I worked in a bookstore for a number of years and during that time I wondered what people bought books for. The conclusion I have drawn over all this time is that people read books for three reasons. The first is that they don’t want to miss out on what’s popular (a condition my wife lovingly calls a FOMO…fear of missing out. This is an oversimplification of the category, but I think you understand the meaning.), this is how such shlocky writing such as 50 Shades of Gray came into popularity. It wasn’t that it was original, nor was it good (or even OK writing, frankly the chapter I read was just plain, bad. Poor character construction, poor grammar, poor sentence construction, etc, etc.), but it was brought up on a morning talk show and it blew up in popularity.
The second reason people pick up books is the travel read. Though i call this the travel read, it’s real range is much farther. This is the book that people pick up to read on the airplane yes, but it’s also the book that people pick up as mindless entertainment (as much as reading can be mindless). This is the category for such authors as James Patterson. People pick him up because it’s easy to read, with super short chapters and simple language. This is the largest reading group, because it’s about simple entertainment. This is the reality TV category of reading. When you want to read, but you don’t want to think and just want the story to be laid out for you in a simple and entertaining fashion. Most times these books are flat but accessible. The characters are one note tropes (the detective that just has one last case before retiring, the ambitious journalist who just needs to get that story, etc.), and the dialog is trite and simple, but they hit all the right notes that the readers want. These are the definition of cookie cutter.
The last group is the serious reader. This is cut up into two categories. The first is the “Librarian reader” and the second is the “Academia reader”.
The Librarian reader is the reader who just loves to read. This is the person who prefers reading to watching TV. This is a person who is an indiscriminate reader. This person will read anything from the Twilight Series to “Huckleberry Finn”. From “The Girl on the Train” to “Little Women”. This is the category I fall under. It’s the category of person who just loves to read and partially studies the reading. It doesn’t really matter what the Genre is, this person will read anything. Personally I go so far as to finish everything. Even if I hate it. I look for anything redeeming about the book. I look for plot sub-devices, I look for character development and depth, I look for subsumed nuances in theme, I look for grammatical and paragraph structure acumen. This may seem strange to some people, but it’s because I love the medium so much. I love everything about reading and writing, and most times when I get to sit down and read or write, it’s the highlight of my day. I understand that I’m a strange subset of this Librarian reader because I straddle the line of the Academia reader.
To that end, the Academia reader is the person who studies the text. This is a person who reads only Philosophy (if you’re reading this you know someone like this); the person who looks down on James Patterson and abhors E.L. James. The person who studies the text and looks for extra nuance. The person who has read “Notes from the Underground” and “Atlas Shrugged” 42 times. This is a person who can quote text from Schopenhauer, Shakespeare and Cicero. They look less for the structure of the book and more for the meaning. They look at Grammar as subtext instead of an interesting way to structure. This person is a philosopher at heart and will stay with a book for a year at a time. They may not read a lot of books, but they know more about what they know than anyone.
So which is it? Which category do you fall under? What type of reader have you always wanted to be? What type of reader do you aspire to? And for all those writers and people who want to be writers, which is the category you think is the most important to be a writer?
It’s late in the day and with all the construction that’s been going on in my house, I’ve only now had a chance to sit down and write tonight. I thought I might pick a few genre’s and pick a book that I feel is a must read in that category. Disagree? Lets talk about it over twitter,Facebook, or Goodreads (or respond to the blog!)!
Literature: John Irving “A Prayer for Owen Meany”
I’m convinced that this is the best of Irving’s many works. Irving has an amazing capacity to make a character realistic, more so that any other author out there. What’s more amazing is that he makes you love them. His characters are always flawed (which is probably what makes them so real), but because of those flaws the characters become your friends. Owen Meany is no different, but what makes this book stand out is it’s structure. Like Chekhov said if there’s a gun in the first act it has to go off by act five. This book opened my eyes to what real literature should be. Read it.
