Reading and Writing

No, this isn’t a rant about the importance of the three R’s–reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic–but a chat about the connection between writing and reading. They go hand in hand, and some of the most helpful advice any writer can hear is, “If you want to write, read.” I’ll add, “Read. A lot.”

Of course, you say, my shelves are lined with writing self-help books, and I’ve read them all.

I’m not knocking any of these books. In fact, one of my bookshelves groans with the weight of them. What I mean is, if you write fiction, read fiction. Let’s go a little deeper. If you want to write romance, read romance; if you want to write science fiction, read science fiction, etc.

In an on-line forum I belong to, someone recently posted, “I’ve decided I want to write science fiction!!! How do I go about that?” I responded that the aspiring writer should read Asimov, Pohl, Dick, Bester, LeGuin, Butler, Atwood, and so on. “No, no. I don’t want to read science fiction! I want to write it.”

I washed my hands of it.

You get your best writing instruction on technique, mechanics, and what people want to read by reading what you want to write. And I have to caveat that–read good, established writers of the fiction you want to write. I’ll suggest, for now, in the fledgling state of your writing in a genre, read traditionally published writers. There are exceptions to this, of course, but if all you read is unedited indie fiction, it will only reinforce negative writing habits. I’ve posted about this before, so I won’t repeat my indie-writers-must-proofread-and-get-an-editor riff.

Reading what you want to write can be instructive in another way. You can learn the valuable lesson that a particular genre is not for you. For example, I love mysteries of all kinds–from Agatha Christie to Janet Evanovich–but I’m not sure I could write one that wouldn’t be a re-hash of something a better mystery writer than I has already done. The same with sci-fi. That was what I wanted to write when I first set pen to notebook to write stories about Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk when I was a freshman in high school.

The sad truth was, and is, sci-fi is not my forte. Granted, my short story published in eFiction Magazine last year had a sci-fi background. “Without Form or Substance” is about a young professor who finds her dream job, only to discover it involves time travel. I found, because this was a character piece, I didn’t need to go into the scientific details of time travel, which I doubt I could pull off. I learned that from reading Octavia Butler and Ursula LeGuin, among others.

Of all the reading I’ve done in my life, it was the characters who stood out most for me or, rather, the way the particular writer developed and wrote a character. Most of what I read is character-driven, and as a result, my strength is in the characters I’ve developed. I wouldn’t have learned how to make them “real” people if I hadn’t read great, character-driven works by authors across many genres.

Balancing reading and writing can be a chore, though. If I want to devote the time I need to writing, I can’t read all day long, which I can do at the drop of a hat. I’ve shifted the brunt of my reading to the weekends, though I still read a little in the evenings or when I need a break from staring at the blank computer screen. When I’m reading something I enjoy, which engrosses me, it’s the hardest thing to set it aside. I’m currently reading And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles J. Shields. Not only is this a book about a writer, it’s a page-turner, and I regret every time I have to close the book and move on to something else I’m supposed to do.

Shields’ biography of Vonnegut is instructive on many levels. Not only do you see the mechanics of how to construct and research a biography, but you also get a glimpse into the life of a writer and how he wrote, what inspired him, and his struggle both to be published and to be accepted by other writers. I’ll give no more details than that because I want to review this book later.

I’ve found, for me, that when I hit a brick wall with something I’m writing, the best thing I can do is put it away. Then, I pick up a book and read.

What about you? What writers and what books have taught you how to write?

My Day Two–VA Festival of the Book

There are few things that will get me out of bed before 0700 on a Saturday morning, but a book fair will do it. My Day Two at the Virginia Festival of the Book was going to start at the Book Fair at 0900. I hit the road a little before 0800, stopped to get my favorite road breakfast from Starbucks, and then I was on my way to C’ville.

The atrium of the Omni Hotel was a sea of books and authors. Cliche, I know, but it was. What was very heartening to see were the number of African-American authors showcasing their work. Virginia hasn’t quite “gotten there” yet, but we have come a long way. I decided to stop by the James River Writers table. That’s the organization sponsoring the contest one of my novels is in. I just wanted to say thanks for the encouraging e-mail I got from JRW–yes, I’m sure all the finalists got an encouraging e-mail, but it was especially encouraging to me. I introduced myself, and the person there blurted, “Oh, your book is in the contest! Congratulations! We’re so excited you stopped by!” Yes, I’m sure they said that to every finalist who stopped by, but it was nice they remembered me. They were so boisterous, in fact, people stopped and took notice, and the JRW folks pointed to me and said, “She’s one of our novelists!” Nothing like a little ego boost to start the day!

