Books. Such inconspicuous little objects. Tight bundles of paper with some squiggles inside, yet they contain a charge of energy greater than that of a bomb. They can change your perception of the world, they can change your life. I have had several moments like this, and you've been collectively hounding me to blog about them. This will be the post about what I read, how I read, how reading influences me, how I choose books to read, and several examples of how specific books have taught me specific things about writing. Because that is what reading is, the study of writing. You peel apart the craft by seeing how others did it, and then you apply it in your own writing and try out new things to see if they would stick.
My writing career got kicked off by the curious phenomenon of a certain vampire book that has swept the minds of teenagers (and lonely 40-something women, as I hear) into the gutter of an idealized pastoral picture of the perfect relationship—which, by the way, smells so much of patriarchy that it makes me want to puke—and kept them there for four books and then four movies and then a town that was taken by the storm of fans and unexpectedly gained proceeds from selling various useless knick knacks and saying thanks to the rain gods. Or not. I'm speaking of Twilight.
There was (and still is) a lot of bad rep about the Twilight books and their success, lots of exclamations of worry for those feeble minds that fell prey to the silly vampire passions. How do we love to judge. To state opinions. Hey, I was a lonely dissatisfied wife back when Twilight landed in my lap. I asked my daughter to recommend something light to read, some simple fiction. She handed me the book. I devoured it in one sitting, looking up bleary eyed at around four in the morning. I read the rest of the books and decided that there is something missing from my life. Passion. Passionate love. Passionate bloody wet grunting slobbering...but I should stop. Due to my past I have been avoiding sex like the plague. My marriage slowly slid into the routine of, the less you touch me, the better. Twilight, with its idealistic "white and stiff as a marble" phallic symbol (the vampire guy, Edward) and its hot dark sweaty primal "big fat" cock image (the guy who turns into a wolf, Jacob) and a confused maiden torn between the two made me really horny. The secret was in the sauce, not in the pudding. As I'm writing this, I tried reading the beginning of Twilight, and I can't anymore. I'm not in that stage of my life. I don't need a knight on a white steed (with a hard white member) to save me from forced chastity. I have plenty of sex, so I no longer need to substitute it with stories.
Female sexuality is suppressed in our society, had been, for centuries, ever since the advent of our settling about 10,000 years ago. There wasn't enough green turf for every tribe, or maybe we have grown lazy. Women's libido is stronger than that of men, that is one of the reasons it takes us longer to come to an orgasm. A guy just sticks it in and is done fairly quickly (no offense, guys, we love the whole sticking-in thing), while a woman needs multiple partners to rouse her to the peak. That is how it used to be, before we started selecting only one partner, but this is a whole another blog post. In the meantime, due to the fact that we have settled, we started owning things. To confirm paternity men owned women and children, then religion was born, and now we have what we have, Fifty Shades of Grey exploding because whole cavalcades of unsatisfied and frustrated women flee to these books to seek some kind of a relief. And men, I suppose, but not in such great numbers. Would love to see a statistic somewhere on the gender breakdown of Twilight readers.
That is why I detest the degrading down-putting criticism these types of books suffer. They might not be written in a convoluted complex English some prudes deem worthy of literature, but they are written in an accessible language that gives emotional release to those who need it. This is how Twilight released me. I thought, I want this. Then I thought, I have stories of my own, I want to tell them too. Hey, I thought, if she can do it, I can do it. And I set out to write the very first draft of Siren Suicides.
This was how Twilight affected me and influenced my writing. I don't even remember now how it was written, or any particular style choices it presented, or its vocabulary. None of it. I only remember that it filled me with the drive to share my story.
Fast forward a couple years.
I have a very specific reading list. It's geared toward what I write, and it covers all those English and American classics you have read and I haven't, either because they were never translated into Russian, or they were, but I haven't read the original, like LOTR. It also covers anything that inspires me to write a particular book. For example, I am writing The Badlings for the very selfish reason of wanting to hop across the books I have read as a child. Hence, those very books are on my reading list, like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and LOTR and The Snow Queen and more. Other books I choose by the mood. The Badlings is a funny book, a parody, so I'm reading lots of Terry Pratchett and Roald Dahl and Lemony Snicket (dark fun). Here are a few of them and the lessons I took away.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS by J.R.R. Tolkien
The compactness and intensity of Tolkien's descriptions have taught me how to squeeze an exorbitant amount of information into a couple sentences. A part of description of Minas Tirith:
"...the Great Gate in the City Wall was at the east point of the circuit, but the next faced half south, and the third half north, and so to and fro upwards; so that the paved way that climbed towards the Citadel turned first this way and then that across the hill. And each time that it passed the line of the Great Gate in went through an arched tunnel, piercing a vast pier of rock whose huge out-thrust bulk divided in two all the circles of the City save the first. For partly in the primeval shaping of the hill, partly by the mighty craft and labor of old, there stood up from the rear of the wide court behind the Gate a towering bastion of stone, its edge sharp as a ship-keel facing east."
Whoa. An entire architecture of the city is here.
THE JUNGLE BOOK by Rudyard Kipling
Kipling has shown me quiet humor. I'm always worried whether or not my writing is funny enough, and he is a master of saying it in such a way that makes you snigger and remember it.
"So Mowgli went away and hunted with the four cubs in the jungle from that day on. But he was not always alone, because years afterward he became a man and married. But that is a story for grown-ups."
