And…He’s Back

I know, I know, I’ve been neglecting you the past few months. There are reasons: getting my latest novel To Hemlock Run ready for publication (look for it in February/March 2017; a very contentious election here in the States (and behalf of all progressive Americans I apologize in advance to the rest of the world); and a scarcity of new ideas. I found I was beginning to repeat myself in my posts. Not a good idea. So I decided to take some time off to replenish the well, if you will.

Now, with the end of the year looming in the near future, it is time to look back on the accomplishments and defeats of the previous year.

I did finish the first draft of my new novel, an accomplishment all on its own. The first draft is probably the most important step of the writing process because it makes all the others possible. There are no edited or finished drafts without the first one.

I have also edited, revised, re-thought, and re-written To Hemlock Run and refined it to a state where I feel fairly comfortable releasing it into the world. I will be beginning the publication process next week.

Last year, I devised a reading program for myself, pledging to read forty-eight books over the year, with a particular emphasis on writers who were not white American men. I did not fully complete that plan. While I did read the forty-eight books (actually fifty-two as of today), I did not range as widely as I’d hoped. I only managed to read a couple of novels by black authors and a handful written by Native Americans. However, I did read several written by European authors, set in European countries, with all the cultural and accompanying differences. I did read many more works (most very, very good) by women writers. Again, just because of societal pressures, the world is approached somewhat differently by a woman, than a man.

There will be more about what I’ve learned from these authors in the coming weeks.

In the coming year, I hope to continue my reading. Reading, for a writer, is really a type of industrial espionage, combined with a tutorial session with an established master. I very seldom read anything of consequence without noting how the author accomplishes the effects she does. For a writer, reading is seldom simply an exercise in escapism or entertainment. A part of the mind is always paying attention to techniques and choices.

Have you ever played “first draft” with a novel you’re in the process of reading? At some point, about halfway through the work, stop at the end of a scene and close the book. Now ask yourself: if I were writing this, what scene would come next and what would it accomplish? If you want, write that scene, then compare it to the scene the author wrote. Did the author make a different decision than you? Why might that be?

My reading program for the next year will be an attempt to read quality, more than quantity. I’m only pledging to read twenty-four novels, but I intend for half of them to be classics. I have several works by authors such as Hemingway, Faulkner and Steinbeck, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, Hugo, Dumas and Flaubert lined up and ready to go. Since many of these works are long and very dense, I expect to read fewer of them, but perhaps learn more with each. To lighten things up, I will still read works in my favorite genre, friend recommendations, and newer works that strike my fancy.

And, of course, I will begin to work on another novel at some point in the near future. Ideas are beginning to flit around my consciousness like moths around a campfire.


Save The Readers!

Those who don’t read good books have no advantage over those who can’t.”
Mark Twain

If you’ve spent any amount of time around the writing/literary community over the past few years, you’ve undoubtedly come across the issue of declining readership. The sad truth is that in Western Culture fewer and fewer people are reading for pleasure. Some reports have more than fifty percent of American adults admitting they have not read a book that was not required for school or work since high school. The statistics are nearly as bad for the college educated (though one would think, as a group, they would be bigger readers than the general public. Guess not).

As I write this post, the majority of readers in the United States are women and fifty years old or older.

This fact should be of great concern to all writers. We depend on readers for an audience. If our readers continue to grow old and die, who will read our work? Who will buy our books?

So what is going on? Why are so few young people reading? Or more accurately phrased, why are so much fewer young people reading now than in times past? What can we, as writers and members of the literary community, do about it?

Part of the problem, in my humble opinion, is that young people, especially those who have grown up in the last ten to twenty years, have been inundated with a myriad of distractions taking them away from books and reading. In the sixties and seventies, when I and my contemporaries grew up, the primary entertainment sources (other than reading) were three or four channels of broadcast television, evening and weekend movies, sports, and that was about it. Cable television came around when I was in high school, but it was still mostly old re-runs. Broadcast television was all soap operas and game shows until prime time (Dad had control of the channel anyway).

Today, young people have more than 200 channels of satellite or cable television, the unlimited possibilities of the internet, video game consoles, and smart phone technology. They are drowning in stimuli. Their attention spans are getting shorter and their expectations of instant gratification are growing. Reading demands the opposite: long attention spans and the ability or willingness to delay gratification for the length of the book.

Many are also more apt to expect something to entertain them (a movie, video game, website) than to expect to entertain themselves. And face it, reading is not a passive form of entertainment. It requires a certain amount of involvement from the reader. Not like a movie, which only requires that you sit there and pay some attention.

