Reading as a Writer

A topic which comes up haphazardly in my sphere is the perils, advantages or just general thoughts of reading as a writer.

While it seems to go without saying that a writer should be well-read, its worth a discussion and some thought.

Firstly I must address what seems to me to be completely bizarre – but a trend of a (hopefully) minority of wannabe writers who don’t read. And I don’t mean writers who maybe don’t read screes, or perhaps have long periods of not reading, or who don’t read novels specifically, I mean people who honestly and genuinely want to write books but have little to no experience reading them and have no plans to change this.

Now typically I try to be a non-judgmental person, we all have our differences and we all have our flaws. But for this group I struggle to maintain sympathy, especially when it seems the majority of these folk are basically television and movie fans who see fiction as an easy out for getting their brilliant ideas seen. Now I have nothing wrong with writers who dream of screen-play deals from their writing (I mean that’s got to be ~80% of us right?) but it seems really daft to take that approach when what you really want is to write screenplays or cartoons.

Anyone point is, writing or wanting to write without reading at least something is pretty odd.

But moving on to the meat of the topic, what is best for a writer? As mentioned above being well-read seems important, although what exactly does that mean and how should a writer approach reading?

Personally I think the first step is to consider the difference between active and passive reading. Technically all reading is active because the whole deal is the words on a page activate your imagination, but one doesn’t always read with great scrutiny or through a readers lens. Again in my experience it isn’t valuable to expect every book to be a writerly revelation and over-studying a text can ruin the enjoyment of it. My approach is to never study a book I plan on enjoying as a reader, at least not until after the first read through. I also don’t necessarily think its viable or useful to ‘study’ read entire novels – by which I mean paying great attention to the prose and structure for the intent of learning – not only is it exhausting to do this for a whole novel it just seems more sensible to pick out what you’re going to look for and focus on specific sections, such as observing the dialogue in a particularly exciting scene.

All this brings me to an interesting point. Again I have a risk of sounding like a massive snob, in many of my discussions with writing buddies they mention that “writing ruins reading” but in my opinion it does the opposite, however not at first.

You see when a novice writer starts picking up “on writing” books and studying the craft one of the first things they learn is about what makes “bad” writing and about newbie mistakes. Then they go out and wonder why on earth so many published and successful books are riddled with those exact errors. This is when writing ruins reading, because as a (and this is my snobby bit) novice the beginner writer tends to obsess over their basic learnings and fail to notice or analyze what makes a successful book so. For example many of my allies mock me for reading books like Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey, and continue to mock when I talk about said book’s strengths. I could go on but the point is that as a writer grows in craft they come to appreciate the strengths and see how obvious flaws either don’t matter as much or can even add to the flavour (in the example of 50 Shades the so-called “bad” writing successfully creates a sense of a down-to-earth protagonist in a ludicrous situation, tweaking the prose to be “good” would have been a bad fit for that story)

So that kind of covers how to read as a writer, but what about being ‘well-read’ and such? Often discussions about what books a writer should read become quite heated and complicated – so what follows are simply my thoughts and opinions not a recipe for success (not that any of my other words necessary are either)

I think it is really valuable to read tonnes in your genre. Some people suggest its better not to because then you’ll be fresher and less freaked out about what other people have done, but I see that as a bit of a head + sand approach. The thing is about writing is it does involve entertainment and reader consumption and not that you can plan your whole project around what reader are going to want, you don’t want to start a 7-epic-book project about several warring families, dragons, back-stabbing with a particular penchant for killing characters (or rather if you do want to rip-off Game of Thrones at least to it intentionally).

It’s not just about keeping up with modern pieces either, being up with the seminal works especially genre setting books is somewhat vital. The benefits of this aren’t just about not being too derivative or being comfortably in the genre its also knowing the tropes to use and abuse them skillfully.

How about outside the genre?

This is a tricky one, books even for the most rabid reader do take a fair whack of time to complete, you can’t simply read every piece in the world, so how does one balance this when selecting books outside your own project’s genre?

Something that I’ve found useful is considering subplots and aspects of a project and how focusing on that genre might help beef them up a little, an obvious example being reading up on romance to help flesh out relationship sub-plots. Equally picking up a horror to kept with some scary parts of a murder mystery, or perhaps an adventure tail to inform the action sections of a fantasy.

