When I decided to write science fiction, (this was some years ago,) I got a library card and borrowed every book I could find, based on a list of writers that I had read when I was younger.
This included something like a hundred and fifty books by forty or fifty authors.
In some ways that was a mistake, as most of the books on the list dated back thirty or more years to classic authors like Robert A. Heinlein, and while that isn’t so bad in itself, it left out most of the authors who are currently active and financially successful in today’s market.
A better idea would have been to go to the bookstore and see who was on those shelves on that very day. It would have been a better idea to make a list at the bookstore. Then go to the library, and borrow them all for free, three or four books at a time. I should have read them and studied them, for two or three weeks or until my time ran out.
Try it sometime. Look at the books with whole new eyes. Look at them analytically.
Did you see anything you didn’t like? What did you like? If you had to write an objective review, not just fan-praise, what would you say about the book? If you could write anything you wanted, who would you most like to sort of ‘follow in the foot-steps of?’ If you can’t analyze somebody else’s work, you can hardly expect to be able to analyze your own stories, objectively or otherwise. A good exercise after reading this article might be to grab three books out of genre, read them, and then write a short 200-word review for each one.
Robert J. Sawyer said in a 2005 interview, ‘Isaac Asimov’s work would not be publishable today because it is not up to modern literary standards.’ I like Asimov, who wrote hundreds of books and technical papers, and that seems harsh. But if anyone is in a position to know what he is talking about, it is Sawyer, the ‘go-to’ guy in science fiction, (at least for Canadians,) and I’m not contradicting him. I listen pretty well—but I’m not contradicting. But think of the competition we are up against.
Outside of my particular genre, I got a bag of old Dick Francis novels, about twenty-five of them. Francis wrote ‘horse-racing thrillers.’ My grandfather loved those books. Why? He liked horses, and in fact my grandmother used to ride the sulky in races at county fairs. Putting them in chronological order, I read each and every one of them. For one thing, the books followed a common structure and formula. What I found was that the story-telling ability of the author improved over time. The author had a few recurring themes, such as confinement, kidnapping, and the basic corruption behind the cheater’s mentality. It really was a finite list over the course of his career. I began to see his limitations, and his strengths. His perspective as a former, very successful rider was that he didn’t mind people gambling. It was a legitimate enterprise, and he loved the sport.
He didn’t much like cheaters, who weren’t content to rely on luck or good judgment, but tried to fix results, and often resorted to violence when things went wrong. In that sense, every novel has some sort of moral component. It’s best to figure out what we are trying to say before we get too far along. Not every theme is of equal importance. Francis also seemed to buy and rebuild old houses. I’m sure he did it at least once. It made a big impression. Some of his characters did the same thing—the basic message was that it was time-consuming and expensive. Surely this is a theme, and surely it is a lesser theme than the one about violence, or more specifically the bits about kidnapping, threats, and assaults. Re-building old houses is a kind of ‘be careful what you wish for’ theme.
A really dense story has a lot of themes interwoven together to make a coherent whole.
Human beings are complex, and so characters should be too. With human beings not everything is on the surface. There are always hidden depths.
If you want to write a western, study modern western authors, (the successful ones,) or romance authors, fantasy authors, whatever you want to write, but also study outside of your chosen genre. This somehow makes it easier to keep an objective point of view. It’s better than getting sucked into a story completely, because you’re enjoying it so much. Now you can figure out why it works and how it works.
These tools will work in our own stories. That’s not to say we should read bad books or only popular ones. It’s about trying to keep an open mind when cracking open any work.