What I could NOT write (about)
The bedside table discrepancy
I talked about how I found my (present) writing genre (historical and often romance) and why I “specialise” in the Viking age here.
And I often read that authors should read as much as possible (agreed), and inside their genre, similar books and plotlines, in order to improve (agreed with exceptions — for example, me). Either by learning from better authors or analysing what doesn’t work. It makes perfect sense, but nevertheless I can’t comply with this reasonable idea.
The problem is that I only enjoy reading “outside” my own writing genre. I call this the “bedside table discrepancy“:
There are several genres I could NOT read just for fun: those I work with every day.
And several genres I read are what I could NOT write in: those I technically couldn’t master, and maybe because of that CAN enjoy with a relaxed mind!
On my bedside table, you will always find a good crime/thriller book. Mostly paperback. Yes, I want to hold a book and feel its weight and turn the pages. Although I have an e-reader (will get back to this discrepancy in a minute), more often than not my nightly reading has to be “a book”. I am old-fashioned that way. And still grew to love my e-reader. Yes, it’s confusing.
So what lies on my bedside table? At the moment, Tim Weaver, before that it was Lee Child, whose Jack Reacher I adore and can’t put down. I read Simon Beckett, Hjorth and Rosenfeldt, I love McGrath and many many more. It all started decades ago with Agatha Christie, a real legend and often THE introduction for youngsters to crime fiction, and moved on from there, to more diverse characters and stories. But I still love the old black-and-white films with Margaret Rutherford for all the charm they have! Always a winner on a rainy day. These days, the crime/thrillers I choose are often set in Scandinavia. I just love these countries and the atmosphere. But England, Scotland, Ireland would also do, depending on the storyline.
BUT: I couldn’t write a good crime/thriller book. Because those need a lot of planning and “figuring out” before you start writing, and I cannot for the life of me outline all the details to a story before I write. I’m a pantser, sticking to some notes at most, and then just follow where my chapters and scenes take me and tweak the story while I go along. This doesn’t work for the crime/thriller genres. I tried, and failed, whenever it came down to being logical and coherent, all my outlining wasn’t enough. I’m not sure I could learn it, at least not at the current point in my writing life.
Then, there’s also several “semi-research” books on my bedside table that just interest me. I still haven’t finished “The Saga’s of Iceland”, because that one is looong and in a style that can be exhausting. I love it for its authenticity and need it for the invaluable insight it gives for my own stories. The Viking voices.
And there’s always a non-fiction book by my side. Atm, it’s the German “Du sollst nicht funktionieren” (“You don’t have to function”) by Ariadne von Schirach. It helps me learn about what this whole life is about and what I want to do with it. Less pressure, less stress, think differently. I pick that one up on an irregular basis, until I’ve finished it.
But I also tried to follow the recommendation above and bought some romance and Viking novels. These first attempts I download for my e-reader, in case it was a wrong decision, and I’d feel bad to just abandon a “real book”. But … they rarely excite me! And this is really strange, you’ll say.
Even so, it makes sense. I tried several times to just enjoy them, but somehow I can’t read my own genre for fun, I always read them more technically, analytically. I almost pulled out my marker pen while reading Robert Low’s Viking tale “Whale Road”, to make sure I find his great descriptions for my own inspiration later … this just isn’t right. This is no relaxation. I could read those books at my desk, for real research. But they are not meant for the bedside table — for mine, anyway. I have no distance. But I read to learn. I marked pages (yeeees, I did!) with exceptional descriptions, for example of life on a Viking ship, or a battle scene, or a burial. For inspiration and research. But I just couldn’t relax and just let the story take me away, I was always staring at the familiar details of setting and clothing etc. — the execution, and what I can learn from it, so to speak.
So what did I learn? I will buy more historical (Viking) fiction, but not place it on my bedside table. Those need to go to my desk and be read with the professional eye. Bernard Cornwell is next on my list. I found Low’s “Whale Road” okay, brilliant in historical detail, but not great in character development and plotline. I hope he can forgive me, but I am just a beginner in reading Viking fiction! *covers eyes in shame*
Now the same problem applies to romance. Especially historical romance. There are — unfortunately or luckily for me — not many great Viking romance books out there, at least I didn’t stumble across many. I apologise if I overlooked an author who deserves a better critique. But so far, I am quite glad I didn’t find them, as I’d probably get a) too technical and have the marker pen ready, b) would look out for flaws and wonder how I’d have done it, c) get jealous in case I found a great author who managed exactly what I am attempting! 😉
The only romance I enjoyed reading was contemporary, something I did write in the past, but not at the moment, and maybe in a few years I’ll get back to it. Here the distance and difference to my own work was big enough to be able to sit back and just enjoy the characters working towards getting each other, without a pen at the ready. I especially enjoyed Jojo Moyes’s “Me Before You”. It brought me to tears, it is beautifully written, has an original plot (romance NEEDS those!) and such delicate, flawed, but wonderful characters! I can highly recommend this for any bedside table. Then again, I stopped with romance and turned back to my crime/thriller genres. I can’t seem to help it, in bed I enjoy a good murder most.
Reading in my own writing genre always seems to be charged with too much emotion mixed with a professional approach (as it is what I do, too, and always judge and feel strongly about). I have no such problem when reading genres that I do not also write in!
Hooray to the pantsing author!
Does my argument make any sense to you, as a reader and/or writer? Which books do you love to read and which do you hate/avoid for professional reasons?
Which genres could you (maybe technically) never write — or even attempt to tackle in the future?
I’d love to read your comments or contact me via email!
Elaine 26.01.2015 at 11:41
While I do agree that you should read in the genre you write (if only to see how you can do it better), I also think it’s important to read as widely as possible, and not only in your genre. I read tons of horror, romance and historical novels, but write some kind of mix between romance, supernatural and apparently mainstream. It’s important to read, regardless of genre, not only to learn how to become a better writer, but also to see how bad writers do it, and that way you can avoid their mistakes.
sarah 26.01.2015 at 11:47
very sensible, Elaine, you are right. But then, I can’t bring myself to read (or let’s say finish) bad books, even not to “learn” something, they just annoy me and I want to spend my time differently! 🙂 I catch myself postponing bad books, I don’t pick them up for several days, then weeks, then I just shove them off my bedside table and replace them. It is a difficult balance between fun and professional eye!