The Importance of Reading Part 4: Living Other Lives

 

There’s a quote I’ve seen a lot recently:

I’m a reader, not because I don’t have a life, but because I choose to have many.

It’s a great antidote to all those broad-brush stereotypes of readers being boring, but what does it actually mean? When we read, we’re transported into new worlds, and experience new characters. But it’s just entertainment, isn’t I? It’s fun while it lasts, but we have to return to the real world at some point. That written world has no bearing on our own lives, right?

Wrong.

Think for a moment how we learn about the world. As babies and toddlers we learn through exploring‌—‌sticking things in our mouths, reaching out and touching things, and so on. But we also learn from those around us. The way we view the world is initially very much influenced by those close to us, and for a baby that generally means family.

But as we grow, we meet others, especially at school. We pick up on their world-views, and our understanding develops. Most parents, though, send their children to schools that reflect their own world-view in some way. This can happen as a deliberate choice (as with faith schools) or by accident (as most people live in areas where others are similar to themselves.)

human-1602493_1280When a child is older, they might move away to university or college. They’re independent(ish) now, free to mix with a far wider variety of people. This means an explosion of new experiences, and the opportunity to see the world from so many different viewpoints. But, in that stage between childhood and true adulthood, our brains are still developing. We’re still discovering who we are and how we fit in, and we’re especially open to all these new stimuli.

It’s no wonder that people are more likely to become involved in political and social activism during these years, or that people travel to far-off places, way outside their comfort zones, to ‘find themselves’.

Eventually, we (kind of) figure out what we want in life, and we settle down somewhere we feel comfortable‌—‌which usually means being surrounded by those whose ideas and ideals chime with our own. Maybe we have a family of our own, and our world-views are passed on to a new generation.

But the world never stops changing, and unless we want to risk being left behind, we need to change with it. We need to be constantly adapting our world-view.

Think of the way some older people say things that make us cringe-worthy. Of course, they see nothing wrong with what they’re saying, because that is how they see the world, and how they have done for decades.

So how do we keep developing? The best way is to experience more of the world. Some people do this through travel, although that takes time and money. But another way of experiencing this is in reading. Through books, we are thrust into the lives of others, in situations we’ve never encountered before. So many diverse authors bring us storied and characters that reflect their experiences, and of course these are different to our own.

If the book is well-written, we start to grow in our understanding‌—‌of what it means to live in a different society, of what it feels like to belong to a minority (or a majority), of how people cope with issues we’ve never had to face. And we can use that understanding in our own lives.

A staunch pacifist reads a book about soldiers and, although they may still believe their stance is morally correct, they gain an insight into a different point of view. Then, the next time they find themselves in an argument on the rights and wrongs of violence, they are able to show more empathy for those who believe that violence can be an answer. And maybe that’s enough to turn a potential shouting match into an intelligent debate.

These different world-views don’t have to be overtly expressed in books, though. In fact, I often find books that tackle ‘issues’ head-on come across as preachy, but a great story that has characters who are not all like me allows me to broaden my experiences I might not be able to relate to, for example, a transexual Asian youngster struggling with their identity, but I can relate to a character having problems at work, even if they also happen to be a transexual Asian youngster struggling with their identity.

A good example of this (not a book, admittedly, but it’s still story) is the TV series Brooklyn Nine-Nine. As a comedy, it’s primary aim is to make us laugh. As stories, each episode is designed to give a satisfying viewing experience. But by including diverse characters it can nudge a viewer into changing their world-view. This is perhaps best highlighted in Captain Holt, a black, gay man in an interracial relationship, but he’s a person first. I can’t directly relate to him having a same-sex partner, or of being a police captain, but I can relate to him getting frustrated with his co-workers. I can relate to him having disagreements with others, or of feeling tired, or happy, or many of the other things people do. And because I can relate to a part of him, it is easier to accept those parts that are different.

man-1461448_1280Joe Abercrombie’s First Law books show another way this vicarious experience can broaden our perceptions of others. Many of the characters in these books are morally ambiguous. One example it Sand dan Glokta, a torturer who obtains information through any means necessary. He appears to have no remorse for his actions, even when he knows he is drawing a confession from someone who is innocent.

And yet, Glokta is himself a victim of torture, and his body is a wreck. Every step is a struggle, he’s in constant pain, and he can no longer take solid food. So did he become a torturer because of his past or in spite of it? What drives him?

