If you pay any attention to the spec fic scene, it is not hard to find people who work hard to promote their own work. After all, it makes sense right? You need to get your name out there! But, it doesn’t take long before you realise that the real strength of the spec fic community lies in those who spend as much time, if not more, promoting the work of other people and making sure that the acheivements of others are publicised and recognised, and that a word of encouragement is never far away. If I had to point to someone who embodies that idea, then Charles Tan would be a pretty good start. Because he is so quick to praise or promote others, it is easy to overlook his own significant acheivements but there is a reason for the universally high regard in which he is held, and it is great to welcome him here today.
“What are you reading?”
Junot Diaz visited the Philippines last year, and he mentioned that sometimes, writers can congregate, and never bring up the subject of what they’re currently reading (he, of course, said it more eloquently than I did). And I think it’s an important point to bring up.
Why do we write? Because we’re readers. I think it’s important to remember that, more so when we’re swamped with deadlines and work.
And let’s not be snobbish about it. We have permission to read what we want; we could be rereading a favorite book; it could be a nonfiction title that’s unrelated to the research of the story we’re currently working on; it could even be the much-maligned Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey.
Because on the opposite end of the spectrum, we have writers who do not read. In my personal experience, I have come across aspiring short story writers who do not read short stories. To their credit, they will mention novels and comics that they’ve read. I just question that if they love those mediums so much, why did they consider writing short fiction in the first place? Because novels, comics, and short stories each have their own advantages and disadvantages, and while there is an overlap in the skills necessary to write them, there are also nuances in one form that’s not present in the other.
It sounds like such a basic concept, yet it’s one of the most overlooked fundamentals. The Creative Writing program of the university I attended, for example, lacked reading classes and was focused on writing workshops. Which mostly meant that your growth as a writer depended on what you read during your personal time. I can understand the logic of the administrators and students: we can read anytime, but we won’t always have opportunities for writing workshops (assuming you value them). Hence reading becomes undervalued, not just because it’s free, but because of the perceived opportunity costs.
I won’t lie: in the past few months, my reading has dropped. I can cite several excuses: work fatigue, the looming to-be-read-pile for the amateur book reviewer, short story deadlines, an anthology to edit and market, podcasts to edit, eBooks to design, etc. But at the end of the day, those are just excuses, just like the excuses we might cite for not actually writing. So it becomes important to set aside time to read, to remember the reason why we became writers in the first place, and to learn from what we read.
You know who reads a lot of short stories? Editors and slush readers. They set aside time to read. And sometimes, a lot of what they read is horrible. Yet they persevere, and set an uncompromising schedule. Now not every editor or slush reader is also a writer; nor does it mean that those that do overlap make for great writers. But slush readers/writers mention how their writing has significantly improved after reading a lot of slush; they notice what makes a story work and how it can falter or succeed. There is, of course, the cognitive dissonance between knowing what to write and actually doing it, but at least they’re one step closer to realizing that ideal.
And at the end of the day, if you ask me for writing advice, perhaps the one, universal truism (since everyone’s process is unique and different) that I can offer is to read, and that’s true whether you’re a new writer or a veteran. To quote one of my favorite short story writers, Lisa L. Hannett:
Read a lot.
Read even more.
And, most importantly, read critically.
Read like writers.”
From a practical point of view, the only thing that I’d add to that is to read—and understand—your contract. We’re readers after all, and it’s important to exercise that skill, especially when our rights are concerned. And while there might be legal jargon that we might miss out, there’s also a lot that we can glean by reading and not simply signing on the dotted line.
So, let me ask you: what are you reading?
I’m nearly done with After: Nineteen Stories of Apocalypse and Dystopia edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, and Crackpot Palace by Jeffrey Ford.
Charles Tan is the editor of Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology. His fiction has appeared in publications like The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories and the Philippine Speculative Fiction series. He designs eBooks for Twelth Planet Press and blogs at Bibliophile Stalker and SF Signal.