Monday, November 18, 2013

Reading for Inspiration to Write

            Writers need to read.  For inspiration, for learning, for exercise (of the brain), and for seeing “how it’s done.” 
            For example, the best way to see how to start a novel or design an opening paragraph is to go to a bookstore and pull famous or favorite stories (or download a lot of “beginnings” from Amazon) and see how they did it.  Read them closely.  Take notes, compare/contrast.  Define the ways all those authors got the reader’s attention, established the protagonist and the setting, started a narrative momentum, and made a “promise” to the reader that would need to be fulfilled in the rest of the book.  And if those paragraphs are really good, they also established what the conflicts would be. 
            This might be the best means of learning how to write.  Look at good examples—closely and thoughtfully—and collect the methods by which they succeed.  Then, apply them. 
            But reading is also important for inspiration, for getting ideas on what to write about—stories, characters, settings, backgrounds, ideas, situations, conflicts, atmospheres, moods, styles.  You get many examples when you read.   And you never know from where inspiration will come—from newspapers or online journals, cartoons or junk mail, grocery lists or advertisements.  It’s all fodder for the writer’s brain. 
            But most of us don’t have a lot of time for reading.  Being a teacher of literature, I’m lucky.  It’s my job to read.  But those books are often required and many times I’ve read them before.  Though they never fail to inspire, the first punch of inspiration (usually the strongest) is already past. 
            So what can we do in our so-called “spare time” to keep ourselves reading, in those microscopic moments when—shock!—you find yourself with maybe as much as 5-10 minutes (wow!) to read something that’s not required, or that doesn’t have to be done by tomorrow, or that’s not an instruction manual or an article in a “Help” menu.  And mood is often a greater determinant than time.  In those precious few minutes, what do you really want to read?  You don’t want to waste it.  But you might spend all the little time you have in just debating the right choice.  Believe me, it happens. 
            So here’s what I do.
I read at least three, and often more, books at the same time.  And they’re always in three different categories:  science fiction, non-fiction, and classical or mainstream literary fiction (with often a book from another popular genre, like fantasy or mystery, but they usually wait in line behind the other three). 
            Science fiction because that’s my genre of choice (that I study, teach, and write). So of course I always want to stay well-read in it—to know what’s been done, what’s out there now, and the tools needed to work in the genre.  Non-fiction because from it come ideas for the thought-experiments of my own novels, topics for plot scenarios, conflicts, issues.  Especially useful are popular explorations of science, history, mythology, folklore, and cultural studies.  And literary novels because they provide new outlooks and styles that diverge from the foregone expectations of much popular fiction.  The often challenging originality of these novels (that might not fit the standard “arcs” of, say, romances fulfilled or murders solved) and their experimentation with narrative techniques provide inspiration for new ways of doing things in fiction, ways that genre writers can’t always apply until such methods are more adapted for market realities.  In this way genre writers can take advantage of the sometimes chancy trial-and-error narratives for use in their own works.  
            Right now, the current SF novel I’m reading is Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross (though untouched for a week or two), the non-fiction is a Time-Life The Battle of Britain (it’s most often read over breakfast), and the literary work is The Road by Cormac McCarthy (which, darn, I haven’t picked up in a month).  Those are the formal choices, and since they’re all in progress, I can always find something for the mood I’m in when I suddenly have time for reading a few pages. 
            But, as you can tell by the parenthetical comments above, nothing’s easy.  There’s a host of informal or required readings too.  For the Writing Popular Fiction program at Seton Hill and an undergraduate course I teach, I also have, equally in progress and taking up much more time:  The Name of the Wind (fantasy) by Patrick Rothfuss, NOS4A2 (horror) by Joe Hill, Ubik (classic SF) by Phil Dick, Mistborn (fantasy) by Brandon Sanderson (but I had to set this one aside), and Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift.  Then, for SF (and my special interest in SF authors of the 50s), there’s Mysterious Planet by Lester Del Rey and Ensign Flandry by Poul Anderson (read over lunches or when I’m on the treadmill), and I really need to get back to Blindsight by Peter Watts as well as House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds.  Then, for literary fiction, there’s Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad (which I’m rereading after many years and listening to sporadically on audiobooks—I should finish it by next summer), but I’m also eager to start The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman and John LeCarre’s Our Kind of Traitor, and soon I’ll need to reread Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights for a class.  Then, for non-fiction, after having to put Ships aside (a coffee-table book) to make room for The Secret War (on spying in the 40s) and The Railroaders of the American West (it’s amazing what you can finish over breakfast), I just read a chapter into Apocalyptic Planet by Craig Childs.  And on top of all of that, since I’m now writing a prequel to my novel The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes, I just gathered a stack of works for research I want to do (on the Sahara and Alaska, Australian mythology, “mysterious places,” archaeology, fabled lands, quantum physics—all of which I’m sure I’ll add to). 
            Can you see why I can’t keep my Goodreads up to date? 
            And then there are the graphic novels, which provide another great realm of inspiration.  But that’s for another blog. 
            All in all, what I wanted to suggest here (before getting buried) is to encourage that we read at least three books at one time, that we have them in three different categories so any mood or varied inspiration can be covered, and that we don’t pass up any book that we suddenly yearn for even if we only get one chapter into it and then have to switch. 
           And to always, always, always read. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Science Fiction, Memoir, and Description

