I keep writing posts about writing, but reading is a huge part of writing, and something hit me yesterday as I started reading THE STAND by Stephen King. There are books that inspire you to write, period. This is not to say that there are books that don't inspire you to write for some reason. Every single book you read, whether you like it or not, is a learning experience. You can always pick up things, like how to write, or how not to write, and both are valuable. But there is something about some of them that speaks to you as a writer on a completely different level, and that is why we keep coming back to those authors again, and again, and again. They hold our hand and tell us it's okay to write, in fact, they say, yes, you can. Stephen King is one of those authors for me. It doesn't matter what I read by him, I get giddy like a little girl and I can't actually read him without interruptions because I want to jump up every 5 minutes and check my current manuscript, Oh, how did he say this thing again? And how did I say this thing? Oh, I can say this thing like this? Oh, I didn't know I can! And so on. After only writing (and reading) full time for a little less than 2 years, I now firmly believe that to be a successful writer, and by successful I mean to have a readership large enough to sustain you as a writer financially, you have to read only those kinds of books, until you develop enough of a stamina and belief in yourself to know who you are. I'm nowhere near that point, I'm very green. In a sense, I consider myself as a 2 year old (as a writer) and as a 16 year old (as an American writer) because I started learning English 16 years ago when I came to US from Russia, and I have a long way ahead of me to master the language. But let's pull this phenomenon apart and see what is it that makes you want to write, that magic stuff that you read in those special books.Read More
No, I'm not in absolute love with my writing, if that's what you're thinking, and that's exactly why I wanted to write this post, because of daily struggle with the voice shouting in my head YOUR WRITING SUCKS YOUR WRITING IS NOT GOOD ENOUGH. It gets the better of me sometimes, and I'm sure it does the same to you. Lately, though, while writing IRKADURA, I started feeling a little better. Like, for example, when I'm asked to read my work out loud, and when I'm reading from SIREN SUICIDES, I often cringe, wanting it to be better. Now, when I recently read an excerpt from ROSEHEAD in front of folks at a book fair, I felt better. I was astounded, I actually didn't cringe as much. I'm reading what I wrote from IRKADURA every night to my boyfriend (we switched the routine, it used to be him reading to me, but this book has many Russian words on which he stumbles) and, guess what, I'm starting to like it. Seriously, I'm starting to like the way it sounds. I hope maybe on my 10th book I'll like my writing even more. But before I go deeper into this topic, let me post a quote by Ira Glass, the quote that actually my darling daughter sent me, several years ago, when I was starting to write, and it saved me from quitting many times.
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it's normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” ― Ira Glass
Write the first thing that comes to mind, EVEN IF YOU HATE IT. All right. I haven't written 20 books yet, or even 10, to be looking important enough to give you this advice, but I'm on my 3rd, and damn, it's so much easier now. So here is the deal. Many people are asking me how to start. Like, how to decide what to write about, how to even put down this first sentence, how to choose between the ideas that come to their heads, and so on. The answer is very simple, and it came to me recently. Just write the first thing that pops in your brain, like, literally, the stupidest craziest line you think it is, write it down. The thing with writing is, it's like pulling a string of pearls out of a pile of shit, pardon the analogy. But you have to have a pile of shit first, to rummage in. So you dump stuff. You dump it and you dump it and you dump it, and you keep dumping, meaning, you keep writing every day, every single day, even if it's a little bit. No matter. Keep at it. You will eventually break into the real story you're trying to tell, but it will take a while at first, because you have no training to separate the real from fake. There will be a lot of fake stuff, out of fear. It will sound too immature, too stupid to you, too whatever... insert your favorite reason here. DO NOT LET IT STOP YOU. Remember, you will rewrite this later in subsequent drafts, so don't worry about your first draft being not perfect.
