On Writing – Reading for the Writer

I see this question pop up in various forms, on the writers’ forums and pages I follow. The essential question is “Do writers need to read?” The overwhelming response is always yes.

I am intrigued by the small but vociferous minority that says “no”. From the perplexing (I hate reading and I never read) to the astonishing (reading has nothing I need), the concepts are appalling to this lifelong reader.

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The first thing I had to grapple with was how much of this was my own pro-reading bias. I have read as long as I can remember. The story cliché of the kid who would rather read than go outside and play is a replay of my own life. My mother once told me to get my nose out of that book and go outside. I took my book with me and read under a tree. Incorrigible then, incorrigible now. Given that I maintain that the argument “I don’t like it, therefore it’s bad” is logically faulty, I knew that I had to push for a better reason to push back.

So why should writers read? One of the more common responses is that we read for inspiration. I’m not a fan of this justification at all. Reading great authors often serves as a dis-inspiration as I wonder if I’ll ever be that good. Bad authors may increase the desire to put better writing out there, but there must be a better way than inflicting bad writing on yourself.

If it is to get ideas for stories, I’d suggest you have deeper writing issues to confront. A lack of story ideas speaks to, at best, a fettered imagination and, at worst, a lack of one.

So, I reject reading for inspiration. It may be viable for some writers, but I don’t believe it is the most important function for reading in a writer’s routine.

Before I jump into my primary thesis, I want to note something boldly. I read for enjoyment. It is one of the great joys of my life. I changed my approach to blogging about books because my previous method had made reading a chore. I sacrificed the system for the joy. I also understand that not everyone finds that same enjoyment. I believe that what follows provides a rationale for all writers to read.

Writers should read so that we can learn and grow our artistic and technical skills. How is a story woven together, how are words used to create atmosphere and emotion? What is the structural difference between a romance, a thriller, or an epic? When you read a favorite author, what is it that “works” for you as a reader?

I come across writers that claim they don’t need any of this. It makes me shake my head in wonder and pity. Wonder at the astonishing ego displayed in believing that at any point in life, someone can think that they have learned everything they need to know. Pity because these writers consign themselves to re-inventing the wheel, the axle, the wagon, everything. One writer noted great poets that went off into the wild and wrote words we remember today. The style he chose to spotlight is a highly precise form that the writers in question would have learned through long exposure – by reading or listening.

Writers should read so that we are exposed to different styles of storytelling, to different techniques, to new words (!) and ideas. Without that infusion of fresh examples, the writer is trapped within the confines of their own experience, education, and imagination. While I will grant that genius could carry a writer beyond the need for that freshening source, few of us are geniuses.

Writers should read for the simplest of reasons. Through reading, you will become a better writer.

Peace.

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Short Stories – Best Short Stories of 2008

This post is part of a year-long series about short stories.  Read about my “Year of the Short Story” HERE.

Best Short Stories of 2008 with guest editor Salmon Rushdie and Heidi Pitlor

Most of the collections I’ve read this year have been works by single authors. This one collects some of the best writing published in magazines or other resources during the course of the year. The book is part of a larger annual series. Each year features a renowned author as the guest editor to help choose the stories. These have included Stephen King, E.L. Doctorow, Margaret Atwood, John Updike, John Gardner, Garrison Keillor, Amy Tan, Barbara Kingsolver, and many others.

What the reader gets from a collection like this is a wider range of writing. The focus is on the quality of the writing rather than genre or style. This volume fell into my hands when I was visiting the Green Valley Book Fair near Harrisonburg, VA. This is a book lovers dream, several barns filled with books of all descriptions. Because they are remainders, the prices are very low. The selection is amazing. Fiction and non-fiction, books on almost any subject imaginable. I walked out with four or five books and a shirt (you’ll find all kinds of bits and pieces there!) for less than $25. This book cost less than $5.

You can find these same kinds of bargains at used books stores and even by watching for sale bins or shelves at your favorite bookstore.

Inside I found a great collection of stories that I might never have discovered, authors that were almost all new to me. All of them are well written.Keep Calm and Focus on the Short Stories

 hey showed me different ways of approaching storytelling. As writers, we should never pass up the opportunity of studying the work of other writers. As readers, we have the chance to discover new worlds, new stories and new ways of telling those stories. It’s comfortable to stay with what you “always read”, but you never know when you might find something new to “always read”.

Here’s the list of stories and authors: (I’ve starred my favorites)

Admiral by T.C. Boyle – A story of genetics, politics and a twisted kind of love.

*The Year of Silence by Kevin Brockmeier – Strange moments of complete silence transform the world.

Galatea by Karen Brown – A young woman marries a man she doesn’t truly know.

Man and Wife by Katie Chase – A story of an arranged marriage with a twist.

Virgins by Danielle Evans – Two teenage girls on a journey towards a goal they may or may not want.

Closely Held by Allegra Goodman – A young programmer struggles with the changes that come with success.

*May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Holmes – Family, sex and death.

From the Desk of Daniel Varsky by Nicole Kraus – Through her involvement with a young man, she is drawn into life, death, poetry, and Chile.

