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.

Betrayals and Broken Promises: The Importance of the Ending

Too much?

It happened again.

I was enjoying a story and then the ending just…well, ‘disappointing’ might be the kindest description.*

It wasn’t that it was sad. I’m not a huge fan of stories mired in misery, but a tragic ending that fits the story is a great one. Some of the best things I’ve read have ended in tragedy. And, importantly, tragedy that I didn’t see coming during the story. But when it happened, it fit. It might have broken the tangle of baling wire and coyote teeth I call a heart, but at least it was broken for a reason.

This, however, was tragedy without purpose. It didn’t fit the story; in fact, one part was at best a cheap ploy to illicit FEELS, and at worst a betrayal of the characters.

So. Yeah. Not a fan.

I know not everyone feels this way, but here’s how it is for me: an unsatisfactory ending–either happy or sad–ruins an otherwise good story. You can create the best thing in the world, but if you fail to keep whatever promises you made in the course of it, then we’re going to have a problem.

It’s not about twist endings, either, because some of those have been my favourites. But, again, it has to be a twist that serves the story. Not one that’s an author’s attempt to shock just because.

As with all my advice, your mileage may vary. For you, endings might be less important than the journey it took to get there. I understand that, and the story that ended so poorly recently had many great parts leading up to that shit show. That might be enough for you.

But if I was going to offer advice to writers, it would be this: keep your promises, or don’t make them in the first place. Because an unsatisfactory ending is a betrayal of the audience’s faith, and a betrayed audience stops reading your stuff.

Stick the landing or don’t bother to show up.

*The unkindest was probably heard by all my neighbours. Screw that, they probably heard it on the ISS.

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!

Monday Challenge: All Of The Feels

Vulcan (Star Trek)

Live long and practice Kolinahr. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The greatest and shittiest aspects of fiction are the same: it makes us feel.

This is not me going Mr. Spock and wanting to deny all emotion. I merely point out that fiction, done right, can make us feel real things for people or things that don’t exist and never existed. It’s a neat piece of magic, when you think about it. And powerful.

The good parts can let us share in the triumphs of imaginary people. Their wins become our wins. And we want them so badly to win.

The bad parts make us feel all the downfalls of those same characters. Their losses, their moments of stupidity or cowardice, their mistakes.

That’s the goal of most fiction, I think: to create empathy. Maybe because we enjoy a character, or maybe because their experience is a little too close to our own. Or maybe just because it pushes the right buttons. Either way, we feel for those people that never existed.

Get out your notebooks and pencils, you little word-goblins, because you’ve got homework. This week’s Monday Challenge: write something that makes you feel for a character. It can make you feel good or bad, lift you up or crush you underneath an unrelenting fictional boot. Just find something that makes you feel something real.

Because if you can’t do it to yourself, you’ll never be able to do it to your readers.

Out. *Drops the mike, leaves the stage*

On Book Promiscuity

English: Blotter

And that was how I learned if someone offers you a sticker for your tongue, say no. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve always been a reader. I was that kid who would figure out the number of books I was allowed to take out, and then choose books long enough to get me through the week before I could come to the library again. Although, to be fair, it was rarely a week. My parents were quite willing to encourage me in this kind of prolific reading. They didn’t even vet my choices or prohibit certain things*, reasoning that whatever I read was probably still better than getting involved with ‘The Drugs’ that haunted the school of every child of the eighties.**

So I read everything. Mysteries, horror, LGTBQ literary fiction, god-awful drugstore romance, non-fiction about dying in the Arctic…everything. Reading was my favourite thing to do, especially during classes when I couldn’t be bothered to pay attention.***

But when I went to university and generally became a Busy Adult, reading was the first thing to fall off the List of Things To Do. Not because I didn’t still enjoy it, but because it was the easiest thing to cut. Besides, I was focusing on writing, which can eat a lot of time. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t reading as much, because I was focusing on making my own stories. So I let the reading lapse.

