I suspect that this post may turn out to be a bit random, disorganized and inconclusive. That’s why I’ve called it “musings,” which I think of as half-baked thoughts that dance around a subject without properly engaging with it.
Ever since I published my three novels, I’ve read a lot of discussions and blog posts about writing and publishing. An ever-present theme is whether self-published books are inferior to traditionally published ones. A few weeks ago, another blogger wrote about a negative critique of her self-published young adult science fiction romance by a professor of English. Last week I was working with library catalogue records for romance books, reading brief plot descriptions that began to blur together and sound increasingly inane, reiterating the various formulas for bringing together the distressed/spirited/shy/sultry heroines with the tough/wounded/dashing and of course always gorgeous dudes in order to create the necessary hot or happy endings.
I imagined a serious, literary critique or review of one of these books. In fact, I may write one myself some day, just for laughs. Because surely that would be a chuckleworthy thing. Surely no reader who likes romance would change their preferences because of such a review. Which is why the writer I mentioned earlier ultimately decided to put the professor’s comments in context and didn’t let them destroy her.
That brings us to something I keep bumping into when I think about writing and reading. Writing is an art. There are rules, certainly, but success is achieved by going past the rules, creating something despite the rules. It’s impossible to define, but readers know a “good” piece of writing when they encounter one, judging it by their own standards. They can’t stop reading, don’t want the book to end, but when it does, they want another one just like it. I think it’s impossible to create a good piece of writing simply by following rules, no more than one can produce a good painting by following exactly the outlines and colours specified in a paint-by-numbers set.
The reader’s experience results from expectations and their fulfillment or lack thereof, surprises pleasant and otherwise, and ultimately a kind of bonding with the book, or failure to do so. It’s a lot like becoming acquainted with another person. Sometimes you become friends, other times an irrational antipathy develops. There are so many inputs it’s impossible to come up with a formula for success — the cover, the jacket blurb, the paper (if a printed-on-paper book), the typeface and, of course, the subtleties of narrative voice. But the circumstances under which the reader meets the book — living room, bedroom, airport or hospital room — have a huge impact on the reader’s reaction and are totally beyond the author’s control.
The controllable inputs — cover, blurb, writing style, etc. — are all signals, however they are processed by the reader’s (or the critic’s) mind. They label the book as to genre and type: light, fluffy romance, sexy paranormal mystery, serious literary, quirky literary or… Yes, some fiction is impossible to categorize, and in the absence of a traditional publisher willing to take a chance on something out of the norm, these books often end up being published by their authors.
A while ago I decided not to use this blog to offer advice to writers — never do this, always do that. Who am I to make up rules for writers? I can’t claim any but the most modest success, and I have a personal tendency to quibble with Rules. I resolved to confine my screeds here to my own experience. And it’s from this experience that I say this with confidence — if you want to write, above all, read. Read anything and everything — genre fiction, literary fiction, fan fiction, nonfiction, magazine articles, how-to-do-it and self-help books, biographies, collected letters, poetry, owners’ manuals, recipes, the Bible (or other sacred books). Read and absorb. Wallow in words.
Several years ago I was invited to give a talk to my local writers’ society on the topic of doing research. (I actually plan to write a blog post on this someday). One of the research techniques I recommended was to read widely on whatever topic was relevant to your writing, whether historical period, cultural phenomenon, place or technology. The objective isn’t to amass a bunch of facts, but to immerse yourself in the subject so that when you write, your writing will be subtly informed by this background reading and therefore display the necessary authenticity. Applying this to writing in general, I think that writers must do a ridiculous amount of reading before they ever begin to write. Those 10,000 hours we hear about as being necessary for success? I think 10,000 hours of reading are necessary to prepare a person to write. Then another 10,000 of actual writing.