Finally somewhat randomly I think its useful to read in completely bonkers works the opposite of not only your projects but what you usually enjoy too? Huh? I think writer’s need an open mind and like I said earlier making sense of what makes a book successful is much more important than avoiding flaws (mostly). Reading outside your comfort zone is far more likely to prompt unexpected learning, after all you don’t know what you don’t know right?

So those are my thoughts on reading as a writer – do you have anything to add?

How do you strike a balance between reading and writing?

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The Contradictions of Writing

To write you must:

  • Be almost supernaturally arrogant to believe your words are worth writing, yet sublimely humble in receiving feedback and accepting some won’t like your stuff
  • Be creative AF, yet disciplined and routine in craft
  • Write originally yet understand ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’
  • Be an optimist while understanding ‘the market’

Basically keep your head in the clouds but your feet on the ground!

 

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What other writing contradictions are there?

Key/Interesting Points from Horwitz’s Blueprint your Bestseller

I feel like I’ve read a litany of books ‘on writing’ which sometimes (not always) contain brief sections on editing and revision, which is a little ironic or misguided because as I’m sure most of you have realized too, as much of the ‘hard part’ of writing a novel is finishing a novel, the next ‘part’ of editing, revision and rewriting is just as if not more grueling and difficult. (there is a reason there is a myriad of editing services out there)

Blueprint Your Bestseller is the first non-fiction piece I’ve read exclusively for editing and I confess I experienced a big of dumb realization that there is likely a whole sub-category of ‘on writing’ books that I have yet to experience – suffice to say if you’re like me and haven’t dived into books specifically on editing give it some consideration…

Anyhow.

Not going to ramble on for a whole post, some of the really useful and interesting points Horwitz made in regards to writing were:

  • Have a single theme/thesis/premise

Horwitz called this the theme but I think this could be misleading to some writers. One key point which I agree with  is that even a novel length work needs a key premise or point. The point doesn’t haven to cover every detail of the story (obviously that is the point of the whole book) but just a relatively clear point to it all, which ties everything together and provides a sense of purpose to the tale.

  • Subplots

While a novel might have one theme, Horwitz argued that the story would have multiple subplots. (although again he doesn’t use the term subplot his exact phrase escapes me right this second). The interesting thing about Horwitz’s approach is that each subplot doesn’t have to be complicated or dense, in fact his method of organizing content is about simplifying plot ‘movements’ to make sense of what changes and what stays the same across moments or scenes in the story.

What I found particularly interesting about that point is that writers are often told to keep moving their story forward, and this can create a sense of pressure to keep having things happen in their story. However when one acknowledges the multiple subplots of their tale one can better craft what changes and what doesn’t, for example a romantic subplot of an action story might not change in every scene so it can be useful to pinpoint which moments the romance happens.

  • Scenes

Finally Horwitz recommends collecting around 99 (on average) scenes per novel – in terms of editing his method basically describes cross-matching your scenes to subplots and determining where movement happens or doesn’t.

As a conclusion Horwitz also offers some interesting advice on scene transitions and types of story resolutions.

Blueprinting your Bestseller is very much about the overarching structure of the story, e.g. making sure that you have the right scenes in the right order. The thesis is relatively short but useful and highly recommended for writers!

 

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My Thoughts on The Last Jedi

For those living under a rock these holidays, The Last Jedi – the latest chapter in the Star Wars movie mythos came out before Christmas and has been somewhat divisive to say the least. Just search Youtube for the topic and you’ll find dozens if not hundreds of rants, reviews and analysis of the movie and its unusually strong fan backlash.

I’m not going to try and capture all of that here, but for my review will delve into some of the more writerly aspects of why I think fans didn’t like the movie while offering my own humble opinion along the way.

Obviously a major spoiler warning for The Last Jedi, and prior Star Wars films!

Before getting into the nitpicky stuff, I think one of the odd problems with The Last Jedi (or TLJ for short) is that it is definitely not a terrible film. Critics liked it, the special effects (bar one Yoda scene) were top notch, the action was well crafted , the actors themselves did a good job and in general the film hit all the typical story points and arcs a film should. Why is the film being good a problem you might ask? Well this puts fans in an uncomfortable position, as I will get into soon, the writers make some questionable decisions, and its actually more frustrating to accept an almost brilliant film than it is to say switch your brain off for a complete dumpster fire of a film.

It’s important to remember that Star Wars as a franchise is in a very controversial place. Since the Prequels of the 00’s the future of the franchise has been in question and the last 3 Star Wars films are the first few under Disney’s umbrella and to say fans are desperate for good films is probably a massive understatement. Also fans of the current movies are extra vigilant as what comes out now will be setting the future of the franchise up for the foreseeable future, fans will be hyper-vigilant with this in mind.

