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The Reading Habits Of Foxes And Hedgehogs

Posted on 10.21.2014 at 09:49
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I hated reading for a good chunk of my life. I didn’t struggle with it or anything; I just didn’t enjoy it—until I discovered science fiction and fantasy, that is. By degrees, everything changed after that. I looked forward to reading, I started buying books, I found my way to writing.

But, despite trying to make up for lost time and all my education in the various wings of English departments, I’m not nearly as well-read as I’d like to be. For the bulk of my active reading life, my diet has consisted largely of fiction, typically of the speculative sort. I can count on two hands the number of poetry books I’ve read. Only three years ago did I start reading nonfiction for pleasure in addition to information. I’ve managed only a tiny, tiny fraction of the canon, however malleable that is.

In the last post I wondered about the proper balance between reading and writing. Now I’m narrowing it down: if you’re a writer and you are reading, what kind of reading would be most useful for your literary growth?

Isaiah Berlin wrote that there are two kinds of people. (I’m always skeptical when anyone tries to simplify the world so neatly, but go with me on this.) You have foxes and you have hedgehogs. Foxes know many things and hedgehogs know one big thing, which I’ve always interpreted as breadth versus depth. Writers—and other artists, for that matter—seem to embody both. They need to know their craft well, but they also need to know about whatever they’re representing (or want to represent) in their work. In both cases, that knowledge comes from living, but it also comes from reading. Writers are often exhorted to read both widely and deeply, which can present a challenge.

I’ve read a lot of SF/F. Not doing so would be ridiculous—I’d have no idea what stories had been told, how the tropes had been used, what spoke to me and what left me cold. But reading only SF/F can become a closed-circuit. The ecosystem—in this case, my brain—doesn’t allow new elements in, which leads to stagnation and so a kind of death.

How, then, do you balance reading deeply with reading widely, especially when there’s so much material and not enough time? I guess with a contradiction: being experimental and conservative. If you know what sparks your interest, by all means, go there. Read your fill. But don’t confine yourself to that. Think of certain authors, genres, or whatever as home, a point to return to even as you venture outward, exploring. Sometimes you have to stick with something that doesn’t immediately hook you, because the new can be strange and, at first, uncomfortable. Still, not every experiment will be successful. And you have to be willing to draw up boundaries. Too many failed excursions probably means that something isn’t for you. That’s okay. Move on. Keep moving. Pick up something familiar to recharge you.

There’s enough work out there that you’ll never reach the end of what you love or what you haven’t discovered yet. That, to me, is exciting.

The Reading And Writing Balance

Posted on 09.03.2014 at 10:04
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As the previous post makes clear, I can go for depressingly long stretches of time without writing, but I’m unable to function if I’m not reading for fun, even sporadically. Which got me thinking about the trade-off of time spent writing and time spent reading, what the golden ratio is.

Stephen King*, who admits to being “a slow reader,” manages to read “seventy to eighty books a year,” which to me is an astounding number. I’ve been keeping track of my reading habits only since 2006, when my average reading speed increased to the point that I couldn’t feasibly remember a given year’s reading. So I started an inventory. My highest tally was 2007, when I had an office job, so an hour for lunch and a ninety-minute commute translated to a lot of reading. But like King, I’m not an especially fast reader. I’m fairly picky about the books I read, and I savor my books, mostly. If I can work in somewhere between thirty and forty books, I’m happy with that.

Sticking with King as an example, he writes that his goal for every writing day—virtually every day—is two thousand words/ten pages. “On some days those ten pages come easily; I’m up and out and doing errands by eleven-thirty in the morning, perky as a rat in liverwurst. More frequently as I grow older, I find myself eating lunch at my desk and finishing the day’s work around one-thirty in the afternoon. Sometimes, when the words come hard, I’m still fiddling around at teatime.”

King doesn’t command that his habits become someone else’s. And even if he did, his circumstances are not yours are not mine. Writing is his job. No commute. No required overtime because it’s some particular business season. Not even an eight-hour day by the sound of it. Meaning he has a not-insignificant amount of time freed up compared with someone with a more traditional job and who makes routine choices about whether to read or write off the clock.

