Books are Bad For You

It will probably not come as a surprise to anyone that I love reading books, and I know a lot of other people who also love reading books. Periodically, I see people sharing articles about how reading books is good for you. According to assorted studies, reading makes you smarter, healthier, and more empathetic.

Well. As a writer, I’m here to say, while I am obviously always in favour of more people reading more books, I don’t like these articles, and nor do I like the idea that reading is good for you.

These articles say that reading books (and it’s usually not just any books, it’s proper old-fashioned literary fiction, not those trashy thrillers and romances oh no) makes you a better person. But how many people have ever read one of these articles, thought, ‘Oh, in that case, I’d better go read some more books?’ and then immediately got stuck in to The Brothers Karamazov?

I don’t know, although I’m going to take a little bet that the number of such people is not substantially greater than zero. Because those articles aren’t aimed at, or read by, people who don’t read books. They are instead read by people who already read lots of books, and are probably already at least a little bit smug about it, who then think ‘Oh, if reading books makes you a better person, I must be an even betterer person than I previously thought!’ The whole thing smells of snobbery and smug self-congratulation.

Plus, even without the snobbery factor, talking about how books are good for you (especially, lbh, GCSE Eng-Lit type books) makes them sound like the boring stuff you don’t wanna do. Eat your vegetables! Drink some water! Read your Dickens! Do some exercise!

If you really want to get more people reading, I can’t help feeling that, instead of marketing books as the intellectual equivalent of steamed broccoli and 5-mile-runs, you should try pitching the illicit-pleasure angle (and not just for *that* type of books).

So, let’s bring back the moral panic of the 18th and 19th century: books are bad for you. They encourage you to sit indoors by yourself, isolated from family and friends and fresh air. They cause you to neglect your real-world duties. Many books contain dangerous ideas, and still more of them contain descriptions of disgusting depravities! Worst of all, they draw you in with their seductive tales of adventure and excitement, playing on your emotions and making you care about the fate of fictional characters as much as, or even more than, your actual life. They are, in short, a menace to public health and decency, and should be avoided at all costs.

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Goodness over Genius

Welcome to (probably) my last blog post of 2017. As we move into the dying days of the year, it seems to be the season of the sexual assault allegation. Many celebrities have fallen from grace as a result, and while I don’t know of any authors who’ve been caught up this time round, I’ve seen debate reignite online about the controversial behaviour and opinions of writers such as Marion Zimmer Bradley (child molester), HP Lovecraft (appalling racist), and Orson Scott Card (outspoken homophobe).

The debate is multi-layered, covering such questions as: Are reprehensible acts morally equivalent to repellent views? Do an author’s acts and/or views necessarily ‘bleed into’ their work or can you separate them? Does it make a difference if the author is long dead and no longer profiting from their work? Do you have a moral duty to avoid works by people you find unpalatable, or do you indeed have a duty to read the seminal works in your chosen genre however unpalatable you find the authors? Does being a genius mean you can transcend the normal bounds of human morality?

These aren’t questions I can answer. Everyone needs to make up their own mind whether or not they will read books by authors they personally dislike, and what – if anything – would cause them to make an exception.

But, for what it’s worth, here are my hot takes on the matter:
Firstly, being a good writer (or a good anything else) doesn’t exempt you from the requirement to be a good human. Nothing does. So far as I’m concerned, if you’re a garbage human, I don’t care how many awesome books you’ve written, you can go take a garbage scow out to the middle of the ocean and live on that giant island made of garbage.

Secondly, from what I can see, talent is cheap. There are hundreds – if not thousands – of unknown people out there who can write (or sing, or act, or play football, or whatever) just as well as the people who’ve become successful. They haven’t made it not because they’re not good enough, but because they were born in the wrong place, or time, or body, or because they’ve been discouraged by the actions of others. If all the talented-but-awful people were to disappear all of a sudden, then there are plenty of others waiting in the wings. I doubt we’d see much of a dip in quality, even a temporary one. We might even see an improvement if overbearing and/or predatory people were no longer in positions of influence, scaring off the good at heart. And I for one would rather we had art made by good people than by bad people.

Of course, maybe someone in the future will decide that they find me unpalatable and want to stay away anything I’ve had my hand in. Which, hey, will be fully within their rights as a reader.

