Five lessons I learned from what I read in 2011

January 10, 2012 § 4 Comments

I read oodles (the technical term for it) when I was in elementary and middle school, a lot in high school, and not terribly much in college (aside from what I was reading for classes, which took the majority of my reading energy). Fortunately I’m rectifying that error, by reading more than ever these days. The ‘real’ world, with mortgages and bills and full-time jobs isn’t all glamor and glitz, but it’s one major redeeming quality is a total lack of homework. I’ve taken advantage of the extra time in my life (and the fact that my wife who is in grad school still does have homework in the evenings) by reading more this year than in the previous eight years combined.

Since I began writing seriously, the way I read books has changed significantly, for better or worse. I’m more discerning of everything from adverb overuse and cliches to strong and original characters. Most of the books I read this year taught me something that I could then incorporate into my writing, or at least reflect on. Below are five of the more notable things I learned this year. It strikes me upon writing this that some of these things seem incredibly simply, but, in my experience, when you’re trying to wrangle together a cohesive plot and engaging characters, the simple things have a way of falling through the cracks.

1. The Hunger Games and a world of gray

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve most likely heard about The Hunger Games, whether because of the upcoming movie or from the bestselling series it’s based on. If you have any interest in young adult, science fiction, or just really good books and you haven’t read it yet, you should rectify the error of your ways. The trailer makes the movie look awesome, but the book is one of my favorite young adult stories of all time. What drew me into the book and wouldn’t let me go, was the world of gray that the characters lived in. The heroes weren’t paragons of virtue (after all, they’re focus is killing other kids for most of the book) and there are no easy answers for the protagonist Katniss. Most notably, there is a spectacular love triangle (or at least “like” triangle) between her and two male characters in the book and, for the life of me, I couldn’t decide which of them I wanted her to end up with. Since finishing The Hunger Games I’ve strived to avoid giving my characters easy decisions and cookie cutter conflicts.

2. The City of Ember and believable worlds

The City of Ember was a book I really wanted to like. I loved the blurb, I loved the cover, and I’d heard a lot about it, but I just couldn’t get past a few gaping plot holes to get involved in what was happening in the world. The book takes place in a world of perpetual darkness where the science of electricity has been lost, leaving the people in the city to rely on stockpiles of light bulbs and spare generator parts to survive. No one ventures into the darkness around the city because there is no “light that moves.” I found it hard to fathom that in the hundred years people have been in this city without the science of electricity no one has been able to think up a candle or torch? A crucial element of science fiction and fantasy is creating a world that the reader can get lost in. That means filling it with details that give it texture and life, but also giving critical thought to the big picture.

3. The Warded Man and redundancy

This book was one of my favorite reads of the entire year, which is saying quite a lot in a year where I did so much reading. The premise was unlike anything I’ve ever read, I loved the magic system, and the tension had me turning pages like a madman. That said, there was more than one occasion where it would tell me something about the world or a character on one page, and the exact same thing through dialogue on the next. When reading, I like to feel like I’m observing events as they swirl around me and when things are explicitly spelled out for me it takes away some of the magic and slows down the pace. Though again, I’d recommend the book to any fantasy fan sixteen and up (maybe eighteen?), and eagerly await future installments in the series.

4. Boneshaker and characters driving action

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest was another book that I loved, but learned a lesson from. It’s a great steampunk novel (from which I take much inspiration) set in 1800s Seattle, complete with gadgetry, crazed inventors, airships, and zombies (yes, zombies). It had plenty of adventure and excitement, but it often felt like the action was happening to the characters rather than the characters driving the action. There seemed to be a lot of coincidences that put characters in the situations they were in, like airship crashes and earthquakes. Again, I loved the book and highly recommend it, especially to anyone with a penchant for steampunk, but I am more vigilant about ensuring that my characters are driving the action.

5. A Game of Thrones and tension

George R. R. Martin does tension like no other author I’ve ever read. It’s a tension born of beheadings. Usually in books you can depend on the characters you spend a lot of time with making it through alive and relatively unscathed. Sure, a supporting character or two might get the axe, but we all knew Harry Potter was safe. You can count on no such thing with Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, and what it means is that you never know who might die on the next page. It’s exhausting to read, but fantastic. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to kill characters quite as efficiently as Martin, but it’s a good lesson nonetheless. The other benefit of the pools of protagonist blood at the feet of Mr. Martin is that you never know what the next book will hold because you never know who will survive that long.

There are obviously countless other examples, but this post is already the longest post in R. H. Culp blog history (I think), so I’ll just have to save them for later. Any lessons or observations from what you read this year? Do you learn more from the good books or the bad?

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