The Thousand Lives of a Reader

book-1276778_1920 (2)“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.”
—George R. R. Martin

When I was much smaller than I am now, my family would often “lose” me because I would hide behind a chair in the sitting room with a book and read until I fell asleep. And while I don’t remember every single book that I read, I do remember, vividly, what I loved so much about them.

In a world full of brown carpets and white lace curtains, the colors, textures, and creatures that Dr. Suess introduced me set my mind on fire. I yearned to roam beaches with Sneetches, whether star-bellied or not. I almost tasted the river of chocolate and the blades of candy grass with Willy Wonka. I felt the talons of Farley Mowat’s Owl, Wol, gently pressing into my shoulder as my eyes traced the words that described him. When I read Jacques Martin’s books, I could smell the cool, heavy rain as it pattered on the forest leaves.

When the world told me to sit on a bus as it bounced along the pot-holed roads to drop me off, I was wielding a heavy iron blade with Aragorn. I was sitting in Gryffindor tower next to a fire with a pile of spellbooks stacked around me.

In the quiet summer afternoons when the world wanted to close the blinds and rest, I slipped into 1920’s Japan and learned what it felt like to sleep like a Geisha, with my head on a small, hard wooden brace instead of a pillow.

When the world turned dark, and I felt like the loneliest person alive, I wandered with Merlin and learned that there is an important difference between being alone, and being lonely, and I felt my fingertips tingle with a spell.

In my relatively short life, I have floated over the shoulder of a young Jewish girl during WW2. I watched as a country vet pulled a newborn calf into the world. I have felt the heat of a dragon’s fire on my skin. I have felt the damp of rain in my cloak and the cold edge of a blade against my ribs.

I have travelled around the world a thousand times, backwards and forwards through time. I have been to Middle Earth, and Westeros, and a hundred other worlds outside of our own. I have been a woman, a man, a child, a spirit, a beast, and a shadow. And all without leaving Canada.

Books have taken me on countless journeys to places I wouldn’t have even imagined. They have taught me what it is like to really, truly live in another’s shoes. They have pushed my mind beyond its limits and opened my eyes to truths and to lies. Because of them, I have lived a thousand lives, and will live a thousand more before I am done.

*As a Canadian, who lives in Alberta, I feel obligated to mention that should you wish to donate to the Red Cross to help evacuees from Fort McMurray who are fleeing from the devastating forest fires that have laid waste to many, many homes, and displaced so many families, you can do so here.


The Flavor of Writing

The Flavor of WritingWriters know very well that the style in which they write may not be sweet to every reader. Every piece of writing is defined by a genre, sub-genre, category, sub-category… and the list goes on. Some readers enjoy broad genres, such as fiction or non-fiction, while others prefer more specific categorization, like historical fiction or sci-fi.

Unfortunately, whether we will it or not, whatever we write inevitably falls into a class that defines it. This offers both positive and negative side-effects. The positives being that we can reach our readers more readily, and skip those who wouldn’t be interested in the first place. The negatives being that others who have written within our genre may have helped to create stereotypes that automatically cause readers to avoid our predetermined classification.

Of course, every genre can have romance, or humor, or history. However, the small details are not taken into account when vendors and publishers choose which heading to set above a book. To me, this is, in many ways, tragic. Separating books so clearly gives readers the ability to be as picky about books as they are about food. It’s just as easy to say, “I don’t read fantasy” as it is to say “I despise onions”. But onions always have the same flavor. Books do not.

One fantasy story could be found to be long and dull, while another could be enthralling and captivating. Not every fantasy has dragons, just as not every romance is about some young girl falling in love for the first time. It’s simple to say that you do not like one food or another, but the flavors of writing are more intricate and less defined. You could easily class one book in the sci-fi genre as an onion (or other despised food of your choice), and another as a slice of the most delectable cheesecake (or other delicious dish of your choosing).

The spark behind this post was an article that I saw about how GRRM has seemingly “revolutionised how people think about the fantasy genre“.  And, although I love his books, and will be watching the season premiere devotedly this evening, I have to disagree.

The reason why his books have become popular is because they got picked up by the right place at the right time. They have been thrust into the public eye, and, I suppose, in that way, they have made people think about fantasy differently.

But, there have been countless authors who have written quality fantasy over the years that have received much praise, and likely even more that have remained under the radar for whatever reason. I have no doubt that there are hundreds of high-quality fantasies out there that I have never even heard of. And part of that is because of the stereotype surrounding the genre as a whole.

