Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Reading to Master the Craft of Writing

"The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is the man who'll get me a book I ain't read." - Abraham Lincoln

"If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write.  Simple as that." - Stephen King

I get it, I get it.  You must read if you're going to make a serious go at writing.  A couple of years ago, in fact, I was blogging about this--this commandment, I suppose.  Only it's not so much a commandment.  I mean, it's fun to read, right?  That's what got me into writing in the first place.  I enjoy reading stories, and I decided I could probably tell stories at least as well as some of those I'm reading, and so blammo, off I went.

Problem was, what to read?

My genre, of course.  I mean, that's obvious.  I write fantasy, and so I've read a lot of a lot of fantasy in my life, and especially over the past couple of years.  I wanted to really do my Dragon Queen series up right as YA fantasy, too, so I've been going back through the first few Harry Potters and the Percy Jacksons and the Pendragons and so on through the list of other successful YA fantasy series.

It's fun.  I love to read fantasy.  I love to write fantasy.

At some point, though, you've got to vary it a bit.

Why do I say that?  Well, there's only so much you can learn about mastery of the craft of writing, as a general thing, through reading commercial literature in a certain genre.  Whatever the genre is, it likely follows certain patterns and protocols--which, I must add, are what make it successful as a genre in the first place.  But to grow as a writer, you have to read other patterns and protocols, too.

It's like, I would suggest, the path to becoming a master builder.  A carpenter gets very good at building a type of structure when he works with that type of structure all the time, but that one area doesn't make him a master.  Instead, he'd have to study in lots of different regions of his craft.  Right?  And now that I've completely pummeled that horrible example to death, time to move on.... literary writing.

Oh, now don't go getting all "literary writers are snobs" on me.  There's nothing inherently wrong or snobbish about literary fiction.  Yes, it as a "genre" tries to smack-down at the deeper understandings of our human existence, and it does so at a time when many of us, if not most of us, really just want to read about two people kissing or fighting dragons or zombies, or, heck, maybe all the above at the same time.  I mean, hey, who wouldn't love that?

Still, there's something to be said for me taking the time to read over some classics.  I remember "reading" several of them back in English classes:

"You finished Crime and Punishment yet?"

"Yeah.  It's a crime that it was written, and a punishment that we have to read it."

"No kidding, man.  So did you read it, read it, or just skim it for what we need to answer the questions in the report?"

"Now, what do you think?"  *surreptitiously flashing the cover of a Cliff's Notes booklet*

"Riiiiiight.  Cool, man."

So not too long ago, prompted by the release of a movie that looked interesting, I re-read The Great Gatsby.  The plot, I found, was every bit as detestable as I remembered back when I'd read it the first time in eleventh grade.  That said, while there was absolutely no way this high school junior was gonna lose any cool points by talking about flowery language and, um, "stuff," this adult man did find himself enjoying the prose.

But there are, as I'm sure many of you already know, way too many "classics" to read them all.  Where do you start?

I was lucky.  Recently I happened across an article on the "Top 100 All-Time Best Novels," a list of the best novels published between 1923 and 2005, which is as close to "all time" as I'm interested in getting.  It was compiled by Lev Grossman, an author/critic whose book The Magicians I found enjoyable, and by Richard Lacayo.

Thus, I set a goal for myself: by the end of 2014, I would have all 100 read (or attempted to read; the memory of my assaults upon the deadly prose of Ulysses still haunts me).  Then I thought about that a little more--there are only about 400 days between then and now, give or take a few.  That's an average of 4 days per novel.  Some are fairly short, and if I did nothing but read I could easily get them done, but others are near the 1000-page mark.

Nope.  No way in heck.

Rule #1 of goal-setting: don't set goals that can't be met.

(Okay, that might not be Rule #1, but it's up there.)

New goal, then: have a significant chunk of the novels on the "Top 100" list read by the end of 2014.  And by "significant chunk" I mean at least a quarter, a goal that requires about one book per 16 days.

Goal set, then, it fell to me to find copies of the books.  Granted, I could just buy a copy of each, but--um, well, that's a lot of money.

I could crowd-source the attempt, I suppose, but it seems rather silly to ask others for money so I can buy a lot of books to read.

Then:  Hey!  The library!

Turns out Memphis has quite an extensive library system, and I was able to find all but a few of the books listed in their collection.  And yes, I was anal retentive enough to create a spreadsheet: title, author, location, and Grossman/Lacayo's main point as to why they picked it.  And then I created a color scheme: yellow means I've read it (recently) and green means I have it in a stack to be read.

List thus created, I started with the first book!  It's already nearly halfway done.  I'm sure you're assuming I started with The Adventures of Augie March, which is the first on the list--right?  Nope, couldn't find that one on my first trip to the central library.  Thus, I'm reading--for the first time, believe it or not, despite having seen the movie--The Lord of the Flies.

And yes, it's good.  Better'n the movie, in fact, a statement that should surprise no one who's ever read a book and seen the movie, both.

I'm going to enjoy this project.


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