I look back at my own situation over the past few years, as both a reader and a writer. Books: In 2008, I just hit thirty books, my arbitrary minimum, and barely passed that the following year with thirty-three. Over the next four years I read forty books or more, with 2011 being an outlier at fifty-six. As for writing, my record year was 2009, my first at Stonecoast; I wrote ten stories. No other year even comes close. I wrote four in 2008 and 2011, three in 2007, two in 2010, and one each in 2012 and 2013—and 2014 if I can finish a draft.

What I expected the numbers to tell me was that as I read more books in a given year, I wrote less. And vice versa. That isn’t quite the case. My most productive writing year was only my second-lowest in number of books read. My second-highest year for reading was also my second-most productive writing year.

The numbers, of course, don’t tell the whole story. For one thing, my book totals represent sheer number of books, regardless of whether they’re children’s books or novellas or comics trade paperbacks I can breeze through in an afternoon. The number of books doesn’t reflect the actual quantity of words read. It also ignores all the other reading I do, especially as a teacher. I leave the books I’ve read for the PhD off because, if I’d had a choice, I wouldn’t have read them. For the MFA, the books I had to read counted toward the total because I’d wanted to read those anyway, which was awesome.

As for the writing, being enrolled in an MFA was a huge motivator. Besides being accountable to a mentor, having a deadline, and paying money for the whole experience, I got work done because, when it comes to school, I take it seriously to the near neglect of other responsibilities. When I’m just writing for me, it’s easy to prioritize other things over my fiction. So no wonder I wrote ten stories. But the numbers represent finished drafts, however terrible. I’ve lost count of all the random snippets and opening pages I’ve written only to put aside, or stuff that informs a story without being an explicit part of it. And besides, this is all just quantity. Heaven knows how these stats matters in terms of quality.

It’s intriguing that the year I was neither teaching any classes nor enrolled in a post-grad program was one in which I read and wrote a good amount. I’m sure that’s not the sole reason, but it makes me ponder.

What are your daily/monthly/yearly goals as a reader and/or as a writer? What do you consider a good balance between them for you?

*All quotes taken from On Writing. That’s all the citation you’re getting from me.

Story Snarls

Posted on 08.18.2014 at 10:15
I haven’t finished a story in the past year. This spring was so frenetic I barely had time to do any leisure reading to maintain my sanity. (I’m disappointed if I don’t write regularly, but I practically collapse if I go too long without reading from my own shelves.) So I had one resolution for this summer: I’d write and finish a short story draft—even a really shitty one—before the fall semester began. Barring any miracles, I’m not going to succeed.

I could make excuses, but I’m not interested in sharing them, and I doubt you want to hear them. I’m not writing this post to enumerate all the reasons I’ve fallen short of my modest goal; I’m writing it to articulate the difficulties I’ve been having with this particular story.

Without getting into all the details, the story is part homage to, part revision of the mecha trope. I love giant robots, though I’m not nearly as steeped in the genre as I could be. I’ve only seen G1 Transformers, of course, and only a handful of episodes of the various Gundam and Voltron series. As for written examples, I’m not sure if it exists in any substantial form. (There’s Armored and the Battletech series, but even these aren’t quite what I’m after.)

So, without much for reference points, I find my story taking on a military science fiction bent. This is a challenge for me. One: I don’t have any genuine interest in military SF. I don’t gravitate to those kinds of stories as a reader. And while military SF has high levels of drama and action, the stories I as a writer like to tell don’t lend themselves to that milieu. Two: I’m not, to my mind, a particularly good SF writer. I don’t have the scientific or technological literacy that SF can—though not always does—demand. I don’t have nearly as much familiarity with SF’s tropes as I do with fantasy’s. And I haven’t yet figured out what I can get away with as an SF writer, what logistics should be thought through and which can be taken care of with handwaving.

