Thursday, April 19, 2007

Changing Writing Skills Creates Changing Reading Tastes (and Vice Versa)

Recently I've realized that I've been demanding more from the books I choose to read. I don't want them to "merely" entertain (though if they can't do that, it's a non-starter, obviously). I want them to leave me thinking, but not in a "uh, wha?" way. At the same time, I'm demanding more from my writing. I've got to get the story down in an entertaining fashion, but I want more depth of thought than I asked of myself before. Well, that's not saying it quite right. I want more depth of thought without being painfully obvious about it than before. In short: I want more subtlety mixed in with my vastly entertaining reads and writes.

It's hard to say what came first: the desire for greater depth in reading material or the quest to create greater depth in my writing. I don't suppose it matters all that much; reading and writing should go so hand-in-hand for authors that the distinction of what is influencing what should be blurred. And, actually, when I think harder about it, it is a blurring of the two that prompted all of this. Within the past two years, I have been wanting to find author blogs that talked about the craft in different ways than what I had been hearing for a few years already. "Different" in this case meaning to go beyond the basics of character, plot, manuscript formation, query letters, etc. I felt I had learned and extrapolated and advanced my knowledge about as far as I could go with the folks I had been reading at that point. (This is in no way a criticism of them; in fact, it's because of them that I developed to the point that I knew enough to know what I wanted beyond what they offered, if that makes any sense.)

So I started tracking down the blogs of authors who had won genre awards or garnered critical acclaim or industry buzz. I read a bit to see if I enjoyed what they had to say, and then I read a bit more to see if I could learn anything from it. In some cases the answers were yes, in some cases no. The ones that "stuck," I started to look for their books as well. And both my reading and writing tastes and preferences began to change.

I've noticed it predominantly in my revisions for Pinewood Fog. I'm doing different things with research and incorporating my research in different ways. I'm revealing less in direct ways and more in subtle ways, but without resorting to odd sentence configurations, obscure word choices, or other literary language entanglements. That is, I've figured out that you can maintain transparency of prose without producing a transparent narrative. (Whether or not I can apply said knowledge is another matter entirely, but at least now I understand the concept and can start working toward achieving it.)

As for my reading taste changes, it reminds me of the time I stopped reading mysteries in college because I could only see the formula, not the story. Now I'm starting to recognize the difference between character-driven and plot-driven stories, and I'm realizing that I really don't like plot-driven stories. The story doesn't live for me anymore. It becomes a long, drawn-out calculation. Sure, the numbers and variables may be dressed up in fancy fonts and colors, but they're not really doing anything. They're just holding a place, serving a purpose, getting you closer to the equals sign so you can see the solution. This is different from recognizing a formula, because there the calculation is always the same, just the numbers are different. In the plot-driven stories that are starting to bother me now, the calculation and the numbers are different, but it's still just plug and chug. In a character-driven story, the numbers and functions come and go as suits their own purposes (just had a vision of a + sign thinking, "you know, I'd really like to add a 4 and a 5 today; that would be fun," and then running off and doing it), and it feels more like the writer has captured a snapshot of when all those numbers and functions collided in a very interesting, unpredicatable fashion.

OK, backing away from the strange math metaphor now.

In short: In reading about new ways to approach writing, I applied those approaches to my writing and my reading. This means that, while I can appreicate what a formulaic or plot-driven writer is doing and see the skill and challenge in it, I no longer connect with it. It's kind of like watching previews for Grindhouse. As soon as I saw the shot of Rose McGowan arcing through the air and firing a rocket or something out of her prosthetic leg, I thought two things: 1) I can see why someone thought that would be neat and challenging to accomplish and I tip my hat to the effort and creativity, and 2) I can see clearly that this is not a movie I would enjoy watching.

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