Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Improving your writing by reading

A strange thing happens when I'm reading fiction now. I used to become absorbed in the story, part of the characters and world, but now I seem to read them in the same way I imagine a god of Olympus would watch humanity; sometimes joining in but also looking down from above and seeing the bigger picture. This particularly happens when there's a problem with what I'm reading. It's normal for that to cause a jolt that bumps you out of the fictional world, but I used to ignore it and keep going. Now I stop, and reread the section until I can work out what went wrong. A recent book I read had me doing this a lot; Darkness Falling by Peter Crowther.

The concept of Darkness Falling may not be entirely original but it is compelling: a small group of people are left behind when a strange light flashes all around the world at the same time, and almost everyone disappears. Left to their own devices in this strange, empty world, they try to work out what happened until suddenly those who were missing come back. But not as they were...

Unwisely I think, Crowther's work strongly resembles Stephen King's The Stand. I say unwisely because that particular work is (imo) correctly considered one of King's finest and is a masterwork of mulitple point of views. Darkness Falling also features many people's voices as part of the narrative, but it's done without nearly as much control. The point of view flips throughout, with no warning, so you're never entirely sure whose head your supposed to be in at any moment. There is also a serious lack of description, and Crowther even compares a character of his to a well known actor, rather than describe the man's looks himself. When it comes to the gore and blood (of which there is plenty) the description flows, and the picture is vividly depicted. It never extends much beyond those moments though, which ultimately limits the impact of what is otherwise a very entertaining and spooky story.

At the moment I'm reading George R.R.Martin's Feast for Crows, which is a very different experience. If anything it's harder to work out what the techniques are when they work well, because it's so easy to get caught up in the story. Martin's experience shows with his descriptions, points of view use (as there are plenty of perspectives in Game of Thrones), and the use of the unreliable narrator. You never entirely know if the character filtering the story to you, the reader, is actually being honest with themselves. It's a great technique and one I want to use in stories in the future.

These are just two examples, good and bad, of what I've learned from the books I've been reading. The art of actually noticing this stuff seems to be the hardest thing to learn - but it's a bit of a curse. Once you learn how to read this way, it's impossible to stop, even when you really just want to relax and read as a reader. It's a small price to pay though, if it makes your own writing better.

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