Now I’d be a poor writer if I wrote only the same kinds of stories or the ones that came easily to me. But I wonder how to recognize the distinction between not writing a story because it’s hard and not writing one because it’s turning out to be something you’re not even a little excited by. So, to get back to the mecha story: In writing it, I’ve encountered a lot of questions. That could be positive, right? An indication I’m being more thoughtful and conscientious in my writing choices. But the more I mull over these questions, the farther away I feel the story veer from one I want to tell (to say nothing of what I’d hoped to tell, though I think in the end stories bear only faint resemblances to their initial vision). So should I pursue it to the end, just to see how it winds up? Or would it be better to just start over to see if I can get the execution to be more in synch with the intention?

I’d love to hear about your experiences when the writing goes in a direction you didn’t expect and maybe weren’t enthusiastic about.

Some Things I've Learned About Research

Posted on 05.27.2014 at 11:43
If you’ve ever heard me talk about my MFA program, you might have noticed I tend to speak in superlatives: It was one of the best decisions I ever made, I found some of my closest friends there, and I learned so much about my writing that I can hardly identify any major gaps—save one. The one significant (to me) lesson I hadn’t picked up during those two years was how to research. Not the fusty kind involving library visits, MLA format, and all that. I mean the kind that starts with “I’d like to write a story involving world-class marbles players but I don’t know the first thing about marbles, let alone at the pro level.” So where/how do you start? That question took up residence in the back of my mind, occasionally traveling to the forefront when I considered breaking out of the rut of stories informed by what I already knew. Daunted by the potential of failure, I shied away from experimenting, from discovery, and instead kept to the paths I’d walked so often.

Thankfully, I lucked into a Research for Creative Writers class this past fall; in taking the class, I got enough familiarity with how to research topics with an eye toward story fodder that I feel more confident about venturing out into that unknown. But I have to warn you: It’s a pain in the ass.

Four questions guided us through the semester as researchers. What do you already know about the topic at hand? What do you want to know about it? Where can you find that info you don’t yet have? And how do you put it all together gracefully? I don’t think I’m giving anything away by sharing these questions; it’s finding answers—even tentative ones—that’s the real challenge. Like all the other bromides about writing—simple in theory, less so in practice.

I’m oversimplifying when I say this, but it seems like there are two approaches to research. One is to gather as much material as you can before setting out to write, collecting more as needed during the actual composing. The other, and the one that strikes me as far more manageable, is to write the damn story and figure out where you have gaps—of setting, character, etc.—that could be filled in by researched information.* I don’t much like the first approach because it can theoretically go on forever. How do you ever really know you have enough? Eventually you just have to put your butt in the chair and words on the page. Besides that, you’ve got chaos, no sense of order or relevance of what you’ve collected. The latter approach makes more sense to me because, though researched material can impact a story beyond lending verisimilitude, I prefer to see what shape the story takes independent of outside interference. And once I know that, can see where I might need a fact or a detail, my research has a direction and purpose, instead of a mad grab for info.

But even with a direction and purpose, you don’t always turn up the info you need—or you don’t recognize a detail’s usefulness right away. It’s a process of back-and-forth, trial-and-error, which is also why the (over)preparation method seems odd to me; you’re going to have to do all kinds of scutwork anyway. May as well cut out the extra step and get right to it.

Even if you find all the info you need and blend it seamlessly into your narrative, there’s still a chance you’ll get something wrong. And someone will invariably catch you for it. Not a good thing—not just because most people don’t like having mistakes pointed out, but because that slip-up could break a reader out of your story. Some readers might be forgiving, some might not notice at all, but some will lose the sense of the whole due to one loose thread. You can’t please every reader, and I’m not even suggesting you try. I’m just saying that when you introduce research into a story, you’ve got one more plate to juggle in addition to believable characters, a compelling plot, sharp prose, et cetera, et cetera. But that also means a greater sense of satisfaction when you pull it off.

For me, the greatest benefit of research—and I’m paraphrasing something I read long ago, can’t remember where—is it expands the sphere of what you know. “Write what you know” is a great place to start, but, if you write enough, eventually you run the risk of exhausting what you know (or at least what you know that feels viable as Story). Research ensures that, in some sense, there’s no end to what you can know.