Alright so what bothered fans so much about TLJ

For starters we might have to delve back into the first movie of the Trilogy The Force Awakens (TFA). TFA was an interesting movie for the above mentioned reasons re: the franchise and in my opinion the writers and directors took the most logical option with the incredible amount of pressure on the film and basically rewrote the very first film A New Hope with a fresh coat of paint. I enjoyed TFA but I believe this laid the groundwork for the fan tensions with TLJ. By basically rewriting an old Star Wars story the series setup a tension between saying something new and sticking to what was essentially being promised e.g. the old Star Wars storylines. I think most people generally understood that TLJ wouldn’t just be a rehash of The Empire Strikes back but it does bring that tension to the foreground when the movie previous was such as it was.

In short TLJ was somewhat doomed because being too similar to the old movies would make it seem repetitive, and any deviation would seem too un-Star Warsy.

Secondly on the subject of TFA, what was setup for the next film was played out quite differently to how I believed most fans expected. In the conclusion of TFA we basically see Rey and Kylo both go their respective ways for further advancement – and the First Order has been struck a major blow in the form of the Deathstar being destroyed. When TLJ opens we basically find the Rebels on the verge of destruction and The First Order have taken over the galaxy but really very little time has passed since the prior film, Kylo is still injured, and we pick up from exactly where Rey left off from the first film.

None of this was exactly a problem in itself, it just sat awkwardly for me personally, and I suspect many fans. In TFA I didn’t have a sense that The First Order were on the verge of taking over the galaxy, nor did I get the sense that the rebels were about to be wiped out. Again its not exactly a problem that this was the premise for TLJ it just felt jarring that the over-arching storyline was basically back to square one re: Empire and Rebels, it also created a tension (again for major fans), who were unlikely to feel satisfied with a major victory being ‘the rebels survived at all.’

Anyway

So we’ve covered the jump from TFA to TLJ, lets actually get into the film!

TLJ opens with a sequence where the rebels (Ok I think they’re the resistance now but who cares) are attempting to flee their current base, and the First Order leap out of hyper-space to attack.

Po-D confronts a massive enemy ship in a lone X-wing, makes Yo’ Momma jokes and proceeds to basically solo the empire ships ‘turrets’ before calling in some bombers to take out a Dreadnought, almost all against the orders of General Organa.

For many fans this was a bad start to a bad film and in my opinion is the beginning of a  core problem with the writing of the story, in that the movie basically wants to have its cake and eat it too. In the opening scene we’re meant to be setting up the rebel fleet as being highly vulnerable and on the run, yet here Po is basically taking down the enemy on his own in a dramatic fire-fight that feels like it should be towards the end of a film not the beginning.

Again with the cake and eating stuff, Po is setup to have a character arc of being too foolhardy but learning to be a better leader, but the film pulls all its punches and just creates a kind of awkward stand-off. The film reminded me a lot of BattleStar Gallactica in which much of the plot revolves around tough choices of the last survivors of mankind – however in TLJ the choices were kind of toned down. Not that I want to rewrite the movie but if Po and his commanders presented more diametrically opposed stances, such as Po wanting the rebels to go out guns blazing rather than running, then his mutiny would have been much more intense and significant, rather than just trying to buy time for Finn and his stupid plot to play out (which it didn’t anyway). It also felt like the consequences of said mutiny were pathetic: “We like him” say Leia and Holdo patronizingly, and ignoring the fact that he literally took the ship by force during a massive crisis.

This sort of half-measure plot points continues throughout the film. A major thematic point was supposed to be that Good vs Evil is too simplistic, but then the major climax is good triumphing over evil. Luke confronts The First Order in epic fashion, but then turns out not to be there, but still dies from the effort, Finn is preventing from sacrificing himself because “that’s not how we’ll win” yet multiple other characters do sacrifice themselves just like that. Ghost Yoda tells Luke to let the last Jedi texts burn, yet in the end we see them in Finns cabin (honestly this part still makes no sense to me), the whole film has a weird sense of non-commitment which undermines any single powerful thread and instead tries to cover everything.

Personally I think this is ultimately that bothered fans, the sense that throughout the film you were never on the edge of your seat because you knew that the film would tell a joke, pull-punches or have a tension resolved by another characters arc via co-incidence rather than tell one powerful story-line.

