To everyone with aspirations of becoming a writer, let me say this: if I finish my book, and by some incomprehensible miracle manage to get it published, I strongly encourage you to not read it. That’s right, I said to not read it. A strange thing to say, and one that must be sending my writer friends into paroxysms of despair as, “there he goes again.” But this is not defeatism on my part. It’s an epiphany.
I’m told repeatedly by well-meaning fellow writers that I don’t read enough, that I should read much more, in my genre, out of it, whatever. That all writers are big readers. The more I read, they say, the more I see what other writers do, the more it will help my own writing. That has not been the case.
When I read, what I see above all is case after case of writers doing things I’ve been told I must not do. And also writers not doing things I’m told I have to do. So much for leading by example. Even worse, there’s no consistency. Every writer does it differently. Thus, if I read because I want to learn how to improve, for example, my dialogue, I will see one writer do it one way, and another writer do it in effectively the opposite way. As a result I learn nothing, except that every writer has a different answer to the same question. This is why I’m advised not to get too much critique, but then that makes it obvious that it also means not to read too much.
But, you are no doubt saying, it’s okay that they are all different; by looking at what they do, I can then work on developing my own voice. In other words, study other writers so that I can figure out how I want to do it. Well, hell, I already know how I want to do it. I don’t need to read other writers to know that.
But there’s another, even greater impediment to reading: I don’t like the stuff I read. I have yet to encounter a Young Adult novel recommended to me that is not boring, insipid, offensive or tedious. Usually more than one of those things. This should present a problem, right? As one person told me, “It will be hard for you to write in the genre if you don’t like it.” And, for a time, I agreed with that, and was quite discouraged and full of self-doubt, wondering what everyone else found so wonderful that I couldn’t see. But I’ve come to realize that that’s not the case. I find myself inspired by a different example than Suzanne Collins and J. K. Rowling and that crowd. I’m inspired by the attitude of one Walter Elias Disney.
As I’ve written before, I’m a Disneyland junkie. I’ve been going there as long as I can remember. And I know a great deal about the history of the park, particularly its beginnings. When Walt set out to build his dream, nobody thought he could do it. His starting point was his love of small-gauge railroads. He had one in his backyard and he loved to take his guests, and especially their children, on rides. And he wanted to go bigger. He wanted a full-size railroad to ride around. And he wanted destinations to ride to, with things to do. Sound familiar?
As he began buying up orange groves in Southern California, and trying to find investors, he kept being told it was a folly, in the literal sense of the word. It wouldn’t work. He’d lose his shirt. Nobody would want to come. But he’d learned from Snow White not to give up in the face of detractors. He carried on.
The most interesting criticism from my perspective came from none other than his wife Lillian. To understand her objection, and his inspirational response to it, we must understand the circumstance of the time.
In the 1940’s and 50’s, when Walt was putting his ideas together, amusement parks were seedy, fly-by-night operations full of crime and filth, with uncomfortable, unsafe rides, lurid sideshows, and rip-off games run by disreputable carnies. Not pleasant places, and certainly not somewhere you’d want to take the kids, despite the fact that the attractions were strictly kidstuff. Aware of this, Lillian asked Walt a key question: “Why do you want to build an amusement park? They’re such awful, dirty places.” Walt’s answer showed his full visionary brilliance: “That’s exactly why I want to build one.”
The implication was clear: amusement parks were terrible, so he wanted to build one that wasn’t. He wanted a place that was clean and safe, where families could enjoy doing things together, to have fun, to be inspired, maybe to learn something. The result: Disneyland.
I think of Walt’s words when I note my own struggles to write Young Adult fiction in the face of a genre that I find distinctly uninspiring. I don’t want to write it for the reason most writers do, because they love it. I want to write it because I don’t love it, and I want to write something better. Something that’s good. Something that I could be proud of. For that I don’t need to waste time reading stuff I don’t enjoy. Nor did Walt spend much time visiting carnivals, except to see what mistakes he wanted to correct in his park. So it shall be for my book.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s not my intent to just stop reading entirely. I will read all these books I’ve been given. That is, I will read the first chapter. If at that point I feel compelled to continue, then by all means I shall (it has yet to happen, but I live in hope). If not, then I’m done. I figure that’s more than an editor will be willing to give my manuscript to make an impression, so it’s entirely reasonable. If someone says, “Hang in there, it gets great,” I’ll simply respond by asking if I can say that in my query letters.
I will finish my book – and, with luck, the series – and it will be what YA science fiction should be, rather than what it is. And if you want to be a writer, don’t read it. Just write your own book. In the end, that’s the only way to ever have something the way you really want it to be.