Refining My Reading

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I’ve been putting a lot more books in my Did Not Finish pile on GoodReads lately, and to be honest, I’m not feeling too worried about it.  It’s not that the books are bad (though there have been a few), it’s more that they’re just not my thing.

I’ve found that for me, one of the most common reasons for not finishing a novel is that trying to get through it is a chore.  They’re either far too verbose, far too infodumpy, or just in a really irritating style.  There are also the Everything/Everyone Is Horrible novels that I really don’t have time for in my life right now.

When I was a teenager it used to irritate me that I would lose interest in a book.  Granted, a good handful of the assigned reading when I was in high school was dry as a bone (George Eliot’s Silas Marner remains one of my least favorite books for its desert-level dryness); others were Written to Make a Point (like William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which dropped metaphors on you like Acme™ anvils).  Both are my least favorite styles of writing.  It actually put me off reading for entertainment for quite some time.

Yes, this, coming from a writer, right?  This is why I focused more on storytelling in different mediums, like comics, movies and television.  It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I figured it was time to actually read novels for entertainment again.  Once I got back into the swing of it, my personal library expanded exponentially.

Thing is, I found that I was trying to read everything, whether it was enjoyable or not.  There were very few books that I wrote off as DNF; I kept a hold of them for years, trying to read them again at a later time.

Nowadays I go by my book ownership rules:

  1. If I just bought it new, it needs to be read within the year.
  2. If I’ve bought it but haven’t started reading it in over a year, I push it to the top of my To Be Read queue.  If I don’t think I’ll get to it anytime soon, however, it goes to the donation pile.
  3. If I’ve owned it for ages and enjoyed it in the past but don’t think I’ll be reading it again, it goes in the donation pile.
  4. If I’ve gotten a quarter of the way in and it’s just not doing anything for me, or if it’s more irritating than enjoyable, it’s not worth finishing. [Note: This is not to say I toss books at the slightest irritation.  It takes a lot for me to give up on a book, so I give it a serious go before giving up.]

I donate the books to the Friends of the SF Public Library at their book store over in Fort Mason.  I’m totally fine with not making any money back, because these end up getting sold at their store or at their Big Honkin’ Book Sale they have a few times a year.  I might not have liked the book, but hey, someone else might!

I’ve found that sticking to these four rules works out really well, as it helps me get through my towering To Be Read pile quickly. Time’s too short to force myself through novels that are more of a chore than a joy.  Plus it leaves me more time to check out new writers!

On Public Speaking

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Thankfully, I’m a bit prepared for it.  I say a bit, because I’m talking about the Voice and Articulation and Public Speaking classes I had to take at Emerson College — twenty-plus years ago.  I know how to project my voice when need be (and I’ll admit I don’t do it nearly as much as I should when we’re in loud and crowded places).  I know how to lift the tone of my voice just a tad so it’s clear and not a droning mumble.  And I’m comfortable talking in front of a crowd.

But man, I’ll be honest right now — when I do that reading and that panel at FOGcon in early March, I’m gonna be a bit nervous anyway, because I’m not just talking about writing or reading my novel.  I’m trying to sell the damn thing.  And I am TOTALLY a n00b at that.

Still, I gotta start somewhere, right?

I’ve of course been given the suggestion that I should record myself reading to hear how I sound, but I’m my own worst critic when I do that.  I hate hearing myself talk on tape.  [I can deal with my own singing, but that’s a different avenue entirely.]  I’d be more inclined to prepare myself for talking in front of a crowd by making sure I know what I’m going to say (or read).  I rarely prepare for this sort of thing; I’m someone who feels more comfortable winging it when the time comes.  My preparation for the reading won’t be how I sound but on the pacing and the time it takes.  And I’m already thinking about points I’d like to make on the panel I’ll be on.

I’ve still got a few weeks to prepare for this, so I’m sure my nerves will be calm by then.  Hopefully…!

Reading and Writing Other Genres

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Combo TBR and Have Read Pile.  I’m currently working on that lower shelf.

