When I was in high school, my language class read a short story about a man who spent his life on the river. When he first started sailing as a boy, the river was magical. The eddies and sand banks… he didn’t understand them, but they called his attention and made him want to know more. As he grew older, he learned to understand the river. To know what caused the eddies and where the dangerous currents hid, and as he learned, the river lost its magic.
I can’t remember if the story ended with him seeing the magic of the river again in his old age or not, but the story stuck with me (even if the name of that story and the author did not). (Edit from comments: The story is “Two Ways of Seeing A River” by Mark Twain).
Writing (like any profession), has the same problem.
When I was younger, reading was magical. It still is, but when I was younger I could pick up most any book on a topic I liked and there was a good chance I would enjoy it, going through book upon book without a problem. However, as I became more fascinated with the art of actually writing these stories, I began to dissect them. I wanted to know how they worked. Why they worked.
Piece by piece, I figured them out. I read books on writing, blogs on writing. I joined internet forums dedicated to writing. Slowly, I puzzled out what worked and what didn’t, and why.
At first, those pieces were difficult to see. I knew a certain story worked for me, but others didn’t. It was difficult to see why. The first time I remember truly understanding an aspect of why a story worked was when I read Darth Bane: Path of Destruction by Drew Karpyshyn, and then Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson. I suddenly understood how to get in close to a character in third person and write from their point of view. I even wrote an alternate ending Star Wars fanfic based on this principle, and I’m still a teensy bit proud of it for that… even if it’s not my best work.
Later, when I read The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, a single line about the halo of mist around a streetlamp stood out to me, and when I read Rebekkah Ford’s Beyond the Eyes series and could actually smell the wet, autumn leaves in the forest, I began to see how zooming in on specific details could bring a story to life. I sought out more stories like these, stories which really brought out some aspect of writing to help me finally understand.
While working on Glitch (a Distant Horizon story with elements of horror), if I read a scene in a book that made me shiver, I reread that scene until I understood why. The example here is The Devouring by Simon Holt, in which one of the Devours has a deliciously creepy one-on-one conversation with the main character. Christine, by Steven King, helped me see the use of repetition of key, creepy phrases or scenes (the dream sequences). Pure by Julianna Baggott revealed the use of discordant imagery, beautifully described but terrifying in their own right.
Then there were books that taught me the value of relationships in stories. The Host, by Stephenie Meyer had me crying during a certain scene with the grandfather figure. It’s a rambunctiously wordy novel, but it’s good. The Girl with the Iron Touch has one of my favorite romances in a book, and I’m not really a romance reader. It revealed how to draw tension between the characters, and did a wonderful job distinguishing between sexual and romantic attraction, and utilizing both.
There are so many books that have been an influence on my writing, and they have all helped me to understand how a story works.
But recently, I’ve had a much harder time picking up a book and simply enjoying it. I used to spend hours in a book store poring over books and trying to decide which one to buy with my limited gift cards. Now? I go into a book store, hoping to find something, and often come out empty-handed and disappointed.
There’s a few possible reasons. One: I don’t have nearly as much free time for reading. I don’t feel as inclined to spend time reading a book unless it has something to do with what I’m currently writing. Two: (Something my husband pointed out) The topics I’m interested in might not be what the publishers are putting out right now.
For example, there was a period of time before The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins came out where I couldn’t find anything I wanted to read. This was the first time that happened and it was really, really discouraging. Then I found The Hunger Games in hardcover, and the concept intrigued me. I wanted to read it, but since I was limited on Barnes and Noble gift cards, and paperbacks were more sensible in terms of getting the most for my money, I didn’t pick it up.
Around a year later, I bought the paperback and loved it. I happily picked up the next two from the library. Later, I found a copy of Delirium by Lauren Oliver at Barnes and Noble, and while it didn’t seem like my thing (heavy romance), the premise intrigued me and the writing intrigued me, and I was hooked. I took a chance on the hardback and was glad I did.
