This past week I got sidetracked from writing (after 3 weeks in a row where I achieved my stated goal of 5000 words a week) because I was putting together all the figures l needed for my 2016 taxes. However, in the process I made a list all the books I bought in 2016, whether or not they were ebooks or print, and what I paid for each, and this has prompted me to do a little more analysis on my reading patterns.
First of all, I was pleased to discover that I had bought 65 books this year and had read almost all of them. This meant I read, on average, more than a book a week, nicely confirming of my impression that I had read more books in 2016 than I had the previous year.
Second, while the list also confirmed that a large proportion of those books were short story anthologies, something I have already discussed in my last post, I was also interested in the patterns I saw in the full length novels I read.
When I looked at the list, I was struck by the fact that most of the novels I bought were either books I had read before, new books by favorite authors, or all the books in a series by a newly discovered author. This makes sense and actually dovetails with my reasons for reading so many short stories. Because of the limited time I have in my life as a busy writer, when I commit to reading a full-length book, I want to know there is a strong chance I will enjoy the experience.
It is one thing to try a short story by an unknown author—if it turns out it isn’t my cup of tea, I have only lost 10-15 minutes. But since I have difficulty just dropping a novel in the first sitting, when I eventually decide to drop a book I have usually spent at least an hour so, hence I have been sticking to full length books I know I will stick with.
I haven’t always been so risk averse in my reading choices, but I have noticed that when someone mentions that I should read some book they have just read by an author I know nothing about, I say: “Oh that sounds good, maybe when I really retire and I go back to reading all the time I will give a try.”
However, I was also struck by a third realization. I was choosing books that I thought would give me tips on how to improve my own writing. Also, not surprising when I thought about it. I am a firm believer that a writers should above all be a reader. And, if you want to write books that other people enjoy reading, you need to be aware of what improves your own enjoyment of a book.
For example, with several of the books I read this year, I noticed that the authors emphasized what the characters smelled—not just what they heard and saw in a scene. As a result, I have started looking to see places where I could add that sense to my descriptions.
With other books I stopped myself when I started to skim over a section of a book and asked myself why I was getting impatient with the story. Usually that impatience came in sections of books where there was too much detail (often backstory or setting of the scene) that didn’t add to the story. I seldom skimmed in sections of dialog or described action.
The key here, however, was relevance to the story. William Gibson’s science fiction novels are full of incredibly rich detail that range from name brands of clothing, and graffiti on walls, to the music coming out of a car’s speakers. But all of that detail is what builds up a feel (almost on the level of virtual reality) of his near future world—so like our own, yet so very different.
Then there were Deborah Crombie’s mysteries, which also provide a good deal of detail, in her case on the different neighborhoods of contemporary London. In her case, these settings enrich the story by providing a better sense of the characters who inhabit those neighborhoods, keeping the police moving around to break up what would have otherwise been more static police interviews, and often revealing important clues to the contemporary mystery that are buried in the history of those neighborhoods.
Each time I noticed how detail was used effectively (or not) in one of the books I was reading, I would then to back to my fiction and make sure my use of detail wasn’t bogging down my plots. Did my readers really need to know who the mayor of San Francisco was in the fall of 1880 and why he was seen as corrupt? Or was it more important to describe how it felt to try and climb onto a cable car wearing a long tight dress with a bustle? Did the reader of the science fiction novel I was writing need to know the technical term for the mechanism for traveling through a wormhole, or would the dialog be more natural if my young protagonist just called it “jumping” through a wormhole.
Another time, I noticed I was having a hard time keeping two characters in a book straight because their names started with the same letter. And I went back and changed the name of a minor character I just introduced, so there wouldn’t be a similar point of confusion in my own book. This might seem trivial…but I’ve learned that I want to avoid anything that brings a reader out of my stories…and find and replace makes changing a name an easy fix.
Finally, I thought about what such different books as the Georgette Heyer Regency romance I was rereading, C.J. Cherryh’s newest Foreigner book, or Ilona Andrew’s Innkeeper Chronicles books, which were a new discovery for me, had in common. And I concluded what I liked best about the books by these three authors was that they included a substantial dollop of humor, transported me to worlds different from my own, and had main characters who, despite their flaws and the difficulties they had to overcome, were genuinely admirable people who achieved some degree of happiness by the end of the novel.
And not surprisingly these are all key elements I try to include in both my Victorian San Francisco Mystery series and my Paradisi Chronicles work. And I do believe I have been able to steadily improve my craft because of what I learn each time I read novels by these and the other novels on my list.
Stay tuned for part two of my analysis, when I look at the prices I paid for the books I bought this year.
M. Louisa Locke, March 1, 2017
Just in case you are looking for a humorous, sweet, historical mystery, Bloody Lessons, the third book in my Victorian San Francisco Mystery series, is Free for the next two days March 1-2 in all major bookstores. Click Here for buy links.