3: What should I do before I start? Will passively reading do it?
Right, you’ve read a few hundred books − Bare minimum you should be looking at, at least 200. You think you’ve got the grip of it; the plot, the characterisation, the reveal, the measure, the dialogue, the tone, different devises, point-of-view – But have you?, or have you just been reading passively − Nothing wrong with reading passively, enjoying a book; being entertained and enthralled. But you have only read it, not really studied it, why might you do that if you don’t have to, you’re not at school, you have a busy life after all. Here’s a simple determinant, when you have finished a book and someone asks you what it was like, if you reply, ‘Yeah, it was good,’ and very little else, you have not thought about it enough – You ain’t going to be an accomplished writer: Readers read. Writers read, and then analyse, simple as.
I was once dragged across to someone at a party and demanded to tell this unknown person how many books I had read in my then life, probably about 350. He had read 10,000! He had been in prison in Britain for a complicated and intriguing political crime. I didn’t feel sorry for him, I felt jealous! He told me he once read three books in one day, banged up for 23 hours − I thought I could easily do time! My intermediary, a sparse reader of fiction, laughed when I told him – how many books you have read is completely relative – generally it’s, quality not quantity.
When you have read at least two hundred books, but you know you are the gentle passive reader, if the evaluation of the book has not felt like unarmed combat in your mind. The most important thing you need to do is read about ‘The Craft’ from those that have been bothered to share. There are many of these books, some heavier than others. This is what I suggest you do, well what I did. Read all of these, to start with, in this order:
How Novels Work – John Mullan
The Art of Fiction – David Lodge
Reading Like A Writer – Francine Prose.
If you manage these three and you are still determined, then read some more, but read the type of Authors in the genre you want to write within. If you want to know what Stephen King did at school, read his.
What fiction books should you read? That’s a hard one, but read different genres than those you are intending to write, this will give you more scope and ideas. You have to read some of the masters/masteresses to learn the skills and lineage of good writing, but save this until you really want to! Some of the old dead gezzers wrote some very long books that require a lot of commitment, listen to the learned people around that you know and trust. Join Goodreads or some such similar sight. I still have Joyce’s Ulysses on my shelf – I know it’s shameful, but I’m being honest. Look at the 7 most started but never finished books of all time, Dedalus and Bloom’s ramblings in Dublin in 1904 is third. It is not the content putting me off, it’s the length – I quite like a bit of modern realism. Followed by an argument about synecdoche – if you are not sure what ‘synecdoche’ is, you will after reading about the ‘the craft.’
Once you have leant more about ‘The Craft’ you will not be just looking at the narrative and your empathy to the characters any more. You may well be deconstructing the sentence, and saying this adjective would work much better here – What would Henry James use? Sometimes analysing a single word! But remember you are thinking of embarking on a dangerous path, were you might never see the end over the hill. You might end up like James, spending the last years of your life inserting and removing commas out of your pantheon (22 fiction novels) of work.
So what should you read: Read books that excite you first, if you aren’t getting excited you ain’t going to be a writer, or, you are going to have some very long frustrating days at your keyboard. Then read about the craft, this will inspire you to read the works you need to study. But ignore Francine Prose when she says, read The Corrections by Jonathon Franzen – your life is too short, believe me, and you might be so depressed by the end of the 2,000 pages, (that’s what it felt like anyway), it will put you off reading a book longer than 400 pages ever again in your life-time! I suspect Prose and Franzen are close friends, or he is holding her hostage in his basement? (The arts are subjective!) Once you have read some of the craft and lots of books, what are you waiting for; you are starting on the road to enlightenment and/or angst. Not until you start writing will you improve – remember you are aiming for a million words just as a start!! You will then realise about some of the intricacies that even the ‘craft sharers’ neglected, or thought too trivial to mention. Do I use a dash, comma, semicolon, hyphen or ellipses? Should I use “” or ‘’ speech marks for direct speech and vice versa for indirect speech? Or should I pretend to be Cormac McCarthy writing The Road and not bother? Etc, etc.
So just to recap: Don’t even think about wanting to be a fiction writer unless you are inspired, excited enough to give yourself a push, well read, understand some of ‘the craft’ and then dedicated to the point of OCD.
If someone asked you the question: How many books do you want to read? If the answer is not somewhere between hundreds and thousands – you ain’t got the fervour to be as good as you want to be.
Next week: Right here goes, in at the deep end. I’m going to write my novel. What should I do first?
Ian M Pindar’s latest books, under his real name are: ‘Hoofing It’ and ‘Hoofed,’ the first and second novels in The Robert Knight Series.