The other day I was invited to talk to a class at a local university. It was all female, composed mainly of English and Language majors, with a good percentage of writers among them. We talked about publishing and writing, about finding internships in writing-related fields, about books and reading. About halfway through the class, a girl who had asked several writing-specific questions raised her hand.
“I have to ask an embarrassing question now,” she said. “I may regret it for the rest of my life, but I have to ask.” She had obviously been working herself up to ask this question and was still really nervous about it. She took a deep breath.
“How do you feel about fan fiction?”
I knew what she was half-expecting me to say something along the lines of: “Fan fiction’s not real writing.” “Fan fiction is just plagiarism.” “Fan fiction is a waste of time.” She was braced for it, eyeing me with this trepidatious look that said she’d either had people say these kinds of things to her or had read them online a lot.
I could literally see her sigh with relief when I said, “I think fan fiction is great. It’s a really fun way for people to interact with stories and characters that they love, and that’s why we read, right? Because we love stories and characters and want to hang out in those worlds.” A friend sitting next to her put a hand on her shoulder and whispered something along the lines of “See? I told you!” I went on to say that I would really feel like I had “made it” as an author if I saw some fanfic of my books online, and soapboxed a little about how much of fan fiction is written and read by women and how society tends to look down on things primarily enjoyed by ladies. I could see her sitting up straighter as I talked, as someone in a position of authority validated something she loved. (Not saying that I actually have more authority to speak about this than anyone else, just that I think it was viewed that way since I was speaking to the class as an author as well as a reader.)
We moved on to other topics from there, but I’ve been thinking about that young woman and her question ever since. And so I’m going to soapbox a little more here. Not with anything revolutionary, not with anything that others haven’t said before and often better, but with something that I think we just need to be reminded of as readers and writers every now and then. And that’s this:
Don’t be ashamed of what you love.
It’s so commonplace for us these days. We talk about reading guilty pleasure books, which automatically says that we should feel guilty about what we’re reading. We downgrade the things that we write, saying it’s “only” fan fiction. We often do these things even before anyone has criticized us for them, automatically, because we’re so used to seeing them denigrated by our overall culture. We’re on the defensive about what we like, ready to say that something is “just a beach read” or that we’re only reading a YA book “because my kids are.”
I’ve done it myself. I still do it myself, though I’ve made a concerted effort over the last five years or so to stop doing it. It’s hard sometimes, because we’ve been trained to say that some books or movies are bad and some are good—or maybe just good for us. And it’s especially hard when we have the feeling that the person we’re talking to is going to mock us—internally or externally—for what we like.
But we should stop doing this. Stop censoring ourselves for what we like to read and write and stop putting other people down for what they read and write. Because we read for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes we read to expand our horizons, to push ourselves by delving into language that challenges us or characters who present us with situations we never considered. Sometimes we read strictly to be entertained, to escape the boring plane ride or to distract ourselves while someone we love is in surgery. Sometimes we read to hang out with characters we already know and love, to immerse ourselves in the company and comfort of literary best friends. Sometimes we write to create entirely new worlds and people, or to try to affect our readers in ways that they will carry with them forever. Sometimes we write for ourselves, because it’s fun or silly or we just freaking feel like it. And, a lot of the times, we read and write in more than one of these ways at once. Or we move back and forth between them as we feel like.
I’m not saying there aren’t poorly written books or problematic books. But I am saying that, as a society, we should spend less time wagging our fingers at people for reading or writing things that we think fall into these categories—because a lot of the time it’s not the books. It’s us. It’s our preconceived notions of what makes a good book or an important book or a worthy book. It’s the voice that says all romance novels are tripe, that YA books can’t possibly as complex as books written for adults, that comic books aren’t real reading.
But there are great romance novels, and there are YA books that are more complex than some adult books, and there are comic books that can be as affecting as any novel. And even if there were not, people should still be allowed to enjoy them because they enjoy them. It’s as simple as that.
The stories that we love are things we should embrace rather than hide, affirm rather than mock. We don’t have to read or write for just one reason, or in just one way.
Like many writers, I have a day job in addition to writing books. Happily, mine happens to have a lot of writing synergy: I’m the editor of Nimrod International Journal at The University of Tulsa. Nimrod publishes two issues of short fiction and poetry a year and has been around since 1956. (The journal, not me. I’ve only been with it since 1999. Which is still nearly a third of my life. Which is a little scary.) Aside from publishing the journal, we do several writing/reading related programs throughout the year. The biggest one is our Conference for Readers and Writers, and it’s coming up on October 25th.
The Conference is a day-long writing workshop, and it’s really fun. Especially since we now bring in fantasy and science fiction authors in addition to our poets and literary fiction authors. (Basically, I go through my shelves each year and decide which author I love that I would like to meet. Being the boss has some perks.) I’ve had a fantastic time getting to meet and learn from authors such as Peter S. Beagle, Kelly Link, Patricia C. Wrede, Sharon Shinn, Rosemary Clement-Moore, and Gail Carriger. Seriously, getting to hang out with Peter Beagle was amazing. And I only teared up a little when he signed my copy of The Last Unicorn.
