Tag Archives: reading

Thanks for Nothin’, Newsweek. And 5 Favorite Historical Fictions.

Newsweek recently featured Booker winner Hilary Mantel’s five favorite historical novels. Sadly–or happily, depending on how you look at it–I hadn’t heard of all but one of them. More books to add to the “maybe read” list!

But the magazine sort of pissed me off by saying that Mantel “elevates the field [of historical fiction] with her new book ‘Bring Up the Bodies.'”

OK, first it’s annoying to introduce a writer’s favorite books by implying she’s better than them. (Obviously, it’s Newsweek not Mantel I’m griping about.)

Second, Mantel lists “Things Fall Apart” as one of her picks. So obviously, the field needs no elevation.

Third, I can name offhand two Nobel laureates who’ve written historical fiction. So I’ll repeat: Obviously, the field needs no elevation.

Whatever. Here’s a list of some of the novels I love that happen to be historical:

  1. “Beloved” by Toni Morrison
  2. “The General in His Labyrinth” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  3. “Away” by Amy Bloom
  4. “The Known World” by Edward P. Jones
  5. “In the Skin of a Lion” by Michael Ondaatje
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Reading Like a Writer

Recently, my friend S sent me a book as part of a care package. On a Post-it Note stuck on the cover she wrote, “Have you read this? The pacing of the last 10-20 pages is amazing!”

Can you tell S is a writer?

I’ve been meaning for a while to write a post about Reading Like  Writer. What does that mean? It’s sort of like a woodworker staring at a Thos. Moser chair. Unlike you or me, he doesn’t just stand and drool. Well, he does, but then he wipes away his drool and tries to figure out How They Did That. What tools did they use? What kind of wood? How did they get that effect? How did they stain it? Can I do that, too?

Similarly, if S were reading as a reader, she might have written something different on the Post-it Note: “The last section is a page-turner!” But she was clearly thinking about what made the last 20 pages compelling. Something about the way the author parcels out information, about the way she builds and relieves suspense. (I’m sort of guessing here, b/c I haven’t gotten that far in the book.)

Reading like a writer means not just being swept away by a scene, but going back and trying to figure out why that scene swept you away. Was it the dialogue? The actions of the characters? A vivid description of emotions or setting? How did all those things come together to build tension or suspense or beauty or mystery?

When reading like a writer, look for

  • Character development
  • Plotting and structure
  • Language
  • Voice
  • Tone
  • Dialogue
  • Setting and description
  • Scene and pacing

It’s a lot! Usually, there are one or two or three things that a particular book does really well, and that’s what I focus on, rather than trying to follow the ways the book handles every single element of fiction. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have any time to just read a passage a drool.

I’ll be following this post up with some posts where I look at particular elements in books I’ve read recently. Look for a post on structure soon. I’d also love to hear from my readers about how you “read like a writer.”

As an aside, Margaret Atwood has read every Conan the Conqueror book!

What to Read When You’re Writing

Here’s a question from a reader:

When you’re writing a novel, how do you know whether to read other books that are in the same genre as or otherwise similar to what you’re working on? They say that the best way to learn how to write is to read a lot, but at a certain point does reading actually put a crimp in your writing (because you are too conscious of what else is out there)?

My reader is working on a novel that she says “would probably be classified as post-apocalyptic fantasy (probably young adult, because the main character is a teenager).”

So here’s my experience with reading historical fiction while working on historical fiction:

Reading a limited amount of literary historical fiction has helped me figure out what kind of historical fiction I want to write and what approach I want to take to history. But I did read one book that I wish I hadn’t read (but not really, because it was a good book). It has enough similarities to what I’m writing that having read it makes me nervous. Will I accidentally steal the author’s ideas? Will people think I stole the author’s ideas?

On the other hand, I’m really glad I read “The Known World” in the earlier stages of writing my novel. It’s exactly the kind of historical fiction I want to write, a book whose characters and concerns could easily be transported to the present day but are also totally believable in the time and place of the novel.  (“Away,” by Amy Bloom, is that sort of novel, too.) But I never worry about stealing the author’s ideas, maybe because the details of the story are so different from mine. What I do worry about is, Am I being as honest as Edward P. Jones? — and that’s a good worry to have.

If you feel strongly about not reading stuff in the genre-you-think-you-might-be-writing, hold off till you feel like you want some inspiration. Then choose books you probably would have wanted to read anyway. When you finally get to the stage where you’re trying to sell your novel, you’ll do good to know what’s out there that’s similar to your book (so you can argue that yes, people want to read this stuff) and what publishers are generally looking for in your genre. But at this stage, I think you’re right to worry more about the actual writing of your story than about knowing the field.

On Being Married to a Non-Reader

When I first met my husband, I thought his not being a book lover would be a deal breaker. Although I read for pleasure much less now than I did as a child and teenager, I still consider reading part of my identity. Many of my childhood friends were bookworms, and so was my first boyfriend. When A told me “I don’t read,” I had to discard certain fantasies. Curling up on the sofa with our separate books and reading passages out loud–that wasn’t going to be part of our shared future.

But then I realized a few things. First of all, A wasn’t exactly telling the truth. He does read online news, and Pop Candy, and CHUD.com. And occasionally he reads a book. Though that doesn’t make him a reader of the wormish sort, it’s not the same as thinking books–or reading–suck.

Second, I realized that dating a movie lover was just as important to me as dating a book lover. Maybe more important. People go to movies together. We read books alone. Bonding over The Lord of the Rings films was just as good as bonding over Ondaatje.

Third, I realized it didn’t matter. My brother Y isn’t a reader, and I still loved _him_. (He has only been known to read books by Robert Jordan and he has convinced me–not on purpose, but pretty much convinced me–that even video games can be “literary.”)

Finally, I eventually learned that A loved me enough to go to a Michael Ondaatje reading _when I was out of town_ to buy me a copy of _Divisadero_ and get it signed.

What more could a book lover want in a spouse?

Here I Am Again

Let’s just say I’ve been gone for two weeks because I’ve been reading Robin Black’s “If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This.” My friend and reader S mentioned Black in response to my post about late bloomers; “If I Loved You,” a story collection, is Black’s first book, and she is in her late forties.

I like a good short story, but despite my love of Alice Munro, I’ve never been as big a fan of them as I am of novels. I like losing myself in a world for several hundred pages. (But not more than 350-400–yes, I know that cuts out Russian novels and 18th century novels and “Ulysses.” I’ll live.) But I’m short on reading time and attention span these days, so Black’s book has been perfect for getting me back into the reading habit. Her stories are lovely and she’s the kind of writer who doesn’t intimidate but rather inspires: “If she can do this, I can do this, too.” My three favorite stories have been “The Guide,” about a father taking his daughter to get her first guide dog, “Harriet Elliot,” because it veers a little more toward the bizarre than the other stories, and “A Country Where You Once Lived.” I didn’t like the last of the three at first. The language is a little balder and more distant than the language in the rest of the book, but eventually that started to make sense. The point of view character is a scientist and the voice fits him and his distance from most other people. But the story won me over because it turns drastically several times, and what I got in the end was not the story I expected, but seemed inevitable.

The problem with reading a good story collection, it turns out, is that it has made me want to write new stories or work on stories that I set aside a while ago.

And then today I worked in my garden for four hours, and _that_ made me want to work on the novel I set aside to write the one I’m working on, because one of the main characters of set-aside novel is going to be into gardening.

So, someone please tell me how to get into the right mindset for writing about a wacky medieval sorceress/fortuneteller who lives in the hills with a goat.