Four Ways For Writers To Read More Non-Fiction

This bridge shows off the latest Italian fashions for winter.

A shocking number of writers only read fiction. I ain’t judging; until a few years ago, I was among them. And even then, I tended to read within a few specific genres. Read what you want to write, right?

Wrong. And boring. Reading only what you want to write, whether it’s space opera, short stories, or Supernatural slash-fic, is too limiting. Read broadly. Read indiscriminately. Read like the book slut* you always wanted to be.

But it’s hard to get started with non-fiction. Especially if you go to the library or the book store or Amazon and see the endless, endless choices. So here are a few entrances to this new field. Explore at will.

1. Read about something you’re already interested in. Like historical fantasy? Have a go at reading about royalty, or technological achievements of that era, or the Big Gooey Plague That Melted Everyone. Or, if family dramas are more your thing, start reading some memoirs about people who lived with their real-life fucked up families. Bonus: this might help you write your book in that genre and not make it sound like everyone else’s. Also, you’ll finally learn what a lot of Victorian/Steampunk writers and their cover artists seem to forget, which is that corsets go on the inside.

2. Learn more about something odd. Remember the last time you saw a news story on something you thought was strange? Like the Large Hadron Collider, or the Tea Party movement, or yarn-bombing? See what you can find out about it. Maybe you’ll pick up a new interest. Maybe you’ll just expand your knowledge of the complete insanity that lives in our world. Either way, from a writing perspective: WIN.

3. Find a book one of your characters would read. This gets a little meta, but follow me: if you have a character who’s really, really into woodworking or wine or shibari-style bondage, you’ll be able to write them more effectively if you read something on it. And, once again, you never know: you might find yourself eyeing the rope section at the hardware store with more interest.**

4. BOOK ROULETTE. Pick a book at random on a topic you’ve never heard of and get cracking. Sounds insane, but I’ve done it and discovered some books that I otherwise never would have read. And because I’m a writer, no knowledge, no matter how esoteric, is ever wasted. Because who doesn’t want to write a bouncer/cage fighter with a serious knowledge of hand-made lace?

Now, go forth and read! And tell me: what’s the weirdest knowledge you’ve ever acquired?

*No book-slut shaming, either.

**But don’t. Go to a sex shop and get some bondage rope. Your skin—or your partner’s—will thank you.

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Vacation Home: Things I Learned Visiting Discworld

The Discworld, my brain's favourite vacation home, captured in all its glory by Paul Kidby.

The Discworld, my brain’s favourite vacation home, captured in all its glory by Paul Kidby.

I spent half of Thursday crying and the other half reading. Both because Terry Pratchett had just died.

It’s hard to explain why I was so upset by the death of a man whom I had never met. And now, never will. Part of it was that, probably: I will never be able to tell him how much those books meant to me. Something I’m sure he heard a thousand thousand times, but I like to think that no one really gets tired of hearing how they touched someone else’s life.

It was the stories, of course. And the characters. And the turns of phrase that stuck with me, year after year. I have all the Discworld books, and some of them have been read so many times that they’re falling apart, and need to be replaced. One, in fact, finally split on Thursday afternoon, after sixteen years of me reading it over and over.

Reading those books was—and is— fun. And reading has got to be entertaining, or what’s the point? But it wasn’t just fun that made me stick with them, or them with me.

Those books were, to paraphrase Tolkien, a light in dark places for me. They told me that being weird wasn’t just okay—the world is full of places and people who will tell you that being your weird self is ‘okay’, like you need their permission, and besides, ‘okay’ is the very fucking definition of mediocrity—but that being weird was awesome. It was something to be celebrated. And the people who didn’t understand that were probably Auditors* in disguise or something, so fuck those people.

The books told me that even things that hurt you can be laughed at. And should be.

They also told me that I wasn’t alone. That no matter how isolated or lonely I was—and there were long periods when I was both—that there were, somewhere, people who understood. One of them was this odd British man who wrote characters that felt like me, like someone had ripped out a piece of me and stuck them to a page**, but there must be others. I wasn’t sure how I would find them, but just the knowledge that they must be out there was enough to get me through. It meant that I wouldn’t always be alone.

That sort of thing means a lot when you’re sixteen.