Fantasy: Brandon Sanderson “Mistborn, The Final Empire”
This is the first book of a trilogy (and a much broader spectrum of books under the mantle of Mistborn), but you can read this one as a stand alone. What starts off as a heist book, evolves into something so unique, epic and beautiful that it’s hard to put down, even with its 500 plus pages. People talk all the time about book hangovers. Where you put the book down and you are so satisfied that you are actually a little depressed because you didn’t want it to be over. This is that book.
Horror: Richard Matheson “Hell House”
In a genre where things have gotten so trite and the writing so dime store, it has gotten very hard to find a good horror book (and believe me I try every October. I try to read 3 or 4 of them in that month in honor of Halloween). This, from the grandfather of horror, is probably the best written and the scariest. While reading it you want to put it in the freezer to hide it away like Joey from “Friends” does, but it’s so engrossing that you really cant stop. Matheson was the creator of the trope (He wrote for Twilight Zone which most of his short stories are produced on screen, and most of his books have been made into movies multiple times; the most recent being “I Am Legend”), giving a group of scientists a chance to try and disprove a haunted house. Get ready for a roller coaster.
Science Fiction: Orson Scott Card “Ender’s Game”
Many people have had to read this book in high school, and where I never had to I think it could have been a good addition. This is a fabulous coming of age book, in addition to a treatise on war and society. The Eponymous Ender is a brilliant Hero (I use a capital because he’s a Campbell mythic hero) who does what needs to be done to get farther in life. With teenage angst, pain of family and friends and more drive than many characters do in the genre. Another can’t put it down.
Classics: Fyodor Dostoevsky “The Gambler”
I wanted to add a classic that many people might not have read. This is a preamble to James Bond in both feel and character (James Bond in the Books that is). This is the story of a man who develops an addiction to gambling because of the influence of the young girl he’s chasing after (It’s a little ironic because Dostoevsky himself was a gambler and partially wrote this book to pay off gambling debts). It’s a great realistic tale. The characters a horribly flawed and they make realistic decisions. In the end the gambler finds his reason for being after being lost in the black hole of a gambling addiction and you see light at the end of the tunnel, but Dostoevsky weaves it so beautifully that there is reason to doubt. If you’d like to read a Russian classic (they are some of the best after all), but are daunted by Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina or War and Peace check this one out…might open some doors for you.
That’s all for now! What are your favorites in these genres?
I just recently finished reading “A Casual Vacancy” by J.K. Rowling (if you want to read the review check out my goodreads page:
and it got me to thinking about why certain things become famous and have a huge following and others do not.
Throughout my writing career I have always thought (and fought against) that if you wanted to be successful you needed to create a cookie cutter plot with predictable characters. One of those novels that appeals to the masses (think James Patterson, Dean Koontz, or anything in the romance section of Barnes and Noble), because they can get into a familiar mode and have a nice escape from the strain of their lives, but yet something that they don’t have to work to hard at.
“The Casual Vacancy” opened my eyes to a new reality.
In general the book was panned. People flocked to it, but not because it was critically received, more so because it was the next novel of the phenom who created Harry Potter. I experienced a wonderful, realistic novel. A novel where there was sex and violence and rape and drugs and expletives around every corner. A novel seeming so innocent (much like its characters), but with a sinister undertone which threatens the status quo and propriety.
What jumped out at me was the depth of character and place.
What made Harry Potter popular? Was it the fact that it was a young reader novel about a wizarding school? Was it because it followed the archetype of the Joseph Campbell hero? Was it timing? Did Rowling sell her soul to the devil for fame and fortune?
It was her incredible ability to tell a story. It is her depth of character. It’s her ability to make the characters three dimensional, with quirks, flaws, and complexes. It’s her ability to make her characters just like your friend or neighbor, your mother or brother.
It’s also her use of language. She and another author, Stephen King, have the ability to tell a story. Not write a novel, not to tell a story of place, not to tell a story of a person, but to tell a tale. These two are the epitome of readability, because while your reading the books you can nearly see yourself sitting around a camp fire while they stood before a group and told their story. It’s the readability that they share and that makes them so popular.
