essay: Adventures in Readerland: Roadtrip

I’ve hit a wall. No, that’s wrong: I’ve driven into a large grey, fluffy cloud, and I can’t find my way out of it. It muffles my ability to read, think, and write this blog. (Which is why this blog is late. Did you notice? Pay attention.)

As a writer I’ve always been disparaging about the concept of waiting around for inspiration. You don’t wait for inspiration: you meet your deadlines; you get the job done. With my nose up against a deadline, I can usually write something. Writing is a discipline, dammit.

But what about reading? What if you’ve been reading and reading and reading and nothing—nothing—enters your imagination and makes itself worth writing about?

Let’s see if I can blame editing. In my professional life, I’m an editor, which makes me a bit of a bloodhound. I can read quite happily, editing brain switched off; but show me the whiff of a technical mistake—a misspelling, a missing comma, a hyphen that should be a dash, an unhyphenated compound adjective or, worst of all, a continuity mistake in the plot—and my bloodhound instincts are instantly activated. After that, my nose is to the ground, hunting down the next mistake, expecting it. After that, my trust in the author has gone gone gone.

Which is stupid of me, because a writer writes, and it’s the editor’s job to iron out the technicalities, right? I really shouldn’t judge the writer.

The trouble is, we live in the can-do age where anyone can write and publish a book all by themselves. They don’t need permission or acceptance or input from anyone else. Which is fabulous—until you consider that, just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a good team to support a writer in producing a good book.

As a result, the market is drenched with super stories, wondrous ideas, some daring, dashing and decidedly offbeat alternative realities. And a whole lot of missing commas and continuity errors. Sadly, I find that I mind. I wish I didn’t, but there you are. I’ve picked up a lot of books recently and put them down again rather quickly.

It’s not about educational snobbery or elitism. It’s about trust and respect. Before I invite you into my house, I will tidy up. I’ll make sure that there’s nothing on the stairs for you to fall over and that things are generally clean enough that you don’t get salmonella.

Before I invite you into my story, I’ll make sure it makes sense. I’ll correct any errors, check my facts, ensure continuity and generally present you with a tidy text.

It’s a kind of contract, see? Give me your time, and I’ll be a responsible host. My story might be alarming, or experimental, or radical, or even lewd. But it will have an inner logic; it will work as a story. It will be checked and tidied and properly constructed. That’s the contract.

So here I am in my fluffy cloud, blundering around, looking for a wonderful book to write about. I know there are hundreds of wonderful things out there. I know that, I’ve read about them, I’ve heard about them…

But since I’ve spectacularly failed to find and engage with one of them in time to write this blog, let’s see what I have been reading. An article on string theory. (I didn’t understand much of it but, just for a moment, I glimpsed something rare and beautiful beneath the surface of my life.) Dozens of news stories on the BBC website (some of them interesting, several of them biased, most of them shockingly under-edited). I’ve read a chapter on the discipline of study, in a book on the discipline of faith (a spiritual adventure but not a reading adventure). I listened to the first few chapters of the latest Yann Martel novel while driving home after Christmas. (Fascinating, by the way; great ideas. Not sure what the story’s going to do, but it kind of needs to get on with it…) I’ve listened to Chapter Seven of the Stephen King novel 11/22/63. (This book is my ironing companion and, clearly, I don’t do enough ironing, because Chapter One began almost six months ago…) I’ve read the first few chapters of Diana Gabaldon’s Cross Stitch. (I’m a little underwhelmed at the moment, but suspect it’s because I’m not really concentrating.) I’ve read a National Geographic article from 1982 on Sweden, several chapters of Luke’s Gospel, and, yes, I have to admit it, an article on hem lengths this season.

Also dozens of blog posts, some of them excellent, and hundreds of Facebook posts, most of them engaging. And I’m not including the things I’m editing or proofing just now (including a set of short stories for a new Firedance anthology; stand by, because some of these are truly excellent).

Good grief. Having written this list, I’m beginning to see the problem. Too much bloody reading. No wonder nothing’s got into my imagination; it’s barely got past my eyes. In fact, this isn’t really reading at all; it’s grazing.

So the last few weeks haven’t been so much an adventure in Readerland as a very unsatisfactory roadtrip, with lots of bumps and bends and no destination. Before I write this blog again, I will choose a novel and stick with it. I’ll fulfil my side of the contract as a reader: I will give the novel my full and undivided attention. I’ll fulfil my side of the contract as writer of this blog: I’ll review a book properly, tell you what’s good, what’s not, why you should read or avoid it.

And if I find editorial mistakes, I’ll do my best to ignore them and give the writer the benefit of the doubt. Honest, I will.

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