Writing Mistakes

Writers are, contrary to what you may have heard, only human. As such, we make mistakes. I know I’ve made plenty, and I’m trying to learn from them so I won’t make the same ones again – instead, I’m progressing to exciting new mistakes.
In the hopes that some others may learn from my experience, here’s my personal selection of Writing Mistakes:

0) Not writing.
Writing is so fundamental to being a writer that it might sound stupid to even mention it. And yet. There have been times in my life when I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about writing, reading about writing, going to workshops about writing, but not actually writing. Needless to say, the only way to be a writer is to write. Which leads me on to…

1) Being too fussy about when you’ll write.
It’s great to sit down in your favourite spot at a convenient time, with a cup of your favourite beverage, feeling relaxed and inspired and ready to create. The only problem with this picture is that – as I’ve previously found – if you only ever write when time and circumstances and mood are all in perfect alignment, you tend not to write very much. Getting a serious amount done requires a more serious commitment, even if not everything is perfect. In fact, not having everything perfect can actually help avoid that constant curse of the writer, procrastination. If you don’t have much time or you don’t feel quite comfortable or you have a slight headache, that can help you focus on getting the most important stuff done as quickly as possible.

2) Having too many projects.
Starting a writing project is easy. Finishing it – once the first flush of happy inspiration has faded – is hard. There’s a temptation to put a project to one side, and start a new one. Now, having more than one thing on the go at once isn’t necessarily a problem – in fact it can be very helpful to keep thing fresh – but if you end up (like me a few years ago) with loads of first-chapters and no finished novels, then it might be time to focus on one thing until it’s done.

3) Taking too long on one project.
I’ve also made the opposite mistake: spending years perfecting one thing. A perfect novel is great, but if you’re at all interested in progressing as a writer, four not-quite perfect novels are much better. Like any other work of art, they are never quite finished: at some point, you simply need to stop working on them.

4) Not knowing anything about the marketplace
This was an interesting mistake, inasmuch as I made it consciously and deliberately because I wanted to concentrate purely on creativity until I’d finished my first novel. Which was fine, but combined with the other mistakes above, meant that it took me a very long time to get anywhere approaching a breakthrough.
If you’re writing purely for your own amusement, then it doesn’t matter how wacky and unsellable the results are. And if you’re too obsessed with trying to write ‘to the market’ then it’s likely your writing will lack originality and spark. However, if you want your writing to have a fighting chance of getting somewhere once you’ve finished it, it’s a good idea to have at least a vague idea of what the marketplace looks like and where your work might fit into it, before you get stuck in.

Does anyone have their own writing mistakes they’d like to share?

 

 

 

 

 

Nostalgia – it’s the same as it ever was

Hello! So it turns out that my little bundle of joy, due on 12th August, was impatient to enter the world, and arrived nearly two weeks ahead of schedule, on 31st July. He’s now five weeks old and I’m gradually adjusting to life as a mummy – ie learning how to do everything one-handed and getting by on far less sleep than before.

One question I’ve been asked by several people is: what books, films etc am I intending to foist upon my offspring? Surely, as a writer and avid consumer of media in various formats I have plans to indoctrinate him?  The answer I give is a surprise to many: I’m not actually planning to force-feed him my favourites. My intention is to try and let him discover his own favourites.Why? Well, because I’m not a big believer in nostalgia. Or rather, I’m a big believer in nostalgia the same way I’m a big believer in religion: I have observed its power to make people irrational. People like my father-in-law, who refuses to believe any good music was recorded after about 1974. I can’t agree with him there – I mean, I love Pink Floyd and the Beatles too, but I think later decades have much to offer as well. And let’s be honest, not every musician from the 60s was that great… Engelbert Humperdinck anyone? The Archies?

The world of science fiction and fantasy is far from immune to the nostalgia trap. A case in point: the best-selling book (and soon to be a movie) Ready Player One. Someone at my book club warned me off it, on the basis that I was too young to appreciate all the references to 80s geek culture. Heedless of the warning, I tried listening to the audio book (read by – who else? – Wil Wheaton) anyway. And guess what – it really didn’t do it for me. The litany of stuff from the 80s just left me cold, and let’s be honest, while some of that stuff has stood the test of time, other of it now feels dated and creaky (and no, I’m not going to start a pointless debate by specifying which stuff).

Here’s the thing about nostalgia: it warps your perceptions, making you think that the stuff from your own childhood and teenage years is the Greatest Stuff Ever when really it’s just what happened to influence you at a critical time in your own development. I don’t claim to be immune to it myself – so far as I’m concerned, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is and always will be the greatest TV show of all time. But that’s because it resonated with me as a teenage girl in the late 1990s. Bizarre time travel and sex-change accidents aside, my son is never going to be a teenage girl in the late 1990s, and so it’s unrealistic to expect him to appreciate Buffy in the same way I do. He’d probably just think the special effects are lame. And I can claim no video game can ever top Final Fantasy VII (oh those many hours spent getting a golden chocobo…) but the graphics won’t impress anyone these days.