* I think fiction writers have the advantage over nonfiction writers in this; with fiction there is still, ideally, a story independent of the facts, whereas that may not be the case with CNF. A post for another time, maybe.

Writing Longhand

Posted on 03.31.2014 at 09:05
I have a distinct memory of typing my first story, a piece of fan fiction, on my uncle’s computer. I had written out by hand nine double-spaced pages, which was far more than my teacher asked for with that assignment. (The prompt? “Write a story.” You can imagine how much I, still loyal to structure and clear guidelines, gnashed my teeth over that overwhelming freedom.) Since we didn’t have a computer at home, the keyboard was unfamiliar to me. I hunted for letters, tapping them out with an agonizing slowness that took the bulk of an evening. Maybe that’s why I hate composing on the computer so much.

Obviously, I’m much quicker than I used to be. Even though I’d never gotten comfortable with the home-keys position, years of e-mails, IMs, and college/grad school writing improved my speed so much that one of my creative writing teachers remarked he’d never seen anyone work that fast typing so untraditionally. But I find myself somehow divorced from the writing process if I write by computer, as if those motions, while learned, still don’t feel native to me. Maybe it’s because the product looks too uniform, like anyone could have written it. Maybe I just fool myself into a better headspace through the physical act of making marks by hand on a page.

But I don’t think it’s only psychosomatic. I have good reasons for writing by hand. Like my friend Paul says, it keeps all the work in one place. I own nearly two dozen marble notebooks—they’re cheap and durable—full of the fiction, essays, and even [sic] posts I’ve done over the past five or six years. They’re easier to track down than the scattered files on my computer, though without the benefit of a search function. I like the portability. I take a notebook or memo pad nearly everywhere I go, whereas my laptop only occasionally travels with me. Writing longhand is unrestricted by battery life and the availability of outlets. I also don’t type nearly as fast as I write; when I’m in the middle of a story, I’ve got to keep up with the speed of thought. (More often than not, my first drafts happen by inspiration and figuring it out as I go. It’s only certain kinds of writing that I do any significant planning for.)

I also like the way revision happens when writing by hand. I make a few squiggly lines through material I want to scrap, but I can still see the words. Sometimes, they provide a useful direction or an idea to be salvaged for later. On the screen, I don’t see any traces of where my thoughts have been, what’s been abandoned or tweaked. (I know about Track Changes, but I’ve never really gotten the hang of that option.) Adding notes to myself on paper is easy—I have arrows and asterisks on nearly any given page, reminding me to insert an elaboration, more details, a stronger word choice. I wouldn’t expect anyone else to make sense of my system, but to me, it’s simple enough. Plus, when I do sit down to type what I’ve written, I edit on the spot, reworking phrases and cutting excess. It’s the rare piece that makes it to digital format exactly as I wrote it. Of course, that means a final draft takes more time for me than for a writer who prefers the keyboard, but it’s worked so far. When I have to get away from my normal writing process, I’ve gone to the computer. Even if the result isn’t actually any different, it definitely feels that way.

Besides all that, print has this air of permanence to it that the digital lacks. (Maybe that’s just the Luddite in me.) I have multiple backups of my most important writing, but I can’t help worrying about technology’s unreliability. Then again, I’d lose so much if a fire ever happened. But I’d never fight a force of nature so hard if it meant saving my writing from oblivion.

I guess that’s why some of us write, whatever medium we use—to preserve something valuable.

Ten Books That Stuck

Posted on 02.10.2014 at 09:38
Not long into the new semester and already I feel swamped by obligations. These are the first words in weeks I’ve written for me—and for you, though I use [sic] to think on the page, so I don’t really consider it as writing for others. Because I’ve been so swept up by school-related matters, I find my mind blank. Nothing to write about. So, in the absence of a pressing urge, I’m sharing a meme. I rarely do this; clearly things are out of order somehow.

