Read More Widely

old book bindings

Tom Murphy VII by Creative Commons

Since switching to science fiction, I’m reading nothing but Asimov and Niven and Heinlein, right?

Well, no. I just wrapped up a couple of 87th Precinct mysteries and volume 3 of Mark Twain’s autobiography. And while I have finished Asimov’s Foundation series (Still mulling the three written after he died), I’m also reading a lot of books on writing and business, or listening to them on audio. Plus there are still crime and literary works on my TBR stack. So why am I not focusing solely on spec fic? Simple. When all you read is what you write, you write like crap. I’ve read a number of space opera tomes lately that I haven’t reviewed on Goodreads or here. Why? Either the author is too obsessed with trying to get the still-unprovable scientifically correct or it’s a dull combat narrative that reads like every other combat narrative I’ve ever read. Why do I care? The characters are flat, and what the scientifically obsessed writer is giving me I can get from Neil de Grasse Tyson or Bill Nye in a much more interesting manner. They’re hitting tropes. They’re not giving me a reason to care whether their characters live or die. And if you can’t nail character, step away from the keyboard and take up stamp collecting. Please.

A couple of years ago, I listened to autobiographies of Eric Clapton and Keith Richards on audio. Both talked about being obsessive blues nerds in their early days. It was their substitute for college. They had to get this kind of music down. It was their religion. (Still is to Clapton, but he’s much more nuanced about it.) But expose them to, say, a couple of jazz guys (Clapton in Cream) or the Beatles (Richards with Jagger in the Stones’ early days), and suddenly, they’re writing and playing music that secures their place in the Rock Hall. Why?

When your musical palate is a buffet instead of the same thing over and over, you sound better.

So it is with writing. Early on, when I started writing crime, I read nothing but detective novels. I wanted to write like Hammet and Raymond Chandler, like Robert Parker when he was in his prime. I read Sue Grafton and Bill Pronzini and even Ken Bruen (whom I ended up being very good friends with for a long time).

And my writing suffered for it. I knew how to tell one kind of story, and that was it. So I expanded, partly because of Dennis Lehane. His Mystic River is a crime novel, but it’s so much more. I also got back into science fiction, reading John Scalzi. Now Scalzi’s initial salvo, the first three Old Man’s War books, are pastiches on Heinlein. The first person to tell you that would be John Scalzi. But Scalzi had an interesting path to becoming a science fiction icon. Knowing he wanted to write for a living, he did not major in a writing field in college. He majored in philosophy. Why? He wanted to learn something other than writing that would inform his writing. His first job out of college was as a movie critic, which forced him to breakdown story structure and watch character development. As a result, his military science fiction isn’t a long slog of battle scenes we’ve read a hundred times before. His characters are real. And he asks hard questions.

You should write what you enjoy. But you should find more influences. Being “pure” for the sake of your favorite type of fiction is a fool’s errand at best. Even Keith Richards has to play something other than twelve-bar blues once in awhile.

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