In Which Our Heroine Hovers

19 March 2004

I have an orange-chocolate chip scone for breakfast, and chances are good you do not. Neener neener.

Heathah called after dinner last night: she was thinking of going up to Turtle Bread and did I want to go? We could get coffee as well as happy bread products. I said sure (with the warm, fuzzy awareness that I just didn't get to do that kind of thing in California), and off we went. We had time to pick up our breakfast scones before Turtle Bread closed, but that was about it, so, bowed down with sorrow and regret, we went to Sebastian Joe's to sit and talk and eat ice cream. Oh woe, oh alack. Wailie wailie, Sebastian Joe's. (They had a chocolate cinnamon cayenne ice cream. The taste I had was really good, but not the sort of thing I could just sit and eat a whole bowl of.) So it'll be an unusually Heatherrific late week, since I'm also going to see her tomorrow, but that's not a bad thing.

I did curl up with Sauna: The Finnish Bath by H. J. Viherjuuri, and it was soothing, informative in spots, and amusing. It was written in the early '60s, and my goodness, did that show. The author seemed firmly convinced that sauna was going to sweep the world and usher in a new age of Finnish-style vigor and sisu. It was a nice contrast to the Stover book, which I'm still enjoying but which is still...not at all nice. Not at all.

One of you-all journal readers wrote to ask what I think a writer should read. And my answer is: novels, texts, monographs, short fiction, plays, poems, essays, newspaper and magazine articles, internet posts, cereal boxes, toothpaste tubes, road signs....

Seriously -- well, that was kind of serious, actually. But only kind of. In full seriousness, I am probably not the person to ask, since my own reading habits are so immoderate. I binge. I go chasing wild hares. I have no idea how close to ideal my own reading habits are, for a writer. I read lots by one author, and then I hop from author to author. I keep the thread of a series going over a week or set it aside for a decade. I read and read; I try to keep up with the field; I try a variety of other fields. I research carefully. I snatch things off the shelf unplanned.

Most of all I try to have a good time with reading. I read things I enjoy. I think this is a valid approach for a writer, because writers are people, too, and books are not castor oil. I think that "write what you like" is a pretty good rule, and if you keep finding you're not enjoying what you're reading, you should maybe consider whether it's the right influence for you.

I'm not saying that there's no value to a literary education. I took my own on methodically in the middle summers of my college career, when I decided this writing thing was for real and for serious and for right now. My post-sophomore summer I was in Toledo doing astrophysics research. I got my hands on the lists of novels that won the Hugo or the Nebula. I hunted them down as carefully as I could. The tape drive with my data on it broke down a few weeks into the program, and I was left in limbo, surfing the net waiting to hear or sprawling on the grass outside with a book. With many, many books. The university library there was, like most university libraries, on Library of Congress. In practical terms, that meant that browsing was fairly limited: I had to determine what fiction I wanted before I got there. So I read authors I knew and authors I thought I should know.

It worked out all right. I got through a lot of stuff that way. I have not read four novel Hugo winners: Philip JosÚ Farmer's To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Roger Zelazny's ...And Call Me Conrad, Fritz Leiber's The Wanderer, and Mark Clifton and Frank Riley's They'd Rather Be Right. I've read all the Nebula winners in the novel category. In the process, I read some stuff that baffled me -- Dreamsnake, for example, looks confusingly overrated to me. Surely there were better books that year. (I just checked our library file. Yep; we own four of them, by my reckoning.) And in a way that was good, learning that sometimes the race did not go to the swiftest indeed, getting in on the edges of a career that had better works elsewhere. I got more books from the people I liked. I picked up some SF crit and different flavors of nonfiction. I read books mentioned in the criticism. It was not perfect. It was a start.

The next summer, I kept reading whatever SF occurred to me, plus some of the gaps in my classics reading, Vanity Fair, The Great Gatsby, Vilette, The Cherry Orchard, Three Men in a Boat, Dumas. I enjoyed most of what I read (though not the Chekhov -- oh, did I feel betrayed by Chekhov), and for me that was the point. The Odyssey is not a classic because someone tells you it's a classic. It's a classic because it's a damn good story and, secondarily, because people have referred to it over the years. Those are the reasons it's worth reading: so you get the experience of it yourself, and so you understand what other people are talking about when they refer to it. Frankly, I believe some references are not worth catching; some canonical works will not be right for any given person, and I don't think that it's a good idea for writers to get so caught up in what's supposed to be good for them that they forget why they love books in the first place.

One thing I do believe is that anyone who is trying to write a specific kind of book should find out what's out there and, if possible, read it. If you're doing a first contact novel, read first contact novels and short stories. If you're writing about rock-&-roll playing elveses, it behooves you to find out what rockin' elf books there are out there. I've heard people saying they didn't want to be too influenced by something else, and I can see the dangers of that, but...you don't have to be on the same topic to be influenced by a book. Almost anything will do it. You can write a high fantasy in the style of Raymond Chandler. Influence is not a dirty word. It's something to be aware of and to manage, but not something you can avoid entirely. And if you don't read anything at all while you're writing a book, that vacuum, too, will be an influence. I know I've said this before, but it's still true: it's better to know what's out there than to get read as derivative for reinventing the wheel.

As with so much else in life, the good and bad news is that there's no one right way to do it.

Beyond that, I'm probably really the wrong person to ask, because I read too fast; my list will be too long.

In other news...you know how the letters were all a bit too carefully formed when you were learning to write, and they didn't have their final personality? If you learned an orthography once you were grown, it's probably easier to clarify the difference between having a childlike motor control and developing a handwriting. Anyway, I've noticed that I now have a characteristic way of writing the circle-a, ň, that shows up in Scando languages. It's as recognizably mine and as natural/fast as a dotted i. That pleases me, for reasons I can't entirely explain -- maybe it means I've taken enough notes for this book. I don't know.

It's supposed to hit 50 today, and with the sun streaming in the office windows, I believe it, and then the clouds come back again and I waffle. It's a waffly kind of day. (But I'm unlikely to have actual waffles. Ah well.) I'm still wondering why on earth March isn't used for scary/wild magic more in books. I think October gets more of it because October is darkening and March is thawing, but...the thaw can flood. The thaw can be scary, too, and wild, and out of control. I don't really have time to do anything with that right now. I'll probably worry at it like a loose tooth, though.

And one last important thing: those of you who are the praying types could perhaps put a word or two in for little Noah if you feel like it. He's having a surgery that should be totally routine and have 100% good-as-new recovery. But voluntary thoughts and prayers never once hurt, and he's still little and going under anaesthetic and...well, you see what I mean. Kari's going to call me when Noah's out and in the clear. I will try not to hover over the phone until then, but...you know how these things go.

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