GRRM was lucky. But even his books were a near miss. He started the series a long time ago, and it has only reached popularity in recent years. I have a plethora of books on my shelf that I would define as equal in quality to A Song of Ice and Fire, both in terms of writing ability and strength of story. Are all of them as wildly popular as GOT? No. Not even close. Should they be? Probably. If they had been given a chance.

So, next time you avoid a genre simply because it hasn’t suited your tastes in the past, remember that books are not as easily classified as onions (I just assume everyone else abhors them, because I believe they are the absolute worst). Remember that just because a book is classed within a genre that you don’t often sample, that doesn’t mean that it is anything like the last one that you tasted.

Books within the same genre are as vast in flavor and texture as a hundred course meal served at a banquet. Some are light, some are sweet, others are heavy and thick. Some are bitter and some are as smooth as cream. Some will leave you asking for seconds, while others will congeal on the side of your plate after an unpleasant sample.

Let your palate for books be much more tested and open than that of your tongue.

Have you ever been surprised by a book in a certain genre? Is there a genre that you avoid altogether? Do you think that GRRM had a direct impact on fantasy because of the quality or because of the timing of his books? 

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Why Fiction is Essential to Writing Well

GargoyleThere are all kinds of writers out there. From fiction authors, to journalists, to pop culture piece writers, to non-fiction publishers. There are casual writers, serious writers, and some who are in between. We all have our own voices, and we all have our own areas of expertise.

As I have discussed many times, reading is a key part of writing. But I think that those who read only non-fiction miss out on essential writing lessons. You see, fiction is about the words, while non-fiction is about the story. You don’t really need a lot of description in a biography, while in fiction you have to create a world, characters, and every other aspect of your story inside of someone else’s mind.

Fiction is filled with beautiful words and new ideas. Biographies and marketing books teach you about things that already exist (or did in the past). I bet that those who read fiction may even have larger vocabularies than their non-fiction counterparts. I have learned so many new words from Shakespeare and Poe and Tolkien, while I have learned hard facts and statistics and tactics from non-fiction.

Fiction teaches us to write a story, and I believe that that is a fundamental part of any written work. Every small piece of copy, every call-to-action, every product description, or news story, or scientific article should have a story to it. It needs more than just the introduction, climax, and conclusion that we were taught throughout our years in English classes.

The purpose of any piece is to be read. The way to pique a reader’s interest is to write a piece that engages them in some way. Simply knowing how to spell isn’t enough. Fantasy and horror and even romance teach us how to pull a reader in. We need to explore different tones and styles so that we can fit our writing to the audience who matches it. An experienced writer should be able to move up and down on the Flesch-Kincaid readability scale without flinching, to tend to the needs of various readers.

A good writer should be able to make just about anything interesting. And without fiction, I just don’t see how that’s possible. Non-fiction binds us to certain types of writing, and makes it uncomfortable to flit between different topics and styles. Fiction pushes us to be creative, and to understand the varying levels of writing without giving us strict boundaries.

True, I write non-fiction all day, four days of the week. Do I enjoy it? Sometimes. But I like to think that the content that I provide is engaging, suits the audience, and sits in a perfect balance of readability for the people I have targeted to read it, regardless if I am writing about office culture or a legal process. I wholeheartedly believe that because I have consumed so much fiction, I could write about almost anything without much difficulty.

Topics, content type, and audience do not daunt me, because I can relate a piece of work that I have read to whatever I need to write. I have so many resources to pull ideas and examples from, that I never feel like I am facing a foreign or unexplored task.

Limiting ourselves to genres or types of books keeps us from expanding as writers. Though I prefer fiction, I also enjoy articles, books, and posts about science, history, culture, gaming, and news. Often, if I come across something that I don’t enjoy, I will read it anyway so that I can understand what I don’t like about it. It usually has nothing to do with the subject, and everything to do with the writing.

If you only read long, boring articles, why would you expect your writing to be any different? In order to really be a writer and to provide content above and beyond what is required, you have to not only taste every dish at the table, but have a hearty helping of each. How else could you discern your own preferences?

I do think that you can still be a good writer even if you only read one type of book. I just think that there is so much more potential for those who experiment and test the waters of different styles. It’s much more difficult to become adaptable in your reading if you refuse to adapt in your reading.

Do you stick to one genre? Do you think that fiction has anything to offer to writers of all kinds? Do you experiment with your own writing in terms of genres and styles?

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