I’ve been reading a lot of non-fantasy/SF books lately.  It’s partly because I have quite the To Be Read pile next to my bed, and I figured it was high time to dig through some of the titles that have been there for quite some time.  There’s a goodly amount of SFF in there, but there’s also a lot of non-genre, and I felt it was time to take a different path for a bit.

I mean, isn’t that what they always say?  Read anything and everything.  In among the SF I see in that picture, there’s also a Love and Rockets collection, a collection of Chinese Literature, a few mystery novels, some poetry, and a lot of Japanese literature as well.

Recently I finished reading Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which I adored, but also fascinated me due to Fowler’s wonderful use of language.  And currently I’m reading Xiaolu Guo’s I Am China.   Then there’s the various mangas, the music biographies, and the couple of history books (Alwyn Turner has a great triad of books about Britain from the 70s through to the 90s, if you’re interested) that seem to make their way to my TBR pile.  Such is the fate of living down the street from Green Apple Books and their excellent selection!

I don’t think I’ve burned myself out on genre fiction as much as I think I’ve oversaturated myself with it.  I can usually tell when I get to that point when a few things happen: the plot points start crossing over to different novels, I start comparing the characters and personality traits between different books far too much, and I start guessing the ending of the story way too early.   That’s when it’s time to back away and do something different for a bit.

My usual go-to with this is Asian literature.  I love how the pace and voice of the novel is equally as important as the plot itself.  I love reading characters whose motives are often culturally different from my own.  It makes me think about my own writing, how to approach storylines from different perspectives.

I admit I don’t enjoy too much litfic out there, but there are a few mainstream fiction authors I’ll pick up regardless.  Douglas Coupland and Mark Danielewski are two of them.  And of course I’ll pick up any music biography that catches my eye, especially if it’s a well-researched history of a particular genre.  I’ll pick up anything by Mark Lewisohn, Greil Marcus or Simon Reynolds.

Point being…as a writer, I have to remind myself that I need to read as often as I write, if not more, and I need to keep the scope of the material pretty wide if I’m going to learn from it.  I may read things simply for the pleasure of it, but even with those silly graphic novels and manga tankobon, I’m still picking up on the different ways to tell a story.

On Reading: Be Not Afraid

I just finished reading AM Dellamonica’s Child of a Hidden Sea last night, and absolutely loved it.  It’s one of those books where you end up staying up past your bedtime so you can finish it up.  Fast-paced and fun, it straddles between YA and adult fantasy, following a girl named Sophie Hansa as she travels — first accidentally then purposely — to an alternate world full of magic, seafaring piracy, and family intrigue.

I mention this because I think it ties in nicely with a recent blog post by writer Shannon Hale called “No Boys Allowed: School visits as a woman writer”.  She talks of her tours of schools to talk about her Princess Academy books, specifically the problems she has at some schools where her audience is all (or nearly all) girls, with nary a boy in sight.  More to the point: the fact that the boys weren’t invited, or needing permission to join in.  It wasn’t just expected that boys would have no interest in a writer who writes about princesses…even if it was unintentional, they’ve also reinforced the idea that boys shouldn’t have an interest in stories about princesses.  It’s just not a manly thing to read, even if you’re 10.

This reminded me of an event in seventh grade, between myself and the school librarian.  [I mention it briefly in the comments section of Hale’s entry.]  They had this special event every month or so where kids could buy cheap paperbacks from a bookseller; they were your typical MG and YA novels, maybe some comic collections and kids magazines, that sort of thing.

I took an interest in that partly because my dad and I had started taking road trips on weekends to Northampton or elsewhere to stop at bookstores, and I’d pick up something to read every now and then.  This book club was an easy way for me to find more things to check out.

At the time, I was interested in a lot of YA novels from Apple Paperbacks and other publishers; the covers may have been kind of dorky and the stories somewhat simple (strangers following you, problems with your friends, having weird yet really cool magical abilities), but they were fun reads.  I knew pretty early on that I wasn’t that interested in stories about sports, or men of action, or any of those other typical boy-centric stories.  The reason was simple: I like a good story, regardless of the gender of the main character…but the subject has to interest me.  I wasn’t going to waste time reading about a kid trying to make the baseball team when I had no interest in baseball and sucked at it anyway.

