Reading and Writing: The Stories that Mattered Most

[This post is part of a continued blog-conversation (diablogue? I love nonsensical new Internet words) that Mr. Pond and I have going on around the topic of writing and editing. I'm taking it a step further, and talking about reading.]

All publishing industry advice blogs contain one unifying piece of wisdom: Read widely in the genre in which you intend to write.

As arrogant as it feels to say so, it's a piece of advice that has always raised a warning in my mind. I'm not quite crazy enough to oppose the successful publishing world and call the truism false. It makes sense to be well acquainted with the sort of book, similar to my own, that gets published nowadays.

And I do read in my genres. I look for books that have been published in the last ten years, especially authors' debuts. I try to do so regularly--but I'm picky, and when hunting through the bookstore or the library, there are specific things I look for (authors whose names I recognize, strong narrative voice, and/or a story that immediately draws me in. Note: "immediately draws me in" is not the same as "kicks me in the face with a mean first sentence." The advice to write an attention-grabbing first line has helped to make opening novels in bookstores an exhausting experience.)

I'm picky, and therefore do not necessarily read widely. I admit new books into my life like an introvert admits new friends (and I should know): slowly, with careful consideration of the necessary commitment, and usually one at a time.

And there's one thing that seems to me at least as important as keeping current with the newly published. For myself, I consider it more important and feel compelled to give the majority of my reading time to it, even when--especially when--I am absorbed in the writing process. That one crucial need is to re-read, repeatedly and obsessively, the stories that have mattered the most to me.

If I become a published novelist, this will be my secret to success: that I've lost count of the number of times I've read Harry Potter, Jane Eyre, Austen's books, Narnia and That Hideous Strength, Little White Horse, and Speaker for the Dead. I've read them until I can almost play back whole sections of the text in my mind, till the worlds are my homes-away-from-home and the characters are my close friends and the authors' voices have irreversibly influenced my own.

My primary reason for prioritizing the Stories That Mattered Most is that those books did for me what I want mine to do for others. I believe that core magic to be more important than trends of subject or style--not out of a need to protest industry standards like 250,000 words is too long or to "believe in myself" or my book in disregard of my own writing weaknesses, but to devote my very limited time and energy to the thing that makes me want to write in the first place, that makes a book re-readable and therefore especially desirable.

I could also put it this way: I'm not just aiming at getting a spot on bookstore shelves. I'm aiming at Harry Potter. I'm aiming at Narnia. Don't get me wrong--no one can guarantee a bestseller, or even a seller. But what I can do, or at least, what I can do my very best to do, is write a book with a life and love that speak to the reader.

Reading from the new releases is wise from a business perspective, and I'm not under any poetic high that could cost me my understanding of writing for publication as a business. Likewise, as someone who hopes for success as a writer, I think it right to support other writers.

But I think it's of limited value. Most of what I need to know about current standards, I've gotten from helpful industry bloggers. Get plot and conflict on every page. Make your protagonist and your genre obvious immediately. Keep your manuscript in conventional word count ranges. All of that is important for giving my story the best possible chance of getting read. For how to tell the story, though, what I need to know most comes from the books I already love.

Previous conversation:
Mr. Pond: Momentary Editing, parts 1 and 2
Me: How Not to Write


  1. Harrah! Next installment probably Wednesday. :D A few things for now:

    I'm not quite crazy enough to oppose the successful publishing world and call the truism false.

    But (and I suspect you know this somewhat) the very reason to challenge a truism is that it is a truism. Viz, forget pragmatism and utilitarianism. What works is not always what's right. The results do not justify the means. Furthermore, success does not equal large numbers and popularity. Or, if you're in other circles, small numbers and notoriety.

    Are we to disregard these things? No, regrettably. (Though, Ruskin like, I tend to hold the somewhat despairing view that if everyone likes it it must be bad.) And if results, success, are not the measure of Rightness, what is?

    I don't know! I cheerfully admit, I have no solid philosophical platform to build on. But that shouldn't stop us from tearing down an obviously unsuitable and unsafe platform.

    I will say, I think you have touched very close to truth when you speak of 'the stories that mattered most', the revelation of wonder, what JRRT called 'eucatastrophe', or 'a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.' ('On Fairy-stories', 1947).

    Ha, yet again you bring up questions I've been pondering for years...

  2. Great conversation you two experienced writers are having. Not being a writer of the professional (or aspiring professional) elk, I am enjoying following along and thinking of my younger-self's dream of being a fiction writer, many years ago. It's not where my life took me though, so I'm finding other ways to tell stories -- just not the published, text variety. ;)

    BUT, I am stopping in to say two things to Jenna. 1) I *love* that Speaker for the Dead is on your list of core stories that have mattered the most to you. Most of the others didn't surprise me, based on your other posts. But, I am currently and happily engulfed in the Ender books (for the first time), and feel a bit in my own private world, since no one I know has read them or even shows an interest. ("Sci fi lit about a group of genius children? No thanks." *le sigh*) Speaker for the Dead was the best novel, for me, of the post-Ender's Game timeline of books. Very beautiful, and organic. I loved it.

    I just finished Shadow of the Giant this evening during my dinner break, thus completing Bean's storyline. All I have left is War of Gifts and Ender in Exile (the newest one), then I will have read all that's been published by Card in Ender's Universe . I am really enjoying them all though, each for many different reasons. I'm happy I finally picked up Ender's Game last month and got started.

    And, 2) I agree with your decision and natural tendency to reread the stories that matter most to you, as you grow as a writer. I agree for all the reasons you said, and one more: It is very, very important to continue to feed your soul with goodness and life, when endeavoring to create (or sub-create, to invoke JRRT). If you do not do this, you will have nothing inside of you to give.

    Ok, that's all. Sorry this comment is so long! :)

  3. Mr. Pond, I'll very much look forward to that next installment!

    I'm up for challenging the truism in part, but am not quite sure I'm ready to call it "obviously unsuitable and unsafe." If you are, I'd love to hear your reasons. :)

    Furthermore, success does not equal large numbers and popularity. Or, if you're in other circles, small numbers and notoriety.

    Brilliant. That is very, very well put, and true to boot.

    I don't think success of any kind is necessarily a measure of rightness, but if readers get that "fleeting glimpse of joy," Tolkien's eucastastrophe, from reading my story, I will consider that success. The fact that my mom and sister and a couple of my beta readers have shown signs of that is the hopeful thing that keeps me going when I struggle with revisions.

  4. Donna, your comment isn't too long, and I'm so glad you posted it! I'd love to hear more about your storytelling sometime. It's a valuable skill regardless of whether the finished product is in text form.

    I need to finish reading the Ender books--Bean's story especially interests me, as I love the place Speaker ended so much that I'm a little afraid to go further with Ender himself. But Orson Scott Card's writing is fantastic, and that particular book holds no end of power for me.

    Also, I love your point about feeding the soul with goodness and life or having nothing left to give. If I'd have thought of that thought, it would likely have been part of the post. :)


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