The So-What? Trap

I try to keep track on what I’m reading and a quick glance through my journals highlighted the fact that in 2010 I started way more books than I actually finished. No big deal you may think and you’d probably be right.  For me though, it’s a little troubling.  Since I was a small child I have viewed any unfinished book as some kind of failure on my part. I have no idea why this should be, other than the fact that I grew up in a staunchly Completer-Finisher household which would brook no uncompleted tasks or activities.

On that basis then, 2010 represents failure of epic proportions on my part.  Or does it?

As writers we are constantly urged to read and to do so widely. This was the first year I can say, hand on heart, I have been reading like a writer instead of reading for pleasure and there is a huge difference.  Francine Prose wrote the very good Reading Like A Writer about this very topic.  Although highly instructive, reading as a writer is not my most favourite activity because in some ways I found it robbed me of the joy of reading.  I was too intent on watching for what worked and what didn’t and trying to figure out why, to enjoy the story.  In the course of my travails I amassed my own personal Giants Causeway formed not of basaltic columns but instead created by piles of books covering the floor in my office. All of which I’ve been told I absolutely ‘should’ or ‘must’ read.  In 2010 I think I spent more on books than any other discretionary purchase. I’m a digitally published writer I know I should be embracing new delivery platforms more readily but frankly I’m too much of a new book-smell junkie to quit my poison of choice that easily.

So now comes the hard part: If I’m honest I would have to say for at least half of the books I started, I didn’t get more than 100 pages into before I tossed in the towel.  Time has been a big factor. I simply didn’t have enough of it and certainly not enough to spare for any book if I could say after 100 pages –so what?

In any form of investment, the ROI is king – first and foremost—and I’m not talking about the ermine robe and sceptre type. I’m talking about payoff, I’m talking about return on investment. If, as a writer I fail to provide it, then I become no better than a literary Bernie Maddoff because time is the most precious thing that can be taken from anybody.

Without that ROI the writer allows the reader to fall headlong into that yawning So What? Trap and in so doing cheats them out of their investment.   For me some of the books I did finish in 2010 delivered handsomely and here, in no particular order,  is my list :

Full Length Fiction

Adam – Ted Decker – I read the whole book in one sitting, a seriously gripping read and a masterclass in page turners. (978-0340964972)

Alias Grace — Margaret Atwood –  my list would not be complete without the author I have the greatest admiration for.   Fact and fiction inter-twined which works on so many levels it reads like a modern thriller, an historical novel and a who-dun-it all in one go.  (978-748113330)

The Women – T Coraghessan Boyle – another fact and fiction inter-weave. I am in awe, as always, of the author’s use of language and description (978-1408800980).

On Green Dolphin Street – Sebastian Faulks – a masterclass in sense of place and characterisation. (978-0099275831)

The Angel’s Game – Carlos Ruis Zafon – fascinating, twisty, compelling, dark and mysterious. I never once had any idea where the author was taking this story.  A complex book,  rich in depth, detail and sub-plots, many of which the author leaves open-ended.  This and Grave Doubts I give 10/10 for the authors’ abilities to stay well out of the way of the story (978-0753826492).

A Season for the Dead – David Hewson – Satisfyingly different. The author weaves a vast amount of exposition into the story without the reader being aware of it. Again a set piece in sense of place, strong and interesting characters and a fascinating plot. (978-0330493635)

Grave Doubts – Elizabeth Corley.  This author pulls no punches, she makes her characters suffer and never takes the easy option but instead just keeps turning up the tension.  The author’s presence is never felt. This is crime fiction at its very best.  (978-0749080006)

Short Story Collections

No apology for the amount of books on this list. I write short stories and the books on this list have been my classroom.  In no particular order, these are the collections I have been inspired, motivated and instructed by this year. The stories in these books are populated by resonant characters, themes and plots that the reader remembers long after the stories have been read:

Third Class Superhero (978-1844713363) – Charles Yu

The Collected Stories (Granta – no ISBN ) & Wild Child (978-1408804803)— T Coraghessan Boyle

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (978-0385492164) – Aimee Bender

Is This The Way You Said (978-0099479895) – Adam Thorpe

Words from a Glass Bubble (978-1844717347) – Vanessa Gebbie

The White Road (978-1844714759) – Tania Hershman

Twelve Stories (978-1844717200) – Paul Magrs

Moral Disorder (978-1844080335) & The Tent (978-0747584940) – Margaret Atwood

Not So Perfect (978-1906894078) – Nik Perring

Summer Lightning (978-0582786271) – Olive Senior

The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story (978-1847080974) — Anne Enright, Ed.

Instructional/Motivational Books – Without doubt the books on this list have had a very big impact on me—not necessarily on the way I write but most definitely on the way I think about what I’m writing.

Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction (978-0978984861) – Tara L Masih, Ed

The Artist’s Way (978-1585421466) – Julia Cameron

Short Circuit ­ (978-1844717248) — Vanessa Gebbie, Ed

The 3am Epiphany (978-1582973517) & The 4am Breakthrough (978-1582975634) – Brian Kiteley

Masterclass in Fiction Writing (978-0071448772) – Adam Sexton

So that’s it – my top reads from 2010. My list for 2011 is longer than ever and includes among many others:

On My Night Stand for 2011

The Road Home – Rose Tremain

A Wedding in December – Anita Shreve

Freedom ­— Jonathan Franzen

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake ­— Aimee Bender

Fine Just The Way It Is: Wyoming Tales – Annie Proulx

Theft — Peter Carey

The Handmaid’s Tale ­– Margaret Atwood

Dear John – Nicholas Sparks

Faulks on Fiction – Sebastian Faulks

The Divide – Nicholas Evans

The Other Side Of The Story – Marian Keyes

Too Much Happiness – Alice Munro

I should stop here because this list is really quite endless.  One day I will learn how to do ‘proper’ book reviews and keep you posted on my progress.

The key point I have gained out of my reading in 2010 is  that the reader is central to everything else. It should be obvious but I think it is very easy to overlook in our quest to be the best writers we can be. All the sparkling prose, the building tension or the brilliant plotting will never be anything other than assorted individual components of the whole if  the reader is left out of the process.

A most excellent blog I can recommend and one which has certainly helped me keep my focus on this point is A Book A Week by Becky Holmes.

So off to my reading list …where to start?

And before you say it, I will be making amends for my de-forestation of the planet by planting some trees in 2011.

Categories: Writing

1 reply »

  1. It is interesting isn’t it, what books grab us and what books leave us standing. Of your to reads. I have read and recommend Rose Tremain The Road Home, very highly. I love reading Alice Munro, but haven’t read that one.
    I did enjoy Solar, Ian McEwan, and feel that should be added if you haven’t read it, but do not read The Slap: so far I would say it’s no good. But I’m only 150 pages in!