Thursday, July 25, 2019

So Many Books, So Little Heart: Thoughts on Writers’ Reading Habits

By Dario Ciriello

Part of The Writer’s Life Series

JH: Getting readers to care about our characters is something every writer should strive for—but do they? Dario Ciriello is back again this month, with thoughts on writing, reading, and why we care.

A new client said something yesterday that got me thinking about the reading habits of writers, and how they change over time. She mentioned having bought two of my books prior to hiring me to edit her work, and that she’d read my book on writing but only the beginning of the other, a memoir. Of course, it flashed through my mind that she may not have cared for the other work; as a picky reader myself, I understand how different each reader is, and don’t feel in the slightest offended if someone isn’t enamored of one of my books.

“You see,” she went on, “I daren’t allow myself to read a book while I’m writing.”

I knew at once what she meant. In her final revision pass before handing her novel over to me, she didn’t want to accidentally absorb someone else’s writing style in case it should bleed through into her own work. My craft manual hadn’t been an issue, but the memoir is written more conventionally, with narrative prose and all the technique of a novel.

I do read when I’m writing, but generally avoid reading works in the same genre that I’m working on, or ones that bear any significant similarities in plot or theme. I suspect that as we grow as writers and find our individual style, this crossover problem lessens.

My own problem as a writer/reader is my difficulty in discovering new books that really hook me. Increasingly, I find myself turning to the classics (currently Melville), or else to nonfiction works. Of course, this flies in the face of the so many books, so little time dictum, and I imagine a good few of you are rolling your eyes at this point, but I stand on my word: the overwhelming majority of books published, trad or indie, are at best mediocre.

This isn’t snobbery or elitism; as we develop as writers (or editors), the bar for quality inevitably ratchets up. And I believe one of the worst things an author can do is spend their time on a book that doesn’t fully engage them—having low expectations and allowing substandard work to permeate your mind is a much greater danger than picking up tics of another author’s prose style. Writers need to be both entertained and inspired by their reading, not disappointed and frustrated.

Unfortunately, even with all the reviews and Amazon look-insides, it’s sometimes hard to determine at a glance whether a book is going to work for me, and the reality only dawns after I’ve bought the damned thing. I recently abandoned the first work in a trilogy I’d come across, a science fiction thriller with no less that five hundred mostly superb reviews, after just two scenes. The same happens to me with TV shows all the time.

Let me be very clear that this has nothing to do with genre or any kind of literary pretensions. One of the most enjoyable books I’ve read recently was a rather fluffy, tongue-in-cheek Western shifter novel; I read a good deal of Romance also.

The core issue for me with most contemporary writing and scriptwriting is this: a lack of genuine human feeling on the part of the author. This is what the famous novelist, teacher, and critic John Gardner—himself a fan of genre fiction—calls frigidity. Writing in 19831, he stated (my boldface), “I would extend the term to mean a further cold-heartedness as well, the given writer’s inability to recognize the seriousness of things in the first place, the writer who turns away from real feeling, or sees only the superficialities in a contest of wills, or knows no more about love, beauty, or sorrow than one might learn from a Hallmark card. With the meaning thus extended, frigidity seems one of the salient faults in contemporary literature and art.”2

Put simply, make me care. Show the reader you have heart, and imbue your writing with it. All the plotting, stakes, conflict, and wild action in the world doesn’t make a damn of difference if the reader doesn’t care about the protagonist: and this to me summarizes my feelings about the great majority of contemporary books, films, and TV shows. (The converse is also true: a reader will stick with the most modest or fluffy novel or story if they truly engage with the protagonist.)

To conclude then, my message—if I have one—is simple: read well, and write well. Because there is a connection.

1 The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner (Alfred A. Knopf, 1984)
2 On the other end of the balance from frigidity is the writerly sin of sentimentalism

What are your thoughts on caring, reading, and writing? 

Dario Ciriello is a professional author and freelance editor as well as the founder of Panverse Publishing.

Dario’s fiction includes Sutherland's Rules, a crime caper/thriller with a shimmer of the fantastic; Black Easter, a supernatural suspense novel which pits love against black magic and demonic possession on a remote, idyllic Greek island; and Free Verse and Other Stories, a collection of Dario's short science fiction work.

Dario’s 2011 nonfiction book, Aegean Dream, the bittersweet memoir of a year spent on the small Greek island of Skópelos (the real Mamma Mia! island), was an Amazon UK travel bestseller. The Fiction Writing Handbook: The Professional Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules (Panverse, 2017) is his second nonfiction work.

In addition to writing, Dario, who lives in the Los Angeles Area, offers professional editing, copyediting, and mentoring services to indie authors.

Website | Facebook | Goodreads | Panverse Publishing

About The Fiction Writing Handbook

A Unique Approach to the Craft of Writing Fiction

The Fiction Writing Handbook*
is a complete guide for the fiction writer who wants to develop an individual voice and understand the reasons underlying the so-called rules of writing. Although a few rules really are necessary, the vast majority are either dogma or passing fads. Worse, so much advice like “show don’t tell” and “open with action” is often poorly explained and entirely misunderstood, causing writers no end of problems. Similarly, the importance of both character and narrative voice, as well as tone, cannot be overstated.

Drawing on twenty years of writing, critiquing, editing and mentoring experience, Dario Ciriello explodes writing myths, shreds conventional wisdom, and dissects the often misleading advice and diktats shouted at writers by books and blogs, agents and publishers. The Fiction Writing Handbook gives authors the necessary tools and insights to retake control of their story and make it unique.

Other topics covered in The Fiction Writing Handbook include external and internal dialog, writers' block, traditional vs. indie publishing, PoV (point of view), creating suspense, and much more.

Whether your interest lies in short stories, novels or screenwriting, The Fiction Writing Handbook shows you how to tell your story in your voice and place it before your audience, eschewing novel plotting formulas and cookie-cutter fiction to remain true to your own, exceptional vision while adhering to the few rules that actually matter. Because writing isn’t about prose wonks and industry insiders: it’s about the reader, and most of all it’s about telling a story. Your story.

*Originally published in 2017 under the title, "Drown the Cat"

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  1. Boy did this strike a chord. As I plod daily through my first science fiction novel, I find myself unable to read that genre, especially the new ones in stores or Amazon. Reading with a writer's eye is hard to turn off when you are in progress, and I have become a nitpicking critic. Every rule I've been told to follow seems to be missing in the media darlings and reviews. As a new fiction writer the mantra "read, read, read" become exercises in futility, as I bought and boxed DOZENS of scifi thrillers before chapter 5. I've turned to older Heinlein, Scalzi and even have StarShip Troopers sitting in the pile. Just some good old aliens to go with tea and a snack each evening...

  2. JJ, thanks so much for commenting and relating your own experience. I came from Science Fiction myself, and understand what you're saying: the genre has changed enormously, and suffers other pressures also. Though there are some fine contemporary authors working the field, the rare times I do read SF these days it's almost exclusively pre-2000.

    SF thrillers tend to be particularly problematic, IMO, and focus far too much on tech and action rather than character, rather like their close cousin, the tech thriller and the abysmal "war porn" genre so loved by men who read no other fiction.

    Tastes of course factor in as well. But honestly, crafting an engaging book, given a good premise and a moderate amount of talent, isn't rocket science: just give us a STORY, and a protagonist we can care for -- is that really so hard?