As the reader is drawn into Glokta’s mind, these questions naturally arise, and our minds seek answers. It doesn’t matter if we like him or despise him‌—‌as we read we start to understand him a bit more.

Tyrion Lannister, from George RR Martin’s Song Of Ice And Fire books, functions in a similar way, although he is maybe more sympathetic than Glokta. Tyrion is looked down on (figuratively and metaphorically) by many in the books‌—‌and who hasn’t experienced something like this before? We have a point of reference, so when he does things that we see as morally wrong, we try to understand his reasoning. Like many characters in well-written books, Tyrion’s character is not one-dimensional, and this is true of every one of us. Through becoming immersed in the fictional world of Glokta or Tyrion (or Captain Holt), we develop the ability to better see more facets of characters in our own, non-fictional world. Through experiencing many lives through reading, we are better able to make sense of a world that, all too often, seems random and violent.

So reading is important because it enables us to experience far more of life than we can otherwise, and that teaches us about our own lives. As Albert Camus said,

Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.


Previous posts in this series are:

Part 3 : Imagination

Part 2: Concentrate!

Part 1: Slow Down

The first draft is always a mess (Reworking a novel part 3)

I’ve started writing some of the new scenes for Dark Glass now. The first of these I did was Rodin’s first attempt to assassinate Leopold.

I was excited to write this. I had it all planned out, knew what was going to happen. And it ties in with certain themes that return in later books, too. We get a chance to see Rodin working without his usual weapons. We see him planning and executing a removal‌—‌even if (spoiler alert) it goes wrong.

But as I wrote this scene, something felt off. I’d write a sentence, then wonder if it was good enough. I pushed through, onto the next sentence, the next paragraph‌—‌but I had the nagging doubt that this writing wasn’t as good as I expected. Worse, the writing itself didn’t feel like an improvement on the original Dark Glass.

And then I remembered something‌—‌because this was a new scene, this was a new first draft. And first drafts are always messy.

The first draft, even of a single scene, exists to get the words down, one after the other. It exists to tell the story. A first draft shouldn’t be about clean writing, and it’s allowed to have errors‌—‌spelling mistakes, poorly formed sentences, unrealistic dialogue, weak descriptions.

If a scene (or a book) is a sculpture, the first draft is the point when the big chunks of rock have been hacked away. There’s a basic shape, but the edges are rough. There’s no detail‌—‌the head is a round blob, the hand has no fingers. But this doesn’t matter, because the next round of work (the edits) will add details and smooth edges. Slowly, those harsh edges will become smooth contours, and ugly sentences will become flowing prose.

This is the process I went through with the original Dark Glass‌—‌first draft, then rounds of edits to refine both story and writing. So there’s no way I should be directly comparing that finished product with these messy first drafts. It’s like comparing a plain sponge to a decorated cake, or a single-track home recording of guitar and voice to a professionally recorded full-band version of the same song. It’s like comparing a first screenplay to a completed movie.

So yes, these new scenes are messy. But that doesn’t matter, because at this stage they are improving the story. And the writing? A few rounds of edits, and I’m confident I can pull that past the standard of the original novel.

It’s good to know I’m on the right track.


Previous posts in ‘Reworking a novel’ are:

Broken Promises (part 2)

Reworking a novel (part 1)

‘Prepared’ – new short story

Back in the summer, we had a family holiday in Portugal, in an area we’d stayed in a few years ago. Unsurprisingly, not much had changed, but I started imagining what the place might look like in the future‌—‌especially a future where we were leaving the planet. Who would visit a place like this when tourists were all going elsewhere? And as the cafes and bars and shops all closed, what would it be like for the last place standing?

This short story, Prepared, arose from those thoughts. I’m still not sure if I admire the main character for their perseverance, or am saddened by the futility of their existance.

You can read the story here, and others can be found here. And, as always, I’d love to know what you think of it.

The Importance of Reading Part 3: Imagination

 

photo-manipulation-1825450_1280We live in a very visual world, so it is no surprise that technology has enabled us to manipulate and create images to such a high standard. Just think of films and games today, and the way they place characters in worlds so fantastically rendered that they leave our own seem flat by comparison. Combine that with state-of-the-art sound design, and place all that within a narrative structure (be that passive or active), and it is no wonder that so many people are drawn to the spectacle and the immersion of films and games.