Those kinds of finds are my favorites. The ones where you pick up a book at a bookstore and don’t want to put it down. But ever since I’ve put an emphasis on learning the writing craft, it’s been harder to find those books. I glance at a back cover blurb, and in what feels like just a couple seconds, without fully knowing what it’s about, I’ll put it back on the shelf. Books don’t catch my attention like they used to. Or maybe the book gets my attention and I slow down. I try reading the inside, but the writing style jars me and I just can’t convince myself that I’ll have enough patience to read through the whole book. The feeling is disappointing, especially given that the premise for that particular book sounded interesting and the characters were having a good conversation. The writing style just didn’t work for me. And the problem seemed to have been specifically within that book, because when I went and looked at Dust Lands: Raging Star by Moira Young, that book caught my attention. And the Dust Lands trilogy has a really interesting writing style. But the style of that series is so different that it didn’t push me away.
Problem Three: When I’m at a book store, I’m looking for something that I wouldn’t normally find. Something I don’t think the library currently has or could easily get. Which means that books that are popular and that I would love to read tend to get set aside. Now, if I really like them and I got a copy from the library, I might purchase my own copy later.
I admire the voracious readers who go through book after book and love them. Sometimes I feel like the man from the story who loved the river so much that he did everything he could to understand it, only to lose the magic because he understands it.
But at the same time, I don’t. Because some books still hook me from the start, drag me in unsuspecting, and take me for the whole wild ride.
I’m hoping the books I recently bought will do that… especially since I kept going back and forth in the YA section debating, “Do I risk buying that in hardback?”
“You know what? Yes, I think I do.”
I hope you enjoyed this post. 🙂 Do you ever have a hard time finding a book you want to read?
4 responses to “Thoughts on Writing – The Magic of Writing”
It’s obvious from your very well-written post that you’ve learned your craft well. Maybe I’m off the mark or just being cynical, or both, but possibly your issue with current novels is that, as a high-level book connoisseur, you’re (understandably) seeking fresh, amazingly written stories. But many publishers put out less “risky” books that they feel are in the zeitgeist of other hot commodities. Not that all current novels are derivative or even badly written –just that many of of the ones publishers risks on perhaps don’t necessarily have that “sizzle,” as Jane Friedman puts it. Because a novel that is truly fresh and different is just that, different. .I hope that makes sense.
That may be the case. Often it does feel like, at least upon looking at blurbs, that a lot of books sound very similar or are playing in the ‘safe’ zone. The funny thing is, I suspect that a lot of these books probably have -something- that makes them unique and worthwhile, but the blurbs aren’t doing them justice. Or I start reading them, and they take too long to truly grab my attention and show me what’s special about that story. Or it may be that, being aware of different writing conventions, that those conventions are more likely to stand out if they aren’t as skillfully rendered as another book I’ve read.
It’s like trying to go from watching the later seasons of Doctor Who, to the first season of Agents of SHIELD. Both are good series, but one well out performs the other (in my opinion). But the second season of SHIELD vastly improved on the first season, and it has me very interested in finding out what happens next. Which may be why I’ve gotten into the habit of picking up book two or three in a series. We’re already to the part of the story that’s unique. Or they’ve gotten past the initial difficulties and learned from the book before.
At the same time, though, I can read and enjoy certain books that feel entirely in the safe zone, especially if they happen to fall among certain tropes I enjoy. Especially if they have even one thing that stands out as special or puts an interesting spin on those tropes. Which is part of the reason that I suspect that the current trend may not be of my general interest. And it also clearly shows how different readers have different tastes… able to devour books in a single sitting that I look at and thinks sounds interesting, but I doubt I’ll ever read.
I just hope I can successfully weave together all these things I see in the books I love into my own writing. I guess we’ll see if I’m successful at that once I start releasing my more recent stories.
Thanks for commenting. 🙂
Are you referring to Twain’s Two Ways of Seeing a River?
Yes! Thank you, I looked up the one you mentioned, and that’s it. I updated the post to include the name. 🙂