And now I’m thirty-two. It’s been a lot of years since I first picked up a Pratchett book in the library—Lords and Ladies, if anyone’s wondering. But I’m still reading them, and now I read as a writer. And you know what? They’re still just as good. In fact, as a writer, now I can appreciate the economy of description and sharpness of observation that were among Pratchett’s hallmarks. I can see the humour and the anger.

I’m going to spend some of the next few weeks re-reading all my favourites from the series. And when I read about Death and his garden and the black desert, I’ll be thinking of Sir Terry.

Goodbye. I hope I can someday write something that touches someone half as much as your work did.

*The Discworld incarnation of rules and conformity, and exactly as boring as that sounds.

**Vimes and Susan in particular.

Monday Challenge: Playing Catch With The Dark Lord

If only it was this simple.

Last week, I read a kid’s book that was fun, interesting, and, strangely, morally challenging.

Not a usual description of a book meant for ages eight to twelve–and, let’s face it, not exactly a cover blurb that would appeal to the intended audience–but from the point of view of a well-read, slightly jaded adult, it made the book so much better. And, while they wouldn’t put it that way, I imagine it improves the story from a kid’s point of view, too. There’s so much in kid’s lit that’s safe and nice that it’s not a surprise more kids don’t read. If you think children can’t spot your condescension a mile off, you’re in for a very rude awakening.

Remember the stories you liked when you were a kid? Better yet, remember the ones you told yourself? How many of those were nice? I’m betting not a lot. Because kids, as a rule, aren’t nice. Not in the way that adults think of the word. They can be sweet and funny and amazing, but nice requires an emotional maturity that most kids don’t have yet. Developing that is part of becoming an adult.

Kids are like tiny barbarian warriors: everything they feel is bigger and stronger than adults, but there’s not a lot of subtlety. When they’re happy, it’s really fucking happy. When they’re sad, the world is ending. And when they’re angry…batten the fucking hatches, because a Category 3 Kid-icane is blowing through.

And all this stuff usually comes from the one kid.

The School For Good and Evil details a school where the descendants of fairy tale characters learn to be heroes and villains. Simple enough. But, because these are the children of famous characters, we see the stories from the other side. The Sheriff of Nottingham’s daughter whose dad was always away at work. The son of a slain werewolf, who’s just trying to make enough money to give his father a proper burial. The vain, greedy daughters of princesses who found their happy ending. The stupid, musclebound poser prince who was taught every day that looks and shoe size are the only things that matter when choosing a mate.

It’s a simple reminder: there’s more than one side to every story.

Monday Challenge time, children: write a popular story from the point of view of someone who cares for the antagonist. Everyone has someone: their parents, their children, their friends, that first grade teacher who still sees something worthwhile in them.

And maybe go read that book. It’s a good summer read, no matter how old you are.

Guest Post: Dreck Detector, Or How to Make a Reader Pick Your Book

Looking for those precious story nuggets.

[As a special feature for the time I’m on vacation, Bare Knuckle Writer is bringing you Guest Posts by random mental patients friends of mine. Be nice to them.]

Our illustrious leader is on vacation this week, so in addition to booby trapping her house and putting her cats on Kijiji,* I’m staging a hostile takeover of her blog. I need to preach at you conveniently assembled penmonkeys for a second.

You see, I’m not just a writer and a reviewer. I’m also a voracious book-eating tiger. I need a dozen a month just to survive. Dreck gives me acid reflux, so whenever I prowl the Goodreads giveaways I reject about a hundred books by new authors who made the same dumb mistakes as the last hundred. In the interests of improving my digestion and your bottom line, here is a list of things to do if you want me to eat read your book.

1. Name it something interesting.

Your title is your one chance to grab my attention. Don’t blow it by naming your book Nonspecific 2: The Broadening. Your title should also tell me about the tone and content of the story. Game of Thrones says ‘pseudomedieval political infighting’ while The Graveyard Book says ‘like The Jungle Book, but with dead things.’ Avoid all puns unless your book is funny.**

2. Don’t photoshop your own cover.***

I know ‘they’ say you should never judge a book by its cover, but ‘they’ are whiners who don’t want to put time and money into fixing crappy book covers. If you don’t care enough about your book to pay an artist with actual talent to design your cover, why should I believe you care enough to write it well?

