What to Read?

I have a hard time balancing reading and writing.  When I’m working on a story, I don’t like to read fiction at all.  Magazines are okay, non-fiction books are fine, but fiction, especially good fiction messes up the process.  It feels like playing blues on the guitar while listening to Bach on the radio.  The rhythms don’t match.

Part of the problem is in the way I read.  I’m a no-holds-barred reader.  When I find an author I like, I have to consume everything they ever wrote.  I immerse myself in their prose.  I wallow in their plot points and snuggle up to their characters.  Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher mysteries are my addiction at the moment – an addiction I can only enjoy because I’ve finished (I hope) another novel.  So I read.  If another writing idea comes up, the novels are put down.

People think that writers should be expert readers – I don’t know if that is true – but, because I have written a fantasy novel, aspiring writers sometimes ask me what they should be reading.

The answer really depends on your own writing.  Are you a plotter, a stylist, or a conceptualizer?  Plotters can learn a lot from George R.R. Martin, Jim Butcher, and L.E. Modesitt, Jr.  Stylists can study Stephen R. Donaldson, Guy Gavriel Kay, Tolkien (of course), and Ursula K. Le Guin (always!).  And what are conceptualizers?  Well, there are some authors who are defined by the startling scope of their imaginations.

Cordwainer Smith is a good place to start for this type.  His concept of a logical, perfect race of future humans giving up that perfection for the messy glory of personality and culture set science fiction tropes on their head.  His short stories can barely contain the worlds he created; his ideas push at the prose, forcing it into a grand language you only thought you knew – and probably wouldn’t accept from other writers.  Next, how about a book about books?  And witches and spells and loss and redemption?  That would be Jo Walton’s award-winning novel, Among Others.  Now, who to end with?  Who is the grand conceptualizer of our age?

That would be Haruki Murakami, no question, no doubt.  I fall into his books, knowing that he will show me beautiful and terrible things, all new, all unimaginable – to me.  I confess that I never understand his stories, not entirely.  Murakami and his lovely translators somehow use language to move beyond language.  He is a writer whose stories can only be understood through instinct and trust, yet he seems to offer himself so freely on the page, hiding nothing.  I gush, but Murakami is the person to read if you want to see how far a concept can drive a story.  If you want a gentle entry into his world, try After Dark.

Well, there it is.  This is a very idiosyncratic list, but I hope its helpful if you want models.  Or just read what you want.  Most writers competently mix plot, style, and concept, but some do have an exceptional strength in one area.  Enjoy your reading, but don’t let it interfere with your writing.  I’ve run out of Kerry Greenwoods for now, so maybe a little Murakami next.  The wonderfully incomprehensible Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is waiting for me to re-read.  Maybe I’ll understand it this time.

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