This is a hard thing to pin point, because it’s not about how to place a verb, it’s not about how to construct a sentence. It’s about how everything flows off the page, and lights up in your mind like the TV screen.
It’s these two things that create popularity. Readability and realistic characters. And luck, a whole lotta luck. If you can get it into the hands of the right people and you have these characteristics you have that international bestseller.
I’ve been hard at work for approximately ten months now developing a children’s chapter book series called The Elsie Jones Adventures. I’m having a blast writing them, and coming up with the concepts for each individual book, however it is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, because everything in the series has to be cohesive. It’s a fifteen book series and each book is a stand alone (except for maybe the 15th), but each book also pushes the overall plot line forward for the series.
While I’ve been writing this series I’ve been continuing and completing a number of long running series of books. Most of these series are in the save vein, where they have stand alone books, but each volume pushes the larger story farther towards the completion of the series.
This is what’s scary, hard and, oddly enough, rewarding in both process of reading and writing a large series: Making sure that the whole story makes sense, and you eliminate continuity errors.
The first few books don’t seem to be that much of an issue because you can keep adding plot points, but as the series progresses, you need to begin to close the loopholes (creators of LOST didn’t understand this simple point).
So I’ve thought a lot of the process of all this over the past few years, and if anyone has any feedback regarding it, it would be fun to talk about.
My process has evolved over the past year, much more than it has in the ten years previous.
When I first started writing I would just sit down and let the story take over. This is a big argument within the writer community because nearly half of all writers do it this way, where the other half are outliners and planners. I thought I could be a free story writer, where the story and the characters told me where the story was going and the story would tell itself, however I have found over time that I get lost in the middle of the story and the characters and the plot lose their way.
I have become a planner because of this, and developing Elsie Jones, I’ve become a planner more and more.
The biggest contention to outlining that I’ve heard (and said) is that free writers feel as though they are trapped within the outline. However almost all writers know how the story begins, maybe a few plot points int he middle, and then how the story ends. This is nearly the same as outlining.
Just because you’ve created an outline doesn’t mean that you cant change it if the character comes alive and the outline no longer makes sense. You still will probably have the same ending, but the path to the ending is fluid (it’s like Game of Thrones. Weiss and Benioff don’t know the path Martin is going to take to get to the end, but they know the end. So the books and the show will diverge, more than likely from this point out, but they will end the same way). Then through subsequent drafts you can hone the story, tighten it up into a beautiful little story. If you consider yourself a free writer, try this. Sit down and have a brainstorm session and write it down. I even put in dialog and description of the events which are particularly vivid to me. Then the first draft can be about the construction of the book and developing the voice and life of the character instead of worrying about the path of the book.
The reason this is so particularly on my mind now is I’m in the middle of book 9 of The Elsie Jones Adventures (Take a look at my books page of this blog for more info) and I have quite a few plot points that I need to bring back together to finish up the story. I’ve had to go one step beyond the mere outlining and create diagrams and lists and character sketches. I’ve had to do this because if I just free wrote the rest of the books, I would leave a bunch of hanging loose ends and have plot points which didn’t make sense.
So I wonder at what other people think. I wonder how other people write. Lets start a dialog and improve the writing in the world.
I read books from every genre and from every literary background, and I hope everyone else does too. The more I read, however, the more I think about the motivations to write in a specific way, or specific genre.
What is the draw to writing Horror? Why does creating a fantasy world appeal to some people? What is the difference between the two and what are the similarities?
The more I think about it, it comes down to drive, talent and interest.
There is a phrase in the writing community where you should always “write what you know”. I’ve always thought that was a strange concept, because many of the things that I was interested in growing up, and in fact still to this day, have no basis in reality, so what does that really mean?
Writing what you know to me doesn’t have anything to do with writing what happened to you today (though for some people, that’s exactly what that means), it means writing what your interest is.