A few months ago, people on Facebook were posting their personal lists of ten books that stuck with them. The caveat: to do so quickly, without thinking. I’ve read hundreds of books. Coming up with ten is easy. Keeping it to ten? That’s a different story. Still I managed, though I confess I did spend a little time—not a lot, mind—thinking about this list. In no particular order:

A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
Stardust, Neil Gaiman
Cosmos, Carl Sagan
The October Country, Ray Bradbury
Blankets, Craig Thompson
Spider-Man: The Venom Factor, Diane Duane
Life of Pi, Yann Martel
Macbeth, William Shakespeare
On Writing, Stephen King
The Tao of Pooh, Benjamin Hoff

I wasn’t going for representativeness, but I think that’s what happened. I see my tendency toward wistfulness, quests and searches, Taoism, a sense of wonder. More besides, I’m sure. I also place a lot of value on firsts: Stardust was the first Gaiman novel I read, and The October Country was the first Bradbury I independently read, both catapulting me toward seeking more of their work. The Tao of Pooh started my forays into Taoism. Macbeth was the first piece of “literature” I remember liking. And Duane’s Venom Factor is the book that got me reading.

So many other books I want to tell you about. For instance, over the summer I reread Chris Barzak’s One for Sorrow in preparation for a lengthy post on it. My goal is to spotlight some of the other books that have impacted me, a few that may be familiar, a few that probably won’t be. But good books need to be shared and discussed, however great it feels to have a secret all to ourselves.

A Novel Or Bust

Posted on 01.13.2014 at 12:16
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I decided on this a few months ago, but it seems appropriate to share it now with everyone talking of resolutions and goals for the new year: I’m going to write a novel.

It wasn’t an easy decision to make. When I was younger and had far more braggadocio, I attempted two novels, one a rather bland idea stretched thin and the other a by-the-numbers fantasy that I can only charitably call derivative. I didn’t get very far with either of those projects before I realized they weren’t worth finishing—if I didn’t like the story I was writing, I held little hope anyone else would. Those attempts—which I’m sure I labeled failures at the time—likely soured me on any subsequent tries at writing a novel.

I turned my attention to short fiction and everything changed. While I did—and still do—have a tendency to riff on old ideas, I found that I could tolerate the familiarity short pieces accommodate. I liked the potential for experimenting with style, form, character, and so on, unlike a novel, which demands a certain consistency. And I liked the satisfaction of seeing a project finished, whether successful or not, in a relatively short timeframe, rather than chipping away at something on blind faith (and maybe some stubbornness).

Lately, I have novels on my mind. I read a lot of short fiction this past year, and, though my love of the form hasn’t diminished any, I’m craving the immersion novels deliver. And with school claiming the bulk of my time, I feel like I need an anchor in the creative world. Leisure reading has been instrumental in that, as has writing short stories, but both have been sporadic. I can’t help wondering, then, if a single large writing project, instead of several smaller ones, would improve my focus any.

Besides which, I’ve been thinking about time and regret, priorities and choices. Existential stuff, as you do. I don’t want to die without ever having made a sustained, earnest attempt at a novel. I want to prove to myself that I can. I want to test my creative powers. I want to make a grandiose gesture of commitment to the writing life, despite my professional obligations. To do so, I’m choosing to write a novel.

As you might expect, I no sooner made the decision than the questions began: What are you going to write a novel about? By when? What if all that time and effort results in a book you can’t publish? Can you decide to write a novel, or do you just get an idea like a bolt from the heavens? And more occur to me with each passing day. I’ve managed to quiet the doubts, since I’m still in the process of brainstorming. We’ll see how long that lasts and how long it takes for thought to become deed. More on this as it unfolds.

A number of you have written novels. I’d love to hear your experiences, especially in the early stages.

When A Book Leaves You Cold

Posted on 12.19.2013 at 13:44
A few weeks ago, I finished a book that I was not terribly fond of. I hadn’t gotten very far in before I realized what a chore reading it was. Yet I pressed on, hopeful, eventually desperate, that the author would turn it around, that the next story would make me feel like my commitment would pay off. It never happened. As short as the book was, I found myself wishing back the time I’d invested, which happens so infrequently that, when it actually does, it’s a shock.

