I’m a voracious reader. It’s an addiction that started upon my entrance into geekdom with comic collecting, a pursuit I would be following even now if the price of 5-pages-per-issue of sub-standard artwork wasn’t so frickin’ high. My actual book devourment started with cheesy sci fi / fantasy novels from Alan Dean Foster, David Eddings and the like, and as I grew older my horizons quite naturally broadened. Mostly because I was hopeless with girls. When I finally did manage to figure out the boy-girl thing, the comics and books took a back seat, but I was slowly drawn back into these paper-and-prose worlds of escapism when real life convinced me to take a break now and then or risk losing what was left of my mind.
I’ve done a fair bit of reading in my 42 years, to the point that I’ve found myself buried in a book written by one of literature’s finest (as not defined by some damn Wuthering Heights-bent school curriculum) and thinking “I could write better than this. Hell, I have written better than this.” The arrogance of delusion, I suppose. There are a couple works of “art” sitting here waiting to be published, in fact, so maybe one day I can put my money where my mouth is.
With that in mind, I was recently reminded of something Stephen King once said. I’m not his biggest fan but I’ve enjoyed several of his books over the years. One of them, entitled On Writing, is basically his take on what makes a good writer versus a bad one. He offers anecdotes, advice and a number of stories related to his craft. The one slice of wisdom that has always stuck with me is “Write what you know..,” and while I have no idea if King has ever gone face-to-muzzle against a rabid dog or had dreams about being chased down by a psychotic clown, the message was and is clear. Basically, if you’ve been weaned on estrogen-charged I-Can’d-Beleev-Iss-Not-Budder cover model romance novels, you probably shouldn’t try to one-up Tom Clancy on the political thriller front.
After a recent bordering-on-frantic search for something good to read I’m thinking King’s rule should be updated as follows:
Write What You Know, But Step The Fuck Out Of Your Show-Me-The-Money Comfort Zone, Dammit.
My cage was rattled recently (as my buddy Fin says about me… often) while searching for something new to read. After several months of re-reading novels in my ever-growing collection, I decided it was time to seek out a brand spankin’ new tale at the bookstore. While I did eventually find a couple things to keep myself amused for the next couple months (in between work, domestic bliss, weekend debauchery and work), I was disappointed to see that a couple writers I used to enjoy a great deal are still flogging what is an unquestionably dead body at this point in their very successful careers.
I’ve written about this before, but fantasy author Terry Goodkind pisses me off to no end for taking what was a brilliant idea and turning it into a never ending soap opera of mistaken-identity-this and don’t-you-love-me-no-more?-that.
In all honesty, Goodkind was single-handedly responsible for rekindling my otherwise rotted interest in fantasy in the space of one book, Wizard’s First Rule, back in 1994. It had all the fantasy formula earmarks (hero dood, magic, a journey, hot chick smarter than hero dood, Mr. Evil out to murder death kill everyone) but the way Goodkind told the story was instantly captivating. Excellent style. Plus, he had some interesting twists on said formula, and he also managed to create one of the best secondary characters in a series of books. Ever.
Sadly, the Sword Of Truth saga (as I said, cliché out the ass in a lot of ways) should have stopped at four books but, at the time of this writing, had been extended to twelve. Seriously. Twelve books about the same people told in what has become a predictable narrative style. How bloody boring. Granted, Goodkind has made no secret about using his series to breathe life into his philisophical beliefs, but why not create an entirely new realm to do that rather than slaughtering his fanbase with “creativity” as dry as a fart in the desert?
I refuse to believe that a publishing house boasting a writer that has sold upwards of 25 million copies of his work internationally has Goodkind by the short and curlies. Certainly not to the point that he has no creative freedom whatsoever. They need him more than he needs them. Period.
There was a ray of hope, however, when it was announced in 2009 that Goodkind would (final-fucking-ly) publish a book that wasn’t part of The Sword Of Truth. Awesome… right up to the point where said book, The Law Of Nines, turned out to be a parallel reality story related to The Sword Of Truth.
I give up. Until he writes a story that doesn’t involve a damn sword with “truth” inscribed on the hilt, a lovesick(ening) couple, and hero dood’s “raptor gaze” (easily the most fucking annoying phrase in Goodkind’s library of Lame Descriptive Shit I Rely On To Fill Page Space) I won’t be wasting my time supporting him.
Unhappy woman. Time travel. How the hell did I end up in 18th century Scotland? My, doesn’t he look dreamy. Mayhem, violence, blood, guts. I’m a doctor. Sarcastic wit. Oh, nipples! Wandering hither and yon. And onward we go. Seven books and counting.
These books have grown into biblical epic-and-the-kitchen-sink volumes over the years, to the point that I’m thinking Gabaldon would be doing the world a favour by easing up on the amount of historical fact she staples to the plotlines. God bless her for being so passionate about her art, but trying to get through her latest book, An Echo In The Bone, I felt like I was plodding through a history textbook that wanted to be a soft porn Braveheart-meets-Harlequin adventure. Same old lame old routine… to the point that I put the book away unfinished by about 500 pages. A pity, because she’s got a fantastic narrative voice.
To her credit, Gabaldon has stepped outside the box for seven or eight books focusing on a secondary character from the Outlander series. Somewhat less of a chore to read and voiced with her familiar smart-ass sense of amusement, the Lord John books have been entertaining, but again I’m thinking it would do Gabaldon well if she got the hell out of highlander hottie potential chick flick heaven entirely. At least for a while. I mean, you can only do things missionary and doggy for so long until lighting one’s genitals on fire starts looking far more exciting in spite of the potential pain.
The Girlfriend piped up when I mentioned this seemingly blanket lack of inspiration, citing the reader reviews of Dan Brown’s latest book The Lost Symbol, which has been lambasted via reader reviews for serving up his trademark Spooky Symbol Stuff (wooga wooga). She doesn’t agree with complaints that its paint-by-numbers drivel, saying that folks who buy into Dan Brown are doing so because they’re expecting a Robert Langdon mystery romp (to be followed by a crap-ass movie adaptation). Fair enough, Brown is a fledgling writer in comparison to the likes of Goodkind and Gabaldon, but if it was me I’d be listening closely to my readership and considering the validity of their bitching.
I could beat the snot out of this theme because, in my “humble” opinion, numerous well-to-do authors are guilty of taking the easy way to the bank. In all fairness, there’s no doubt in my mind that some of these writers have to contend with publishers looking over their shoulders, reminding them of how their continued careers depends on home base getting its 95%-off-the-top-or-else, but the veterans that have more clout than a steroid-charged Fight Club? That select group can take a long walk off a short pier, preferably with lead weights in their pockets.
So it goes that, after the premature shelving of An Echo In The Bone, I picked up Stephen King’s new one, Under The Dome. An act of desperation on some level (no pun intended), but two pages in I was hooked. The voice was instantly familiar, as was the penchant for unexplained madness, evil and occasional murder, but it felt brand new. I’m half way through the book, and if online reviews are to be believed I’ll be disappointed by the ending, but I’m willing forgive King this supposed lapse (which is all a matter of taste anyway). Getting to the end is most of the fun, and I appreciate a writer that is able to serve up a rollercoaster ride without concern for the sections of track he mangled or forgot to include along the way, or the residual cheques that may or may not show up in the aftermath. Granted, King doesn’t need to worry about money at this stage of the game, but he could have phoned it in claiming immunity as a literary icon.
Instead, he gave his peers something to aspire to.