Finish your story, EVEN IF YOU HATE IT. This is an order. Like, I will find out where you live and come with a trained hippo to your door and make that hippo open its maw and scare you shitless and bite you. Many beginning writers get stuck in rewriting. They keep trying to make their story better, and it might take them months, years, decades. Yes, somebody wrote to me once that it took that person 12 years or so to their first story. Please, don't do that. You have to write your story, finish it, and move on. Your next story will be better, your next one will be even better, and so on. Why do you have to move on? Because you need to break out of the style and the characters and the flow you put yourself in. Once you get the ideas down on paper, they take on a certain shape, your characters start doing certain things, saying certain things. Sometimes it's impossible to make them change no matter how many times you try to rewrite your story. Don't. Write it to the very end, to what feels like an end, and start another one. You will write it differently, trust me, because you have learned something new. And that's the deal with writing many books, it will allow you to grow and to start seeing that string of pearls in a pile of shit.
Read like crazy and finish reading every book, EVEN IF YOU HATE IT. In case you forgot, reading should be as much of your daily writing routine as writing is. You have to read a lot and write a lot, to make it as a writer. Reading helps you learn, you can see how others are doing it, you soak it up, and your next book you try new things, either picked up from the books you read, or inspired by them, or being influenced by them. Whatever it is, it's all good stuff. But, here is the deal. Make sure you finish reading every book you pick up, because you will learn from it as a whole. How did they start it? How did they end? What feeling did you get out of the whole thing? How do you usually start your novels? How do you usually end them? Reading whole books helps you seeing whole stories in your head, and it's only by seeing complete stories that you would be able to hold whole stories in your head while writing, no matter how much plotting and planning you do.
Really, the only thing I want to leave you with is this. WRITE A LOT. Write, write, write. Write through bad days, write through good days, write through days you're sick, keep writing. Ira Glass says to set a goal of writing a story a week. Awesome, do that, if you want. I have a different goal that I picked up from Stephen King's ON WRITING. I don't let myself out of my writing cave until I write at least 2,000 words. Often I write more, of course, because I get carried away. So, pick a target, and stick with it. Happy writing. xoxo
I've been asked to blog more about reading but have been blissfully ignoring this request, and I don't know for what reason. But I must blog about it because reading is such an integral part of writing, that without reading writing is more of a limping thing that can live but will eventually fall apart, if not mended by the imagination and style of others. Precisely why I'm writing this right now is due to the inspiration I got from rereading THE HOBBIT. The 2nd movie is coming out next week, as you all know, and I thought it would be a good idea for me to reread the book, because the last time I read it, it was in Russian. Of course, my goal after THE HOBBIT is to reread the whole LOTR (never read it in English, yeah, I know). But I'm getting ahead of myself. The blog post. About reading. So. You must read as much and as wide and as diverse as you possibly can. Here is why (it just struck me like lightning, so it will totally strike you too).
Throw all rules out the window. I'm tearing my hair out here right now, because presently I'm finishing 3rd draft of ROSEHEAD, and I happened to have stumbled on certain writing rules in my time, from reading books on writing (I don't read them anymore and suggest you don't either, unless you have a thick skin and can withstand the advice without changing who you are as a writer) and have picked up a few things that writers are not supposed to do. You know. Don't use passive verbs. No such things as "was" or "be" or "is" or any of that. No-no-no. And don't you dare using exclamation marks aplenty. Your editor will laugh at you, and your editor will edit them all out. It's bad prose to end your sentences with !!!! Bad, bad prose!!!!! Anyway. Okay. As a beginning writer I took it all to heart. So in my 3rd draft I ruthlessly cut all those things out. And now I'm reading THE HOBBIT. And you know what? There are "was" and "is" and "were" and !!!!! aplenty! And there are repetitions aplenty! Like using the word "aplenty" in one sentence and then immediatelly in the next! Oh, and there are adverbs! And adjectives! And plenty of descriptions! Yes, plenty (want me to say aplenty again?)! So I sat and grabbed my head and thought, well, shit. I wish I reread it earlier. Seriously. The story reads very well, with all those "was" and ! and whatnot. So, ignore the rules. I mean, just focus on telling the story. But you won't be able to do this, unless you read a lot and see others ignore the rules. I suppose you first have to know the rules, to ignore them. Anyway... What I mean by ignoring the rules is:
Say it as yourself. This is another thing you will pick up from reading a lot. Every writer has their own way of saying things. Yes, some writing rules are universal, but we all are different, and our writing reflects that. My favorite example to illustrate this would be Neil Gaiman. When you read his books, there is a certain slow quietness about them. The story pulls you in gradually and invisibly almost, to the point when you can't remember how you got it, but by then you don't want to get out. Now, go on YouTube and watch any of the videos of Neil talking. Here is one. See how his speech is slow and deliberate, how he takes his time to think? Same with writing. When you write, you write the way you speak, the way you would say it yourself. But you don't get this feeling and don't start applying it to your own writing (at least I know I didn't) until you have read a lot and have sensed a lot of it from others. Every time I pick up a book by a new author, I'm either immediately drawn into the book or not, not because I like or don't like the style or the story, none of that. It's because I feel or don't feel the voice of the author right away. If I feel it, I believe it, I'm curious, and I want to know more. If I don't feel it, well, I put the book aside.