Growing up and going to creative writing classes there is a great disdain for genre writing. (I was told many times, why didn’t I just write something real? Why was I wasting my time?) These people wanted to play with form and they wanted to be artistes (as Joyce would put it), but really unless you have incredible talent, at a high school level, or as a freshman in college you wouldn’t be able to produce anything of value anyway (look at Pynchon’s “Slow Learner”. The title says it all).
So I wrote what I knew. I wrote what I was interested in. What is amazing is how your abilities grow the more you use them. If you look at any of my earlier work, I am most definitely a slow learner, but writing is like woodworking, the more you do it the better you get. you start to notice pitfalls, you start to notice your own eccentricities.
To layer on that you need to study other’s works. The more you read the more you see how other authors have honed their craft. How they have perfected their voice. You take all this information and you mold it in your own work and eventually you get your own style.
So your interest gets you started and you can perfect your talent.
The only think left is drive.
One can go from being a genre hack to being a very respected author, whether they stay within their genre or not. Everything there comes down to drive. What is it that propels you into the writing world? Is it money? Is it fame? (Get a reality check if it’s either of these) or is it the love of telling stories?
If it’s money or fame, you’ll never progress beyond hack level (Palahniuk, I’m looking at you), but if it’s the love of telling stories you develop a drive. That drive gets stronger and stronger with every success that you have, because you begin to realize that others are willing to listen to your stories. You strive to do more, so you get better and better. You develop a specific voice. Those interests you once had broaden, and you start believing that everything you have is literature. You develop depth and passion. Your genre writing now can be read by anyone and it’ll be looked at as joining a club (just look at George R.R. Martin’s success…assuming he ever finishes his series).
So write what you know. Read everything and write every day. Have fun and don’t worry about what others think. You may write one story that people never see. You may write a thousand, but eventually you’ll write that one that’ll break the barrier and you’ll get to start sharing with the world.
“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one becomes a master.” Ernest Hemingway.
Six years ago I was working on my first book. It was a self published book of short stories and I got confirmation from the publisher before I had a definite idea of what I was going to actually do.
The was to be a book of short stories which I had written over the years. The problem was I had ten stories and four of those were just too horrible to publish. I was so dead set on publishing something, that i just decided to write like crazy and do all the things that I ever wanted to do to experiment with writing. I was writing a blog on Myspace at the time (can you believe that site is still around?) and I carried around a notebook in San Francisco, faking that I was a beat writer. I loved the glamour of it, but at the same time I understood I wasn’t very good. Then one day I was sitting outside of Java Beach Cafe and i wrote down this prose:
Why is there that dreadful despair?
That meandering distraction?
I think I could be good.
I think I have potential to be a good, if not great writer.
It’s such a difficult process, and yet
for many people it just flows,
As if their body excreted talent.
I have potential.
Many people have potential.
There are plenty of cases of first publish at first go.
There are also those who have no potential,
or to be frank,
people who don’t know what their doing.
I’m in a middle group,
between the ignorant and the talented.
I have potential.
I study art.
I’m no artist.
I contemplate it. I assimilate it. I gorge in it, and
I fake it.
To people with talent. It’s a drive.
It’s ever present, forceful.
It becomes deleterious in it’s absence.
The ignorant don’t understand at all.
they see a great piece of fiction
and they don’t know what it means.
It needs to be spelled out.
It is after all…work.
They don’t feel the drive so it doesn’t make sense.
It’s a wonderment.
I have potential. I study it. I see art.
I appreciate art. I love art.
I am not artistically inclined.
I do not have talent, I have potential.
I rambled on for a little while longer, but I think the idea is prevalent here. The idea that I didn’t elucidate here was the amount of work that you have to put in. NOthing in this field comes easily, and where there are people like Dickens, Proust, King, and Shakespeare, who apparently can just sit down and pour out their creativity, for most of us it’s work. We need to write, and re-write, and edit and re-write again. I finished off that prose-poem, by saying that I wanted to fool the world into thinking that I have talent. I think my talent has grown, but that’s because of the work that I’ve put in.
