Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Idea Shelf

This is a LOT what it looks like in my head.
Cluttered and unordered.
Like a lot of people (and more than just a few writers) I grew up reading constantly as a kid. Always had a book in my hand, and another nearby. One of the best memories I have of the house my father built for us was the built-in bookshelf in my walk-in closet. I tried to fill it with all the books I could get my hands on and then comics and magazines. It also contained a tackle box and my clarinet at one point.

I never did fill it up.

Now I've got shelves and shelves and shelves of books. I've even got shelves dedicated to books I haven't read yet. I've got boxes and boxes of comics, too. Quite a few less than seven or eight years ago because I had to divest myself of them and replaced several series with collections that now sit on two nearly full bookcases.

I went through a period about fifteen years ago when I didn't read much. Made excuses that I didn't "have time" for it. I still collected books but read mostly comics because of their brevity and episodic nature. It was, of course, bullshit. Looking back on that period I was wrapped up in a lot of things that commanded my attention and I willingly put books down to focus on them. In retrospect, I'm never going to make up for all the books I never read.

Nowadays when that happens, when I tend to read only comics for a while, it's because I'm writing and I don't want to be influenced in my storytelling or because I'm editing and don't want to be influenced by another author's voice. It's kind of a pain in the ass. Here's an explanation:

I came up when TV stations were outnumbered by radio stations; cable was not ubiquitous and MTV was barely developed; video games were far more numerous in arcades than in my friends' homes; we watched videos on a seemingly endless loop on two or three screens in the arcades, too. There were far fewer distractions for me then than now and there's something to be said for that. I saw a factoid recently that said college students heading for graduation have spent less than five thousand hours reading books and more than twenty thousand hours consuming electronic media (TV, movies, video games, etc...). That seems all kinds of out of whack to me.

I could spend a lot more time reading than I do but reading requires concentration that's really hard to come by and I admit that I'm often easily distracted. (What? Deadwood's on? Cool. And then 2010 is on after that? Even better!)

Writing requires a lot of brain muscles. A storyteller has to find the creative bits that lubricate those writing muscles and the creative bits like to absorb things indiscriminately and that's my problem.

I am influenced by everything I read: a plot point, the idea behind it and even the execution of the idea. I'm still stumbling around in the dark trying to find my own particular voice but I can at least recognize when I'm aping someone else. When I'm writing a zero draft I don't worry too much about that because I know it'll get fixed in each revision as I go along. But I do worry while I'm revising/editing. That's where I can get lost in trying to tell a good story and inadvertently emulate whichever book I may be reading.

That's when I usually go back to comics. I'm very confident in how I approach dialogue and that's what comics tend to mostly be and a lot less heavy on narration and descriptive phrases. What I struggle with is the scene descriptions and character development and that's what I admire most in other writers. It's what I tend to steal from them. (Every writer does this so I'm not giving away any trade secrets.)

The bookshelf in my head is where the Ideas come from. I'm filling it up again by reading a bunch of things, not just comics and not just fiction. I've taken the time to read (in the last five years or so) beyond my favorite genre and even into non-fiction.

Look, I'm rambling, kind of all over the place. It's a process. What I'm getting at is that while some writers can read a lot when they're writing, I have to be pretty choosy. I've got three or four books that I'm working on while I'm trying to finish the first round of revisions on The Cold Distance. It's difficult and that's part of why I'm rambling. I'm trying to figure out how to balance these things.

I suspect that this is something that all writers go through, innit? I'm looking for suggestions, folks. Leave any you may have in the comments section, will you?