Stating the obvious maybe…

Back in the late seventies/early eighties I went absolutely mad on guitars – I started to learn to play one (an acoustic – how uncool!) when I was 16 and bought books and magazines on the instrument. In one particular mag (Guitar World) they featured an interview with Sting (The Police were still around at that point) and, having spent the latter part of my teen years energetically pogoing around to punk and new wave, I particularly savoured the interview. All those mags have now gone, lost in the multitude of moves I’ve made over the years since then, and so has the memory of  what was in the article – BUT, there’s ONE thing about it I DO remember very distinctly. Sting gave out one piece of advice that has stuck with me (albeit inexpertly paraphrased here)  – “The best way to learn an instrument is to play in ALL kinds of bands and play ALL kinds of musical styles – even playing stuff you don’t like, as it’ll provide an invaluable musical education”. Being a typical teenager, though, I completely ignored the advice – and, in case you’re wondering, I never learnt to play the guitar properly, discovering I had NO musical talent whatsoever. Which you should all be mightily relieved about.

I have grown older and wiser since then, left the guitar behind permanently and now find that this snippet of sage wisdom can be applied to writing. Or, more specifically, to the background reading one does to help one’s writing. So, you write horror do you? Well, that’s great, but I wonder how many aspiring horror writers read more than just horror.  Certainly reading all you can in your favourite genre will help you develop and understand the dynamics, pacing and atmosphere of storytelling within that style, as well as generate ideas and provide a font of inspiration. However, reading other genres and modes of writing can also help enormously in creating your own unique literary voice.

Okay, so what I’ve just said might be very obvious to some, but, just like I pointed out in my previous blog, there are those to whom it isn’t. I’m not implying that reading around is mandatory, just that I think it would aid enormously in learning about writing and, most importantly, what makes GOOD writing. Styles have necessarily changed over the years: the stultified prose of the 18th/19th/early 20th centuries is completely alien to our modern sensibilities (unless it’s a deliberate pastiche/hommage), but even so the themes and tropes are universal. Modern writing simply reflects the modern versions of the same preoccupations. Even so, the classics of any genre are always worth reading, if only to get a grasp of what has made them so timeless.

In other words, it’s worth reading  material that you wouldn’t normally touch (even if you want to justify it to yourself in terms of ‘this is NOT what I want to write’). I’ve read all sorts in my time – sci-fi, epic fantasy (which I find unreadable these days), experimental, westerns, adventure, thrillers and even contemporary realist fiction. But whatever it is I’ve read, I’ve taken something from it – a slightly greater understanding of what makes good (or great) writing, what makes bad writing, how to keep a reader’s interest and attention, how one author can create something worthwhile whilst another produces something completely forgettable. Yes, it helps that I write book reviews, and that in my capacity as a reviewer I get to read some amazing (and not so amazing) books. Even if I weren’t a reviewer, however, I would still attempt to read as broad a range of material as I could.

The point is, it all feeds in to the literary melting-pot, even if all you want to write are hack ‘n’ slash stories, or high-fantasy epics taking thirty books to reach a conclusion, or galaxy-spanning space operas: reading other genres can fill out and improve what (and how) you write. Surely, what any writer desires is an instantly recognisable style, unique to them: in other words, what comes out at the other end of their reading, their own written work, is a reflection of the spectrum of other voices that they’ve ‘listened’ to. It wouldn’t do any harm to ALL aspiring writers to do the same.

(As an addendum, I would point out that watching TV dramas and film [in whatever genre], in addition to the reading, can also help enormously. Reading comics and graphic novels is another avenue of exploration in this regard. What makes one thing work and not another? How has a writer managed to squeeze a potentially complex story into a half hour TV episode, for instance? Or a thirty page comic? These are often masterclasses of brevity and compact storytelling that aspiring authors would do well to study…)

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2 Responses to “Stating the obvious maybe…”

  1. RIJU GANGULY Says:

    After I had read the stories in this book (being amongst those fortunate few who got hold of the WHC special Paperback), I had experienced something similar: very-very mundane activities often hide potentially horrific stuff that nightmares are made of, and the author has shown how some of them can become too tangible. The reviewer has done a great job, and Simon Kurt Unsworth is worthy of such praise. May the author grant us many more such jewels in future.

  2. RIJU GANGULY Says:

    The above-mentioned comment was meant for the review of “Lost Places”, sorry for the mishap in placement.

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