The King of Sentences by Jonathan Lethen – Fans can strange. So can the object of their devotion.

The Worst You Ever Feel by Rebecca Makkai –

The Wizard of West Orange by Steven Millhausen – What kinds of experiments did Edison abandon?

Nawabdin Electrician by Daniyal Mueenuddin – Through remarkable ingenuity, a poor Pakistani man with many daughters makes a living to support them all.

Child’s Play by Alice Munro – Two women face a childhood secret.

Buying Lenin by Miroslav Penkov – The end of the Communist era in Bulgaria brings new tension to a man and his grandfather.

*Vampires in the Lemon Grow by Karen Russell – What if being a vampire isn’t what you thought it was?

Puppy by George Saunders – Every story has two sides.

Quality of Life by Christine Sneed – Freedom to choose isn’t always freedom.

Missionaries by Bradford Tice – A young missionary faces a personal test.

Straightaway by Mark Wisniewski – What do you do when you agree to dump a barrel with an unknown content? You don’t look, you run.

Bible by Tobias Wolfe – A high school teacher is kidnapped by the father of one of her students.

Picking favorite stories has been tough all year. This collection is no different. I liked every single story in the collection. These were the ones that my mind keeps coming back to again and again. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

I will continue to read and review short story collections as part of my

 “What I’m Reading” series in 2019. If you have a short story author or collection you really like, please leave me the title/name in the comments.

Peace

Jay

What I’m Reading – Invasive

Invasive by Chuck Wendig (2016) – A new breed of aggressive ants kill a man in rural New York State. FBI futurist Hannah Stander gets called in to try and discover what happened. The answer will take her halfway around the world and to the doorstep of the world’s end.

Chuck Wendig, NY Times best-selling author and John W. Campbell Award finalist, has been on my list of “Authors I Should Read” for a while. Turns out, I should have grabbed one of his books sooner.

If you love thrillers, you will love this book. On the other hand, if you hate ants, you should read some other Wendig novel. There’s a concept called “formication”, which describes the feeling that an insect is crawling on your skin. “Invasive” will trigger that feeling over and over again.

The story looks at the questions and challenges that can arise out of scientific advances like genetic engineering. Like the question raised by Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park, we need to examine not only the question “can we?”, but also “should we?”

All the familiar thriller parts are included here – a flawed hero, an ego-driven villain, a fascinating technical aspect, and plenty of twists and turns. Here the internal challenges facing Hannah Stander are rooted in her parents’ “prepper” paranoia. They raised her in the belief that civilization would end in catastrophe. That background supplies Stander with a honed set of survival skills and profound anxiety issues. This makes her an interesting and unique character who has to deal with the peculiar situations of the book.

Wendig provides everything you want in a techno-thriller – tension, tightly constructed action, interesting characters, and a fantastic but realistic problem.

You just have to learn to deal with the creepy crawly feelings.

Do yourself a favor, don’t wait as long as I did to check Wendig out!

Rating – ****

On Writing – Death To Flash

The post that follows may mark me as a purist, a snob, or a grumpy old writer.

So be it.

It’s not my intention to be any of the above. I’m just not a fan of the term “flash fiction”. I don’t like any of its sibling terms either. Not “micro” or “sudden” or “quick” or even “short-short”. I would banish them all. They are unnecessary and only serve to divide and diminish those of us who write short fiction.

I’m not concerned about outraged flash fiction mobs showing up at my door because I’m certain that you all noted that I only want to banish the terms. If you have seen any of my work, either here, or in my first collection “Shorts”, you know that I regularly write in the word range associated with the category. As a general rule, I think word count is a false idol. A writer shouldn’t put the word count anywhere near the top of the list of priorities when writing. As I’ve said more than once here, the priority should always and only be about storytelling. Use whatever quantity of words required to tell the story. Your story should determine your word count. Story and only story.

So what’s my issue then? The term “short story” or “short fiction” is the all-encompassing term for works below 7,500 words. That’s not a hard and fast rule. I found one online answer that put the upper limit at 30,000 words! That’s crazy to me. A short story can be defined as a story with a fully developed theme that is shorter than novel length. Whatever that is (novel word counts begin around 40,000 words and expand from there!) I return to my stance that word count is a hollow goal. It becomes a method to segregate the “real” writing from the “other”. I have no use for that. It’s all short fiction. The only worthwhile discussion for me is – “How good is the storytelling?”

Given the wide range of word count parameters (I’ve seen flash fiction range from fewer than 100 words up to 1,000 words) I’m not sure I see the advantage or need for other terms. Publications or competitions can simply define the individual parameters, rather than use terminologies that may be trendy but are meaningless.

Creating a story in under 100 words requires skill. That skill set is different from the one needed to write a novel. We should focus on the skills and storytelling rather than “stunt writing” to an artificial word count.

Once we do that, we barely need “short story”, “novella”, or “novel”, let alone a string of ill-defined terms that focus on the least important part of the story.

I’d love to hear from writers, especially those writing very short works, on the topic.