It is also quite hard to read a novel when your buddies are sending you text messages every couple of minutes.

The other issue I see causing the decline in young readership is a strong cultural bias against reading. The message our culture pushes especially to boys and young men is that people who read books for fun are dorks and geeks. The “cool” guys, the ones who are popular, especially with the girls, are not home reading Moby Dick. They are the football players, the life of the party, the ones with the fast cars.

Think of the most popular teen movies of the recent past: Animal House, the American Pie franchise, Clueless and countless others paint the desirable person, the hero, as a person of action, often under-educated, or even hating education. These are the people our boys, especially around puberty, want to be like. They don’t want to be the dorky slob sitting at home Friday night alone with a good book. They want to be the quarterback all the girls admire.

So what can we do to fight or overcome these issues?

First and most important, we must create the best, most entertaining writing possible. It will do no good to persuade young people to pick up a book if the book isn’t very good. So we all need to write and publish the best work we possibly can.

Second, we can provide the young people in our lives a good example. Nothing makes a young person want to do something—anything—than seeing someone they admire doing it. If you want young people to read, make sure they see you reading and see it often. Don’t go back into your room to read in bed. Read in the living room; read in the kitchen. Read in the park. Read in public, where everyone can see you. Be seen with a book in your hands.

Last, is much more difficult. It involves changing the culture (or at least what it seems to value). I’m not entirely sure how to do that other than by using our abilities as writers to counter the message that reading is for wimps. Perhaps, as consumers we could also influence the companies and producers who repeat these messages. But I am less confident of that method. The people in charge of such things are only interested in whether a project will make money and little else.

But we can influence our own little corner of the culture. We can work our magic on those who are close to us and maybe, little by little, person by person, we can reverse the trend of fewer and fewer readers.

writing, Writing advice

Reading for Writers

One day, several years ago, when I was working as a cook in a restaurant, I and my fellow cook—who happened to be a musician—were discussing the song playing on the restaurant’s sound system. You know: what we liked, what we didn’t and why. Suddenly, one of the servers, who overheard us asked: “Why do you guys have to analyze everything?”

We looked at each other. We were analyzing? It was so automatic, we no longer even thought about it.

I do it to a certain extant when I listen to music: asking myself why I like or dislike the piece, what works, what doesn’t, who the songwriter may have emulated as she wrote. I do the same thing, but even more so when I’m reading.

And it’s automatic. It should be for every writer.

Every time we read, whether it’s a new novel, a classic work of literature, or the back of a box of Cheerios, we should be analyzing every word, every decision the writer made. We should be constantly asking ourselves questions: do we like it? Not like it? Either way, why? If we don’t like it, how might we do it differently?

There are many other questions we must ask ourselves as we read. Why did the author choose to begin the work where he or she did? Was it in the middle of the action, or did it build up to the first conflict? Was it a good decision? Why end it where they did? Did the plot flow seamlessly from event to event, or seem contrived in places? Were the characters all realistically portrayed, or two dimensional cut-outs? Did the author make wide use of simile and metaphor, or were the descriptions bare bones, utilitarian? How did that effect the work as a whole? Were the locations chosen for the stories appropriate? How did they add or detract from the story? Could the story have been just as effective somewhere else? Was the pace and rhythm appropriate for the events in the story? Was the vocabulary and diction appropriate for the genre and audience? How does the author handle dialogue? Exposition? How does she fill in necessary backstory?

There are thousands of questions we need to ask as we read. Interestingly, often they are largely the same questions we need to answer when we are writing our own work, such as where to begin telling the story. Other than actually writing, conscious reading is the absolutely best way to learn the craft of writing. We see how others have handled a particular problem and can borrow (or revise) their technique, depending on how well we think it works.

But, I can hear someone objecting already, what about reading for pleasure? What if I just want to read something for the fun of it? What if I just want to escape?

Go for it. More power to you. Even reading for pure, escapist pleasure has its benefits. We learn just from exposure, but the learning curve there is much more shallow. If you want to get better as fast as possible you need to read consciously.

And again, those of us who have been working on our writing skills for a while, like myself, can no longer help it. Like when the server asked my friend and I that question all those years ago: “Why do you have to analyze everything?” my answer is that it is automatic. I don’t even realize I’m doing it.

I analyze everything I read. I try to notice everything. I read consciously.

You can too.