Friday, February 19, 2010

Book That Feed Me

It used to be, as a reader, that there were two kinds of books for me: Books I liked. Books I didn't.

The reasoning behind what put a book into either of these categories was and is still mostly mysterious and unpredictable, though it has something to do with subtle characterization and clever narration and pretty prose.

Nowadays, however, as a writer, I can split it down further. Books I didn't like. Books I liked. And within books that I like, books that feed me, and books that don't.

I was just musing on this the other day, because I often tell people that I must read while I'm drafting, otherwise my creative well dries up and gets carpet beetles in the bottom. But then I went through a period of angst where I picked up and put down about fifteen novels from my to be read shelf. It wasn't that I didn't like them -- some of them I could tell I was going to really like, actually. But they weren't helping me any. To write, I mean. I couldn't figure out if the intrinsic natures of books had changed overnight or if possibly there was something incredibly wrong with me psychologically. The latter is always a safe bet.

Anyway, in a fit of ennui, I tried picking up some books to reread. Ones that had inspired me in the past. And . . . guess what? They still worked. So I went madly through my stacks finding the books that "fed" me versus the ones that didn't, and this is what I discovered.

The authors of the books that fed me are better writers than I am.

They may not be better at everything, but they are definitely better in ways that I want to be better. They zig when I would've zagged, keep a character alive when I would've killed them, put exposition when I would've put dialog. They make me go oh man I wish I had written this. They hit very specific problem areas or areas of interest to me, and they hit them really well. So that means that the books that feed me might not feed another writer.

So what is it that that does it for me? Well, turns out it's usually the same things that make me like a book -- subtle characterization, clever prose, excellent pacing. What surprised me is that it was almost never plot. I love a good plotty book -- THE HUNGER GAMES wooo! -- but it would never help me write when I was stuck. Right now, I have two books on my desk to read on my lunch breaks.

One of them is THE GIANT'S HOUSE, by Elizabeth McCracken. Example of why I love it? I don't even know if these examples will make sense to you guys, out of context. Or even in it.

The book was opened flat on the table in front of him, and he worked his hands in the air according to the instructions, without any props. His fingers kept slowly snatching at nothing, as if he had already made dozens of things disappear, rabbits and cards and rubber balls and bouquets of paper flowers, and had done this so brilliantly even he could not bring them back.

Then Caroline started to sing. Perhaps she'd been waiting for Mrs. Sweatt to wake up all afternoon, so she could sing inside her house. I imagined her stepping out on the back porch to sing now and then, like a polite smoker. She had the voice of a dancer, I mean like Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly, someone who has such grace at another art that the grace suffuses their voice, which does not quite match the tune but instead strolls up to a note and stands there right next to it, that slight difference so beautiful and heartbreaking that you never want to hear a professional sing again. Professionals remember all the words. Caroline's song was patched together with something something something.

and then the peculiar and magnificent BEL CANTO:

There were those who believed they would be killed, who over and over again saw the movie of themselves being led out the door at night and shot in the back of the head, but Roxanne Coss thought no such thing. Maybe there would be a bad outcome for some of the others, but no one was going to shoot a soprano.


They climbed the long set of stairs to their row, bowed and begged to be excused by every person who stood to let them pass into their seats, and then they unfolded their seats and slipped inside. They were early, but other people were earlier, as part of the luxury that came with the ticket price was the right to sit quietly in this beautiful place and wiat. They waited, father and son, without speaking, until finally darkness fell and the first breath of music stirred from someplace far below them. Tiny people, insects, really, slipped ou from behind the curtains, opened their mouths, and with their voices gilded the walls with their yearning, their grief, their boundless, reckless love that would lead each one to separate ruin.

There is something elegant and effortless about them. Even scanning them now for passages that make sense by themselves, I'm dazzled and inspired. Do I want believe BEL CANTO to be perfect? No, there are parts of it I despise. Do I believe it's perfect in many ways? I do, and those are what I want to learn.

As an artist, I know that one of the most time-tested methods of learning how to paint is to sit down and copy the works of the great masters. I did this once, actually (only I put cat heads in them, I'm afraid, and they were tiny, 2.5 x 3.5"). It was amazing how duplicating and studying the masters made them offer up secrets that you couldn't get from just looking. I'm thinking it must be the same ways with these books. I don't want to paint the Mona Lisa. But I'd really love to know how to underpaint that color of her robe.

Other books that feed me? CROW LAKE. THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE. SAVING FRANCESCA. OF BEES AND MIST. They'll probably sound familiar to you because they landed on my top twelve books of the year post.  I never get tired of them, because they're always offering up some secret puzzle to me.