Mind you, this was also the time where I’d started becoming interested in writing fiction.  The Infamous War Novel I started in 1984 was the first one I completed, but I’d had at least a dozen or so incomplete ideas dating back at least a few years earlier than that.  This had little to do with passive reading.  I was gravitating to what I knew I enjoyed and wanted to write.

So when I’d ordered a few of these Apple Paperbacks (including Willo Davis Roberts’ The Girl with the Silver Eyes — one of my first forays into the SF genre, come to think of it!), I was excited to start reading these things.  However…

However, the school librarian had side-eyed my choice in reading.  In fact, if I remember correctly she actually pulled me aside.  “Are you sure you want to read books like this?” she’d asked.  “Don’t you want to read about sports or spy novels?”  I stood my ground and kept reading these things, but there was something in the back of my mind that nagged at me: was I reading the wrong things?  Was it wrong for me to like books with female leads?  I shrugged that off just as quickly as it came, but that was probably the moment where I realized I would not be able to confide in this particular librarian.  After all, she was also the one who had seen me pick up a copy of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer in the school’s library and asked if I would really ever get around to finishing it, considering it’s over five hundred pages long.  And now I had it in my head:  Would other boys think I was a fag (and I mean that in that wonderful 80s teen way) because I liked books about girls?  Did I have to keep these books to myself now, for fear that others would side-eye me as well?

She apparently had my number well before I had it myself.

The sad thing is, this was also right about the time where my attention span had started to wane.  Not out of any emotional or mental deficiency, but because I was starting to get bored.  I didn’t figure it out until many years later that my grades really started slipping right around that time because I’d lost interest.  I’d rather be listening to music or writing (yes, even then at 13…especially then) than reading some assigned book that I just didn’t want to deal with.  The end result was that I would end up with my first failing grade in my entire school career.  I got an F.  In English, of all things!  I wanted to be a writer and I loved reading!  What had happened?

Thankfully, I turned it around and managed to squeak by with a C- by the end of the semester and didn’t have to stay behind or take summer school. I knew I wasn’t dumb, I just needed to make a concerted effort to get the work done.  It was a slog and I did a half-assed job most of the time, but I did well enough to graduate with the rest of my class.

But the damage really had been done in junior high.  I don’t blame that librarian…she was of an older generation and was safe in her Boys Are Boys and Girls Are Girls world.  My bad grades were my own damn fault.  But if it wasn’t for my 7th grade English teacher assigning us Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine (one of my all-time favorite novels), my mission to write and finish a novel, and a stubborn will to read what I wanted, I’d probably have done worse.  I remained a B- student pretty much all the way until I graduated college.  And I barely picked up a book for pure entertainment purposes, even though I was still attempting to be a writer…that wouldn’t happen until around 1995.

I know it sounds petty, but this is what happens when you throw preconceived expectations on kids of that age.  Let me explain — I know you mean well, and I can see where you’re coming from (even when the gender segregation is a dumbass thing to do).  You’re giving them anchors and guidelines, something for them to base their life experiences on.  You’re trying to train them to see potential roads they should follow for future education, and that’s a good thing.  But at the same time, you’re not paying attention to how the kids are processing it.  A. and I have similar tastes in some things, but wildly different tastes in others.  I don’t even have the same path of logic as she does half the time.  We should learn how to think critically, but we also have to remember that each person thinks, lives and reacts differently.

I like what I like, and I choose not to be afraid of admitting that.

This is also partly why I chose to put Denni and Caren Johnson as the most important characters of the Bridgetown Trilogy — I remembered those Apple Paperbacks (and I was reading Kate Elliott’s Jaran series at the time) and enjoyed reading female lead characters.  I had no other reason, political or feminist or what have you, for centering the story around them.  They. Are. Important. Characters.  And they were not extensions of me.  That’s all.

I know this is kind of a long diatribe, but I felt it was important to share.  I’d like to believe that the boundaries we should teach kids are not external such as gender roles or conformity, but internal, such as respect and awareness.  Read what you want to read.  Write what you want to write.  Learn what needs learning.  And don’t edit your reading preferences because of someone else’s opinions.

Be not afraid.