Going outside one’s comfort zone can be a benefit to both readers and writers, so I asked this week’s panelists this question (huge thanks to Jason M Hough for the Mind Meld topic!!):
Here’s what they had to say…
I’ll toss two at you, A Dangerous Place and Cadillac Desert, both by Marc Reisner. The former highlights all the common sense reasons why California, as a whole, should have no more the a few hundred thousand people living in it. The latter, why most of the western part of the US can’t sustain its huge population with natural water resources and has resulted to Herculean tasks to bring water to the West. Now I’m not a water crusader but I think reading books like these bring an element of “stranger than fiction” to our everyday worlds as writers. We don’t have to read dystopian fiction to get a flavor or what might happen. We can easily read non-fiction books that either tell us something terrible about our past (say, the Black Wall Street riot) or something very likely terrible in our present and future (say, the vicious drought we’re enduring in, ding-ding-ding, California). From them we can, hopefully, find some inspiration to write better spec fiction with feet firmly grounded in reality. With a deeper sense of verisimilitude. As a result, I believe that writer’s work will ultimately achieve a greater sense of verisimilitude. Maybe even inspire people change things in the real world (kinda like Sinclair’s The Jungle). And yes, I used verisimilitude. I went there.
So my first instinct was to talk about fiction – but truly, one of the best, most exciting books I’ve read in the past few years was actually non-fiction: The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge, M.D. (Or, as it’s known in my household, “The Brain Book”.) It’s about neuroplasticity, or how the brain is adaptable enough to rewire itself in a myriad of strange and interesting ways to overcome challenges.
This book kept me reading until the wee hours of morning. I read quotes to my spouse every few minutes – and when I was reading alone, I was frustrated that I had no one with whom to share various facts and anecdotes, because it was just that awesome. In SFF, we value science and exploration and “bold new frontiers”. But that does not always mean physical travel or visiting strange new worlds; truly, the boldest, strangest new frontiers may very well be within us.
Other genres of fiction have other styles of writing, other rhythms and voices and ways to entice the reader to turn the page. Valuable, all, and certainly among the reasons that I urge myself to read widely outside SFF. But sometimes it’s the amazing non-fiction that rekindles my curiosity and sense of wonder; it’s the stories about our world and cultures and lives that make me wonder what else is out there.
My recent forays beyond Science Fiction and Fantasy has been almost exclusively in the crime and spy thriller categories. My next novel has a heavy espionage bent, and so I thought it would be good to immerse myself there to get into that mindset.
I’ve read many of the great spy stories over the years, but my favorites have always been the slick, economic James Bond novels by Ian Fleming, despite having read them only once almost twenty years ago. So over the last ten months I re-read all of them. On my blog I even compared each to the movie adaptations. You can read all the gory detail there, suffice to say the books were even better than I remembered (except, alas, for the occasional flare up of racism and misogyny – sigh).
Fleming’s writing is concise and yet wonderfully evocative. That’s a rare talent, and something I tried to soak in. It was refreshing to read so many books that felt satisfying despite being roughly half the length of a typical modern SF novel. After these, the first few novels I read felt almost agonizingly slow in comparison. Unfair, perhaps, but there it is.
This new novel I’m working on is set in a world quite similar to ours, but also rife with deviations both small and large. Differences in speech, culture, and geography that all need to feel at once alien and yet tantalizingly familiar. Recently I thought about what I could read to help inspire me toward capturing this. I wanted something outside the SF/F genre. Something that would feel different from my reality, but that I would know in truth was based in our world. Ultimately I stumbled upon the perfect answer: The crime thrillers of South African author Deon Meyer.
In August I picked one up, intending to stop after that as my to-be-read pile is gigantic. Now it’s November and I’m on my sixth of Meyer’s. They’re absolutely wonderful, and exactly what I needed. South Africa’s cultural, political, and geographic landscapes are the precise kind of ‘different’ that I was looking for (from my world of Seattle, USA, I mean). But they’ve also captivated me for a reason I didn’t anticipate: Meyer’s characters are among the most well-drawn I’ve ever come across. Brilliant stuff, I recommend them highly. Meyer writes in Afrikaans, and while the translations are excellent this added level of foreignness only helped fit my goal.
Authors working in purely fictional worlds can learn a lot by reading stories set in real places they’ve never visited. The details conveyed, and those left out, are equally important in painting a setting. Perhaps this is because an author writing about his or her native land, for native readers, is only subconsciously doing what we call ‘worldbuilding’. It makes the deliberate infodump paragraphs one often finds in SF/F quite jarring in comparison. In Meyer’s books an unfamiliar reader like me has to fill in many gaps and what I’ve learned is that it’s not as tough as we genre authors often assume it will be. In fact as a reader it’s quite enjoyable, like getting to know someone not just by their words but their body language, too. The whole endeavor has given me a fresh perspective on worldbuilding, and is ample evidence that a writer should respect the intelligence of readers.
