Reading as a writer

I’ve now finished The Prefect, and it gets a definite thumbs up. This verdict pleased Beloved, who couldn’t understand my failure to enjoy Alistair Reynolds’ earlier stuff. Beloved and I have similar but not identical tastes, which leads to some interesting discussions and the occasional minor book-based Domestic (particularly during The Great Annual Book Cull). Whilst he’s well-read in SF, my man is not a writer, and some of our differences on matters literary definitely come down to that.

I’m lucky: learning to write has not (so far) spoilt reading for me. It is true that I occasionally fail to enjoy (or sometimes – gasp – finish) a book on the grounds that I get distracted by the ‘bad’ writing (note the quotes – the rules of ‘good’ writing do evolve: what was fine 50 years ago is seen as unacceptable now). However, being a writer hasn’t stopped me reading the books I want to read.  

It has, however, changed the way I read. At the micro level I sometimes find myself tutting at a (in my opinion) badly formed sentence, or smiling at a particularly good one. This is especially true while I’m editing, and hence hyper-sensitive to the placement of every word. I think one of the reasons I’m a relatively slow reader is that I re-read sections that please me; I did this before I let writing take over my life, because I’ve always loved it when the words come together well, but now there’s an extra dimension, as my subconscious tries to work out how the author did it.

I read differently at the macro level too, and the more similar a book is to what I write, the more I find my ‘writer’s head’ interrupting. Al’s and my stuff isn’t the same – we have different styles, and we place the emphasis in our stories in different places: for example, he’s a master of painting the large canvas and I like to take the time to make my characters’ lives hell. He is also a far more experienced and accomplished writer than me. However, we definitely hang around in the same sub-genre. As a result, I find myself reading his stuff more critically than I would read, say, fantasy, or spy fiction, or even other SF writers like Stephen Baxter or Neil Asher – which perhaps explains my initial failure to engage with Al’s work, because my expectations were unrealistically high.

So, even as my reader’s brain was enjoying the ride whilst reading The Prefect, my writer’s brain was churning away in the background. This happened throughout the book without spoiling my enjoyment, but having now finished, a couple of thoughts have coalesced.

The first is my admiration, as both reader and writer, for the way he presents his culture and technology. There is a lot of sexy, sparkly stuff in this vision of the future, but he doesn’t labour it; he just gives the reader passing clues to allow them to work it out for themselves, then gets on with the important stuff like the plot. As a reader, I enjoy being credited with some intelligence; I’d rather have to do a little more mental work to get the result than wade through excessive wordage devoted to telling me something I could work out for myself, thank you. As a writer I kept stopping to work out how he does it. To be perfectly honest, I have tended to ‘cheat’ by using viewpoint characters who are outsiders, and hence can get away with describing what they see with outsider’s eyes. He’s far more skilled than that: all the characters in The Prefect are at home with a world of ‘conjured’ items, and the ‘abstraction’ (my quotes), so they don’t stop to think about such concepts, any more than we think about the internal combustion engine when we start our cars. Yet somehow manages to drop in enough info for us to work out what the tech does, and hint at how it does it.  Respect.

The second is the ending. As a reader, I admit that I found it mildly anti-climactic. It does tie most of the immediate plot threads up, but it was a bit low-key in relation to what had gone before, and not everything was entirely resolved (I smell sequel). However, as a writer I was somewhat reassured. I don’t think I’m giving too much away to say that the ending of The Prefect feels a little like the ending of Guardians of Paradise; some of my beta-readers pointed out that the pace of my final chapter and epilogue are rather slow and introspective, and I know that I don’t provide complete closure (awful word, but accurate). However, putting it bluntly, I reckon that if a writer like Mr Reynolds can pull it off, then maybe I can too … not least because we have the same editor at Gollancz. Of course, I won’t know whether I’ve really have managed it for a few weeks, as Guardians isn’t even with her yet. Watch this space.  

In the meantime, I need a new book to read. I think I’ll probably pick something different next, though I’ve also got a copy of House of Suns on its way to me, and when it arrives, it’s likely to get bumped to the top of the ‘to read’ pile.

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