It used to be, as a reader, that there were two kinds of books for me: Books I liked. Books I didn’t.
The reasoning behind what put a book into either of these categories was and is still mostly mysterious and unpredictable, though it has something to do with subtle characterization and clever narration and pretty prose.
Nowadays, however, as a writer, I can split it down further. Books I didn’t like. Books I liked. And within books that I like, books that feed me, and books that don’t.
I was just musing on this the other day, because I often tell people that I must read while I’m drafting, otherwise my creative well dries up and gets carpet beetles in the bottom. But then I went through a period of angst where I picked up and put down about fifteen novels from my to be read shelf. It wasn’t that I didn’t like them — some of them I could tell I was going to really like, actually. But they weren’t helping me any. To write, I mean. I couldn’t figure out if the intrinsic natures of books had changed overnight or if possibly there was something incredibly wrong with me psychologically. The latter is always a safe bet.
Anyway, in a fit of ennui, I tried picking up some books to reread. Ones that had inspired me in the past. And . . . guess what? They still worked. So I went madly through my stacks finding the books that “fed” me versus the ones that didn’t, and this is what I discovered.
The authors of the books that fed me are better writers than I am.
They may not be better at everything, but they are definitely better in ways that I want to be better. They zig when I would’ve zagged, keep a character alive when I would’ve killed them, put exposition when I would’ve put dialog. They make me go oh man I wish I had written this. They hit very specific problem areas or areas of interest to me, and they hit them really well. So that means that the books that feed me might not feed another writer.
So what is it that that does it for me? Well, turns out it’s usually the same things that make me like a book — subtle characterization, clever prose, excellent pacing. What surprised me is that it was almost never plot. I love a good plotty book — THE HUNGER GAMES wooo! — but it would never help me write when I was stuck. Right now, I have two books on my desk to read on my lunch breaks.
One of them is THE GIANT’S HOUSE, by Elizabeth McCracken. Example of why I love it? I don’t even know if these examples will make sense to you guys, out of context. Or even in it.
The book was opened flat on the table in front of him, and he worked his hands in the air according to the instructions, without any props. His fingers kept slowly snatching at nothing, as if he had already made dozens of things disappear, rabbits and cards and rubber balls and bouquets of paper flowers, and had done this so brilliantly even he could not bring them back.
Then Caroline started to sing. Perhaps she’d been waiting for Mrs. Sweatt to wake up all afternoon, so she could sing inside her house. I imagined her stepping out on the back porch to sing now and then, like a polite smoker. She had the voice of a dancer, I mean like Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly, someone who has such grace at another art that the grace suffuses their voice, which does not quite match the tune but instead strolls up to a note and stands there right next to it, that slight difference so beautiful and heartbreaking that you never want to hear a professional sing again. Professionals remember all the words. Caroline’s song was patched together with something something something.
and then the peculiar and magnificent BEL CANTO:
There were those who believed they would be killed, who over and over again saw the movie of themselves being led out the door at night and shot in the back of the head, but Roxanne Coss thought no such thing. Maybe there would be a bad outcome for some of the others, but no one was going to shoot a soprano.
They climbed the long set of stairs to their row, bowed and begged to be excused by every person who stood to let them pass into their seats, and then they unfolded their seats and slipped inside. They were early, but other people were earlier, as part of the luxury that came with the ticket price was the right to sit quietly in this beautiful place and wiat. They waited, father and son, without speaking, until finally darkness fell and the first breath of music stirred from someplace far below them. Tiny people, insects, really, slipped ou from behind the curtains, opened their mouths, and with their voices gilded the walls with their yearning, their grief, their boundless, reckless love that would lead each one to separate ruin.
There is something elegant and effortless about them. Even scanning them now for passages that make sense by themselves, I’m dazzled and inspired. Do I want believe BEL CANTO to be perfect? No, there are parts of it I despise. Do I believe it’s perfect in many ways? I do, and those are what I want to learn.
As an artist, I know that one of the most time-tested methods of learning how to paint is to sit down and copy the works of the great masters. I did this once, actually (only I put cat heads in them, I’m afraid, and they were tiny, 2.5 x 3.5″). It was amazing how duplicating and studying the masters made them offer up secrets that you couldn’t get from just looking. I’m thinking it must be the same ways with these books. I don’t want to paint the Mona Lisa. But I’d really love to know how to underpaint that color of her robe.
Other books that feed me? CROW LAKE. THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE. SAVING FRANCESCA. OF BEES AND MIST. They’ll probably sound familiar to you because they landed on my top twelve books of the year post. I never get tired of them, because they’re always offering up some secret puzzle to me.
So what do you guys think? Do you have books that feed you? Do those passages say anything to you? Or are you one of the many writers that can’t read while you’re writing?