Yet reading is still a popular activity. There are many (myself included) who would rather spend an evening with a novel than watching a film. We get more (or maybe a different kind of) enjoyment from words on a page than from moving images on a screen, even when they are accompanied by dialogue, music and sound effects.

Our minds are incredible. From a few words, we can conjure a whole scene‌—‌and we are not only limited to visuals. We can read a short scene set in a cafe, and in our minds we taste the bitterness of the coffee, we feel the softness of the sponge in the cakes. We hear the accents of those around, muffled by the sizzling of a frying pan and the gurgling of a coffee machine. We feel the muggy heat and the cold air that washes in when someone opens the door. And we add details of our own too‌—‌the man at the next table has a shaving cut by his left ear, the woman just leaving has her coat buttoned up wrong, someone has put a wet spoon in the sugar bowl and there is a congealed lump in one corner.

And this scene will be unique to us. Someone else, reading exactly the same words, will see, hear, smell, touch, taste something different.

It’s called imagination, and it’s a big part of what makes us human.

lego-708088_1280It’s also very natural. When children play, their games are filled with imagination‌—‌a few scraps of coloured paper get placed in a wooden box, and they become a meal to be shared with friends no adult can see. A few stuffed toys have adventures in far-flung places without ever leaving the four walls of the bedroom. Tiny cars travel a world that is only flat to our eyes‌—‌to the child, it is a vast city, filled with people going about their strange and wonderful lives.

Imagination is more than inventing world‌—‌it is a way to understand the world we live in. If we do not know how something works, we use our imaginations to search for a possible answer, and then we test that answer. In a situation we’re unfamiliar with, we use our imagination to play through different outcomes. Imagination allows us to as ‘what if‍…‍?’ And that is the question that leads to so, so much.

Albert Einstein said:

‘Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.’

When Henry Ford was asked what he thought of asking customers for their opinions, said:

‘If I had asked them what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.’

Imagination allows us to break free from the regular world and leap to new ideas. Think of any invention‌—‌central heating, the printing press, Facebook, the lightbulb‌—‌and you will find imagination at their genesis. Throughout history, milestones have occurred because people with imagination asked ‘what if?’ and followed where that question led them.

We see those who invent and discover these wonders as geniuses, and we admire them. We believe we can never be like them.

But why can’t we? Maybe we don’t have the theoretical knowledge, or the design skills, or other specialised knowledge, but if their ideas came from their imagination, we have that, don’t we? Yes, we might have grown out of the habit of using it, putting off ‘childish play’ when the adult world seemed to demand more certainty, but imagination is not in finite supply. We can develop our imagination, just as we can develop our memories, or our muscles. The more we use our imagination, the stronger it becomes. Then, when we are in a new place or an unfamiliar situation, we can use our imagination to see possibilities, and to guide us. Maybe, our imagination will show us a way of combining ideas, or will hint at a way of filling a gap in our own lives and the lives of others. Maybe, if we allow our imagination to run, we can see something special.

octopus-1235006_1280So it is useful to develop our imaginations, and one of the best ways of doing this is through reading. When we watch films we can be passive, letting the story flood over us. But when reading, we have to use our imaginations. Those squiggles on the page need translating into scenes and characters and actions.

But the development of our imaginations doesn’t end with the reading itself. A good story draws us in, and we are there, inside the narrative, living vicariously through the characters. We start to imagine how we would act. We imagine what we might do differently. Sometimes, if a story stays with us for long enough, our imaginations build a whole world around it.

Fan-fic is an example of this‌—‌people who are so immersed in their favourite story-worlds that they create brand new stories, taking the characters to places the original writer probably never imagined. And then, maybe, the imagination continues, and the reader develops new characters and settings, and imagines original stories of their own (or, if you believe there are only a limited number of stories in the world, they imagine original retellings of these stories.)

So if you do not want to read to relax, or read to improve your concentration, then read to develop your imagination.

Broken Promises (Reworking a novel part 2)

Warning: There will potentially be spoilers in this post, both for the original version of Dark Glass and the new version I am currently working on.

So, first things first. If I’m going to rework Dark Glass, I need to figure out what the major problems are in the current version.