3. Blurbs are where you tell me what happens.

Don’t ask questions. Don’t quote Amazon reviews. Boil the essentials down to a couple of sentences**** and TELL ME WHAT HAPPENS. If you can’t organize your thoughts well enough to write a coherent paragraph, I’m going to assume your scatty brain can’t possibly handle a whole book.

4. Proofread your Goodreads page.

Spellcheck does a lot of the legwork when it comes to fixing typos, but it won’t catch clumsy wording and it definitely won’t recode your HTML if you missed a bracket. So double-check that your finished page isn’t loaded with ampersands before you rely on it to make all your hopes and dreams come true.

5. Avoid pay-to-play publishers like the plague they are.

You want to self-publish? Great. Start your own publishing company. Give it a name. Hire an editor. Create a website. Register for an ISBN. Don’t just hand over your life savings to a vanity publisher, because in my world ‘Createspace’ means ‘no typos were harmed during the publishing of this novel.’

 

Katrina Nicholson is a writer, reviewer, and bareknuckle catsitter. She lives across the street at www.refrigeratorbox.org.

 

*For sale: one tangled furbeast, one Irish dunderhead, and a honey badger.

**Yes, even the really clever ones.

***Or draw it with pencil crayons, or hire your twelve-year-old nephew who’s ‘really good with computers’ to do it.

****Not a meandering 3,000 word essay. My attention span is not that lon–SQUIRREL!

Dissection and Digression: Reasons To Re-read

Harry Potter

Harry Potter and the Minifig Transformation was an ill-advised sequel. (Photo credit: Profound Whatever)

I finished a book the other day. Actually, I finished it again. I’ve read this particular book—Duma Key by Stephen King, if anyone’s interested—about half a dozen times over the last couple of years.

And it’s not the only one. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, It, the Harry Potter series, every goddamned Terry Pratchett novel under the sun…there are some pieces that I keep returning to.

Now, I could tell you that I do it because those books are ones I like, and I’m trying to figure out why. That is a part of it. When something makes me sit up and take notice, especially on a first reading, I tend to re-read it, just to figure out why. Why does this one make me feel…well, anything? After all, it’s all make-believe. It’s words on a page. So why did it make me laugh? Cry? Why did it make me angry? I’m always looking for the wires behind the smoke and mirrors. Looking for the structure and effort beneath the seamless glide of the prose. Like one of those smug assholes that exposes magic tricks, except hopefully less people want me dead.

Another reason is that re-reading good books makes them new again. You pick up on nuances you might not have on that first read, when you were too busy trying to figure it all out. You notice things, characters, plot threads, all of it. Maybe not on the second reading, but on the third, the fourth, the fifth. Get to half a dozen and you might really have an idea what it’s all about.

Those are two good reasons. They’re reasons that I can write about on this blog, where I offer my dubious advice. But, if you’ve ever re-read a book, then you know they’re not the only reasons. Or even the biggest ones.

Re-reading a book you love is like having a conversation with an old friend: comfortable, relaxing, and full of meaning. And inside jokes. Those are fucking everywhere. You can lose yourself in it, wander along those familiar paths, and still find something new.

It’s like putting on your most comfortable sweater and sinking in for an afternoon of relaxation.

In the end…it just feels good.

 

Sidebar: starting Friday and continuing for two weeks, the posts here may go up later than usual as I’ll be on vacation. But I’ll still be posting, so drop on by. Brave NaNoWriMo test monkeys, I’ll have some special posts just for you. And for those of us who prefer to watch the madness of the word-herders from the sidelines this year, I’ll have some for you, too. Stay tuned! November’s going to be awesome.)

Rewriting Classics, or Why I Will Be Murdered By Herman Melville’s Ghost

English: Illustration from an early edition of...

I’ve got your white whale right here. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, my friend Kat, who blog over here, was reading Fifty Shades of Grey* and texting me some of the more hilarious lines.** And she mentioned that a friend of hers had jokingly told her to write Fifty Shades of Dorian Grey as her next writing project.

…You probably see where this is going.

So, purely as a creative exercise, we began coming up with titles for erotic versions of classic novels. And now I’ve come up with plots for some of them. Again, purely creative.