The truth is, nostalgia is just the same as it ever was. Everyone has a special place in their heart for the things they discovered at a young age, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but that doesn’t mean those things are inherently better than more modern things. I hope I can remember that, and not mind when my son rejects Harry Potter in favour of a newer book series, and maybe even enjoy the new book series he introduces me to.

Write what you… no.

I’ve written here before about some of the bad advice writers often get given. Today, I’m going to talk in a little more depth about my least favourite piece of writing advice: ‘write what you know’. Which is, in my humble opinion, possibly the single worst thing you can say to an aspiring writer.

Why do I hate it so much?

I’m going to – ironically enough – answer that question by writing about what I know. When I was a young impressionable lass, trying to get started as a writer, I heard this little gem trotted out repeatedly by a bunch of people (who, in hindsight, didn’t really know what they were talking about). And I found it, quite simply, paralysing. Because I didn’t know anything. When you haven’t yet had the chance to accumulate much life experience or in-depth knowledge, being told to write what you know is the opposite of helpful. What I needed to hear instead was something along the lines of: write whatever comes into your head and have some fun with it.

It’s easy to say I should have disregarded this unhelpful advice and found my own path, and yet it was presented to me as such received wisdom that I largely internalised it, to the detriment of my inspiration and motivation. Even later on, once I had some experiences under my belt, I found writing things based on them difficult, and had little success. Partly, I think, it’s a personal thing: some people seem to thrive on more confessional forms of writing, while I just don’t.

While I certainly wouldn’t discourage anyone who wants to from using their own life as a source of ideas for creative writing (hey, whatever works for you), I also think there are some broader problems with the ‘write what you know’ mantra. For instance, there’s this brutal question: is your life interesting enough that anyone else would want to read about it? Or are your experiences actually very similar to a lot of other people’s experiences (ie the ones they read books to escape from)? While some authors do have the skill to spin the frustrations of everyday life into fictional gold, many don’t. And even if you do have exciting and unique experiences to write about, there’s another problem: what do you do once you’ve written about them? What comes next? For instance, I loved Caitlin Moran’s memoir How to Be a Woman, but then found her novel How to Build a Girl disappointingly similar (even the title is almost the same!), and I note she hasn’t followed it up with more novels.

There’s also the issue of the nature of real life: it rarely falls into neat character arcs and plot resolutions. Real people and situations tend to be far more messy and self-contradictory than those in fiction. I personally struggled to turn one into the other, or to get enough distance on my own feelings to write about them convincingly. In my case, it was only when I finally abandoned any attempt to write anything based in any way on reality, and plunged instead into the realms of fantasy fiction, that I set my creativity free and I wrote some stories I feel proud of. My current novel, In the Land Newly Risen from the Sea, features a cast of characters including: the captain of a sailing ship, a dragon, a transgender magician, a torturer, and a flying assassin. I have no idea what it’s like to be any of those things, but that doesn’t matter: I use my imagination. And, if need be, I do some research.

Which brings me round to how I think this zombie-like piece of writing ‘wisdom’ can be improved markedly: by flipping it. Instead of ‘write what you know’ try this: know what you write. Read extensively, soak up the world, keep an open mind, and if you don’t know something relevant to the tale you want to tell, find out. Most importantly, write what you know you want to write, not what you think you ought to write. I wish someone had told me that when I was younger.

Note: my little bundle of joy is due to arrive on the 12th of August, so I may not be updating this blog for a while, but I’ll be back as soon as I’ve mastered the skill of typing with one hand whilst feeding a baby with the other.

The Long Con

I’ve just returned from attending this year’s Science Fiction Convention, aka EasterCon, aka Innominate, in Birmingham. For the past few years I’ve been going to its Fantasy counterpart – held last September in Scarborough as recounted in this blog post, but this year I’m going to have my hands too full of newborn baby to attend, so off I went to EasterCon instead.

The Science Fiction convention has a few differences from the Fantasy version – it lasts a full three-and-a-half-days rather than just two for starters. It also has a more fannish feel, with many attendees in costume, and workshops on an assortment of crafts and LARP-related topics like hair braiding, lock picking, and martial arts. But in essence it’s much the same sort of thing – panels and workshops and meet-the-author sessions, not to mention plentiful opportunities to spend one’s hard-earned cash on books, art works, and assorted memorabilia.

