On reading for pleasure

This morning someone asked what novel I’d read most recently. I told them.

“Wow, I never imagined you’d read something like that,” they said almost in horror, as though I’d just admitted to a world-class sommelier that I drink Lambrusco straight from the bottle.

I love really good literature, obviously. But I don’t have a lot of time for leisure reading, and when I do, I don’t necessarily reach for a Cormac McCarthy or Kazuo Ishiguro.

I don’t choose books that I think will impress friends or colleagues or strangers in a café.

I don’t care if you gasp when I admit I didn’t like a certain “classic” novel by default simply because it is a classic.

I don’t care if you turn your nose up at me because I’m not reading whatever sneering deconstructionist tome you’re slogging through—dripping with semiotic snobbery and hoary lit crit nonsense—and pretending you’re enjoying it.

Basically I want to read a fucking story.

I want to read about places I haven’t seen, full of people I’ve never met, involved in something fascinating and perhaps just a tad over the threshold of plausibility.

I want to read about people doing things. If most of the verbs in the book are variations of thought or said or felt, forget it.

Give me some characters with faults. Give them important, wonderful things. And then yank them away. Let me see the wind knocked out of them so I can watch them react and see what they’re made of. What do they do?

If I find a work of fiction that gives me that, I’ll likely read it, no matter what lasting literary “value” it may have or the cachet it displays when I pull it out of my bag.

posted 11/5/09 at 3:53pm to Books, Writing · 1 reply · permalink

An audience of one

I can tell straightaway when a fiction author has little interest in or passion for their subject material, and crafted a story for the sole purpose of hitting a “market segment”. I have real contempt for such writers.

No matter what kind of writing you do—short stories, books, children’s lit, screenplays, stand-up bits, whatever—don’t ever approach it as though you’re trying to please an audience. Don’t ever write what you think people want. Don’t ever write about something you think is popular. Because invariably, it will suck. And it will suck hard.

Write to please one person and one person only: yourself.

Which is to say, write the kind of book that you love to read. Write the kind of script that you want to see on the screen.

If you write something you don’t like, you’ll get bored with it and shelve it, or throw it away and start over, because you don’t want it to see the light of day. And rightly so; if you’re not interested in the story, no one else will be either. But if you write something that thrills you, mark my words you’ll finish that fucking thing. You’ll find a way. And you will work your ass off to polish it before it leaves your desk.

Obviously there’s no guarantee it will reach an audience. But at least you didn’t write a dispassionate tale about teenage vampires, for example, simply because teenage vampires are a popular thing. You wrote something that pleased you immensely, based on topics and themes and interests that tickle your brain and grab you right in the guts. You wrote the kind of story you’d pay to read if it had been written by someone else. Which means it’s likely that a load of other people with similar interests would pay to read it as well. What’s more, savvy readers can always tell the difference between derivative crap written to editorial order, and prose by someone who clearly wrote the story solely because they loved it and wanted it told.

And that’s good news for you.

posted 9/21/09 at 4:47pm to Writing · 1 reply · permalink


I’ve migrated all of my little story bits, short works, and microfiction over to a new sub-site: the half empty moleskine. That way, if you get tired of my drivel here, you can just skip it and go directly to the fiction.


posted 9/20/09 at 8:21am to Me me me, Site stuff, Writing · 0 replies · permalink

Sophomore effort

Your first novel is fueled by passion for your craft, belief in your talent as a storyteller, a fire that burns in your belly, a head full of imaginary people speaking to you, millions of collapsing waveforms of narrative possibility, and entire days that pass like mere minutes. Not to mention liberal doses of caffeine, adrenaline, sugar, alcohol, and endorphins.

Your second novel is hampered by crippling doubt, self-loathing, a paralyzing fear of failure, a head full of imaginary people screaming at you, hundreds of words of uninspired narrative dross, and minutes that pass like entire days. Not to mention excessive doses of caffeine, alcohol, and empty carbohydrates.

posted 9/15/09 at 2:11pm to Writing · 3 replies · permalink

Hypothetically speaking…

The Holloway letter

Let’s say you’re on an airplane, and the old man sitting next to you starts chatting. Normally, you don’t like smalltalk with strangers. Or any talk with strangers, especially when you’re strapped into a tiny coach seat on an aging 737. But he’s elderly, so you listen respectfully as he tells you all about himself.

Let’s go on to say that because you’ve shown polite interest in the man, he begins telling you a story. You do a little mental eye-roll, but the old man is a veteran, and when a veteran tells you a story, you shut your damn mouth and you listen.

Two hours later, and the man has finished telling you one of the strangest stories you’ve ever heard. And you know it’s just a story, because it was too bizarre. It was unreal. It just couldn’t have happened the way it was told. But you’re fascinated, so you ask the old man some questions. And he won’t answer you. He shakes his head and changes the subject, acting like he’s uncomfortable that he told you the story in the first place.

Upon landing, the man apologizes for not asking you enough about yourself, so you hand him a business card and give him the ten second highlights of what you do, and you write his name and address in one of your notebooks.

When you get home, you find that his story is still stuck in your head. What parts, if any, were real? Was he just old and confused? He’d told the story with too much conviction and too much detail for it to be entirely fabricated. So you write him a letter, and ask him to tell you more.

But you get nothing in return. Maybe the poor guy died, you think. You forget about the old man and his crazy story, and go on with your life.

Then several months later, to your complete surprise, a thick envelope shows up in the mail. There’s a letter from the old man, telling you some of what you wanted to know. The envelope is full of papers and materials that corroborate a large amount of what he told you in his story.

So now you are completely freaked out, because if he lied about what happened, then so did the other men who were with him.

And the whole thing is just too fucking eerie to believe. But you don’t have a choice.

posted 8/19/09 at 11:27am to Random, Writing · 13 replies · permalink