Though most contemporary editors encourage new fiction writers to avoid as much description as possible, Patricia Hampl’s “The Dark Art of Description” argues that description is alive and well in memoir.
            While novels stress the “gripping narrative arc,” memoir prefers a “photographic” over a “cinematic” form of writing.  Though according to some writers, description is less important today than in the past (the claim is that we know enough of what things look like with the prevalence of visual media, and thus we need only a quick reference), memoir is less about the object or place described than the consciousness of the writer and how that perspective works “in harmony” with the material.  The writing style thus becomes crucial in providing such an “articulation of perception.” 
            While science fiction has the same popular-genre requirements of fast narrative, it’s similar to memoir because of its necessary description of other-worldly or fantastic settings, of immense objects of technology, of galactic powers and sublime vistas.  If we use the described object in memoir to depict the self of the writer, in science fiction we use a story-character’s perception, or the collective perception of humanity itself (following the idea in SF of the human race as main character), to give an interpreting view of the scene in order to create it for the reader. 
Though we often get standard objective “telling” of fantastic landscapes and constructions, given the requirements of fast pacing or narrative streamlining, the character’s comments on how the scene is depicted can tell us as much about the character or human assumptions as contribute to making a scene appear real, a scene that might be so alien it would be hard to describe—which in turn is then suggested by the emotional or intellectual reactions of the perceivers.  The quality of otherness is thus created as much by the conceptualizing of the means of perception, of the human medium in the description, as by the resulting object itself. 
            Indeed, in science fiction, the topic of perceiving the new—the alien, the other—is often objectified, and it thus becomes one of the common topics of the genre (like love in romance or murder in mystery).  We get the scene or the object presented but we also get the means of presenting it, the frame as well as what’s inside it.  The supposedly un-presentable is described by depicting the method of its presentation.  And thus in SF, telling is showing.
            For example, in Arthur Clarke’s Childhood’s End, a child has “dreams” of distant worlds that are telepathic visions of actual places (“actual” in the story but imagined by the author):   

In the mornings they would question him, and he would tell what he could remember.  Sometimes his words stumbled and failed as he tried to describe scenes which were clearly not only beyond all his experience, but beyond the imagination of man.  They would prompt him with new words, show him pictures and colors to refresh his memory, then build up what pattern they could from his replies.  Often they could make nothing of the result, though it seemed that in Jeff’s own mind his dream worlds were perfectly plain and sharp.  He was simply unable to communicate them to his parents.  Yet some were clear enough. . . . (170) 

Interestingly the book goes on to give those views the child sees; we do get descriptions of them.  But the quoted paragraph makes sure we realize our perception of the phenomenon is dependent on a groping ability to conceptualize them.  They’ve been made more strange, more “alien,” by the discussion about how hard describing them really is—that the boy’s words “stumbled,” that the scenes were beyond the “imagination of man,” that new words were needed, and that the people listening could not understand.  We still get the alien vista, but we also get an alienating frame put around, or before, the description that “tells” us how difficult it is to “show” it to us.  So, again, the telling becomes a means of showing. 
            Like memoir, science fiction because of its often “alien” subject matter uses a similar emphasis on the perceptual medium itself, the consciousness of the perceiver, the means of assimilation, the moves made in trying to describe.  For all its current presence in cinema, prose SF still has its roots in this “photographic” form of writing.  We get the picture, but we also get the camera that took the picture too.  Or, in the case of a person’s description, we hear “Let me tell you what I saw,” as much as we here “Let me show you.” 
            (Other examples—from Ian McDonald’s Evolution’s Shore, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Mars, and China Mieville’s Embassytown—will be examined for the same methods in a paper I hope to present at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts next March in Orlando, Florida.  And if anyone has other examples to point out in SF, or comments to make about this style of writing, please give them below.) 

Clarke, Arthur C.  Childhood’s End.  1953.  New York, Ballantine, 1974.
Hampl, Patricia.  “The Dark Art of Description.”  The Iowa Review.  38: 1 (Spring 2008), 74-82.