And then I was surprised when the writing became harder.

There’s all kinds of reasons, from learning mechanics to finding inspiration and blah blah blah, but here’s how I think of it: I have a Word Tank. That’s where the writing comes from. But it also needs to be filled. To fill it, I need to consume other people’s words: books, articles, hell, even movies and TV and video games. If I go too long without filling up, I’m coasting on fumes and nothing works the way it should. Simple, right?

Every now and then I meet people who want to write but never read. Odd cats, those. One once told me that they didn’t read out of some fear that they’ll copy an idea or a voice or something. In the circumstances, this is like wanting to learn to cook but never eating, because you don’t want to know what other people’s food tastes like. And, having read a few pieces by these people, by the Lord of Undying Fuck, can you ever tell they don’t read.

I’m happy to say that I’ve made more time for reading the last few years—ten books in the last month, woot!—and it’s paid off. The words come easier and flow smoother. You know, most of the time. And I’ve read some great books that I otherwise might have never seen.

So, writers, do yourself a favour: read more. Read everything. Fill the Word Tank. You might be surprised at the dividends.

*Which is how I came to be reading Anais Nin at fifteen. Talk about your eye openers.
**What were these? Does anyone know? All I remember is a lot of vague lectures about the Dangers of The Drugs. And that one cop who showed us what LSD looked like.
***To date, I’m the only person I know who has ever gotten detention for, and here I quote the notification that got sent home to my parents, “reading too much”.

Entertain Me: Thoughts on the First Person POV

Sherlock Holmes in "The Adventures of She...

You’re a jerk, Holmes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been reading a lot of first person stories lately,. No reason. Just worked out that way with my to-read list. But it did make me think, so here are my entirely unsolicited thoughts on the first person narrative:

1) The narrator has to sound interesting. Not just be interesting. Lots of characters are interesting but that doesn’t mean they’ll make a good narrator. There needs to be a distinctive voice, a manner of speaking* that draws in the reader. Something I’ve noticed: characters that are a little bit cocky make good narrators, at least for me. Especially if they have a sense of humour. But then I don’t like misery memoirs, so I’m not that interested in listening to some sad bastard go on about their life. It’s among the many reasons I never became a therapist.

2) It has to be the right narrator. First person is automatically limiting. The reader can only see what that person sees. Which is why it’s really fucking annoying when a first person story is solved by someone else at some time when the narrator is not present. All you get then is a recap. And I’m left thinking, “Why the hell are we following the story from inside this fucker’s head? Clearly that guy has more of an impact.” It’s like watching a concert from seats behind a pillar. If you had the chance, why the hell wouldn’t you move to another vantage point?

3) The narrator has to be active. They have to have some fucking impact on the story. Otherwise, why bother with their point of view?
However, they don’t have to be the mover. Sometimes the sidekick, like Watson from Sherlock Holmes, works even better than the main character as narrator because the main character is kind of a dick. Or just a character it’s more fun to watch than to understand.

4) They don’t have to be honest. Ambiguity can be good, whether it’s deliberate lying or just faulty memory. The narrator for Stephen King’s Duma Key states that “when it come to the past, we all stack the deck.” So while his story is a good one, there is room for doubt. For the possibility that he is remembering things differently than they happened.

5) But I shouldn’t want them to die in a fire. A narrator that I actively hate? Not a good read. I should not be rooting for the aliens coming down the hall to pull his guts out through his nose. They don’t have to be a prince among narrators, but they shouldn’t be obviously despicable. Or, if they are, they should save that reveal for the end.

That’s what I’ve got so far about first person. What’s your point of view? Do you like first person? Hate it? Tell  me your thoughts so that I may consume them and steal your powers for my own get a new perspective.

*Or thinking or whatever it is that first person narrators are doing. Sometimes it’s clear—Dolores Claiborne is very clearly speaking to someone—but other times it’s not.