Four Ways For Writers To Read More Non-Fiction

This bridge shows off the latest Italian fashions for winter.

A shocking number of writers only read fiction. I ain’t judging; until a few years ago, I was among them. And even then, I tended to read within a few specific genres. Read what you want to write, right?

Wrong. And boring. Reading only what you want to write, whether it’s space opera, short stories, or Supernatural slash-fic, is too limiting. Read broadly. Read indiscriminately. Read like the book slut* you always wanted to be.

But it’s hard to get started with non-fiction. Especially if you go to the library or the book store or Amazon and see the endless, endless choices. So here are a few entrances to this new field. Explore at will.

1. Read about something you’re already interested in. Like historical fantasy? Have a go at reading about royalty, or technological achievements of that era, or the Big Gooey Plague That Melted Everyone. Or, if family dramas are more your thing, start reading some memoirs about people who lived with their real-life fucked up families. Bonus: this might help you write your book in that genre and not make it sound like everyone else’s. Also, you’ll finally learn what a lot of Victorian/Steampunk writers and their cover artists seem to forget, which is that corsets go on the inside.

2. Learn more about something odd. Remember the last time you saw a news story on something you thought was strange? Like the Large Hadron Collider, or the Tea Party movement, or yarn-bombing? See what you can find out about it. Maybe you’ll pick up a new interest. Maybe you’ll just expand your knowledge of the complete insanity that lives in our world. Either way, from a writing perspective: WIN.

3. Find a book one of your characters would read. This gets a little meta, but follow me: if you have a character who’s really, really into woodworking or wine or shibari-style bondage, you’ll be able to write them more effectively if you read something on it. And, once again, you never know: you might find yourself eyeing the rope section at the hardware store with more interest.**

4. BOOK ROULETTE. Pick a book at random on a topic you’ve never heard of and get cracking. Sounds insane, but I’ve done it and discovered some books that I otherwise never would have read. And because I’m a writer, no knowledge, no matter how esoteric, is ever wasted. Because who doesn’t want to write a bouncer/cage fighter with a serious knowledge of hand-made lace?

Now, go forth and read! And tell me: what’s the weirdest knowledge you’ve ever acquired?

*No book-slut shaming, either.

**But don’t. Go to a sex shop and get some bondage rope. Your skin—or your partner’s—will thank you.

Vacation Home: Things I Learned Visiting Discworld

The Discworld, my brain's favourite vacation home, captured in all its glory by Paul Kidby.

The Discworld, my brain’s favourite vacation home, captured in all its glory by Paul Kidby.

I spent half of Thursday crying and the other half reading. Both because Terry Pratchett had just died.

It’s hard to explain why I was so upset by the death of a man whom I had never met. And now, never will. Part of it was that, probably: I will never be able to tell him how much those books meant to me. Something I’m sure he heard a thousand thousand times, but I like to think that no one really gets tired of hearing how they touched someone else’s life.

It was the stories, of course. And the characters. And the turns of phrase that stuck with me, year after year. I have all the Discworld books, and some of them have been read so many times that they’re falling apart, and need to be replaced. One, in fact, finally split on Thursday afternoon, after sixteen years of me reading it over and over.

Reading those books was—and is— fun. And reading has got to be entertaining, or what’s the point? But it wasn’t just fun that made me stick with them, or them with me.

Those books were, to paraphrase Tolkien, a light in dark places for me. They told me that being weird wasn’t just okay—the world is full of places and people who will tell you that being your weird self is ‘okay’, like you need their permission, and besides, ‘okay’ is the very fucking definition of mediocrity—but that being weird was awesome. It was something to be celebrated. And the people who didn’t understand that were probably Auditors* in disguise or something, so fuck those people.

The books told me that even things that hurt you can be laughed at. And should be.

They also told me that I wasn’t alone. That no matter how isolated or lonely I was—and there were long periods when I was both—that there were, somewhere, people who understood. One of them was this odd British man who wrote characters that felt like me, like someone had ripped out a piece of me and stuck them to a page**, but there must be others. I wasn’t sure how I would find them, but just the knowledge that they must be out there was enough to get me through. It meant that I wouldn’t always be alone.

That sort of thing means a lot when you’re sixteen.

And now I’m thirty-two. It’s been a lot of years since I first picked up a Pratchett book in the library—Lords and Ladies, if anyone’s wondering. But I’m still reading them, and now I read as a writer. And you know what? They’re still just as good. In fact, as a writer, now I can appreciate the economy of description and sharpness of observation that were among Pratchett’s hallmarks. I can see the humour and the anger.

