1/27/2015

On Writers Who Don't Read (with special bonus feature)

Nobody sets out to write a bad book. Anyone who decides to write a book does so in the hope that whoever reads it will go hey, this is pretty good. Here's some money. Can you write some more like this? 

But desire and ability are two different things. Writing is one of those things that frequently, though not always, gets better with practice. People with more practice at writing, or who consciously set out to improve their writing skills, are more likely to get somewhere.

Every now and then, I get paid to look at an unpublished manuscript by someone hoping to get published. My job is to identify what's working, what isn't, then explain it to them. Very often it's the same things over and over again: less is more, show don't tell, don't rely on a spellchecker, passive protagonists, so on and so forth. I go over the plot, their prose, and a bunch of other things. 

I could explain all of that again here, but the internet is stuffed to overflowing with advice on how to write better prose. There are a zillion books on writing as well. Some are even about writing science fiction, and some place particular emphasis on the science. That's why I don't go so much for putting writing advice here on my blog: your answers are but a google away. 

However, here's a tip I really, really think at least a few of the authors whose work passes before me really need to pay heed to. It will surely boost your writing skill, improve your prose, even improve your mind - and even better, it's fun to do!

Read a book.

Because I sometimes suspect at least a few of the would-be authors whose work I get to see haven't read a book recently. Or in a while. Or, maybe, ever. 

There's just no other rational explanation for what I come across in some of those manuscripts. 

But I can definitely guess which movies they've been watching. 

I can't tell you how often I've read someone's hundred thousand word baby and encountered single-pilot "space fighters" that dip and zoom and spin through a zero gee vacuum like hummingbirds on meth. As soon as the space-fighters appear, I can tell you what's coming in the next chapter: the chase through a field of asteroids. Asteroids that twirl and spin and bounce into each other like someone tried juggling a couple of thousand mountains and made a mess of it. One follows the other like night follows day. 

Those are not even the most egregious examples - merely the most common. Sometimes I'd find myself wondering whether an author had read any books at all, or instead watched Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica and thought hey, I could do that. 

If you're one of that hopefully tiny minority of writers, let me explain the difference between you and me.

Some of my very earliest memories are of reading and writing. I remember very clearly forming words and letters for the first time, and learning how to join my handwriting together. I very clearly remember some of the first books I ever took out of the Pollokshields Library - Heinlein juveniles, of course, some Clarke, some Asimov, all the gateway usual suspects, and a bunch of Three Investigators books as well. I don't remember much else. 

By the time I was ten or twelve, I had amassed a huge collection of Marvel comics and was deeply into science fiction. By which I mean books. Sure, I enjoyed Star Wars, but I'd sucked down enough classic SF to know spaceships didn't make sound in space, and I wondered what stopped the beam from the light-sabers from just shooting off into infinity rather than stopping after a couple of feet. I wondered how a worm could grow to the size of a skyscraper while stuck on an asteroid with no available food source for the next couple of light-years. I already knew all about geosynchronous orbits and coriolis effects on board rotating stations and a whole bunch of stuff that probably irritated the hell out of everyone around me whenever I talked about it all. 

Not to mention that fucking asteroid field with all those rocks bouncing around. But you know, it looked great, so I just told my internal bullshit detector to shut the hell up and let me watch the damn movie already. It wasn't like we got too much in the way of science fiction epics at the time, and even an imperfect one was like the scent of water in an endless cinematic desert. 

How did I know so much was wrong with the movie? Because I'd read books. A lot of books, and  thousands more since. So whenever I open a manuscript and find it's got zippy little space fighters flying through whirling asteroid fields, I think: gee, I wonder where they got that from, because it sure as hell wasn't in any of the books I read when I was a kid.

Which means it can only have come from the movies. 

You know, maybe there are books out there filled with space-fighters zipping and rolling all over the place like there's no tomorrow making pew-pew noises in space, and maybe it's just that I don't read those books. But if you're writing a book like that, then let me assure you - you're doing it wrong. 

If you're going to write science fiction, and it's going to involve things like space travel or aliens or anything of the sort, you really, really need to know what the hell you're talking about, or you don't get to play. Oh sure, Iain Banks hated doing research, and he wrote loads of big fat space operas, but here's why that isn't going to work for you: 

Reason One - you are not Iain Banks. 

Reason Two - he did do research, by reading an entire library's worth of science fiction which then nestled in his back brain and informed his writing on every level once he got good enough. 

The same is true of not only me, but every successful published author I know. The Glasgow SF Writer's Circle was stuffed full of people who didn't just read a lot of books. They also crammed down monthly magazines filled with authors nobody had ever heard of...yet. They talked about the nature of the genre and what it meant to be a writer. They showed each other their work and suffered the slings and arrows of their contemporaries during critique sessions. In other words, writing - and reading - was in their blood

You don't need to be a scientist to write science fiction - although it's true a good few are. But Fred Pohl, a former SFWA-elected Grandmaster who wrote an enormous amount of sf, including the Gateway series, didn't graduate from high school until he was eighty-nine. But what they all share, regardless of their academic qualifications (or lack of them) is a love for reading as much as for writing. 

Which is why when I read their books, I don't grit my teeth. 

So please, take this heartfelt advice from me. If you're thinking of writing a book, or are currently engaged in writing one, but you don't actually read any, the best way to improve your writing is a lot cheaper than forking over a chunk of cash to get someone else to tell you a bunch of stuff you really ought to already know. In fact, it's free:

Go to the library, and read a book.

SPECIAL BONUS ADVICE FEATURE FOR RETIREES!

Hey there! It's great to see you've got your retirement all worked out. You've been doodling ideas for books in the margins of your office day-planner for years. I know, because not infrequently I receive manuscripts with a cover letter telling me that the author had always planned to write a book upon retiring, and now is that time.

Let's unpack that a little. 

Write a book upon retiring. Well, that's great. But very often it feels like there's a subtext there. You've written a book. Great. But now you want my advice: is it publishable? Or to put it another way: can you get a publisher to pay you for the rights to publish it?  

Well, that's a whole different ballgame. I get the feeling more often than not that the would-be author doesn't realise writing a book and getting it published are not one and the same thing. I mean, it sounds like a neat idea: 'when I retire, I'll write that book I've always wanted to write.' The 'getting it published' part is never mentioned, yet it seems somehow implicit.

Here's some advice if this is your plan: don't. Just don't. Wait, that is. Because it's not going to be nearly so easy as you seem to think. Most people write a book or short story that's not so good - pretty bad, even - then they write another, maybe a little less bad, and if they've got a little talent maybe the writing keeps getting better and better. Assuming they continue. Then maybe they join a writer's group and learn to critique other people's work, and thinking about what makes other people's stuff work or not helps them get better in turn. 

And you could do all that, you know, now that you're retired. But it's going to take just as long as it would have if you'd started twenty years before. Why, maybe that book will get published. Or maybe the one you write after that. Or maybe, like most people, it's going to be years of work and improving until five, ten, fifteen years after you started, you get somewhere. 

So you see, for most of us there is no 'write a book on retiring (then get it published)'. Not by a very, very long shot. 

Okay, so you've got a busy job. Kids, a mortgage, places to go. You don't have the time to write! Well, them's the breaks. Some people apparently manage to write a book with just fifteen minutes a day to spare. That's dedication. That's graft. That's not waiting around.

If you really, really want to write a book, the day to start is not tomorrow; it's not even today. 

It's yesterday. 
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