So for everyone out there who wants to be a writer? Just sit down and tell some stories. It doesn’t matter how good they are, how literary they are, how robust. As long as they come from your heart, you can continue and you too will develop that talent.
I recently watched a TED talk (I know, I know, but it was for my other job OK?) where the speaker (Simon Sinek) spoke about how leaders become leaders. How some people excel and how others don’t. Of course I immediately started to think about writing.
Mr. Sinek says in his talk, that people or groups fail because they talk about what they do. The people or groups who succeed talk about why they do it.
This is something I’ve always struggled with. When people ask what my book is about, or what I’m writing about, I ramble on about some such theme, or some kind of similarity to something else, to try and give them an understanding of what it’s about and if they think they’ll like it.
But all I’m doing is boring people with what I’m writing. What is going to make them pick up my book over someone else’s? What makes my Twilight Zone inspired short story collection unique from someone else’s Twilight Zone inspired short story collection? What makes my Children’s Chapter book series different from someone else’s? Content? Ability? Character?
Marketing is always something I’ve struggled with because I’ve always thought about what I’m doing. I’ve always described what I was doing to people. I’ve never discussed why I did it.
This still isn’t a easy subject to broach, because for the most part, I’ve never thought about it myself. I’ve always said I write because I love to tell stories, but is this the truth? Is there something more?
The more I think about it, everything comes back to Belief.
I believe in myself. I believe in my writing. I believe in what writing stands for.
I believe that if I can write a children’s chapter book series about literature, than I will inspire a child to go out and read some of that literature.
I believe that that child will be once of the next leaders of the world.
I believe that by writing a science fiction story that pushes a character past the limits of their imagination, then the reader will believe that they can do something past their own.
I believe writing improves the world. That is the meaning behind what I do. I strive to make the world better one person at a time.
That is why I’ll succeed. Because I wont stop. I believe it too hard to give up.
Back in college one of my best friends turned this phrase about a band he was listening to. I believe the band was “Failure” and indeed I had never heard of them before, and indeed the band was truly great.
Since then I have taken to that phrase and I use it to describe authors, movies and music that I’ve discovered and most people have never heard of it. I’ve a penchant for posting music periodically on my Facebook page ( https://www.facebook.com/Sean-McBride-Author-293451414004074/?fref=nf ), but I thought I’d take a moment to post some authors that you probably haven’t heard of, but are tremendous talents.
This guy is like a mixture of J.D. Salinger and Jack Kerouac, but for a modern crowd. Anyone who liked “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”, you need to read “The Fuck-Up” by Nersessian. He speaks of New York in such a real way, he echoes Paul Auster, who is known for his books about New York. Description aside, he writes angst, despair, hope and happiness with such pith, that you really feel for the characters, instead of being told how to feel about them. Truly a wonderful author, check him out.
He follows in the footsteps of the magical realists, where he takes these strange premises and adds in some kind of supernaturality, or magic. For example in “The Illumination” whenever anyone gets hurt, or cut, their injury lights up. What Brockmeier does so well is let you infer what is actually going on. Your imagination blooms when reading him. He writes with such incredible heart and poise and grace. Everything he does is short, but if you can sit back and really think about what he’s trying to say it’ll blow your world.
Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Zafon is a little more well known than the first two, but there are still so many people who have never had the absolute joy of reading one of his books. As of the writing of this blog he has three adult books, which are semi-sequels in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books sequence, and five children books which easily read as adult. Zafon has been linked to being up on Umberto Eco’s level, and his writing is so lyrical is really does sing to your soul. Of course having Lucia Graves translate it from it’s native Spanish just elevates it that much more. With echoes of Shakespeare, Goethe, Dickens, Proust, Eco and so many more, they are just beautiful stories “The Shadow of the Wind” being my favorite book of all time. If you’ve ever considered yourself a writer then you must read either “The Shadow of the Wind” or “The Angels Game”. They will change your life.