So what do you guys think? Do you have books that feed you? Do those passages say anything to you? Or are you one of the many writers that can't read while you're writing?


storyqueen said...

First of all, how cool is the Vitruvian Cat????

Second, reading helps me while I write, but it can't be anything close to what I 'm working on. But yeah, I love when a books leaves me inspired. It seems like I find answers to many of my own writing issues from authors who have walked the path before.

Books are great teachers, mini-workshops if you will, in "what works."

(To be honest, your book LAMENT was a great lesson in pacing for me.)

Also love:

The Graveyard Book
The Book Thief (but can't read it too often, because it is a hard read emotionally)
Lips Touch
6th Harry Potter


Kelly Lyman said...

I agree. Reading helps me write. Also, certain movies will help me write as well (movies that are close to what I'm writing, if that makes any sense?!?)

Just a few:
The Hourglass Door
The Lord of the Rings
Chronicles of Narnia

Crystal Cook said...

The Giant's House, Beautiful! I have to read that now! Reading helps with my writing, even though I'm new to writing, especially if I'm just stuck, that helps a lot. That's one of the reasons I wanted to write is because the books I loved inspired me to try. I know in an older post you mentioned you were going to read The Road. I was wondering if you ever got around to it and what you thought of it? I LOVE that book.

others are
Harry Potter 7
Shiver (honestly it did, not trying to suck up or anything, I re read certain favorite scenes between Sam and Grace wondering how you made it feel so real)
City of Glass

Amy Allgeyer Cook said...

I've been reading 'When You Reach Me' as I struggle with revisions to my WIP. It progresses so cleanly, so clearly, step-by-perfectly-measured-step.
I so need that clarity in my novel, which currently has a heaving, organic, southern-swamp-of-a-plot.

Crystal Cook said...

Also, I totally get what you said about being an artist, that's how I learned to paint. I just never put it together that writing is the same way, DUH!

Tosha said...

I agree that I need to read while I write or my writing lacks a certain emotion. I have found that if I am writing something dark; it helps to have read (or reread) something similiar. I guess like music - it gets you in the zone. Books that inspire me -- I too am not trying to suck up - but both Shiver and Lament are on my go to list. I just love how you weave in the perfect blend of humor and the distinctive voice of the characters (among other things.) It definitely provides me with motivation and ideas on how to bring more life to my characters.

Jon Paul said...

"...The authors of the books that fed me are better writers than I am..."

This is a tremendous insight! I have been troubling over exactly the same problem--why certain books help me write and others don't--and I think you've solved it for me.

For example, I just reread Knowles' "A Separate Peace" and it really fed me. I loved it in HS so thought I'd give it a try. I'm reading Lehane's "Shutter Island" now. Not so much--though it's still a good book.

This post was great help. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Ahh, I can relate to this perfectly! I've found that, while I am writing, I can often keep "the flow" going if I have been reading before I write -- but certain books I read can "stilt" me while I am writing.

For instance, Stephenie Meyer's books -- as much as I once loved them -- really don't give me "food" as a writer. They once did, when I was younger and hadn't been as better-read (I dare not use the term "well-read" since I haven't read THAT many books) as I am now, but I'm finding that my tastes are veering away from strict character-driven plots and more along the lines of stories written mostly for the sake of plot (and THEN the characters get their chances to do their "me, me, me" thing and vye for my attention in the plot points).

The classics, I find, are really my "food for writing." Give me A Tale of Two Cities (a unique cast of characters, great foreshadowing, great twists, great finale) or A Count of Monte Cristo (love the themes, characters, and plot) any day. (Here's more dichotomy: Jane Eyre is good "food" for my writing, while Wuthering Heights is not.) Also reading Shakespeare -- pieces of the plays or sonnets -- really helps me think of theme (I don't know why).

(On a side note, The Hunger Games books by Suzanne Collins are another kind of "food" to me since I adore the "surprise in every chapter" kind of writing. I guess that means I'm more on my way to writing "plotty" books, then, since I like having a "map," i.e. outline of what's to come, in my head and written down while I am writing a story.)

(And this was really long. I apologize.)

Thanks for sharing this since I never would have made that distinction on my own. (Now it makes sense why reading while writing my own ideas doesn't always work. It matters that I am reading the RIGHT books, the "food for my thought," as it were.)

Maggie Stiefvater said...

This comment is really belated, but I really, really appreciate you guys sharing the books that fed you and your insights! Jon, yes, the idea that books could be good but not really . . . nourishing (this is starting to sound like soup) was a revelation for me.

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