I’m going to spend some of the next few weeks re-reading all my favourites from the series. And when I read about Death and his garden and the black desert, I’ll be thinking of Sir Terry.

Goodbye. I hope I can someday write something that touches someone half as much as your work did.

*The Discworld incarnation of rules and conformity, and exactly as boring as that sounds.

**Vimes and Susan in particular.

The Bride of Frankenstein: Making Your Own Beta Reader From Scratch

“What do you think? Why did you laugh? Do you liiiiiiike it?” “For fuck’s sake, Clarence, shut the hell up and let me read.”

There comes a time in every writer’s life cycle–shortly after shedding the cocoon of old Dorito bags and scotch labels, but before growing the carapace and fangs that mark a fully developed member of the species–when s/he wants to share the product of their labours with another.

It’s a very special time: the search for a beta reader.*

But, how, among the scads of online critique groups and meatspace people, do you find The One?** Is there a questionnaire? Can you sign up for online manuscript dating?*** Do you just pick one at random and hope for the best?

Here’s an idea that I don’t see much: you can make your own beta reader.

No, not from parts. Put that brain in a jar down.

What I mean is that, if you know someone who is willing and able, you can teach them what to look for.

But they should meet a few criteria first. Here’s your checklist for a trainee beta reader:

1) They should be literate. Or you will have a buttload of other teaching to do.

2) They should be willing to read your stuff. And ‘willing’ here means ‘enthusiastic’. Not ‘will do it because otherwise you might withhold sex/friendship/the necessities of life’. Subtle difference.

3) They should be willing to be honest. And you should be willing to accept their honesty without going batshit, even if you don’t agree with it.

4) They should be willing to put in the time. Because what you’re asking is not small. You’re asking them to do for free what professional editors do for a living. Respect that.

After that, it’s a matter of showing them what to look for. In the case of the Husband, one of my beta readers, I asked him to note where he got bored, and why. And where he had questions: ‘who’s this chick? what happened to that guy’s head?’ It helped narrow down problems because it showed me what goes through someone’s head while they read my work.

Final note: opening yourself up to beta readers is hard. Not like digging ditches hard, but still fucking hard. Krys likened it to telling someone that you like like them: you’re letting all your messy bits hang out there in the hopes that it’s reciprocated. And it might not be. But that’s a risk you have to take.

Because if you can’t open your work up to someone you know, how the hell are you ever going to open it up to a submissions editor?

*There’s some disagreement over whether it should be alpha reader or beta reader. I prefer beta because, of course, you are the first reader of your story.

**Or, depending on your needs, The Two. Or Three. Or Dozen. Whatever, I’m not judging.

***Actually, this is a good question: can you?

 

Betrayals and Broken Promises: The Importance of the Ending

Too much?

It happened again.

I was enjoying a story and then the ending just…well, ‘disappointing’ might be the kindest description.*

It wasn’t that it was sad. I’m not a huge fan of stories mired in misery, but a tragic ending that fits the story is a great one. Some of the best things I’ve read have ended in tragedy. And, importantly, tragedy that I didn’t see coming during the story. But when it happened, it fit. It might have broken the tangle of baling wire and coyote teeth I call a heart, but at least it was broken for a reason.

This, however, was tragedy without purpose. It didn’t fit the story; in fact, one part was at best a cheap ploy to illicit FEELS, and at worst a betrayal of the characters.

So. Yeah. Not a fan.

I know not everyone feels this way, but here’s how it is for me: an unsatisfactory ending–either happy or sad–ruins an otherwise good story. You can create the best thing in the world, but if you fail to keep whatever promises you made in the course of it, then we’re going to have a problem.

It’s not about twist endings, either, because some of those have been my favourites. But, again, it has to be a twist that serves the story. Not one that’s an author’s attempt to shock just because.

As with all my advice, your mileage may vary. For you, endings might be less important than the journey it took to get there. I understand that, and the story that ended so poorly recently had many great parts leading up to that shit show. That might be enough for you.

But if I was going to offer advice to writers, it would be this: keep your promises, or don’t make them in the first place. Because an unsatisfactory ending is a betrayal of the audience’s faith, and a betrayed audience stops reading your stuff.

Stick the landing or don’t bother to show up.

*The unkindest was probably heard by all my neighbours. Screw that, they probably heard it on the ISS.

Twist and Shout: How Not To Do Surprise Endings

…the fuck is this shit?

I read a story recently that had…well, let’s call it a twist ending.