Stop judging me.

So here’s the highlights (and maybe your new summer reading list):

Moby’s Dick: Captain Ahab realizes his obsession with the ‘white whale’ is just a Freudian misdirect to avoid dealing with his dual attraction to the wandering sailor Ishmael and the handsome harpooner Queequag.*** When the boat is far out to sea, he begins his ‘hunt’…

The Caning of the Shrew: When his attempt at courtship fails, Petruchio must find a new way to woo the bad-tempered dominatrix Katerina. An introduction to the world of BDSM gives him a new plan: become her latest sub.

The Gropes of Wrath: On the road to California, Tom Joad encounters a frisky parole officer bent on returning him to Oklahoma. His only way to remain with his family is to give the officer something else to chase.

She Poops to Conquer: A comedy of manners, as a young woman posing as a house maid discovers her lover’s scatological fetish while cleaning the bathrooms.

The Hos of Kilimanjaro: This collection of short stories details the adventures of a group of loose women, from the bored socialite on safari with ‘interesting’ people to the young woman who was a man’s first lover and “did first what no one ever did better”.

Think you can do better? Tell me in the comments. Or, better yet, write it. And then submit**** it to the same publishers that did Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Clearly there’s a market here. We just need to tap it.

*Don’t judge her. She’s a librarian, so technically she was reading it for work. Or so she tells me.
**Seriously, there’s a shitload. Don’t mistake me: I like erotica. Hell, I did my master’s thesis on it. But I like well-written erotica, and this ain’t it.
***Man the harpoons. If you know what I mean.
****I just cannot get my mind out of the gutter now.

Four Types of Books On Everyone’s Summer Reading List

"Study drawing shows the allegorical figu...

“God, I can’t believe I have 49 more shades of grey to get through. Maybe reading in the nude will make this seem like less of a piece of shit.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

When temperatures rise and the television becomes a hopeless vortex of reruns and boredom, people start turning to books again. Most people have a stack that they want to get done between the end of June and the beginning of September. Well, to help you get organized, here’s a list of the four most common specimens:

1. That Book You’ve Been Meaning To Read: Everyone’s got one. It can usually be identified by its presence on a bookshelf, covered in dust, but with a curiously pristine spine. No dog-eared pages, no coffee stains, no notes in the margins. Usually weighs more than the cat, or possibly two cats if you picked up this particular book in a lit class in university. You know it’ll be good for you to read it. Hell, it’s a fucking classic! People are probably judging you right now because you haven’t read it. You’ve just got to get around to it. And maybe stop using it to prop up your couch. Chances of completing: 1/6, unless Armageddon happens and there’s nothing else to do. Then 1.25/6.

2. That Book You Pretend You’re Not Reading: You’re so fucking embarrassed to be reading this one. Often sketchy, incredibly popular but also hated, this is the book you badmouth on the internet. But you heard so much about it that eventually your curiosity got the better of you and you started reading. You’d just die if anyone caught you reading this, which is why you either do it on an e-reader, so no one can see the cover, or in the privacy of your own home. In bed. Under the covers. With a flashlight. Chances of completing: 5/6, but you’ll develop a nervous twitch.

3. The Wild Card: It lured you in with its flashy cover and catchy title, and you added it to the stack. Now it’s time for it to prove what it’s made of or get the fuck out of Dodge. Chances of completing: Roll a dice. Take off two points if the protagonist has an endearingly obscure hobby (luthier, competitive origami, artisanal sex-swing constructor) or if the words ‘nuclear reactor’ are involved anywhere in the back cover copy. Add one if there’s lots of sex/violence/witty dialogue.

4. The Old Favourite: You’re read this book so many times it’s falling apart. Rounded corners, broken spine, herds of old book marks lost in the pages…but you love it anyway. Maybe the summer you first read it, you were having a good one. Or maybe it’s just a damn good book. Either way, when the mercury rises, you find yourself searching your shelf for it once again, thinking that maybe this is the year you finally update to a new copy, one that isn’t held together with a rubber band and a prayer. But you never do, until it finally gives up the ghost and drops into a watery grave in the kiddie pool. Farewell, old friend. Chances of reading: 6/6, and then you’re going to have to buy a new copy and give the old one a proper burial.