A few of my favorites outside of speculative fiction (I had to google the definition of that term, by the way. I am so with it.) are The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera, The Rules of Attraction, by Bret Easton Ellis, and the short stories of Raymond Carver and Andre Dubus. Also many, many more. I read frequently outside of speculative fiction, and outside my own genres. There are good books everywhere, that beyond being immersive and enjoyable, can change the ways I think and examine things. New ideas, new methods, new influences, there’s always something to be gained through exploration. So I guess I should go read a mystery, because I almost never read those.
It’s harder than you might think, finding favourite books outside the genre. It’s certainly harder than I imagined, thinking myself a well-read sort of fellow not bound by the fences of the fantastic.
I love To Kill A Mockingbird, for instance, loved it since I first read it in a high school course that wasn’t about genre fiction at all. But tell me that Scout and Jem’s early encounters with the terrifying Boo Radley don’t evoke, more than just a little, the Bradburian horror show of Something Wicked This Way Comes. From a guiltier part of my youth I devoured Ian Fleming’s 007 novels like Dr. No—but when James Bond wrestles an amorous giant squid in the evil, rocket-wrecking No’s lethal obstacle course, I felt as though I were reading a Sax Rohmer fantasy mashed up with something from Jules Verne. Stephen Millhauser is a Pulitzer winner, and you should pick up his collection Dangerous Laughter, but his fiction is the stuff of magic. It’s right in the juicy heart of slipstream fantasy.
In the past few years I’ve discovered the short stories of the late Raymond Carver, as realistic a realist as one can realistically imagine. So with that in mind: go read his story collection Cathedral. It takes you to the heart of humanity broken by nothing more than its own frailty. But after that, read Nathan Ballingrud’s story collection North American Lake Monsters and see how well that naturalist sensibility slides toward the unnatural in the right hands.
I think—I think—I can unreservedly recommend John le Carré’s latest, A Delicate Truth. It’s a closely observed, tragically comic examination of an international anti-terrorist operation gone badly wrong. But don’t stop with that one: le Carré’s prose is among the best you’ll find, and his grasp on both human nature and international realpolitik elevates his spy novels to the heights of modern literature.
Oh wait. Spy novels are a genre too.
This is way harder than I thought.
I have a truly execrable memory for books and movies. I forget, sometimes mere days after reading or watching something, how a story got from A to B—and a few months after that, I forget what A and B were. I end up remembering that I liked something, though I don’t actually remember the something that I liked. (Are you sorry I chose to answer this question??)
Here’s some of what I remember.
Over summer holidays and Christmas breaks from 1989 until 1994, I worked at a bookstore. It was slow, sometimes—and when you were on the upstairs cash, you were often alone. (I got held up at gunpoint at that upstairs register, Thanksgiving weekend of 1996. That’s how quiet it was up there.) When I wasn’t being held up at gunpoint, I read. We weren’t supposed to read and we weren’t supposed to sit down, but I did both. Oddly enough, I read hardly any genre at all. I read A.S. Byatt’s Possession, and wasn’t sure whether it was painfully pretentious or painfully intelligent (or both). I read The Grapes of Wrath and As I Lay Dying and revelled in bleakness. I read Edith Wharton and Jane Austen and Barbara Kingsolver. On my even-slower-than-usual Sunday morning shifts I devoured the New York Times books section; even reading reviews of books was exciting.
From 1994-95, I lived in Oaxaca City, in southern Mexico. There was a lending library downtown—small, but packed to the gills with books, which I set upon like the homesick, overwhelmed young person I was. Patrick White was a revelation: I still remember the covers of The Eye of the Storm and Voss. I adored Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse: Virginia Woolf’s everything, in fact. There was Ann Patchett, too. Jeanette Winterson. Graham Greene and E.M. Forster. I’d read book after book by a particular author, until something in my head got wobbly, overburdened—too much of one voice?—and I’d stop and move on to someone else.
Those were glorious, restless, sumptuous reading years. Sadly, things have never been the same since. About eight years ago, though, a friend gave me Lee Child’s first Jack Reacher book. There are now at least eighteen more. I haven’t read all of them, but knowing that they’re there, waiting for the right moment, is kind of delicious.