Except that it wasn’t a twist. It was a thinly disguised deus ex machina that neatly got the protagonists out of danger without them actually having to do anything. But the feel was that I should have been so distracted by the sarcastic-quotes-twist that I shouldn’t have noticed. It was less “hey, that was a surprise” and more “here’s a wool hat, do you mind pulling it over your eyes real quick?” I was clear I was supposed to play along, but, frankly, the author hadn’t earned it.

It was the worst possible thing the ending to a piece of fiction could be*: it was unsatisfying.

Writers: don’t do that shit. We–meaning your readers–are not stupid. We know when we’re the target of authorial condescension. And we don’t like it.

This isn’t to say there can’t be surprises or twists. Obviously there should be, because otherwise there’s no suspense. But in retrospect, those twists have to seem like the organic outcome of who your character is and the choices she makes. It should come, not out of left field, but from the home plate, even if the reader isn’t entirely sure where it’s going to end up.

A twist isn’t introduced at the end. A proper twist is introduced in the beginning. Casually. So that we barely notice. Then, when it appears later, it’s not going to induce the WTFs in your readers.

If you can’t write your ending without an external force swooping in the save the day–especially an external force that hadn’t been so much as mentioned in the three hundred pages previous–then you need to rethink your ending. And possibly your beginning. Because, honey, you took a wrong turn somewhere and it landed you on a such a dead end road that you figured that was the only way to get out of it.

What comes next is…what comes next. It is inevitable. Every step should have led here. Even if we couldn’t see the road.

*To me, obviously, but if there’s one among you who claims a worse crime against narrative I can only assume you’re an alien in disguise.

Guest Post: Dreck Detector, Or How to Make a Reader Pick Your Book

Looking for those precious story nuggets.

[As a special feature for the time I’m on vacation, Bare Knuckle Writer is bringing you Guest Posts by random mental patients friends of mine. Be nice to them.]

Our illustrious leader is on vacation this week, so in addition to booby trapping her house and putting her cats on Kijiji,* I’m staging a hostile takeover of her blog. I need to preach at you conveniently assembled penmonkeys for a second.

You see, I’m not just a writer and a reviewer. I’m also a voracious book-eating tiger. I need a dozen a month just to survive. Dreck gives me acid reflux, so whenever I prowl the Goodreads giveaways I reject about a hundred books by new authors who made the same dumb mistakes as the last hundred. In the interests of improving my digestion and your bottom line, here is a list of things to do if you want me to eat read your book.

1. Name it something interesting.

Your title is your one chance to grab my attention. Don’t blow it by naming your book Nonspecific 2: The Broadening. Your title should also tell me about the tone and content of the story. Game of Thrones says ‘pseudomedieval political infighting’ while The Graveyard Book says ‘like The Jungle Book, but with dead things.’ Avoid all puns unless your book is funny.**

2. Don’t photoshop your own cover.***

I know ‘they’ say you should never judge a book by its cover, but ‘they’ are whiners who don’t want to put time and money into fixing crappy book covers. If you don’t care enough about your book to pay an artist with actual talent to design your cover, why should I believe you care enough to write it well?

3. Blurbs are where you tell me what happens.

Don’t ask questions. Don’t quote Amazon reviews. Boil the essentials down to a couple of sentences**** and TELL ME WHAT HAPPENS. If you can’t organize your thoughts well enough to write a coherent paragraph, I’m going to assume your scatty brain can’t possibly handle a whole book.

4. Proofread your Goodreads page.

Spellcheck does a lot of the legwork when it comes to fixing typos, but it won’t catch clumsy wording and it definitely won’t recode your HTML if you missed a bracket. So double-check that your finished page isn’t loaded with ampersands before you rely on it to make all your hopes and dreams come true.

5. Avoid pay-to-play publishers like the plague they are.

You want to self-publish? Great. Start your own publishing company. Give it a name. Hire an editor. Create a website. Register for an ISBN. Don’t just hand over your life savings to a vanity publisher, because in my world ‘Createspace’ means ‘no typos were harmed during the publishing of this novel.’

 

Katrina Nicholson is a writer, reviewer, and bareknuckle catsitter. She lives across the street at www.refrigeratorbox.org.

 

*For sale: one tangled furbeast, one Irish dunderhead, and a honey badger.

**Yes, even the really clever ones.

***Or draw it with pencil crayons, or hire your twelve-year-old nephew who’s ‘really good with computers’ to do it.

****Not a meandering 3,000 word essay. My attention span is not that lon–SQUIRREL!

Bathroom Break: Life Details In Fiction

Thank you, Poop Writer, for inspiring this post. At least you did something right.

