A balanced literary diet

28 11 2010

The advice I give most often to writers has always been “read.” A quick look at my various interviews will yield the same wisdom from some of the leading lights in science fiction. A painter would be a fool if they never took the time to gaze upon the work of both their contemporaries and the old masters, and so it follows that as a writer you would do well to be a reader.

This is nothing new, but it begs  the question, albeit quietly, what should you read? My mentor in writing was the playwright, poet, and avid smoker Jeffrey Skinner, and he oversaw my conversion from poetry to prose with a deft hand. During one of our discussions about my change of form I mentioned that I was attracted to writing science fiction. Jeff was very supportive of this and he shared a bit of knowledge with me that he had gleaned from twenty+ years of running college workshops: Just because you write science fiction doesn’t mean that it’s the only thing you’re allowed to read. In the intervening years I have come to learn why he picked that particular chestnut to share with me. It seems that well over half of the people I have met that are self described ‘science fiction writers, read nothing but science fiction. The numbers are worse in fantasy. I can think of several reasons why this is a very bad thing.

1. Lost in trope-ville: Any clade of the fiction tree of life contains within it certain tropes that define the particular genre or school of writing that the work is part of. The hard-bitten detective of uncertain moral character but unimpeachable ethical alignment, the pillar of the community with dark secrets, the fatal beauty, the innocent that is anything but- all commonplace statues in the hall of detective fiction (to jump metaphors a bit). If your entire reading experience is contained within one region of fiction, how can you be expected to innovate? Some of the most interesting fiction these days are cross-genre. Detective noir meets existential suburban crisis tale has more potential to entice a reader than either alone, or so we can hope. Look at Star Wars, it is not fantasy or science fiction, but an amalgamation of both, and more interesting for it. Swords and magic, captured princesses and knights had nothing to do with spaceships and laser guns, but throw in an ounce of the classic western and you have the most emblematic genre film of all time. The most interesting things in current sci-fi fit a bit uncomfortably in the genre. You do yourself a service by reading outside science fiction and fantasy.

2. Cultural literacy makes you smarter: I once had a conversation at a convention with a science fiction fan that took my breath away. He told me that he thought Shakespeare was overrated. It was a snippy, ill-conceived comment. He was resentful of the lack of intellectual standing that science fiction writing carried in academia. I seem to recall his having written a poorly accepted paper on Frank Herbert. I won’t argue the comparative merits of Shakespeare, but I will say that the writer that coined such words and phrases as eyeball,  embrace, and shooting star among about about a thousand others is someone a writer really aught to know. By reading a large variety you will create a pallet of communication larger than would be otherwise available to you. It isn’t just words, but also concepts and forms. I remember first encountering the South American writers of the magical realism school. Suddenly nothing was impossible in my writing. I wasn’t controlled by cause and effect and it gave me a vast toolkit of story telling devices.

3. Stealing is good for your health: I’ve said it before, poets are thieves. I encourage you to steal and modify, but you need to be careful. If I write a book about a vengeful killer whale that torments a fishing village until stopped in a final at-sea showdown, I might be accused of ripping of Peter Benchley (This very thing did occur as well as versions employing vengeful a vengeful sperm whale, megalodon, and I think a very angry giant squid). You have a better chance of “borrowing” interesting characters, plot lines, and settings and getting away with it if you borrow them from outside your genre. Again, look at Star Wars. Many aspects of Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress make unveiled appearances in the Lucas franchise. If you do a good job of the theft, they will call it paying homage.

4: Variety is the spice of life (and) it’s cheaper than flying: Finally, as a writer you are responsible for creating an entire universe. In science fiction this often not a figurative thing. You never know what little detail of experience, what turn of phrase or impulsive reaction that will erupt from the strata of memory in the mind. Writing as a practiced art has a wonderful aspect that is less pronounced in other practiced arts: you get better with age. There are young virtuoso’s to be sure, and many burn out young, but more often than not a writer builds in experience and skill. The only problem with attaining a lifetime of experience is that it takes a lifetime. A great way to cheat is to read a wide and varied catalog of other peoples experiences. Don’t stop at fiction- biography, history, even journals, all are sources of experience.

That’s the science of fiction. I hope you will find this helpful in your pursuit of being published. FYI, the word “publish” was coined by Billy Shakespeare. buh.

Andrew Clark Porter

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