Because the book was a collection, I felt justified in my optimism—even the best ones have a few stories that just don’t work for me. On some level, though, I recognized I was ignoring my instincts, the ones saying it was a lost cause. I stuck with it partly out of stubbornness: I had only given up on one other book before, and I would not be defeated—yes, giving up on a book meant personal defeat—by yet another. The other reason? I had hoped to learn something from it, a totally sensible reason writers routinely endure wooden prose, bland plots, flat characters. Lessons in What Not to Do. I never did learn anything from the book, but only in retrospect can I say that; in the moment, I’d hoped for some kernel of wisdom.

I’m not going to lay the blame for the reading experience I’d rather forget on that writerly advice. After all, I can choose to follow it or ignore it. Or, my actual plan, to tweak it. Life is short and my reading list is long; only one of those gets longer by the month. I’m a fairly discriminating reader, so it’s the rare instance I choose a book that I don’t appreciate on some level. Even so, it happens, and rather than soldier on out of some warped sense of obligation, I need to change my habit.

I want every book I read to blow my mind. Who doesn’t? But I know that won’t happen. Still, I should be getting something out of the experience. If not, well, I’ve got other books clamoring for attention. So here’s the plan: I’m going to give a book that’s really not working fifty pages or so to convince me. Plenty enough time to do something interesting, to show me a glimpse that, even if I’m not enthralled, I’ll take something away from the experience.

Several friends of mine have long had the win-me-over-by-page-X policy in place for years; they can hardly believe I’ve been reluctant to give up on books. Now, it’s a different story. Fifty pages, authors. Make ’em count.

Avoiding Adaptations

Posted on 10.30.2013 at 10:21
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In the winter of 2005 I came home one day to find that part of the roof over my room fell in, bringing with it the ice that had sat there over the previous few weeks. I reacted as you might expect. Few of my possessions were ruined in the collapse, thankfully, though there were some casualties. One of those was my copy of I, Robot with the Stephen Youll artwork. I had bought the book over a year prior, because I knew they were making a movie version soon and I didn’t want an actor’s photo on the cover. And now it was water-damaged, the ink smudging across pages, the whole curling up on itself when it finally dried.

Over the next few years, I checked every bookstore I came across for a replacement copy. More times than I care to count I found the tie-in edition, Will Smith striding in such a way to suggest action without committing any. Even when I visited other states I came up empty-handed. Seven years later I found at last a clean copy with Youll’s illustration.

Perhaps not the best segue into my resistance to adaptations, but it’s clearly related. I could have bought I, Robot a dozen times over, used or new, in those seven years. But I refused. I like to keep my books separate from their spin-offs, thank you very much.

When I read about an upcoming film or TV adaptation of a book I love, or one I want to read, I’ll typically rush to the bookstore and buy myself a copy, before those “Soon to be/now a major motion picture/TV series!” stamps or photo stills show up on the covers. That’s an aesthetic thing, sure. What about the adaptations themselves?

In general, I avoid them, sometimes with a fervor that borders on zealotry. At least, that’s the case with stories I love. If I’m not as invested in the story itself—which is rare; this is me we’re talking about—it depends on circumstances: who’s involved, how it looks in development, etc. I don’t know if I’m more visual-minded or whatever, but I’m extremely susceptible to others’ representations of characters and settings overwhelming my own, especially if all I have to go on is prose. You would think that, as a writer, I would not be so easily influenced in my imagination. I would think so too. To my own chagrin, though, that isn’t the case. When I return to the story after seeing a screen version, I see the actors in my mind’s eye, hear their voices instead of the ones I invented. And suddenly I feel less involved in my reading; I can’t participate in the same way I used to.

I’d love to be able to separate the two out, to recognize that the story is its own thing as is the movie or TV show. (Other kinds of adaptations, strangely, leave less of an impression on me.) But I can’t do that. So if you ask me why I haven’t seen or won’t see such-and-such, you’ll know: because I have a particular image and sound in my head and, despite what I may be missing, I want to preserve them.

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