And while this doesn’t fit anywhere in my review I do have to say I can relate to the fanboy rage of one particular scene. A moment where somehow Leia force drags herself from the depths of space after being violently blown out of her ship’s bridge. Fan’s are divided on this, no-where is it portrayed that Leia has that sort of Forcey oomph! She is mentioned in the original trilogy as a potential savoir should Luke fail, and she does have considerable ‘sight’ however no-one where is it setup that she could be powerful enough to survive such a scenario. Not only an example of the movie pulling punches but also doing so in a jarring, weird looking way. I mean Yoda looked terrible in this film but that scene made me feel like I was suddenly watching a space-ballet not a movie.

Anyway I’ve pontificated long enough – would to glad to hear your thoughts on the film (but would be equally glad to move into something new LOL!)

 

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2017: Reflection and Review of my year

Alright 2017, where to start?

First of all this is really the first time I’ve written something like this. Obviously I have reflected before, but one thing I’ve learnt over the year is that putting things into words is a considerably different experience than just wandering around pontificating about it.

Although it must be said even just thinking about this post and what I would write has been a bit of an insightful roller coaster ride (well I mean I am talking about introspection here so not that much of a thrill-ride, but whatever). Point is I think reflecting on one’s progress and time can be a useful thing.

P.S. I am really talking about my writing mostly here, so if you’ve jumped on board looking for an overshare, sorry 🙂

This Blog

I’ve blogged before, but Lonely Power Poles is definitely my most consistent and earnest effort. On the one hand it’s freaky to think 12 months have passed since I decided to start posting, on the other its before like an online limb for me something that feels like it was always there! My goal for the blog was to increase the number of unique visitors each month, a goal which began as supremely easy (its not hard to improve on zero) and started to become quite a challenge six months in.

Usually this projects like this I’ll maintain decent productivity for a time before some external force, an illness, a busy time, or such-like distracts me and I typically find it hard to get back on the horse. This happened again this year so my goals were met up to August, when I basically went on hiatus for the rest of 2017.

I’m not feeling too bad with it though. I’ve made some really cool connections with other writers on WordPress, and I still enjoy Lonely Power Poles. I know that all the advice sites say post 2x per week and keep consistent which I will strive for but even though my recent output has been low I’m still happy with this little ole blog of mine.

On Distraction

In writing these words I’ve come across a weird realization. At my most productive I’m also at my most distractable. Without overanalysing it I suspect it has something to do with being in a ‘do something’ mode whereas when I’m straight procrastinating I just bond with the couch.

I must confess that 2017 has been a distracting year for me. For those that know me or have caught a whiff of this I am a bit of a Social Justice Warrior (SJW) I don’t scour the webs looking for injustice, but I do get into topics of prejudice, politics, ethics and so forth online probably more than is healthy or useful. For a long time my tendencies have been pretty dormant as I’ve focused on writing in general and just keeping my head down at work, but somehow the political and social climate of the world has pushed me to start talking about these issues. I think part of it is that social media has pushed certain social processes into overdrive, for example just a few dedicated and vocal folk on any subject can really push the sense of how people are feeling on said topic so voices for compassion and ethical politics are more important than ever.

Also I watched Handmaids Tale and am freaked the F out about that ever happening. don’t let it happen people.

Anyway.

Writing Goals

It’s kind of weird. On the one hand I feel harder on myself than ever, yet 2017 has been one of my most productive years. I’m probably put out around 45-50,000 words of novel(s) and without patting myself on the back too much I think they are good words too. On of the risks of writing is that you can always imagine yourself doing more, even if you do well its hard not be critical.

Something that I’m frustrated with is being able to balance long term projects like novels with short stories. I love writing short fiction but its been devilish to find the time and head-space, we’ll see how 2018 goes.

 

Learnings

If anything 2017 has been a good year for my own understanding of fiction and writing. The really weird thing about fiction is that once you grasp a concept its not rocket science, yet if you’re stilling grasping or trying to work something out it might as well be. By which I mean if you don’t get a writing concept like tension there is very little middle ground, you either grasp the concept or its foreign, obviously writers can vary in how good they are at any given thing, but my point is that writing isn’t a textbook skills its very much a raft of aspects that one has to ‘click’ with.

Other bits and bobs.

It’s been a good year in other ways too, the creation of #redditwriters on Twitter has been fun and insightful. By having a core group on the medium its changed the experience from a nebulous showing at the storm kind of exercise to a kind of shouting at the storm nebulous but there’s kind of a group closer by as well experience.

