Mark Terry

Friday, May 16, 2008

Reading and Writing...and Reading... and, well, Writing...

May 16, 2008
I have been consciously trying to change my reading habits. I've been a lifelong reader--voracious, compulsive, obsessive--of fiction. I've never been very good at reading book length nonfiction, although I regularly read magazines like Smithsonian and Time. And recently MacWorld, and for years I got Writers Digest, for a while Publisher's Weekly. And USA Today. And now that I'm online all day I tend to read five or six general news articles each day that appear on my browser homepage, which is

As I got more obsessed with getting my fiction published--which was typically mysteries or thrillers--my reading became narrower. And eventually, with a few exceptions like Stephen King, I found myself reading mysteries and thrillers almost exclusively.

I've been trying to branch out a bit. Partly because I think it's healthy. Partly because I'm getting stale on mystery and thriller fiction. Even writers that I love, like John Sandford and Jonathan Kellerman and Robert B. Parker, aren't satisfying me like they used to. Maybe it's just too much "been there done that," or perhaps it's just me growing, or maybe it's me being aware of the authors' tricks and tics and themes and obsessions.

So I've been reading more science fiction, more young adult and middle school books, and more nonfiction. The book I'm holding in the photo I just finished the other day, HOUSE OF RAIN by Craig Childs. Partly about the Anasazi, it's also about Craig Childs wandering around the southwest, visiting Anasazi sites and trying to track the Anasazi as they migrated, essentially from the Colorado plateau to northern Mexico, over about a three hundred year period. It's beautifully written, fascinating, and rather dense and long. It took me a while to read it, taking breaks from time to time to read other things, which actually may be the beauty of reading nonfiction books. Novels tend to require a certain active participation on the part of the reader, but nonfiction books can often be ingested in sections over time.

I'm aware, though, that my conscious change in reading material is also not entirely conscious. It's also emotional and professional, a reflection of a growing frustration with the publishing industry and my place in it. I may be, in some ways, looking for a new home for my book writing passions, testing out different genres and types of books to see which ones might work better for me.

Or not, because this is a psychological subject as deep as the Marianas Trench. My reading influences my writing. My writing, also, influences my reading. I have often gone in search of books similar to the novels I'm currently working on--first person PIs if I'm writing first person novels; kids books if I'm writing one of those; multiple POV thrillers if that's what I'm working on; comic capers if I'm trying my hand at one of those. I've also interviewed a number of bestselling authors and occasionally asked, "What are you reading these days?" and the number of times they have said, "I don't read too much fiction. I mostly read nonfiction," or in some cases, they're very up-to-date on who's doing what in their genre but they keep nonfiction of some sort going at the same time, suggests there's something else going on there. Perhaps the nonfiction feeds their own fiction more than other fiction does.

Which makes me wonder, if after all these years of avoiding book length nonfiction, I'm thinking more about writing book length nonfiction, or, if in fact, I'm just trying to find the right book length nonfiction for me, topics and writers that can hold me the way a good novel can. Not all nonfiction books work well for me. But I do like reading about politics, the gossip-ier the better. HOUSE OF RAIN has opened me up to the possibility that travel narratives, especially if they're infused with a historical or cultural tension, can be wonderful reading.

So my questions are these?

Does your reading change over time? 
Does it reflect your writing life?
Does it reflect your life?
Does your life reflect what you're reading?
Do you have emotional phases in your reading, where you want to just throw every book aside and say, "To hell with this crap."?
What are you reading now?

Mark Terry


Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Love this post. (As always . . . Mark . . . you are really a deep and funny guy--both . . . a very nice combination in a blogger.)

I used to read thrillers almost exclusively. Then, I distinctly remember reading "Just Killing Time"-- a really scary serial killer book oout about 14 years ago . . . and being so terrified, I was checking under all my beds and in the closets. And I thought, "WHY am I doing this to myself?" After a while, I just couldn't read those kinds of books, and they so often were about what creative ways to kill women that I thought it was nothing more than torture porn.

I didn't fill the empty reading space for a while . . . nothing else seemed to grip me. So I re-read all of Tolkein. Then I got into philosophy and read that voraciously for a while. THEN I got into physics and quantum physics and astronomy. I read that almost exclusively. I am reading American Prometheus now, about Oppenheimer--I tend to, as an aside to physics, read biographies of scientists. And once in a while, I toss in a Neil Gaiman.

I don't know if someday I might want to write something nonfiction along those lines. If I could PICK what to write about . . . I would actually like to turn my Demon Baby blog into a book of some sort about parenting an extraordinarily unusual child. But for now, it's just a sanity break for me.

5:59 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I thought about you when I wrote this, because I knew you read mostly physics. For years I tended, when it comes to nonfiction, to just feel that I liked stories, but I'm starting to see that good nonfiction in the hands of a good writer, can make almost any topic interesting.

And thanks.

6:02 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Read Bill Bryson's book . . . "A Short History of Nearly Everything"--he tells the story of the universe from the Big Bang to now . . . in about a thousand pages. And it's a STORY, I swear it. And you will LAUGH OUT LOUD. Yet it's physics.


6:15 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Do you have emotional phases in your reading, where you want to just throw every book aside and say, "To hell with this crap."?

Yes. When that happens, I usually reread something great, something I know I'll enjoy.

8:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just two days ago another blogger I read asked the same question so I guess I can just quote myself:

"I no longer read as much as I'd like because a lot of my reading time I use for writing and/or research. When I read, it is mostly older fiction. I think the styles appeal to me more, maybe because older books sound like the ones that hooked me when I was growing up. But also, too many modern books, to me, sound like they are trying to be movies. I avoid reading modern historical mysteries, particularly ones about Rome, because I don't want to risk being influenced unduly or subconsciously plagiarzing anything.