So what have I liked about and learned from these non-spec fic books? Plot often overwhelms characterization, in speculative fiction: the Big Ideas bluster their way to the foreground, while the characters subside into stereotype or interchangeability. But the non-spec fic books (most vastly different from each other) that I remember loving featured people and places that could have been real. Character and setting, emotion and imagery: these anchored and propelled the plots. This is true of the spec fic I’ve loved, too.
I feel as if I’ve spent most of my life defending fantasy, describing its riches to non-fantasy writers and readers so that they might be enticed to give it a try. But many spec fic writers I know never read outside their own genre, either. Some of them simply find other fiction uninteresting; others just don’t think about it at all, because spec fic’s all they’ve ever read, or written. Authors who deal with pushing the limits of knowledge and imagination but won’t venture into a different section in the bookstore: there’s serious irony, here. So I’ll say the same thing to those spec fic writers as I do to “mainstream only” ones: comfort zones are cushy, and that makes them unsurprising. Shake off imaginative complacency. See how other writers tell their stories. Feeling unsettled and prickly about something unfamiliar can lead to inspiration, even revelation.
I hope I remember all this.
My first nomination is going to be a bit of a cheat: Xi Yóu Jì by Wú Chéng’en. I say this one is cheating because, if it’d been written nowadays, it would very definitely sit on the SFF shelf. Except it just-so-happens Wú published it around 1592, so you’re more likely to dig it up in the Classics or World Literature section.
Xi Yóu Jì’s basic plot is that a priest, a monkey god, a pig demon, a water spirit, and a dragon are given a divine task to trek to a far western land (a.k.a. India) to retrieve a magic item (a.k.a. some religious scriptures). Despite its age, this is a story that could’ve been written any time in the past few decades, and I think it differs from a lot of classical Western litera-ture in that it depicts a notion of “heroism” that focuses more on redemption and “doing good deeds” rather than individual martial prowess. It’s basically a modern superhero story, except told in the context of ancient China. Reading it is an important lesson in the cultural and temporal ubiquity of a bloody good narrative arc.
My second book would be Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, which is a massively detailed investigation into human violence on both a mi-cro (murder) and macro (war) scale. Better Angels is a useful book for SFF authors in particular because violence drives a lot of the genre. And yet, as Pinker points out, most SFF authors come from countries experiencing historically unprecedented levels of peace. Meaning when we do write about violence, we tend to either romanticize it (the “good violence” of conquering heroes) or treat it as something incomprehensible and alien (the “bad violence” of invading demon hordes). Better Angels reminds us nothing is that simple.
Finally, this isn’t a “book” per se, but I’d be remiss not to give a shout-out to fanfic. Fanfic is where an entire generation of girls and women learnt skills in analyzing, deconstructing, and reconstructing narratives.
One of my favorite trends here is what’s known as the “coffeeshop AU” (AU being short for “alternate universe”). Coffeeshop AUs take popular characters, often from genre works, and put them, well. In coffeeshops and/or cafés. As hipsters and other assorted regular people, minus any magic powers or outlandish backstories, but plus a big desire to… er. Order cof-fee, I guess. If that sounds weird, I’ll point out that coffeeshop AUs are ridiculously popular, and I think it’s because they look to answer core questions about characterization. They want to know, for example, who Castiel is when he’s not an angel, or how Tony Stark would’ve found redemption in a world without Iron Man.
Because, really, I think that’s the heart of writing; in spec-fic or outside of it, in something that’s four years old or four hundred, fiction or nonfiction. Strip back the magic and the mayhem, and what’s left is the most enduring story of all.
I enjoy crime fiction, greatly. In my view, Nic Pizzolatto, author of Galveston, is writing some of the most sordidly lovable characters out there right now. Southern gothic, as well. I adored Twilight by William Gay. Anything written by Cormac McCarthy. Blood Meridian kept me riveted.
In a broader sense, I guess the first genre I reach for outside of speculative fiction is thriller. Some of my favorite novels straddle the line between the genres. Michael Crichton was the master at such gems. His ability to craft believable situations out of the fantastic, to get readers to willingly suspend disbelief and immerse themselves in his expertly researched, intelligent universes where the incredible occurs, is inspiring. Andromeda Strain, Timeline, and Eaters of the Dead are a few of my favorites. Congo, too. Crichton exceeded in reaching the crossover audience. That’s part of why my editor liked The Undying. It’s ability to crossover. I took the sequel a bit further, with a potential to reach older YA readers.