My lovely wife has also joined Twitter which is great in terms of being able to share notes and frustrations and give each other heads up about stuff. I’m not sure she is 100% comfortable as being outed as married to me so I won’t go on too long!

Reading and reviewing has been a mixed bag, the last few years I’ve intentionally set my reading goals low (in the past I’ve managed 150+ books per year ridiculous really) which kind of puts reading on the back-burner especially balancing time-wise. In fact I barely read any books that actually came out this year! One awesome success story is that I received a hard-copy of Sam Kean’s Caesars Last Breath for review, I often get review requests via Kindle, however there is just something satisfying about getting a ‘real’ book to hold.

Looking ahead

One of my terrible habits is to set impossible and implausible goals for myself “I know I’ll write a novel over Easter weekend” so I’m going to try and strike the sweet spot between achievable but still sufficiently productive.

I’m currently sitting at about 5,000 words of a project that I’m feeling good about and have a writing friend giving regular critique which is excellent motivation. I also have a 40,000 word story which I love but is awkwardly sized to shop around, so I might (MIGHT) look into getting good cover art and making this available on Amazon, just as a scary-ass project for the future.

As mentioned earlier I need to find time for short stories, not too sure where that time is coming from though.

As a final thought 2017 is also the only year (so far) where I’ve actually sat down and made writing a habit. Historically I’ve had huge bursts of production at times but for the most part procrastinated. Writing routines don’t always feel good, realistically though getting small amounts of work done over long periods is infinitely better than the bursts of inspiration tactic, especially when there are plenty of other things going on in life.

Sorry the REAL final thought is a massive thank you to those who have read my blog over the year, and especially my friends and family who have been present and encouraging. I appreciate everyone who has stopped by for a convo and I’ve enjoyed connecting with your blogs and seeing your work.

I hope your writing and other goals are going well and all the best for the holiday season and the new year!

 

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People Pleasing versus Writing SOMETHING

I was watching a review of Justice League the other day (haven’t even seen the movie…) and something MovieBob said struck me as very interesting (I thoroughly recommend MovieBob’s work as someone who really likes to overanalyze film)

In his review he basically compares Justice League to Batman vs Superman, a film which prompted, so far, 3 hours of material from Bob about why its so bad. And yet favourably says about Batman vs Superman that at least as a train wrecks it is interesting, whereas Justice League is fluffy and safe doesn’t really do anything.

This got me thinking about the nature of writing and art in general and what we’re trying to achieve. As writers we are often trying to people please, to produce work that won’t offend or at the very least we feel there are so many boxes to tick in terms of “good” writing we can lose track.

Now I’m not saying its time to throw off the oppressive shackles of reasonable feedback, or to deviate of the path of always improving, but I think it is useful to reflect on your work and what you’re trying to say with it and put that first. I’ve probably said this before, but for me crafting and improving a work of writing is about how to best emphasize and communicate the message of the piece, and sure that crafting may be to make the work more accessible or easy to read for a wide audience but it shouldn’t be at the expense of the message. If that message is something that isn’t bestseller material so be it – I’m pretty sure that most people prefer to be challenged by something that makes them think twice then consume another piece of cotton candy sanctified piece of writing.

One of the really weird perfectionist issues of writing is human beings have a hard time dealing with being less than 100%. The reason its odd is that I don’t actually know anyone who is a cliche ‘perfectionist’ its an odd quirk of (I think) Western culture where its considered a waste of time to do anything if you’re not going to put your best into it, by which I’m trying to say none of the writers I know are desperate perfectionists in the sense of locking themselves in rooms and being terrible pedants for details, but rather psychologically struggling to deals with this ‘less than 100%’ issue (well I certainly do).

Again obviously this isn’t a permission to do an average job, but what I’m building up to is to point out that our writing isn’t going to be 100% awesome for its readers either. If we’re all honest with ourselves I think we write hoping for best-seller type acclaim and even if we accept that’s a slim possibility I suspect there is still a sense that what fans we will have are fanatical.

Realistically there is going to be a range of responses to our work and that’s OK – however going back to my original point is that the more we try and please everyone the more boring and sanitized a work might become. In my opinion if I have three readers (probably an overestimate) it would be far more interesting to see a range of responses than a bland equality of ‘good I suppose.’

So anyway – what are your thoughts? Do you try to people-please in your writing?

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According to Google this quote is attributed to at least 10+ different people!