I’ve mentioned before that a writer should read whatever genre they write. Why? To see what’s out there, how other authors do it, and what’s essential to bring readers to that type of story. If you read enough, you’ll learn the genre’s rhythms and guidelines, but for every few novels I read in urban fantasy, I like to read a few that are outside my usual tastes. Why do I do that? Because my first love is good writing. What I truly respect and admire are authors who can transcend their genres.
I learn a lot from reading novels that stretch the basics, authors who combine literary with genre plotlines. That sounds sort of snobby, I know, but there are lots of authors whom I enjoy to read because they tell a good story and keep me turning the pages. When I find an author who can do that AND blow me away with their use of language and imagery, I’ve found my own personal, reading Nirvana. And I study how they do it.
I’ve said it before, and I’m not being humble–just realistic–that I think of myself as a writer, not an author. I’m the person who asked for anthologies by Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty one year for Christmas, read every story, drooled at their mastery as wordsmiths, but asked myself, “What was that story really about?” I look for plots. I look for BIG book questions. I enjoy subtleties, but I want more. So for me, the perfect combination is a wordsmith who writes great stories.
Why am I thinking about this right now? I’m reading Neil Gaimann’s American Gods. The man’s skill and imagination blow me away. The story? I’m struggling with, and at first, it confused me. It’s all the things I like–gods; myths; amazing, original ideas; and writing skills that make me bookmark pages on my Kindle and drool. He can write scenes that make me squirm, that make my jaw drop, or that make my heart ache. He writes scenes that shock me because I didn’t see what was coming. So why am I inching my way through chapter after chapter? Because each chapter in and of itself is amazing, but I still don’t see any progress in the plot. And I’m a plot-driven girl. I’m also a character-driven reader, and even though I really like Shadow–and I REALLY like him–he’s just moving through the novel. At first, I thought I was having trouble with him because he simply reacts to everything instead of being pro-active–forming a game plan and trying to achieve something–but then I realized that he doesn’t even really react to what happens to him. He simply deals with it and moves on. And I guess, for me, that makes it hard for me to follow him, because I don’t know where he’s going or even what he wants. I think that’s intentional, but boy, I never realized what a big difference it would make for me, the reader.
The thing is, though, I’m learning a LOT from reading this book. I study how Gaimann sets up his scenes, because he’s GOOD at it. It’s almost easier to be objective about his writing, because I’m not flipping pages as fast as I can to see what happens next. It’s not my usual, genre read, so I’m not in any certain rhythm, waiting for the next plot point to happen. I have time to really think about what I admire (and am jealous about) in his writing, and what slows me down. And that, in itself, has been an awesome experience.
American Gods feels like an unusual, quirky read. I’m glad I found it, even though I’m late. The last novel I read–out of my comfort zone–was Les Edgerton’s Just Like That. Noir. Another genre I’m unfamiliar with. That man’s another brilliant wordsmith. Would I ever write noir? No, and that’s the point. Did I learn from reading it? Yes, there’s a certain rawness about noir that I’d love to incorporate into my own writing. And that’s what I’ve found interesting. I learn more about writing–nouns and verbs strung together into sentences–when I read outside my genre. I learn more about storytelling–what to put where–when I read inside it. All of it worth my time.