How Reading Can inform the Writing Process

Last weekend I managed to finish three books I had been reading at the same time. I don’t mean Data-like abilities to process information simultaneously. No, I started one book, hadn’t finished it before I started another, and then, just for kicks, thought ‘fuck it I’ll read another.’ Finally they converged to all end at the same time. Quite an achievement (it’s not really – procrastination can surface anywhere).

Books are fuel for the brain. They are not the only source of creative energy. Artwork, music, exercise, healthy food, passion, narcotics (obviously legal ones…) are all means to get the creative juices flowing. Books are great for writers though. They provide so many benefits. Last week, I wrote about the different kinds of books and how they might help the writing process. In this session I am more thinking about their overall benefit in how they stimulated me artistically, but also gave me ideas for my own writing.

AD 500 by Simon Young

This is a fictional mock-factual-historical novel, about a group of Greeks travelling the British Isles in 500AD. It was a great read about the different ways of life in each part of the isles, and decline of the Celts as the Saxons began to take over. At this point in time, there are many influences in the British Isles, leading to a rich description of culture and society.

From a narrative point of view, the Greeks take a winding journey up rom the south, through Ireland, Scotland and then back through England. There’s little over-arching ‘story’ or characters, but the gradual decline of the Celts and the hint of Saxon dominance is the main theme I think. 

From a writing point of view, I don’t think it necessarily aided in structure, but it helped provide some sense of the depth needed in description. The author had done his research, so the descriptions of events and local customs is highly detailed. I actually had an idea for a alternative-history novel set in a similar time, and this book was supposed to be the foundation of the background research. It left me with some pretty big questions about how much research I would need to do first, and the scale of the different cultures even in such a small area of land. 

Starswarm by Brian Aldiss

This was an ageing paperback I’ve had on my shelves for some time. It’s actually a collection of short stories, which are ostensibly given a connecting theme (each story relates to a part of a collection of star systems called the Starswarm). In truth, these stories had little connecting them, and the theme seemed more of a contrivance, rather than serving any narrative function.

As science-fiction stories go they were intriguing and well developed. Brian Aldiss is a famed science-fiction writer, so I expected nothing less. They raised interesting posits about existence, and human life (particularly being set so far into the future). 

I must admit I was quite interested in the micro detail. The structure of sentences and formulation of the action. This is the kind of detail I struggle with, particularly in first drafts. I want to get to a point where this sort of thing is second nature in a first draft, because it’s this detail more than anything else that causes delays and slows me down. 

It also helped with the breakdown of different characters and providing distinctiveness. This is another area I struggle with. Aldiss clearly gave some thought to his characters, even though these were short stories. I wasn’t left wondering about who was who, or felt they lacked an edge or depth. Very effective.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

Now this classic was a challenge. Partly on account of the central chacter’s using ‘Nadsat‘ (although easier to understand than you might think), but also because I had seen the film already. I didn’t really like the film, and there was little in the novel that made me want to watch again or reconsider the story. I got the premise and theme, but the story seemed remarkably uncomplex compared to its potential. Then again, maybe I’m viewing it with the reader’s desires, rather than the author’s intent. It’s not like Burgess was trying to showcase a dystopian future in detail and failing, simply that he focused on other matters.

Indeed, that may be a strength, in that the dystopian future is implied, rather than specific. It may even be, that beyond the selfish world of the main characters, the wider world continues much as normal. Beyond that though it left me cold. I had a similar reaction to Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Maybe some books do it and some don’t.

In terms of my writing, what struck me was theme and how consistently Burgess applied it. He maintained the narrative without getting sidetracked with irrelevant actions or uncessary diversions. It’s a lesson in conciseness. Some books (particularly fantasy) can become grotesquely overlong and bloated to maintain narrative. Any kind of theme disappears, and even the story telling can become lazy if the author relies on reader familiarity to make the story continue (that is, the story is no longer compelling, just the question of what the character is doing in a particular place). 

Maybe a classic novel like ACO should entice me more, but then again everything is in the eye of the beholder. It was compelling enough that I read to the end, but not so much it has become life changing. Then again, if it helps propel change in my own writing perhaps it will turn out to be quite important.

That may be the power of books. Seemingly inconsequential in many respects, but having an impact that may take many years to come to fruition. I’ve already started on my next novel – The Walls of Byzantium by James Heneage – and I’m a third of the way through that already. It has a nice intensity of story and character without being too complex. An easy read, but very much in the grain of a novel I’m working on. The more I read the richer I become, and after prolonged spurts barely reading any fiction, it’s good to be delving back into it again.