Peace

JP

Short Stories – Wait Till You See Me Dance

This post is part of a year-long series about short stories.  Read about my “Year of the Short Story” HERE.

Keep Calm and Focus on the Short StoriesWait Till You See Me Dance by Deb Olin Unferth (2017)

The collection struck me in a way none of the others in this series have. Olin Unferth walks a difficult line with these 30 stories. They are bright, even cheery, on the surface but there is a darkness lurking below the surface.

Story after story, I was certain that she couldn’t slide that darkness in with such subtlety again. And with every story, she proved me wrong. Each story is unique with varied points of view (“The First Full Thought of Her Life” uses changing POVs in a fascinating and disturbing fashion) and wide-ranging settings. As a writer, I am impressed by the craft displayed, while as a reader, the fascination is the wonder of each new world.

Story length varies widely too. Several stories take up less than a page. They are tightly focused on a single moment or idea. (Like “Fear of Trees’, which runs just shy of 80 words.) The rest range through more “traditional” short story lengths. Through them all, I never felt that she had used a word more than necessary. The writing is masterful and individual. I’ve never read anyone quite like her.

Stories that stood out –

Granted – two academics find themselves trapped by the terms of their financial grant

A Crossroads – a warm and joy-filled story that slides the darkness in like a blade

Opera Season – the perfect summary of a season at the opera for those who don’t know the art

My Daughter Debby – a funny story that grows darker with every paragraph

Voltaire Night – a story that begins low but ends high.

Another great collection for The Year of the Short Story

On Books – E versus DTB

The amount of energy that gets expended on the debate between E-books and traditional (DTB – Dead Tree Books) always amazes me. Because there’s not really a “debate” to be had. There is a clear and simple answer to the question. I’ll get to that in a minute.

If you read through the threads, it comes down to a simple concept most times. “I prefer…” That’s it. Whatever that reader likes is what they think is best. Which is fine but hardly the basis for any kind of argument. It’s when “my preference” becomes “the best”, or worse yet “the only”. The level of ego required to make that leap (especially the last one) is impressive. But our culture has a growing inclination to play that game. “If I don’t like it, it’s no good”. Sorry, but as a general rule, WRONG. I don’t like fantasy novels where the author falls in love with their world-building and overwhelms me with details. Even Tolkien falls prey to that. (I skim those bits). There are folks who love it. Good for them. I don’t like most any avant-garde art, in any form. It doesn’t speak to me but it does to others. More power to them. The list goes on.

There are times when I can explain why I think something fails in writing or film or whatever. There are many things that aren’t any good, in my opinion. Sometimes I’m even RIGHT! But “I don’t like it” isn’t ever a compelling argument.

You may prefer all the sensory inputs that come from a traditional book. I will admit to enjoying the physical sensations of the sound and smell of a book. The feeling of the pages as my fingers turn them.

At the same time, I own both a Nook and a Kindle. Both get regular use. The ability to carry dozens of books at once in a single slim, light “volume” is wonderful. I have no trouble reading them, and they are a special joy while traveling.

So, what’s my simple, clear answer to the question of “E vs tree”? Whatever gets someone to open a book. If it works for the reader, this author is all about it. Read on your phone or from a book on your lap. On a screen or a paperback.

The format is unimportant.

As is the debate.

Grab what works for you.

And read.

Peace

Jay

What I’m Reading – Time Traders

Time Traders by Andre Norton (1958) A young thief is offered a chance for an adventure through space and time. What begins as a secret war with enemies on Earth will end up testing his skills on multiple worlds.

Norton is one of the big names in sci-fi of the 20th century. An award-winning author whose work spans the genre. He’s a go-to author when I want a book that I know I’ll enjoy.

Which is exactly what brought “Time Traders” to my reading list. I was in the mood for some science fiction and wanted something that would be “comfortable”. Walking through the library searching titles and author names, I knew Norton would fit the bill.

Despite the tacky cover, the book was a great fit. It feels like a pair of short story/novellas featuring the same characters joined together. Each half of the book is a self-contained story without any large carry over in the action from the first to the second.

The idea of a force that can travel through time to protect/maintain/ manipulate history has been explored by a lot of authors. Here, Norton puts it in terms of the U.S./Russian political power struggle. The Russians have found a way to travel back in time. Once they realize the treat, the U.S. captures the technology and begins investigating what the Russians are doing. It’s the start of a dangerous game of chess with all of the future at risk.

Each story is nicely crafted, weaving interesting characters into suspense-filled stories. Norton offers a nice twist on a familiar story idea. Which is always nice to find in such familiar territory.

Unless I missed it, there’s one glaring oversight. The characters travel through space to other planets. When they arrive back on Earth, there are no time dilation issues. There are a couple ways around this, but I don’t remember seeing any discussion of them.

And then there’s the cover. Which doesn’t appear to have anything to do with the story. Other than appealing to juvenile readers’ vision of a “sci-fi” cover, it’s one in a long history of lame genre cover art.

“Time Traders” is the first of a series about this universe and characters.

Rating – *** Worth a Look