A couple of reviews have said it’s slow, and on re-reading I can see what they mean. There’s a lot of superfluous language, especially when things move into the Dome. I think I did some of this on purpose, trying to show how those in the Dome were more verbose, but it comes across as poor writing.

I can tidy this up. When characters in the Dome talk, I should add in the odd long word, and the occasional flourish to their language, but not so much that it detracts. It’s like dealing with accents‌—‌use the occasional dialect word, but don’t overdo it.

But poor writing’s not the only thing contributing to the slowness. There’s also pacing issues.

I intended this book to be a thriller, so it needs to move faster. I need to increase the tension and the action (external and/or internal).

Connected to this, I also need to deal with broken (or unfulfilled) promises. These are things I wrote, or hinted at, in the first few chapters didn’t bear fruit later. I set up expectations in the reader, but failed to deliver on them.

The big one is Rodin. I set him up as a cold, calculating mercenary He’s paid to kill people, and he’s good at his job. We see this, when he escapes his booby-trapped room and then kills the assassin sent after him.

But we don’t see anything else like this (apart from a few flash-back scenes) until the very end. For most of the book, Rodin does pretty much nothing. He bumbles along in the Dome, he talks to Leopold, he misses opportunities to kill the man‌—‌but he’s not proactive until the end.

So I need to change this. From the moment Rodin enters the Dome, he needs to be working toward assassinating his target‌—‌this is what he has been hired to do, and he’s a professional. Obviously he has to suffer set-backs, but he needs to be trying.

And those who are protecting Leopold need to be more active too. I can’t use the excuse that ‘things move slower in the Dome’, because both sides in this struggle are ruthless. If those wanting Leopold removed are willing to hire help from outside the Dome, then surely those protecting him would also seek help wherever they could?

Rodin needs to be targeted. It might not be the kind of fight situation he’s used to (in fact, it would be better if it wasn’t, because then he is more out of his depth, and has to work harder to succeed), but the story needs some kind of villain, even if that is a faceless group of people bent on stopping Rodin assassinating Leopold.

The whole book needs a major re-write in the middle.

But there are other promises I need to address. I state that Rodin’s weapon of choice is a lance (a toughened syringe that can inject a choice of drugs into a victim)‌—‌but he never uses his own lance. This I can easily rectify‌—‌when he returns to the Dome at the end, and finally has Leopold where he wants him, Rodin can subdue the man with his lance.

Another broken promise is the glass blade. In the original, Rodin manages to sneak this blade into his meeting with Genna and Cat, and uses it to threaten Cat. But it isn’t used again.

I don’t like Rodin’s actions here anyway. He’s not one for rash behaviour, and so it’s out of character for him to pull a blade in a meeting like that unless he seriously intends to kill someone. So I can remove this part of the scene, and in doing so remove that promise.

So I’ve been restructuring the whole story, taking some parts out and adding a lot more. Rodin tries to complete his job sooner, and the inevitable failure of that first attempt causes more difficulties for him to overcome. And the roof garden mentioned in the scene when Rodin first meets Daventree‌—‌that now plays a bigger part. I’ve cut back on a lot of the background/history/explanation of the Dome‌—‌it’s still there, but in small doses, hopefully as part of the story rather than as info-dumps (and there were an awful lot of them in the original).

I know I’m going to find more story issues as I work through Dark Glass, but I’m pleased with the changes I’ve made so far. Already, the book feels more solid.

Still a long way to go, though.


To read  Reworking a novel part 1, click here.

The Power Of Words is released, and here’s a free short story to celebrate

PowerOfWordsCoverWords have power. They can be used to cure, and to cut. They can be used to build up and to tear down.

The Power Of Words is an anthology that explored these ideas, taking the First Amendment as inspiration. Four tales by four authors‌—‌M.L.S. Weech, Heidi Angell, Richard T. Drake and me. And it’s out now, on e-book and paperback (with audiobook to follow soon).

This might sound like a sales pitch, but I’ve read all the stories, and highly recommend it. And at the bargain price of 99p/99c for a limited period, you can’t go wrong.

My story in The Power Of Words is called Ghost Stream, and to give you a taste of it, I’ve written a separate short, called Rumours, that you can read here. In this tale, you’ll meet the villain of Ghost Stream, and maybe start to see how manipulative he can be. He might not lie, but his words cannot be trusted!

So check out Rumours here, and The Power Of Words here.