Literary superfood versus literal garbage – how to keep the creative juices flowing

It’s a struggle these last few days. My brain feels dry. Like a giant leech has sucked the very essence of creative juices from my mind. It’s a sign of tiredness maybe, but it’s also a sign, I think, of not reading.

Now let’s be clear. I read. A lot. My life is an endless stream of report reading, news, Twitter feed and amusing 30 second videos on Facebook…no, wait, I think I diverted there. Dogs on mops. That’s what’s amusing (see, I didn’t even have to issue the rhetorical question to lead you into the answer).

No, I read. The trouble is, I don’t read enough of the right stuff. Reading is like eating. There are healthy superfoods, reasonably healthy, a little naughty, and downright garbage. 

Healthy superfoods, in reading, are the classic greats, not just oldies like Dickens, but new blood like whoever won the Booker Prize in 1965. What’s that you say? There was no Booker Prize in 1965? Oh, well, OK, 1975 then (it was around by then surely). There are non-fiction too, the kind of books that completely absorb you and drive into a philosophical journey of epic proportions, traveling the imagination highway at warp fucking 9. ‘Give me more Mister Crusher!’ yells Picard. ‘Give me more!!’ (Being a Star Trek TNG fan I must hold up my hands and admit that was never in any episode, but I’m sure it probably appeared in some form of fan fiction, depending on how you read it).

Reasonably healthy are the decent reads, the measured oddities that don’t quite reach greatness but keep us intrigued, interested and draw us in I like to class lesser known fiction by well known writers. For example, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is for me like kale. Cook kale in the right way and it’s delicious and healthy, read In Cold Blood the right way and it’ll do the same for your brain. His other novels though, like Summer Crossing, they’re more like chicken. Healthy in many respects, but cooked in the wrong way probably have some drawbacks. Not many though, chicken is awesome. You could just eat chicken, but you need something like kale otherwise you’ll get scurvy. OK, maybe not that bad. There are other foods out there that are nutritious and healthy without being ‘superfoods’. I guess though you set the bar lower for yourself if you don’t indulge in what’s best for you.

Slightly naughty, now there’s something. Chocolate. Tastes delicious, but death. Bacon, it’s as bad as smoking but it’s soooo good. So what fits in here? Well, it’s the slightly crappy novels that have some semblance of story, and character, but really they just go through the motions and you’re looking for simple trash you can enjoy. Here I might mention books of my youth like the Belgariad, or Dragonlance. Enjoyable fantasy romps (except Tanis – fucking shave you moping dick, it’s obvious you want to), but not exactly breaking literary barriers.

And the garbage. That’s Twitter. That’s news. That’s Facebook. It would also be Fifty Shades of Grey, but i haven’t read that so cannot comment (It’s utter shit – read Twilight because it’s the same story, and then read some Black Lace for all the “fifty shades of fucked up” FSOG will do you). 

But Twitter? News? How can these be so bad? I hear you cry. Well it’s simple. These things can be stimulating in a way, like a McDonalds Cheeseburger fills an empty spot in your stomach, but creatively it’s dead weight. Thinking Twitter develops your creativity is like thinking watching Naughty Lesbo Nurses 9 builds professional team building skills. Don’t get me wrong, I love Twitter and it can be stimulating – Donald Trump (senior AND junior) is keeping me quite occupied at the moment – but for my creative needs it’s not doing it.

So, I’m not reading. Not really. I still haven’t finished A Clockwork Orange, and at the same time I’m trying to finish off an entertaining faux factual book about some Greeks travelling in Britain and Ireland during the Dark Ages called 500 AD (it’s a ripping yarn, as Michael Palin would say). None of this is building good foundation for boosting my mind. I need some fiction; something structured and in depth. My penchant for reading recently has been for non-fiction, but everything I’m writing is practically fiction. I need better stimulation.

So yes, reading is important. It’s a type of energy that the brain needs. I exercise the brain through thinking, contemplating, wondering, and wandering (in my mind, not physically aimless because I have Googlemaps). Good food for the brain is critical. So I will set myself the goal of finishing Clockwork Orange and 500AD this weekend, and then start to rejuvenate myself with some solid fiction reading.