This year, I’m really excited because Malinda Lo will be joining us. I discovered Malinda through her first book, Ash, which is a retelling of Cinderella with a lesbian romance. It reminded me of Robin McKinley—a high bit of praise from me—and yet was also all its own. Her three books since (Huntress, Adaptation, and Inheritance) have also been awesome, and she writes some of the most interesting and thought-provoking blog posts in YA lit. She’s also the co-founder of Diversity in YA with author Cindy Pon, and if you don’t follow them on Tumblr and elsewhere, go do it now. I’m stoked to meet her, and I’m totally planning on sneaking into her class, which is going to be on the Five Foundations of Fantasy Worldbuilding, for as long as I can. (Which is sometimes not that long, because I’m the one who deals with All The Things at the conference. But still: EXCITED!!!!)
The conference is open to the public, so if you’re in the area of Tulsa, OK, you should attend. (And by “the area,” I mean any drivable distance. We have folks come in from several states, and they assure me the drive is worth it.) It’s a busy day, but a relaxed one, and a warm and welcoming environment. We have writers of all age levels and experience levels. I’m especially proud of this, because it makes it a good place for young writers who haven’t ventured out to conferences or conventions before to get their publishing world feet wet.
We start out the day with two panel discussions. I moderate one—a Q&A session where the audience gets to ask our panelists any questions they have about publishing or editing. This will be the third or fourth year I’ve moderated it (I was super nervous the first year, but I think I’ve hit my stride by now). Then we’ll have group classes about writing fiction, poetry, memoir, and performance of literature, in addition to YA fantasy. We’ll also have a class on paths to publication, including agents, small presses, and self-publishing. And you can submit your work and sign up to have a critique session with one of the editors of the journal. Plus readings and book signings and lunch and snacks and getting to hang out with awesome authors. I ask you: How can you go wrong?
The conference price is $50, but we also have scholarships available that lower the cost to $10. Anyone can apply for a scholarship, though we especially recommend them for students and teachers.
So that’s what I’ll be doing on October 25th. (And it’s why I’ve been kind of quiet on my social media the last month or so—organizing a conference like this is tiring!) I hope I’ll see you there!
Since I’m migrating my blog from my old livejournal account to my new website, I thought I would repost a few of my favorite entries here. The old blog will remain up, but I’ll be posting all new material here from now on.
Originally posted on November 5th, 2012
I was once part of a conference where we were hosting one-on-one editing sessions: blocks of time where the editors had done critiques on short stories and novel sections and then sat down to talk to the writers about them. As one of the editors, I was talking to a woman about the manuscript she had turned in. Sadly, her story wasn’t great—tons of clichés, poor writing, etc. To try to get a handle on what she was going for with it, I asked her what she liked to read. Her answer: “I don’t read very much.”
I was completely flummoxed by this. Because for me, wanting to be a writer without first being a reader is like someone who hates eating wanting to be a food critic for Bon Appetit. Just as someone who doesn’t like food probably won’t be able to tell a good recipe from a bad one, a writer who doesn’t read the work of other writers won’t have the tools to tell good stories.
So here are a few pieces of advice I give everyone who wants to be a writer:
Read. To start with, just read, because any reading that you’re doing is ultimately going to make you more sensitive to style, pacing, character development, and all the other tools you’ll need in your own writing.
Read widely in your genre. Want to write a YA science fiction novel? Read other YA science fiction novels. Same goes for mystery, romance, fantasy—whatever you’re writing. When you read in your own genre, you learn a lot of useful things. How long do these sorts of books tend to be? Does the age of the narrator matter? What are the general rules and tropes of this genre? (Because you can’t break the rules until you know what they are.) What’s already been done here—and what’s been done to death? In short, really know the genre you’re writing in. Believe me, readers can tell when a writer doesn’t have much familiarity with their genre.
Read in genres that you’re not writing. While it makes sense to read in your genre, reading outside it might sound counterintuitive. But it isn’t. Different genres have different strengths and reading outside your own genre will let you tap into those. Also, reading outside your genre can get you thinking about your book or stories in new ways. When writing The False Princess, for instance, I read mystery novels to see how they balanced between parsing out clues to their mysteries and holding them back—how they gave readers enough information to make their big reveals make sense without giving them away too early.
Didn’t like a book? Figure out why. So you’re reading a book and not liking it, maybe enough to put it down right now. Or you read a book to the end and thought, Wow, I won’t be recommending that to anyone. This might seem like a waste of your reading time but, as a writer, it actually isn’t. Whenever you dislike a book, take a moment to figure out why. Was the style clunky? Did the characters act out of character? Was the end too easy or neat? Was the villain unmotivated? If you can figure out what turned you off to a book, you can make sure to avoid those same pitfalls in your own writing.
Short version, for me reading is the first step to becoming a writer (and possibly the most important after “actually write something.”) If you’re already a big reader, you’re on the right track; just make sure that you’re reading critically, and thinking about your own writing a little while you’re enjoying yourself. If you aren’t a reader, but want to write, head down to your library or bookstore. You’ll be amazed at how it changes your writing—for the better.