The Skill List Project: Reading Judiciously

This is another post  in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Last time around, we talked about Reading Voraciously. This time around, we’ll look at reading judiciously: the skill of reading in order to learn from other writers.

Reading Like a Writer

In an essay in About Writing, Samuel R. Delany offers a list of observations containing the following (p. 127):

5. It is almost impossible to write a novel any better than the best novel you’ve read in the three to six months before you began writing your own. Thus you must read excellent novels regularly.

6. Excellent novels set the standards for our own. But bad novels and bad prose are what teach us to write—by setting strong negative examples. You must read both, then—and read them analytically and discriminatingly.

As writers, we have to develop the skill of reading with doublethink—reading for enjoyment, but also reading in order to dissect, learn, and occasionally steal. We have to do both simultaneously. If we just enjoy, we miss the chance to figure out how the writer provides the enjoyment; if we just dissect, we become one of those irritating people who watches magic tricks solely to solve how the trick is done, thereby missing the magic. Such people may succeed in extracting formulas and techniques, but they blind themselves to the art…and the heart.

Paying Attention

So how do you learn to read like a writer? For me, it’s a matter of paying attention to the actual words on the page, not just the ideas and images that the words convey. For example, get a book that you think is particularly good and look at the opening page. What’s so good about it? What does the author do that grabs you? What are the exact words that create mood, establish setting, introduce characters, and whatever else the author is doing? Why do these particular words work? Are the sentences long or short? Is the vocabulary complex or simple?

Read the passage several times. What stands out? What grabs your attention? What resonates? What flows?

When we’re reading purely for enjoyment, we tend to zoom along without awareness of word choice, sentence construction, and paragraphing. We also zoom past important structural details like chapter breaks, sections within chapters, and authorial insertions. (I use the term “authorial insertion” for any inserted tidbit that’s outside the actual narrative. For example, chapter titles are insertions—real life doesn’t come with headings. Some books also put the date/time at the beginning of each chapter, or the name of the viewpoint character. Insertions may also include quotations or other interpolated material placed at the start of chapters and/or sections.)

To read like a writer, you have to ask, “What is the author doing here, and how does it affect the reading experience?” In a story that works, how does the author make it work? And in a story that doesn’t work, what does the author do wrong?

As Delany noted, reading bad prose can be illuminating. Get a book you didn’t enjoy and read a few pages several times. What’s wrong with the writing? Are there words that stand out as inappropriate? Is the flow confusing? Does the rhythm of the prose trip over itself? Is something wrong with the plot or the action? Do the characters seem unbelievable…and why? (And why does it matter? Lots of effective writing contains unbelievable characters. You’ll never meet someone as smart as Sherlock Holmes, as evil as Hannibal Lecter, as ultra-competent as Batman—but we can still love reading about them. Why do such characters work despite, or because of, their unbelievability?)

By reading bad books, we learn what fails and what we have to avoid. By reading good books, we learn how high we ought to set the bar. Both sides of the coin can inspire us. We yearn to be as good as the best; we look at the worst and say (in Spider Robinson’s immortal words), “By Jesus, I can write better than this turnip.”

But How Do You Actually DO It?

How do you dissect a passage of prose and learn from it? At the risk of falling flat on my face, next time I intend to take a sample of writing—preferably something out of copyright—and I’ll try to show how I would read it to learn something about writing. If anyone can think of a passage I should look at, by all means suggest it in the comments.

In the meantime, if you have helpful stories about learning from good or bad writing, please share them with us in the comment section. (Every writer in the world needs inspiration!)

Kind Words from Speculating Canada

I’ve said good things before about Speculating Canada, a web site devoted to Canadian SF. Recently, they’ve been doing a series about what Canadian SF writers are doing during the COVID-19 lockdown. Today is my turn to talk a bit about it: check it out!

I should also say that Derek Newman-Stille recently wrote a kind review of my novel Commitment Hour. Commitment Hour was my second book published, way back in 1998. It deals with gender, and the world has changed a lot since the book came out; I’m happy that Derek still found it worth reading.