Read to build confidence. Sure, writing more will make you feel more confident in your writing abilities. But reading builds confidence in your writing on a completely different level. When you read a book that's been published and successful, and you see similarities to your own way of saying things, it gives you courage. You think, hey, I do it like this author too! But you won't find many of these little coincidences unless you read a lot. Because, again, we're all different. You will hardly find many of them in one book, from one author, unless you're lucky, of course, and stumble on someone who is very similar to you. So you collect these epiphanies across many books, and you cherish them, and they give you hope, this hope in your own abilities as a writer. We're all storytellers, we all have told numerous stories since we started talking, but not many of us have the courage to try and put those stories down on paper. Why? Because we're afraid. We have no confidence, we don't think we can, we don't dare, and so we never do. And we regret it, because we wish we could. Well, I'm telling you, you can. Read. Read a lot. You're bound to come across the book that will inspire you, and speak to you, and make you want to tell your story, YOUR way. If you won't read, how will you know?
There, I think I got rid of most of my burst of inspiration. After reading THE HOBBIT, that is. Seriously. It's an amazing feeling, to be able to sense the world that Tolkien has created and to think about the worlds that I'm trying to create, and to know that it's okay. If he could do it, I can do it. If I can do it, you can do it. We all can do it. Reading is the way to writing Oh, and, pssst! There is one more thing. One more perk. Now, whenever anyone sees you with a book and raises a brow and asks, hey, aren't you supposed to be working, like, to be writing a book or something? You have the perfect excuse. You say, reading is part of my job as a writer. So I'm working right now, piss off. I just tried it on my boyfriend's kids, worked like a charm.
I'm on page 143 of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and I'm so depressed that I had to write this post. One reason being, just a few minutes ago I was terrified to the point of crying that my book will turn out as depressing as this one and people will want to put it down (suicide is a hard topic). Another reason being, I think depressing books are a good way to remind us of all the things that suck in life, so we'll be motivated to change them for the better, yet the only way to do it is to give us, readers, hope. I keep circling back in my head to The Casual Vacancy by J.K Rowing, her non-Harry-Potter endeavor that many frowned upon and that I loved. Contrary to Gone Girl, which received such praise and I seem to not care much about. My first thought, of course, is, what is wrong with me? My second thought is, wait a second, maybe there is something to learn here. As grim as life has been painted in The Casual Vacancy, it's also full of desperate love. I have yet to find love in Gone Girl. I think this is the key to a curious pattern.
