendary, like the Star Wars books, or even with some very popular stuff like Song of Ice and Fire, I can’t help but ask “am I ask good as this guy?” “If this is publishable, is my book?” Because if I think they are better than me, I will be discouraged, and if I think I am better than them, my ego will inflate and I start believing I am a genius or something and will not work as hard to hone what I’m doing.
I think it’s best to write in a vacuum. To not give a shit about what others in your given medium or genre are doing and just write your story, your book, your script, your way, in your voice.
The last reason why I think I’m not a whole lot anymore can best be described by using a crude and clichéd analogy:
It’s like being a gynecologist.
I stare at words all damn day while I’m working to the point of eye-strain and headaches.
Then I’m supposed to look at more of them for fun in my time off?
Honestly, after a long day of channeling thousands of words from my mind through my fingers to the keys to the computer screen, I sometimes get sick of them. Of words.
And I love words so much.
I’ve almost made my way through Tom Holland’s Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic. History is easier to read right now because I’m not writing history. Next up is a book about Star City, the center of the Soviet space program in the 60s. Then the Elvis books. Non-fiction is the only thing I can even consider reading right now.
You know what I should be reading? I should be finishing books by my fellow Tesserans (?): J. Edward Neill’s Down the Dark Path and the rough draft of John McGuire’s next book, which I am supposed to be giving notes on. And I’m enjoying both, but they’re fiction, and, while technically different genres from what I’m doing, they’re close enough that they are victims of my word fatigue. I will read them, I promise guys. It’s just taking me longer than I thought it would.
You want to know how bad it is? I have, for many years, read every single Star Wars book as soon as it came out, usually finishing them within a week or less. Today, this is what my Star Wars folder on my Kindle looks like, all of them unread:
I just can’t do it. I want to. But I can’t.
This probably isn’t very interesting. It’s more of a plea for help. Do any other writers out there have this problem? Any other artists find themselves incapable of processing others’ work while they’re in the midst of making their own? I’d really like to know that I’m not the only sufferer of this malady.
Tonight I’m going to curl up with my Kindle, cue up Star Wars: Razor’s Edge by Martha Wells, read maybe two pages, get frustrated, flip over to read a chapter of Rubicon, then fall asleep.
I miss reading, but not as much as I love writing. I hope this trade-off is temporary, but if it’s not, I will definitely choose to create instead of consume.
There is a bright spot to this. I know that sometime in the future, there is a cure coming down the pipe for me. Something that will make me read, no matter what I’m working on, read voraciously, like I used to:
Help me, George R.R. Martin. You’re my only hope.