The big thing that last month taught me is that I shouldn’t forget what reading is about. Reading fiction is something we do to feed the imagination, and relax.
It’s not supposed to be a chore, or a competition in speed reading. It’s hard not to feel that way when you’re reading a book you don’t like (it’s the way I felt when I made myself read the Regeneration Trilogy and Vernon God Little).
June was the month when I read fantasy classics. Books that contained more emotion, detail and characterisation in one chapter than an entire 250 page modern romance (that’s me trying to be PC and not say chick-lit…oops).
I read Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet, and I’m on page 275 of George R R Martin’s A Game of Thrones.
Earthsea is an amazing world and with vibrant characters. It bucks the trend of fantasy fiction being based on Northern European mythology, and Le Guin bases its morality on a Taoist like philosophy (rather than the Christian ethics of C.S. Lewis).
Wizards dominate Le Guin’s books, but magic is used sparingly because it influences the balance of the world. There’s not a lot of killing either, it’s a very thoughtful book.
As for A Game of Thrones, yeah, not even halfway through that one yet. I’d stopped watching the TV series very early on, it was way too much for me. This wasn’t the fantasy that I was used to. Yet I’m loving the book. So far, it’s less salacious than the TV series, but still very tense.
I’ve read a lot of interviews where Le Guin discusses writing. Her point about modern authors needing to conform to fantasy formula, set by publishers, is interesting. I think the rise of ebooks and self-publishing gives writers more freedom to go their own way.
Reading the Earthsea books has made me realise that sometimes it’s worth taking your time with a story. As Le Guin says:
“It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end.”
A Game of Thrones is a great book for me to read. As someone who’s writing a book from multiple viewpoints, it’s interesting to see the way that Martin structures his. I did think of using short chapters, telling each one from the viewpoint of one character, but I thought it would be unmanageable, or annoying to read. Yet Martin does this well.
A quick note on Martin – he doesn’t hold much back, he’s an honest writer. When asked why the characters in his book have sex, he said “because people have sex” and it can be a major motivation for the actions people take. It’s a fantasy world, and it features horrible things, but so far I think the TV series has tried to make it more controversial. Basically, if you’re going to be outraged by the author, at least read the books first, don’t trust the show to be 100% loyal to the books.
Links of the month
Is there such a thing as “writer brain”?
Okay, so German scientists have used an MRI scanner to study the difference between novice writers (those who don’t usually go in for creative writing) and “expert” writers (in this case, some students from another German university’s creative writing course).
Let’s leave aside the fact that I don’t think anyone can be defined as an expert writer, experienced maybe, but expert? Well, maybe someone like Stephen King, who’s been writing professionally for decades.
The study seemed to show that novice writers see the scenes in their minds while they write, while the experts have a narrative voice going on instead. The scientists concluded that creativity was difficult to study scientifically, because it varied so much from one person to the next. (I wonder how much money this study cost?!)
The one thing it appeared to show was that practice makes you write differently… Well, quite.
Do writers have it harder today?
Crime writer, Val McDermid, says that she wouldn’t be able to start a career in today’s industry. That her first three novels had sold so poorly that the publishers of today wouldn’t have allowed her a fourth attempt. (Her first book was published in 1987.)
I think this is a case of have something to fall back on. I don’t think being a published author has ever been a stable job for the vast majority of published authors. Just look at all the books out there written by people no one has ever heard of.
These days, I think people are better off treating writing as part of a portfolio career – especially when starting out. Don’t dismiss self-publishing an ebook either. It may not make you a millionaire, but it’ll get the book read by someone somewhere.
This TED talk is worth a look.