He is gentle, and I am learning to be gentle.
MOOMIN books by Tove Jansson
They have taught me two things: brilliant characterization and plotting (I even blogged about it). Could you have introduced a character any better?
"The Hemulen woke up slowly and recognized himself and wished he had been someone he didn't know. He felt even tireder than when he went to bed, and here it was—another day which would go on until evening and then there would be another one and another one which would be the same as all days are when they are lived by a hemulen."
They have also shown me that's okay to concentrate on details. I tend to be ashamed of the fact that I notice things other people don't. It was a cause of pain in my childhood. Now I realize it's a gift. You could've just said, it's was wonderful to roll stones, to hear them tumble and splash, but no, Tove goes further:
"It was wonderful to roll stones, first pushing with all one's might, then feeling them beginning to move just a little at first—then a little more—and then giving way and rolling into the sea with a colossal splash, leaving one standing there trembling with effort and pride."
Bam! Emotional. Tingling (it made me tingle). Beautiful.
ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND by Lewis Carroll
I often want to write about the mumbo-jumbo potpurri of chaotic speech that issues forth from an excited crowd, all those bits and pieces of dialogue, and I would restrain myself in fear of it stretching too long down the page. And look how Lewis does it:
"Where's the other ladder?—Why, I hadn't to bring but one; Bill's got the other—Bill! fetch it here, lad!—Here, put 'em up at this corner—No, tie 'em together first—they don't reach half high enough yet—Oh! they'll do well enough; don't be particular—Here, Bill! catch hold of this rope—Will the roof bear?—Mind that loose slate—Oh, it's coming down! Heads below!' (a loud crash)—'Now, who did that?—It was Bill, I fancy—Who's to go down the chimney?—Nay, I shan't! You do it!—That I won't, then!—Bill's to go down—Here, Bill! the master says you're to go down the chimney!"
I will do the same. Also, I have gotten less afraid of including side-stepping passages in parenthesis (like this one) and addressing the reader—Hello, you!—and using the dash—quite—often. And, in general, be okay with writing glorious nonsense.
A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS by Lemony Snicket
His quiet ruminations on life allowed me to do the same. I wanted to, in the second draft of The Badlings, but instead included quotes, thinking that my stuff was not as interesting as that of others. Wrong. Lemony defines words or concepts in his own way, and that gave me freedom to do the same. Here is one, on miracles.
“Miracles are like meatballs, because nobody can exactly agree on what they are made of, where they come from, or how often they should appear.”
DISCWORLD by Terry Pratchett
Okay, Terry is the king of similes, metaphors, and personalizations. They are deceptively simple, yet pack a twist of stomach-punching humor that will leave you in fits. I laugh so hard reading his books, I often have to pause and take a breath between pages. A couple gems for you.
The perfect simile (who would ever think to compare cats to frogs?):
“If cats looked like frogs we'd realize what nasty, cruel little bastards they are. Style. That's what people remember.”
The perfect metaphor (and look how few words he needs to say this):
“Time is a drug. Too much of it kills you.”
The perfect personification. (Don't you love this rivalry? What could be more hilarious? Light is wrong??):
“Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.”
THE MAGUS by John Fowles
Apart from fantastic writing style, this book has opened my eyes on the plotting structure that gets peeled like an onion. WARNING: Spoilers are coming. First we think the apparitions on the Greek island a young man visits are ghosts, then actors, then psychologists, then cult members, then scam artists, and finally immigrants. I am generalizing, it's much more complex, but I saw it clearly. I never got a clear picture of what plotting is from reading books on how to develop plots.
I can go on with this list, but then this post will stretch into infinity. Other notable books that have impacted me recently are Of Mice and Men, Holes, Watership Down, The Catcher in the Rye, Matilda, Flowers for Algernon, Boy Meets Boy, The Girl on the Fridge, The Book Thief, The Road, The Color Purple.
I have already lined up books to read for my next novels, based on the mood and the style of writing and the stories. I give each book a chance of one evening. If after 20 or so pages I am not into it or it seems not in tune with what I want to accomplish, I set it aside. Today I had to set aside Wolf in White Van. It is superb, the writing is magical and creepy, but the topic (a young disfigured man orchestrates a dark game through the mail) is not quite what I want to read about at the moment. I will probably read it in the future, but today I set it aside.
Okay, the lists.
BOOKS FOR THE BADLINGS
The Name of This Book Is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch
Everything is Perfect When You're a Liar by Kelly Oxford
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Price and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith
Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh
A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore
The Princess Bride by William Goldman
BOOKS FOR TUBE
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
The Lost Domain by Alain-Fournier
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Dune by Frank Herbert
Unspeakable Things by Laurie Penny
A Mountain of Crumbs by Elena Gorokhova
Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya
Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
BOOKS FOR JANNA
Misery by Stephen King
Jaws by Peter Benchley
A Child Called “It” by Dave Pelter
An Untamed State by Roxanne Gay
On Killing by Col. Dave Grossman
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride
Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom by Marquis de Sade
You can browse my full list on Goodreads, if you want. The lists above constantly change and grow, and some new books might interrupt them, but in general I create an atmosphere for a particular book: a special Pandora radio station with music to listen to, special books, special movies to watch (I do this rarely). I maintain a rigid schedule or writing and reading every day, so I'm learning heaps of stuff. Does reading affect my writing? You bet it does. It teaches me, and it forces me to grow faster as a writer.