I once read a story in which every characters’ bowel movements were graphically described.*

It wasn’t a very long story—maybe ten pages, max. But, of those ten, about three were devoted to detailing the process and product of taking a dump. And those pages were so detailed that I can barely remember the plot of the story. Everything else has been eclipsed by the endless descriptions of shit. I’m not squeamish by any stretch of the imagination, but at a certain point even I was all, Enough, dude. What’s the point of this?

When I read the afterword—yes, it was one of those publications that has afterwords for short stories, presumably to give the authors a chance to explain what the hell they just did to you—the author discussed how s/he** was striving for more realistic stories. S/he felt that most stories didn’t accurately represent the actual human experience, as far as conversation, thought processes, and, of course, sitting on the porcelain throne.

To which I say: well, duh.

Had Poop Writer been in my home at that time, I likely would have pointed out that fiction doesn’t need to be a perfect representation of daily life, with all its dead ends and wanderings and everyday boring errands, physical or otherwise. We already have something that does that. We call it life.

Fiction*** is an idealized representation of reality. It’s streamlined. It has to be, because fiction has something life doesn’t: plot. There’s a story being told in there somewhere, and all things are in service to it. Even ‘reality’ television knows this rule, which is why story lines and villains and drama emerge in every season. Someone out there is carefully cutting those scenes together and making a story out of them instead of the random, chaotic mess that is real life.

Which means I damn well don’t want to read about your characters musing on their digestive tract health unless it is key to the story.

It’s not just bathroom breaks; I’ve read things that had the occasional detour into What The Hell Land many times. Unreasonably long sections about running errands. The minutia of hair styling. And, on one memorable occasion, an entire chapter devoted to deer hunting and the preparation of the skins for wearing. It’s not that these things can’t be interesting, or even useful to the story. But in these cases, they weren’t. They were just…filler. Or the author showing off how much they knew.

When writing fiction, children, remember this: if it doesn’t serve the plot or illustrate character—preferably both—leave it on the killing floor. If it does one or both of those things, it’s probably a keeper.

Even if it’s about poop.

*I typed that sentence one-handed because I was drinking coffee at the same time. My right hand skipped most of the letters on the left side of the keyboard. Presumably because it thought the left hand was on that. Muscle memory is weird. Anyway. Back to the post.
**Can no longer remember the author’s gender. Or name. They will forever and always be known to my brain as The Poop Writer.
***Usual caveats apply. Surrealist fiction is, of course, a horse of a completely different colour with seven legs.

Dissection and Digression: Reasons To Re-read

Harry Potter

Harry Potter and the Minifig Transformation was an ill-advised sequel. (Photo credit: Profound Whatever)

I finished a book the other day. Actually, I finished it again. I’ve read this particular book—Duma Key by Stephen King, if anyone’s interested—about half a dozen times over the last couple of years.

And it’s not the only one. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, It, the Harry Potter series, every goddamned Terry Pratchett novel under the sun…there are some pieces that I keep returning to.

Now, I could tell you that I do it because those books are ones I like, and I’m trying to figure out why. That is a part of it. When something makes me sit up and take notice, especially on a first reading, I tend to re-read it, just to figure out why. Why does this one make me feel…well, anything? After all, it’s all make-believe. It’s words on a page. So why did it make me laugh? Cry? Why did it make me angry? I’m always looking for the wires behind the smoke and mirrors. Looking for the structure and effort beneath the seamless glide of the prose. Like one of those smug assholes that exposes magic tricks, except hopefully less people want me dead.

Another reason is that re-reading good books makes them new again. You pick up on nuances you might not have on that first read, when you were too busy trying to figure it all out. You notice things, characters, plot threads, all of it. Maybe not on the second reading, but on the third, the fourth, the fifth. Get to half a dozen and you might really have an idea what it’s all about.

Those are two good reasons. They’re reasons that I can write about on this blog, where I offer my dubious advice. But, if you’ve ever re-read a book, then you know they’re not the only reasons. Or even the biggest ones.

Re-reading a book you love is like having a conversation with an old friend: comfortable, relaxing, and full of meaning. And inside jokes. Those are fucking everywhere. You can lose yourself in it, wander along those familiar paths, and still find something new.

It’s like putting on your most comfortable sweater and sinking in for an afternoon of relaxation.

In the end…it just feels good.