Shapers of Worlds Kickstarter

Just a quick pitch for the Shapers of Worlds Kickstarter headed up by Edward Willett, a long-time friend, excellent writer, and all-round great guy. Ed is the host of The Worldshapers, a podcast in which he has talked to numerous SF writers (including me).

The Kickstarter aims to fund an anthology of stories from all the writers who appeared in the first season of the podcast. It’s a great idea, and I’ve pledged money; I hope you will too!

Strike At, Strike With

My first kung fu teacher used to say, “If you’re being attacked, ask two questions: what do I have to strike at, and what do I have to strike with?” In other words, what targets has your opponent left open, and what parts of your body can you use to hit those targets.

The same advice is surprisingly useful when dealing with choreography problems in writing.

I use the term choreography problems for those times when you know what has to happen but you don’t have specific ideas of how to make it so. A simple example is a fight scene: you know that character A fights B and A wins, but you have no specific plans for how the fight goes. Similar examples: A has to persuade B to do something, or A has to gain some crucial piece of information, or A has to change their mind about something.

Whether you write from an outline or by the seat of your pants, these situations come up all the time: you know where you’re starting, and you know where you’re going to end a few pages later, but you haven’t thought of exactly the steps that take you from one to the other.

So what do you have to strike at, and what do you have to strike with?

What do you know about the characters involved? What are their wants, needs, fears, points of stubborn pride, prejudices, gaps in their knowledge, etc.? In other words, what are their vulnerabilities? These can be exploited in order for one character to get the better of the other, whether that means physically, emotionally, or intellectually.

And what materials do you have to work with in the scene? What have you already established in the setting?

The thing is that every scene takes place somewhere; every time a viewpoint character walks into a room, you have to provide some description, even if you don’t go into a lot of detail. So you already know what props are surrounding the characters. You know what they can pick up, point to, play around with. Is there some way you can use the objects or the setting itself to do what you want to do?

Surprisingly often, you can find a solution to your problem. Trying to achieve something in a vacuum is often hard. (“How can A win the fight?”) But trying to achieve it by using specific objects is easier. (“How can A win the fight when the room contains a moose head, a jug of cold coffee, and fifteen bowling trophies?”)

Specifics give your imagination something to work with. Try it and see.

Reduction of Disbelief

Allow me to pontificate.

Recently, I’ve read a number of stories that take place in our contemporary world (more or less), wherein one or more characters come face to face with supernatural or science fictional elements. (Magic. Aliens. Etc.) The stories then spend a great deal of time during which the characters refuse to believe they’re confronting anything beyond the mundane; they prefer to think it’s an illusion, delusion, lie, hoax, etc.

This gets tiresome pretty damned quick. I soon end up yelling, “Get on to the good stuff! Quit wasting my time!”

I’m prepared to accept a short interval of doubt. If someone in our modern world walks up and says, “I’m an alien,” a character ought to have a few misgivings; otherwise, the character seems like a gullible fool, and that’s usually not what the writer wants.

On the other hand, I hate when a story spends any significant time in this phase. I want to read about cool stuff, not about someone who disbelieves in cool stuff! Disbelief is almost always boring and irritating. After all, I know the fantastic elements will turn out to be real eventually—I probably got the book from the Science Fiction & Fantasy section, and I’ve already read the cover blurb. Even if the blurb doesn’t have spoilers, it’s designed to give me a feel for the book and its general ambiance. I picked up the book it looked like it would give me magic or aliens…so writers, stop dragging your feet, and give me what I paid for!

Seriously, any more than a few paragraphs of disbelief are enough to make me skip ahead in search of something more promising. Either that, or I put the book down and never pick it up again. I strongly recommend that authors create characters who buy in quickly…or else make the encounter so clearly beyond the ordinary that even skeptical characters can’t deny what’s going on.

Please. Please.

