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Saturday, 16 June 2012

Now hang on a second, Neil...

I wanted to take a quick digression from the Euro 2012 blogs to tap out a couple more quick thoughts on writing. A few weeks ago an interview with Neil Gaiman on the Nerdist podcast inspired me to catalogue a few metaphors for writing that I've found useful, but I've since been mulling over something else he said, namely that you shouldn't read the same kinds of things that you write.

More precisely, he suggested that if you are trying to write Tolkien-esque high fantasy, you shouldn't read Tolkien-esque high fantasy. Read about history, read other types of fiction, but stay away from that Tolkien-type stuff.

Now, while he's broadly right, I would like to modify the edict slightly, to don't exclusively read Tolkien-esque high fantasy, if that's what you're writing.

The way I see it is, you do have to know what's out there; most people have their own ideas of genre tropes, regardless of how well they know a particular genre, and if they attempt to go in cold they'll just repeat all of these tropes. My first attempts at fantasy stories were all written with little understanding of the fantasy genre, and when I look back at them now they seem incredibly hackneyed. While I don't advocate going out and reading any old crap, I do think it's worthwhile to be familiar with some of the crap that's out there, as long as you know why it doesn't work and you can learn from it.

Where Neil Gaiman is absolutely right, of course, is in reading outside of your chosen genre. Over the last few years I've followed Dan Simmons' Writing Well column on his website; he's big on craft, and points out that the best (or only) way to learn the craft is to emulate the very best authors. One quote that Dan Simmons is fond of is from F Scott Fitzgerald, who recommended reading "six top-flight authors" per year.

I'd say this is a good way to do it, provided you have some idea of what constitutes a top-flight author. For one thing, once you've read Rabbit, Run, by John Updike, the prose of Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden books can't help but be a little disappointing in comparison, no matter how much you actually enjoy the stories. For another, it rather admirably serves the purpose of reading outside your chosen genre, while leaving you enough time to keep up with what's actually happening in the world of Tolkien-esque high fantasy.

The other advantage of this approach is that it's so easy to actually find books by top-flight authors, particularly in e-book format. You can download most of the great works of Western literature for free from Amazon or Apple's iBooks app, after all (hell, when I downloaded the Kindle app for my phone it came with Pride and Prejudice and Treasure Island). If you're after something a little more recent, libraries and used bookstores are good places to go looking.

So to sum up, Neil Gaiman (who seems to have picked up some knowledge here and there in his career) is absolutely right to say that you should read outside your chosen field; but my own corollary is to make sure you read the good stuff within it, as well. Now, back to my planned 75-issue comic book series about the Lord of Dreams.

Oh, right. Never mind.