 

Sidebar: starting Friday and continuing for two weeks, the posts here may go up later than usual as I’ll be on vacation. But I’ll still be posting, so drop on by. Brave NaNoWriMo test monkeys, I’ll have some special posts just for you. And for those of us who prefer to watch the madness of the word-herders from the sidelines this year, I’ll have some for you, too. Stay tuned! November’s going to be awesome.)

On Book Promiscuity

English: Blotter

And that was how I learned if someone offers you a sticker for your tongue, say no. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve always been a reader. I was that kid who would figure out the number of books I was allowed to take out, and then choose books long enough to get me through the week before I could come to the library again. Although, to be fair, it was rarely a week. My parents were quite willing to encourage me in this kind of prolific reading. They didn’t even vet my choices or prohibit certain things*, reasoning that whatever I read was probably still better than getting involved with ‘The Drugs’ that haunted the school of every child of the eighties.**

So I read everything. Mysteries, horror, LGTBQ literary fiction, god-awful drugstore romance, non-fiction about dying in the Arctic…everything. Reading was my favourite thing to do, especially during classes when I couldn’t be bothered to pay attention.***

But when I went to university and generally became a Busy Adult, reading was the first thing to fall off the List of Things To Do. Not because I didn’t still enjoy it, but because it was the easiest thing to cut. Besides, I was focusing on writing, which can eat a lot of time. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t reading as much, because I was focusing on making my own stories. So I let the reading lapse.

And then I was surprised when the writing became harder.

There’s all kinds of reasons, from learning mechanics to finding inspiration and blah blah blah, but here’s how I think of it: I have a Word Tank. That’s where the writing comes from. But it also needs to be filled. To fill it, I need to consume other people’s words: books, articles, hell, even movies and TV and video games. If I go too long without filling up, I’m coasting on fumes and nothing works the way it should. Simple, right?

Every now and then I meet people who want to write but never read. Odd cats, those. One once told me that they didn’t read out of some fear that they’ll copy an idea or a voice or something. In the circumstances, this is like wanting to learn to cook but never eating, because you don’t want to know what other people’s food tastes like. And, having read a few pieces by these people, by the Lord of Undying Fuck, can you ever tell they don’t read.

I’m happy to say that I’ve made more time for reading the last few years—ten books in the last month, woot!—and it’s paid off. The words come easier and flow smoother. You know, most of the time. And I’ve read some great books that I otherwise might have never seen.

So, writers, do yourself a favour: read more. Read everything. Fill the Word Tank. You might be surprised at the dividends.

*Which is how I came to be reading Anais Nin at fifteen. Talk about your eye openers.
**What were these? Does anyone know? All I remember is a lot of vague lectures about the Dangers of The Drugs. And that one cop who showed us what LSD looked like.
***To date, I’m the only person I know who has ever gotten detention for, and here I quote the notification that got sent home to my parents, “reading too much”.

Five Characters That I’m Fucking Sick Of

Moody

I tried being nice once. It was awful. (Photo credit: andrewrennie)

1) Moody Guy. Wanders through the pages being angsty and, you know, damaged, but never actually does anything to address these qualities. Like see a therapist, or occasionally think of someone other than himself. Despite these detriments, he will unerringly attract anyone with more than a whiff of estrogen about them. We are led to believe that there’s a nice guy lurking somewhere underneath, but letting him out just hurts too damn much.

2) Awkward Guy. Usually a supporting character, often The Friend of either The Moody Guy or The Girl. In the case of the former, he’s the loveable but silly best mate who jollies his dour friend along, though we have no idea why he hangs around with the depressing bastard to begin with. In the case of the latter, he’s the guy who moons over The Girl and will never, ever get to be with her.

3) The Girl. That’s all she is, because that’s all she has to be. She just stands around having boobs and a vag and that’s somehow enough. People tend to point her out as evidence of inclusion. As in, “Look, we’ve put a girl* in the story. And she’s surrounded by all these sketchy-yet-cool people and can somehow keep up with them despite having no abilities or personality. That makes her a strong female character, right?”
Funnily enough, her obvious lack of any definable characteristics can continue even when she’s the protagonist.

4) The Authority. Parents in teen novels, bosses or superiors or occasionally parents in adult. Only come in two flavours: the Monolithic And Controlling or the Clueless And Embarrassing.

5) The Token. The friend who is very pointedly not an able-bodied, cisgendered, Caucasian male who fits into standardized patterns for behaviour and appearance. The details vary; the purpose does not. They exist to be different. But, you know, in a cool way.

Seriously, is it just me?

*Always referred to by the diminutive ‘girl’ instead of ‘woman’ no matter what age she happens to be.