As we know, writing can be a lonely, solitary process. Thanks to the magics of the interwebs, writers have more ways than ever of connecting with one another, learning from one another, and finding our "people" out there in cyberspace.
In the coming weeks, I'm going to introduce you to three of my writing people: my critique partners. I like the number three for critique partners; if just one person disagrees with me, I'm never sure whether they are right and I should change something, or whether they just didn't "get" it; with two, they may completely disagree with one another ("You should totally cut that scene out," "You should totally make that scene longer,"); with three there is always a tie-breaker, and if more than one -- or all three -- say the same thing about a particular scene or short story, I know I can trust them.
Having a good critique partner isn't easy. It's a give-and-take process that requires an enormous deal of trust, communication and respect. The three people I'm spotlighting are writers whose work I genuinely enjoy reading, who are somewhere around the same place I am with regards to experience and position in trying to get published, and whose advice I take to heart.
First up is Tony Peak, my longest critique partnership to date. We "met" in early 2011 over at Online Writers Workshop when we found each other's work on the posting boards. Tony's work spans the gamut of what falls under the "spec fic" umbrella: from epic space opera, to dystopian underworld grimdark (his "Meridian" short stories are absolutely not for those with a weak stomach), to what I've termed "proto-steampunk historical fantasy." He's extremely prolific with one of the best imaginations I've ever had the pleasure of reading. Please visit his website over at http://www.tonypeak.net, and follow him on Twitter at tonypeak78.
Take it away, Tony!
All writers read.
Well, writers who expect their work to ever get published, that is. For a
writer, reading another’s work not only keeps your mind sharp. Maintaining a
grasp of good grammar and spelling isn’t the only benefit, either. Neither is
it keeping up with what’s trending, or what’s bowling over the best seller
lists. Sometimes, reading is for inspiration.
How so? Inspiration
comes to writers like it does all other artists. The people around us, our
everyday life, a certain song or film, even a botched order at a local
restaurant (I said vegetarian fajita, not a chicken one!) can be mined for
fiction ideas. [My idea for my current
WIP came when my 5YO misheard something I said and asked what a hollow queen
was. – MM] Another writer’s work can do the same: Tolkien has imbued
countless authors with the need to wend through forests and dungeons with only
a blade and a trusted friend; Stephen King has made us think twice about that
sewer drain, or that beast of a dog the next door neighbor has. Nothing new to
us who read and write. We all read the works of our favorite wordsmiths for
But sometimes I think
we forget what reading can truly do. When you read another author’s work, and
you’re so caught up in it, you’re so lost in their world, wrapped up in their
characters, that you forget you’re reading—that’s what I’m talking about.
Anyone who likes books has experienced this. Yet there are times when a
wonderful piece of fiction reminds us of what is possible. It raises the bar,
makes us see just how far we can push our imaginative limits.
This happened to me
recently. I’ve been a reader nearly all my life, and a writer for a significant
portion of it. So I’m no rookie when it comes to my favorite genres and tropes.
We writers tend to develop a sense of ‘I’ve seen it all’ and become jaded.
Maybe we’ve read too many epic fantasy sagas, too many FTL/Hard SF trilogies,
flipped through too many zombie stories. Add to this a writer’s constant
wrangling and worrying over his or her own work, how it compares with what they
are reading, or what’s selling. This is natural. It also leads to stagnation.
Sometimes we need a
kick in the ass. I got mine lately from two science fiction classics: The Stars
My Destination by Alfred Bester, and Solaris by Stanislaw Lem.
Bester’s book hails
from the 1950s, but it influenced many subsequent works. Thirty years later,
you can still read shades of it in William Gibson’s cyberpunk novels from the
1980s. The Stars My Destination is gritty, with a protagonist that commits
heinous acts all in the name of vengeance. Regardless, I still felt compelled
to continue reading. The lengths Gully would go to achieve his ends, how he’d
use people, alter his body—nothing seemed off limits, and in the end, he
implores the rest of humanity to look past the limits placed upon them by
society and themselves. Like a phoenix rising from the flames of primal hate
and selfish destruction, Gully is reborn into something that can literally
think himself across space, thus hinting at the potential within all humanity. [Um, spoiler alert much, Tony? ;-) –MM] The
stars really are our destination.
This book blew me
away. Sure, these tropes were familiar—but this work was the progenitor of some
of those tropes, and I could sense this as I read it. Once I finished the book,
I was ashamed for not reading it years ago. It’s that good; that visionary.
It made me want to
push myself to write something just as great. It’s been a while since a book
has done that to me.
Next—as in, a
half-hour after I finished The Stars My Destination—I started Solaris. While
completely different in execution, style, and character, it still floored me at
times. Kris’s anguish in dealing with his deceased lover, who has come back as
a perfect simulacrum, raised many moral and ethical questions. Though some of
the same questions are inherent to stories featuring artificial intelligence or
clones, Solaris really made the simulacra feel alien. Frightening, even,
without resorting to cheap horror tricks or gore. They are frightening because
their originals are dead, the human characters know this, and struggles with
getting too emotionally attached to a copy of a person taken from their
memories. The dilemma presented, the vacant space station, the eerie,
mysterious living ocean that creates those simulacra—these elements made
Solaris intellectual and creepy at the same time. A real alien in all that word
implies, made all the more so because it created things that looked just like our
dead loved ones.
Like The Stars My
Destination, this book made me want to write something immediately. I
understood why there are three different film adaptations of it. I stayed up
late to finish it.
This, then, is what
reading truly does for us writers. It can rip down our preconceptions, force us
to look at stories differently, and ignite a fire in our fingertips that can
only be extinguished by tapping them repeatedly on a keyboard. It’s rare to re-experience the virgin wonder
of reading something great for the first time, but it can happen.
So don’t look at that
next novel on your shelf or on your Kindle as merely another story, another
badge of readership you can plug into your Goodreads account. See it for what
it really is: an opportunity to reinvigorate your imagination, and your ability
to transpose it into words.