A few years ago, I bought a day pass to my first World Con. The highlight of the day was meeting SF writer and long distance life mentor William Shunn at a kaffeeklatsch. Bill is a fellow ex-Mormon and a wonderful human being. His podcast and correspondence helped me ease out of my former religion and into a love for scotch. He’s the main reason I went to Clarion West, which was a Major Life Event for each of us. (Go read his Hugo- and Nebula-nominated novella, “Inclination.” It made me cry!)
Over unsweetened lattes, I asked him if he’d scribble a little advice on the blank sheet of paper that has come to be a major source of creative inspiration. His words: “Read as widely as possible, and write every day, even if it’s as little as three sentences.”
This year, I finally decided to take Bill up on at least half of his advice. I wanted to bump my craft up to the next level, and this seemed like good wisdom to follow.
My plan: I would try to read at least one short story per day. This may not seem like much, but between work and family obligations, it felt like a huge undertaking at the time. I realize now, a few months later, how much the experience enriched my writing life. Here is a partial list of what I gained:
Writing success: With discretionary time scarce from the outset, I thought the project would kill my writing. In fact, the opposite happened–I wrote more while I was reading every day, producing my first two stories after a dry year, and even resulting in a sale.
Self-knowledge: I learned that I’m hugely entertained by the horror genre (especially what Ellen Datlow picks for her Best of the Year anthologies), but that horror rarely scares me. The one exception for me was Anna Taborska’s “Little Pig.”
Creative cross-pollination: It’s been a few months now, and I’m still mulling over key phrases, disturbing scenes and dark revelations from noir stories by Raymond Chandler, Joyce Carol Oates and fellow Japanese-American and SoCal resident Naomi Hirahara. And I’m starting to see their influence in my words.
Podcasts: In retrospect, about 40% of stories I read were in podcast format. An audio version of a story meant I could read it while commuting, exercising, or cleaning. My experience may not have been as focused as when I read the print version, but for me, it was often a choice between an audio version and not reading it at all. And I suspect there are many other readers like me.
Availability: I learned that the more easily available a story is, the more likely I am to read it. Podcasts are at the top of the list, followed by online text, kindle or other e-book formats, and the library. I rarely purchase physical books these days, because it means I either have to wait for it, or I have to carve time out of my schedule to get to a retailer. When it comes to reading, I guess I’m not a big fan of deferred gratification.
Entertainment: Drabblecast introduced me to Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear’s “The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward”, and within a short time I’d read the other two stories set in their Boojum’verse. So. Much. Fun. Lovecraft In Space, spiced with Lewis Carroll!
Spreadsheets are my friends: I prepared a Google doc with 200 stories from recent Locus Recommended Reading, Nebula nominee, and Hugo nominee lists and anthologies I was interested in. I included URLs for podcasts, and could sort or filter by a number of columns, including length, award nominations, anthology titles, etc. Whenever I needed a new story, I simply looked at the list. Plus it came in super-handy for writing this post. Glancing at titles prompted the memory of reading experiences.
Steampunk: I’m writing anti-British-imperial steampunk stories set in 19th century China, Japan, and North America. Ken Liu’s “Good Hunting” and Vandana Singh’s “A Handful of Rice” were inspiring discoveries, and showed me where the sub-genre can go.
The Classics: I tried to fit in one classic short story each week. For all my love of the SF genre, these masterworks generally outshone the genre stories I read in voice, technique, and insight into human nature. Of course, it’s not really fair of me to compare the career bests of Joyce, Chekov and Hemingway to the most recent stories by SF idols, (including Ken Liu, Ted Chiang and Kij Johnson, all masters of our craft) but it’s clear that it wouldn’t hurt my ambitions to read more literary stories that have stood the test of time.
Craft: I believe that I have a better sense of what sort of stories are being published and winning awards. And it’s hard for me to describe this, but I feel like I’ve spent a couple of months as a young apprentice, closely looking over the shoulders of masters at work. Their influence is subtly diffusing into my writing–I’m taking greater risks, and I have a broader set of tools at my disposal. Maybe I’m starting to unconsciously, imperfectly copy some of their techniques.
My reading project stalled a couple of months ago, but after reflecting on how much it enriched my writing life, I’m ready to dive back into it. And then to follow the other half of Bill’s advice.
Thanks, Bill. I’m looking forward to toasting your health and wisdom in person soon. Slàinte!