Love. All stories are about love. The rest is simply layers. I think I've said this in some other blog post and am repeating myself, but I don't care. The more I read, the clearer I see it. It's all we really care about as human beings, all we want to live for, for love. Unfortunately, in real life it's not always pink fluffy unicorns and lovely smiling baby koalas. In real life, to borrow from Monty Python, it's more like dead parrots and dead crabs. Pick one. Either way, it's dead. Where do we turn to survive it? Love. What if there is none? Humor. Until we can get some love, we will laugh about our pains, to make them pass. One very clear lesson I learned when listening to Chuck Palahniuk on his book tour was, make your reader laugh, cry, and feel sick (or, afraid to the point of being sick). Why do we cry? Because it's how we show our pain or happiness. Why do we laugh? Because it's how we show our joy and how we live through pain. Why do we feel disgusted or afraid? Etc, etc, etc. It's how we bond, by expressing our emotions, and that's why if a reader doesn't cry over your book, or laugh, or feels disgusted or terrified, there will be no bonding. But one of these is not enough, more and more I see all three at work, and that's the key difference between The Casual Vacancy and Gone Girl. The first one made me cry YUCK! in disgust, made me laugh and made me cry. Te latter one so far is only YUCK! with a few smiles and a chuckle, and no crying.
There is a reason fairy tales stood the time. We all grew up on those stories, and they are still a standard for any book, any novel you pick, they even teach them at those novel writing seminars. You know the ones I'm talking about, the knight goes out on his white beautiful horse and slays the dragon. Oh, and he snatches away a beautiful maiden to be his bride. Basic story "plots" in literature, in other words. Why do we love them so much as kids? Why do we still gravitate towards these types of stories? Because they have happy endings. We all want it to end on a good note, since real life rarely gives us gifts of happy endings. This doesn't necessarily mean there can't be books without happy endings, there are a ton of those, and really great ones, The Great Gatsby comes to mind, for example. Why do we read those? Because they still have a promise of great big love, even if it all ends badly. It's what makes us say AWWWWW... and go dab at the corners of our eyes with a tissue when nobody is looking. For example, if you've read The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King, you'll know the agony of rooting for the main character, wanting her to survive, not knowing until the last moment if she will or not. MAJOR SPOILER! She faces a bear at the end and wins. Oh, how would we've been pissed as readers if she didn't! Absence of this is precisely why I'm struggling with Gone Girl. There is love, but not much of it, and I want more. I want at least something to hook my inner slobbery romantic on, then I would love to sail through the disgusting parts, no problem. (I haven't finished the book, so perhaps I'll find it still.)
It's not about facts and puzzles, it's about emotions. The other night I watched Memento, in an effort to steer my mind away from Gone Girl, and saw a similar paradox in the movie. It was a very interesting puzzle to solve, and its one of those flicks you want to watch again when done to pick up clues, but I didn't care for the characters. Same with Gone Girl, I'm interested in the whole treasure hunt concept and the clue finding and all that great stuff, but I don't care much for the characters, and that's why it feels like it's easy to put the book down. In fact, today when I picked it up, I couldn't remember what happened last time I read, and had to reread a few pages back to reorient myself. Now, I feel horrible about trashing this book here in such fashion. PLEASE, don't listen to me, read it, and judge for yourself. Like I said in a previous blog post, there is not such thing as a perfect book for everyone. I'm merely using it to illustrate the point, and who would I be to have a solid opinion since I haven't even written a single one yet? But as a reader I want to feel the book I'm reading, and I'm sharing my doubt here with you inhopes that this can help us all be better writers. Helps us write better books. Helps us change this world, one book at a time.
Call me a dreamer, call me crazy, tear me apart. Tell me what you think. Have you had similar experiences with reading books? Yes? No? Care to share titles and blurbs in the comments? I'd be most curious to learn. Meanwhile, I'm off to reading Monty Python, for some good old much needed laughter.
So I'm sitting here in this amazing afterglow from reading Stephen King's SONG OF SUSANNAH, Book 6 of The Dark Tower series, thinking how can I communicate this feeling to the world, to explain how reading makes me a better writer. Not in the way of reading and learning from it, but in a way of connecting with the mind of another writer, seeing how he does it, and realizing that I can do the same. We all can do. Except at the very beginning we don't know it, don't believe in it, and so sometimes never dare to finish it, because we think there must be some success formula and because we don't know it yet, so we think our stuff is pure shit. We give up, and that's that. But the ecstasy from having understood, from having come close to understanding another writer's process, is indescribable. It's a feeling. There is no formula. If there was one, everyone would study it in school and then crank out best-sellers, like, 10 a pop, and scoop up millions of dollars. Yet we all know it doesn't work that way. Then how does it work? I'm not sure I know the answer, but the more I read, the more I get this feeling that perhaps I have caught it by the tail. Here is what I think.