And now for something completely different. You may not recognize the name, but many of you will probably recognize his epic first novel “House of Leaves”. At turns creepy, vivid, and evocative, Danielewski plays with form like nobody ever has. If you’re a fan of Palahniuk because of his form, drop that hack’s shock jock bilge and pick up anything by Danielewski (And really if you’re the fan of the shock value, pick up Bret Easton Ellis, or Irvine Welsh). You’ll find yourself turning the book around and reading from back to front, but you’ll also find yourself biting your fingers, crying, laughing and just down right flabbergasted. Just as deep as everyone else on this list, but because of form, not because of prose. Try out “House of Leaves”, it may take you a year to read, but you’ll find yourself going back to it.
That’s all for now, but I’ll be sure to post more later!
“Noal would die with honor. Once, Mat would have thought that kind of thing foolish-what good was honor if you were dead? But he had too many memories of soldiers, had spent too much time with men who fought and bled for that honor, to discredit such notions now.”- Brandon Sanderson/Robert Jordan “Towers of Midnight”
This is a sensitive subject, but one necessary as we come through memorial day. As most of us enjoy having a bit of time off of work and the impending beginning of Summer we have this holiday.
Perhaps the most important holiday.
I have quotes to bookend this little narrative to try and illustrate the pride and truth of what the holiday really means. Your Facebook will have been filled with pictures of military graveyards, or pictures of soldiers helping others, or of the Flag flowing in the wind.
But what do these symbols really mean to people who weren’t there? What does the semi-amorphous meaning of country mean?
It is nothing without brotherhood.
Men and women fight and die for their friends and family and for that kinship. The idea goes far beyond ideals and faithfulness to a country or to a flag. The true meaning of heroism comes from love and friendship. To people and to each other. This is what this holiday is really about. Honoring the men and women who gave their lives so that we might live in a better world. Our brothers and sisters (both metaphoric and blood) who have changed the world to try and save us.
People go to war for an ideal or a country. They die to protect their brothers and sisters.
That is the most honorable thing in the world.
I use words to try and give that honor back, though it falls short, it is all I have.
Thank you my brothers and sisters who have died to save me.
“God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words—
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester—
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.” -Shakespeare Henry V
Before you say anything, yes. I have read the books. I almost wish I had not at this point because who knows when GRRM will ever put out another one, but I digress. The point of this blog post isn’t to point fingers, but to point out how good the books, and by proxy, the show really are.
I don’t mean they’re good because they’re shocking. I don’t mean they’re good because the characters are cool. I mean these are just good old fashioned storytelling. With all long epics like this you begin to worry after a while, because usually authors start with a shtick, but by the time the end really needs to come together it’s to daunting to do. A perfect example of this is the Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan which was finished by Brandon Sanderson. You have this big sweeping epic and an author who is to close to the story to feel it ending appropriately, so bringing in another talented author to complete it is necessary. GRRM seems to be doing this with Benioff and Weiss.
There are five books and five and a half seasons of the show, and now that the show has pulled ahead we are starting to see some of that storytelling come to fruition. A large problem shows that contain mysteries have, is they focus on expanding the mystery to the point it is so untenable that it becomes too loose and no longer entertaining. Game of Thrones (and the book alternative A Song of Ice and Fire), after Sunday night’s episode is seeming to be eliminating some of these issues.
We are finally getting explanations to why the characters are the way they are. We are finally getting information about the forces in the world trying to destroy it. We are finally getting some closure.
That’s what good storytelling is really all about. Anyone could be like the show Lost and come up with all these crazy ideas, but the trick to good storytelling is being able to bring them all back together in a nice cohesive bundle. Story telling is cyclical, your ending must hearken back to the beginning and pay off the events that happened that got your story started, and it appears as though GRRM did in fact have a plan, from the beginning, as to what he was going to do. That gives me hope for a good show. That gives me pride in a great book series.
And it all came with the realization of a characters name.