Checking In

2020. Amazing.

What did I do in 2019? A lot of writing, almost none of which has been published yet. I’m still working on the haunted house novel, titled The Hacking of Hyll House (at least until someone tells me I can’t use the name). I hope the book will be finished in a couple of months, because other stories want to be written too, and I’m not getting any younger.

The holidays were mostly quiet, except when a water pipe developed a pin-sized hole on Christmas Eve, spraying a fine mist all over my basement. I tried to fix it with duct tape (of course), which changed the fine mist into a more manageable drip. I happened to have some old hose from my clothes dryer sitting around, so I rigged it under the drip to funnel the leak into a nearby drain. I considered taking pictures and posting them here, but it would have given my insurance agent a heart attack and/or made me go viral on some belittling website, so I decided against it. I eventually managed to get a plumber in on Monday, and life is dry again.

So that was my Christmas…although I also read Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tomaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell which I heartily recommend. And I’ve been dying a lot while playing Control. Dying isn’t fun, but the game is, so it’s worth checking out.

I haven’t made any resolutions for 2020, but I do intend to blog more. So happy 2020, and I hope to write more in the near future.

At the Merril Collection

This year, I’m happy to be the Guest Speaker at the Merril Collection’s annual holiday party, Saturday, December 7, 2019, 1:30 – 4:00PM. Yay!

For those who are unfamiliar with the Merril Collection, it’s a highly respected collection of science fiction and fantasy works, part of the Toronto Public Library system. I’m honored to be invited…and I’ll be reading a bit from my current work in progress, The Hacking of Hyll House. Hope to see you there!

Reading List

While I’m in Calgary for When Words Collide, I’ll be leading a writing workshop. In preparation for that workshop (and just as a useful reference), here are some books I think are useful for fiction writers. (Since the workshop is in Canada, all links will be to Amazon Canada…but by all means, order from your favourite bookseller, whoever that may be.)

On Writing by Stephen King
All kinds of good inspirational stuff from Stephen King
Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin
The best book I know for writers who are past the beginning stage and are ready to work on specific skills. I think I own three copies.
The Deluxe Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon
My favourite book on grammar and punctuation…mostly because it’s funny, but it’s also quite useful.
About Writing by Samuel R. Delany
Writing advice by one of the most literary masters of science fiction

Also have a look at The Skill List Project, a series I wrote several years ago about all the skills I think are involved in writing fiction.

Villainous Observation

I’m listening to back-broadcasts of the Writing Excuses podcast, and in Season 11, they make an observation about villains. (They tentatively ascribe this observation to Victoria Schwab although they aren’t 100 percent certain.)

The observation is that villains often have a “big picture” motivation for what they do. “In order to save the world, I have to…” “To advance science, I must…” “If I want to improve everyone’s life, I’m going to…” High-level goals are how these villains justify low-level acts of evil: “Murdering a few individuals is insignificant compared to the great things I’m trying to accomplish.”

Heroes, on the other hand, often have small-scale personal motivations. “This villain killed my father.” “If the villains get their way, my friends and family will suffer.” Etc. Paradoxically, such intimate motivations allow a universal connection: any reader can sympathize with someone who wants to avenge their father.

More abstract causes aren’t so easy to connect with emotionally. I may not even agree with a villain’s high-level motivation (do I really want to see America made great again?)…but even if I think what the villain wants to do is admirable, I’m much less likely to continue with, “So it’s okay to commit violence in such a cause.”

I like this observation, and I think it holds true in a ton of fiction: bad guys abstract, good guys personal. I’m passing it on to the readers here, just as something to contemplate.

P.S. But I hate the saying, “The end doesn’t justify the means.” This is often said in the sense of “No end ever justifies any means.” But that’s nonsense. Lots of ends justify lots of means. Cutting people up with knives is usually bad, but if I’m a surgeon performing a life-saving operation, the ultimate goal justifies making careful incisions.

In fact, the end is the only thing that ever justifies any means. Whatever you do, you should have a good reason for doing it; if you don’t, that’s bad.

So I’d rather see the phrase changed to, “Some ends don’t justify some means.” That I wholeheartedly agree with.