Part of my chapter mechanics comes from the thriller structure. Hook the reader off the top, complicate the scene, and leave them wanting more. I recently had dinner with author Jeff Rovin, co-author of A Vision of Fire, and our conversation wrapped itself around chapter construction. We both agreed that author David Morrell — First Blood, Creepers, Murder as a Fine Art — excels at the technique. His ability to engage the reader in the first sentence of each chapter, reel you in with the last, to propel you through the book at a breakneck pace – it’s a talent worth immolating.
In the end, I learn plenty when venturing outside of my comfort zone. I should do it more often. I hadn’t read fantasy in years before an editor told me I had to read Game of Thrones, if simply to see how Martin expertly weaves his stories around the political aspirations of so many characters. I also appreciate how, like in life, no character is safe from Martin’s axe. It’s in these little ways that I attempt to better my craft, by studying how authors from other genres create plot, weave characterization or apply writing techniques.
I’ve been a fan of Stephen King’s short stories ever since I nabbed my dad’s copy of Skeleton Crew off the coffee table when I was twelve. A few of my favorites are The Mist, The Boogeyman, and 1922. The first two I read when I was pretty young, but they’ve stuck with me through the years. King has an uncanny ability to create intensely real, but slightly skewed, worlds within a handful of paragraphs. He can make you love or hate a character within just a sentence or two. I think that talent shines especially bright in short story form where everything is so tight and lean. Horror, in general, is a great genre for authors to read in order to learn how to create atmosphere and build suspense.
Most of my other favorite non-SFF gems are from the Romance genre. I just finished reading Joanna Bourne’s new book, Rogue Spy, and so far it’s my favorite read of the year. Bourne is a fantastic author with a good ear for dialogue and a gift for creating realistic and complicated characters. I particularly love her heroines. In Rogue Spy, Camille is the kind of heroine that a lot of readers might consider to be unlikable. She’s an enemy spy, code-breaker, and murderer. As a child, she was placed in the home of a dead girl’s family like a changeling so that she could steal sensitive information to send back to her handlers. She nearly blinds the hero at their first meeting. And yet, despite all that, Bourne manages to keep her sympathetic throughout the story. The characterization is consistent and deftly layered, the plot well-crafted and believable. If you’ve ever wanted to try a romance but didn’t know where to start, or if you’re looking for an example of truly masterful characterization, Rogue Spy would be an excellent choice.
In Paranormal Romance, I’m enjoying Bec McMaster’s London Steampunk, Jenn Bennett’s Roaring Twenties, and Kristen Callihan’s Darkest London series. They’re all historical paranormal romance, and I love seeing how the authors have combined some of the more traditional paranormal romance elements with different genres, settings and time periods. Seeing that work—and work well—always makes me want to take more chances with my own writing.
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood is my current “I need to read this book once a year just to figure out how she does it” book. I go through cycles with these, rereading them repeatedly over the course of 3 years or so. Previously it was things like Suttree and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and then The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, but now that’s the one.
The thing about The Blind Assassin is that it accesses and assaults your brain on multiple levels. When someone says something “works on multiple levels,” I think what they mean is that character, plot, and theme are folded into one another in such a manner that the plot not only functions technically on the page, AND the story is affecting emotionally (IE, solid character work), but it ALSO – and this is the big one – is resonant on a subconscious level, as in the book was monkeying with deeper things in your head the entire time and you didn’t know it until the end.
The Blind Assassin is one of those books. At the end you realize the book had set up shop inside of you and had been covertly operating there all this time and you didn’t know it. Even when it’s over, the book is still in your head. I like The Blind Assassin dramatically more than I like any of her other books, even (or perhaps especially) her spec fic stuff. Things like Oryx and Crake pale in comparison.
Good books in general perform on the same level as The Blind Assassin. It’s not limited to genre: spec fic can and should do this, if it can, or if it’s supposed to be that kind of book. There are good books to read, and then there are books that make me rethink what books can do – The Blind Assassin is the latter.
One definite thing I think spec fic writers can learn from books like this is how to broaden their worldbuilding palettes. Almost all great novels build involving worlds, even if it’s “our” world. Great historical novels, for example, resurrect and recreate history. Revolutionary Road invokes and captures its own world of suburban miasma. This is worldbuilding, it’s just speaking in a grammar that is probably uncommon in most speculative fiction, which generally has its own strict methods of worldbuilding that it rarely breaks out of, if ever.
If you really want to blow people’s minds, to really get them involved in your world, start using other patterns of communications, other grammar styles of world information. A healthy joint needs to be able to move in a variety of directions, exhibiting excellent flexibility. It shouldn’t move in just one direction, or just one way. Your worldbuilding (and your entire style of writing, really) shouldn’t either.