Both panels I picked that day were moderated by a writer friend of mine, also from Staunton, Cliff Garstang. (Cliff’s award-winning book of linked short stories is In an Uncharted Country.) Cliff is a voracious reader and lover of the written word, and he brought his enthusiasm for his art to both panels. The first, Death: Another Time, Another Place, focused on murder mysteries and featured John Connolly (Nocturnes, Bad Men), Alan Orloff (Diamonds for the Dead), Deanna Raybourn (Dark Road to Darjeeling), and Paul Robertson (Dark in the City of Light).

Connolly, being an Irishman with the gift of gab (aren’t we all?), was a great opening “act” for the panel, and he discussed how an Irishman writing about Ireland had been done before. So he came to America to be an Irishman writing about Maine. I had read one of his books some years back, so I picked up Nocturnes, a collection of short stories with a supernatural bent.

Orloff draws on his Jewish background for his featured book and familiar places–to me–in the Washington, DC metro area for his mystery. He has recently started a mystery series featuring a stand-up comedian. He also described his writing process–a substantial outline that he fills in. Quite the engineering approach, but he is an engineer.

Raybourn’s featured book was the latest in her Lady Julia Grey series that take place in Victorian England. A former teacher with degrees in history and English (like me), she picked the Victorian Era she said because she wanted all that proper repression “with the evil peeking out from behind the curtain.” Her humor and characters reminded me of Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series, so I decided to try Dark Road to Darjeeling.

Robertson’s book, Dark in the City of Light, is about the Franco-Prussian War, but what I enjoyed about his talk was that he does the same thing I do–take real characters and a true story and weave a mystery about them. Whereas he focuses on the 19th Century, I’m in the 20th, but it’s the same concept. So, I added Dark in the City of Light to my bookshelf.

All the authors were so willing to chat afterwards that I found it rather refreshing. Connolly and I chatted about my Irish grandmother, then Raybourne and I talked about the challenges of teaching when you know you weren’t really cut out for it. The good day just kept on going.

The afternoon panel moderated by Cliff was Historical Fiction. As I’ve said, I guess what I write is historical fiction, just focused more on current events than far in the past. I had a question already framed about the importance of research, but Cliff was way ahead and posed it to the panel. Paul Robertson was a repeat from the morning, joined by Brenda Rickman Vantrease (The Heretic’s Wife), Lenore Hart (The Raven’s Bride), and George Minkoff (The Leaves of Fate.)

Vantrease’s featured book was her third with the concept of freedom of thought and religion. She took a real person associated with Sir Thomas More and made that person’s wife (whose name is lost to history) the protagonist. She also showed More in an accurate light. Many people choose to ignore that he burned  at the stake a lot of people he considered heretics.

Minkoff has spent years working on a trilogy which takes place in England and America around the time of the Jamestown Colony. John Smith, Powhatan, and Pocahontas are key characters, but accurately portrayed. Minkoff has also studied the language of the time and has his characters speak like true Elizabethans. It was obvious the tremendous amount of research he’s conducted to produce this trilogy, but he emphasized the point that you research to put yourself in the time and place, you read book after book for that knowledge, but you don’t just regurgitate what you’ve read. The research gives you the voice.

Hart, named for the Lenore in Poe’s “The Raven,” decided not to ignore that connection she had with Poe, but she didn’t want to write historical fiction with Poe as the main character. “Done to death,” she said. She opted instead to write about Poe from the point of view of his dead wife–the lamented Lenore and Annabel Lee of his poetry. She read from the first chapter of The Raven’s Bride, a scene where Mrs. Poe goes to hospital to see her “Eddie,” and it takes her a few minutes to realize she’s a ghost. I’d already purchased Robertson’s book, so I added Hart’s to my collection.

It was a great two days of books and writers. I love being around writers, especially those who’ve enjoyed initial success. They are so accepting of fans and other aspiring writers, so much so that for next year I can see myself on the other side of the table, maybe signing my book. Yep, I can’t wait ’til the next Virginia Festival of the Book.