I woke up this morning, reflecting on a common bit of writing advice that I received long ago - one which fits my approach to writing like a sweater that shrunk in the wash.
"If you're going to write genre fiction, you need to read as much of that genre as you can get your hands on."
I read very little fiction and almost zero fantasy. The last fantasy novel that I picked up was a well-worn paperback in my sophomore year in high school. My reading appetite leans almost exclusively to non-fiction and I'm much more likely to pick up a book on science or history than I am to browse the fiction best sellers list. When I do curl up with a novel, it's usually a fun and easy read (young adult literature is a secret passion of mine) or a literary classic (like Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima - my favorite book of all time.)
I understand the advice and the intent behind it. We all need perspective on our own writing, a mirror to look into to take measure of our abilities and decide, "What do I want to improve?" just like we look in a real world mirror and appraise the extra pounds we'd like to lose. While I prefer writing genre fiction (and Escaping Destiny is certainly epic fantasy), my novels can't be placed in a single box. The Awakening comes out in May and is best classified as a supernatural thriller. In November, I'm publishing a novel called Remembering Tomorrow that straddles the middle ground between contemporary fantasy and speculative fiction. If I don't read within the genre that I'm writing, where do I find my mirror?
Typically, I compare my writing against the reflection I see in music.
Songwriting is the perfect example of descriptive writing and pacing bundled into a three and a half minute package. We're told as writers that we need to "show instead of tell" and songwriters are faced with the same challenge.
For instance, the rap act, The Streets, paints an utterly heart-wrenching break-up scene in the song, "Dry Your Eyes."
She brings her hands up towards where my hands rested
She wraps her fingers 'round mine with the softness she's blessed with
She peels away my fingers, looks at me and then gestures
By pushin' my hand away to my chest, from hers
It's a song where the lyrics are stripped almost completely bare of "tell" and infused to overflowing with "show." What's more is that it's a brilliant example of balancing action with dialogue to show the competing emotional dynamics between two people.
Ani Difranco's track, "Shy" from her album, "Not a Pretty Girl," uses masterful snippets of lyrics to tell a story. My favorite is the following sample...
The door opens, the room winces
The housekeeper comes in without a warning
And I squint at the muscular motel light
And say, "Hey, good morning"
As she jumps her keys jingle
And she leaves as quickly as she came in
And I roll over and taste the pillow with my grin
The old saying is that a picture is worth a thousand words. When we use a phrase like, "And I roll over and taste the pillow with my grin," we paint with words, offering that picture to the reader's imagination and allow them to fill in the white spaces on the page.
What's more is that a well-written song provides us a mirror for our pacing. Lyrics build to a certain point and then shift to the chorus. That chorus either emphasizes what has been building to that point or it offers us a countering emotion or concept. As authors, our books do the same thing. The novels that we enjoy reading are well-paced with the same push and pull that happens between lyrics and chorus in a finely crafted song. Each of us has opened a book that we simply couldn't get into - or one that seemed to drag on and on, the author expanding upon each scene until we found ourselves skimming passages to get to something new. Songs don't have that luxury. With few exceptions, they run less than four minutes. They move; they flow; they paint a story as simply and vividly as possible. By their very nature, they present us with countless examples of pacing and descriptive language.
While it's valuable for an author to read extensively - whether it's within their chosen genre or elsewhere in the literary landscape - there are countless other sources to turn to in order to compare and contrast our writing. While I enjoy a good book, I'm consistently inspired by music - and I'm forever grateful that music's inspiration also provides me with a mirror for my own novels.