We read about what's missing from our lives. There are books that we only read when we are missing something specifically, like hot BDSM sex (in case of 50 Shades of Grey), or a hot ideal boyfriend (in case of Twilight), or a magical quest against Death and all things school (Harry Potter). You get the idea. Notice, though, how different these books are. For example, if you happen to have hot BDSM sex, or you happen to have a hot ideal boyfriend in real life, you probably won't pick up Twilight or 50 Shades of Grey, simply because you have enough of it for real and don't need to fantasize about it. Hence, it explains the demographic of people who rave about the series. Also, at certain times in our lives, we go through different phases, and we might be needing a book badly when 5 years from now it wouldn't fit out life at all. Case in point, reading Twilight made me start thinking about divorce and prompted me start thinking about writing Siren Suicides. I'm not kidding, I was totally into it, swooning over every page. That was 8 years ago. Yeah, now laugh all you want. Notice, also, how Harry Potter is completely different. We're all afraid of death at any age, and we all remember school pains, at any age, so the demographic is much larger. See the pattern?
We read books that speak our language. Like everyone else, and curious because it's so hot right now, I picked up a copy of Warm Bodies and read it, partly because I really liked Isaac's blog and his writing style, partly because I liked the story premise and wanted to be done with the book before the movie came out. And, I loved the book in places, but in other places, I was mad at it and wanted to put it down. Not because there is anything wrong with it, no, it's an awesome story, beautiful, with great sense of humor and zombie poetry-like prose. But it didn't speak to me, it was not my language of life. Mine is much darker, much twistier, simply because of my background and my personal history, which is not pretty (oh, well, it made me who I am). The book felt lightweight to me, yet it also puzzled me why I didn't like it as much as others did. It outright bothered me, especially because I really wanted to meet and connect with Isaac (he's here in Seattle too), and I think with my 3 star review I outright puzzled him as to why I wanted to meet. But I wanted to talk about exactly this, about the language and how it differs. The reason why you as a writer need to read as much as you can is because you will see where you fit. You need to trust yourself and be yourself, then you will find readers whose language you speak. But if you don't, if you try to fit a genre or a style, you're doomed.
We read books because we know the author. This is my pet peeve, of course, because I'm such a social media freak. And I'm a social media freak because the publishing game has changed. The writer no longer has to rely on the publishing houses to market the book, the writer can connect directly with readers, and I LOVE doing it. I mean, if not for folks with whom I connected, my Draft 5 wouldn't have gotten better (I had 50 Beta Readers dish in on Draft 4!). Anyway, I'm straying from the topic here... My point is, we read books by authors whom we feel we know, like old friends. Why? Because we're social animals and it's how we're wired. We can't be alone, we love to connect, but in order for us to connect, we have to know the other party. And how, pray tell, would we do that? Well, by reading a book. But why would we pick up a book? Because a friend told us. But how would a friend tell us? Because a friend somehow stumbled upon this book and something made her or him pick it up. Here is the deal, that SOMETHING will only be there if you as a writer know who you are and are not afraid to write from your heart. Because then you're apt to finding that one reader who loves it. From the hands of that one reader, 10 more friend will find out, and so on, and so on. This is how I read Warm Bodies, because I knew enough about the author that I felt like I wanted to finish it. And how do you know who you are as a writer? Well, we've come full circle.
READ. Read a lot. That's all there is to it.
I feel like perhaps I failed to communicate what it is I wanted to communicate. Mainly because I have this deep feeling that threatens to burst me from inside out yet I can't quite grasp it. I'm trying. I swear I'll blog more as I understand this better. For now, I can tell you this, every time I read a book, I have a little epiphany. And every time I apply that little epiphany to my writing, it makes me feel like my writing isn't actually complete and utter shit. It feels like it has a chance.