"I read a fair number of mysteries. I like Georges Simenon. I'll occassionlly pick up an older sf novel. I recently read An Alien Heat by Michael Moorcock which I enjoyed. I like short books, to be honest. And I tend to pick books at random. The last fewr I read are The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, Questions About Angels by Billy Collins (poems); and Clockwork by Philip Pullman. I also tried Fool Moon by Jim Butcher and found it utterly impossible to get through."

Now does some of my dislike for modern books come from my seeing too much what the author's up to? Or the fact that I can't help comparing my own efforts to what I'm reading? Maybe. Or maybe my tastes haven't evolved much over the years. My musical tastes haven't evolved much, not to encompass rap music for example.

As a kid I gorged on sf, got sick of the genre when a lot of writers started getting literary (it seemed) and have been an omnivore since, but with my reading much reduced.

I have sought out and read the sort f thing I was thinking about writing but it has never helped. I never seem to find that there are useful templates to study. What, say, PI books have in common are pretty trivial, and easily observable characteristics compared to what the individual authors do with the genre.

So I had some books lined up to read and last night, instead I played an interactive text adventure instead.

10:44 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

Yeah, great post. I read all over the place. You can steal more, that way. Sometimes people say my stuff is original, but it's NOT. Like, my last "original" story was a rip-off of Jane Eyre/Anne McCaffrey/Nathaniel Hawthorne/Evanovich's Ranger/Eisler/Phillipa Gregory/four non-fic on English court in 1500-1650's.

It helps to write in a bookstore everyday. God bless them for letting me. I look at everything new that lands on the front tables, and skim whatever catches my fancy. I end up reading a lot of biographies.

I haven't read in pseudonym's genre in YEARS. There was a time when I'd read everything, but I have barely read a thing in the past couple years.

I don't know why.

I like to make a game of odd connections. I like to sort of put a bunch of different stories and genres in my brain, let them stew, and then come up with a story.

I do have periods where books aren't doing it for me, though. I want to read the perfect book, you know? Everything falls short of that. And, like you said, everything becomes a bit predictable after you write and study other people's writings.

That's when I start obsessively going to movies. Like, one a day. I LOVE the movie theater.

11:37 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I can be sort of odd about books written before, say, 1980. They seem oddly dated and stilted to me, but maybe that's something I need to get over. And I think I'm under-read in my own genre sometimes.

I've read Chandler, struggled a bit with Hammet, never read Ross MacDonald, but loved John D. MacDonald.

But perhaps more to the point, one writer everyone seems to feel I should read is Graham Greene and I confess I haven't read anything by them.

I increasingly have what I sometimes think of as Next Book Syndrome. Where I think, "Oh, I'm reading XXX next." Then I pick it up, read a couple pages, put it back on the shelf, pick up something else, put it back on the shelf, and shuffle around 3 or 4 books before grabbing something out of exasperation and forcing myself to stick with it for a chapter or two.

This used to be rare, but it's starting to seem [sure, Erica, rub it in] like I do it every time I finish a book.

12:21 PM  
Blogger kitty said...

I read mostly mysteries/thrillers. However, as hard as I try, I can't seem to write a mystery/thriller. Instead, my writing is more female fiction, which I rarely read.

One of my favorite books was Anya, by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer. Although a novel, it's actually about a real woman named Anya Brodman, a Russian Jew who lived in Poland and survived the Holocaust.

I have several books on gypsies to read, because my husband is learning to play gypsy guitar and has become quite knowledgeable on the subject.

I've gotten to the point in my life where I will not finish a book in which I've lost interest.

But mostly I read mysteries. And I love forensics-type shows on TV. Someone once asked my husband what we watch and he said, "Death. Lots of dead bodies and murders."


4:15 PM  
Blogger kitty said...

Btw, here's your picture right way around :~)


4:43 PM  
Blogger Beth Fehlbaum, Author said...

I like your post. I think my reading and writing inform each other. I go in spurts and if I find a writer I really like (I have a stack of Sherman Alexie books on my nightstand right now), I want to read everything he or she has written.
Beth Fehlbaum, author
Courage in Patience, a story of hope for those who have endured abuse
Chapter 1 is online!

4:50 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

How'd you do that? I couldn't seem to do it on my iMac's PhotoBooth.

If I find a new writer that I love, I'll plow through them. That used to happen all the time, less so now.

7:24 AM  
Blogger kitty said...

Mark: I have Microsoft XP and used the picture editing software. I flipped it horizontally and adjusted the color a bit.

How did you get it backwards?


8:02 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

The new Mac operating system--Leopard OS-X comes with something called Photo Booth. The iMac has a built-in camera for stills and video, so as soon as you click on PhotoBooth, there you are and all you do is push a button to take a photo. But the image is reversed.

1:35 PM  
Blogger kitty said...

Okay, that makes sense. I should have guessed.


2:34 PM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

I read everything depending on my mood and what's going on in my life. Right now I'm reading one of the Jack Reacher/Lee Childs books, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon. (interesting book written from the view of an autistic child.) and an Anne Rule book I found in the pile my daughter was donating to the library. I have Invisable Prey by John Sandford (your recomendation Mark) and a Clive Clusser book waiting for me on the night stand and I'm listening to Duma Key in the car.(OMG, Stephen King is in great voice in this book!)
I don't read a lot of magazines. I'll only pick them up if there's something good on the cover. Sometimes when a book scares the bejesus out of me I have to change to more mellow stuff for a while but I love a good scare. Sometimes when I'm reading a lot my WIP slows down. When I'm really moving on the WIP I don't read at all.
Great post Mark!
(In your photo program look for something that says "flip horizonal")

7:31 AM  
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