The first time I went to broadly a similar event – the Swanwick writers’ summer school back in 2012 – I went to every session I could possibly get to, and soaked it all up like a thirsty sponge. These days, I have a lot more knowledge and experience of both the craft of writing and the business of publishing, and with several more conventions under my belt, I’ve come to realise something. No matter how much you think you know, you can never stop learning (unless you actually *want* to stagnate, of course!), but I find that a lot of the value of these events lies not just in the official sessions, but in the serendipity of socialising. Meeting new people, making new friends, catching up with old ones… call it ‘networking’ if you want, but it’s also a chance to learn, enjoy, and – hopefully – share the benefit of one’s own wisdom. This weekend, for example, I’ve learned some tips about how to decode publishers’ press releases, and how to kill a man with a blunt weapon. You never know when such knowledge might come in handy…

How to Read 100 Books in a Year

Some of you may recall that last year I had a New Year’s resolution to read at least 50 books, which half-way through the year I amended to 100 books. How did I do? Well, I had a bit of a shaky autumn, but with a concerted late-December push, I got myself over the finish line, and read exactly 100. And yes, I was sufficiently nerdy to keep a spreadsheet recording the details every single book I read. And I can remember enough about pivot tables from my time working in an office so that I can now play around with my own reading statistics, and tell you that, for example, my preferred format (with 58% of total titles) was the paperback, that my favourite genres were fantasy and science fiction, and that, as a result of making a concerted effort to catch up with contemporary writing, I read 68 books from the 2010s but a mere 8 from the entire 20th century (and 6 from the 19th century).

When I tell people about my reading achievement, I get reactions ranging from dismissal (’only 100 books? Easy!’) to disbelief. One common response is a slightly awestruck wistfulness: an ‘I wish I could read more books but…’
Well, if that applies to you, fear not! I am here to share with you my secrets, and get you past that but.

1) ‘I wish I could read more books, but I don’t know where to start.’

I confess this one is a novel (see what I did there?) problem for me, because I always have dozens of books I want to read. However, help is at hand. The simplest approach is just to ask friends and family for their recommendations, and there’s always the good old-fashioned try-asking-in-your-local-bookshop method, but these days there are all kinds of electronic resources as well, from Goodreads to Amazon algorithms to countless book bloggers. The main thing, I think, is to accept that tastes differ and you’re not always going to enjoy something, however highly it comes recommended. If that happens, don’t give up: try the next thing. Sooner or later you’ll find the book for you, and then you can read everything by that author, seek out things in that ‘if you like x, you’ll love y!’ category, and delve into the fanfic. Discovering stuff you might want to read has never been easier.

2) ‘I wish I could read more books, but they’re expensive!’

They can be. But if you want to read, there’s no need to shell out on a load of brand-new hardbacks. I’m consistently astonished by how few people make use of libraries – they have hundreds of books! And you can borrow any of them for free! It’s amazing! And I can’t speak for all library systems, but the one in Derbyshire is pretty good (for now, at least) at keeping stock up-to-date and arranging inter-library loans for the princely sum of 45p if the title you want isn’t available locally.
If e-books are your thing, I’ve heard about (but not tried myself) something called Bookbub, which sends you emails recommending cheap or free books. There’s also Kindle Unlimited, although I personally found their selection of titles didn’t match up to my reading interests. And, while genuine second-hand bookshops are a rarity these days, there are charity shops a-plenty, not to mention millions of second-hand books being sold online, many for 1p+p+p. Getting hold of cheap books has never been easier.

3) ‘I wish I could read more books, but I don’t have the time!’

This is by far the commonest reason I hear why people can’t read more. My invariable answer is: audiobooks. Listen on long drives. Listen while you cook dinner. Listen while you exercise. Audiobooks let you read while you do that other stuff that keeps you busy. They’re great, and these days thousands of them are available via your phone (I use Audible and I swear by it). It’s never been easier to find books to listen to. Another idea: if you can’t find the time to commit to a full novel, try short stories. You can get a complete narrative in just twenty minutes or so. Perfect for the time-strapped.

In summary, it’s never been easier to find books you’ll want to read, in the format you want, at a price you can afford. In theory, it’s never been easier to read. So why do so many people seem to struggle to consume as many books as they say they’d like to? Well, the answer is obvious: because it’s also never been easier to get distracted. Just as thousands upon thousands of great books are now readily available, so are games and movies and TV shows and YouTube videos and web forums and blogs and cute cat pictures and every other thing you can possibly think of (and an awful lot more you can’t think of and probably don’t want to). And I feel like, behind 90% of those ‘buts’, the real reason is that the person would rather spend their spare time watching Netflix or playing World of Warcraft. Which is fine – I’m not going to get snobby about different forms of entertainment – but I have to say, if you really really want to read more, there’s ultimately only one way to do it: you need to put down the Internet and pick up a book.