Monday, October 21, 2013

Read Everything. Almost.

By Mandy Brown Houk

Read, read, read. Read everything - trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! ~William Faulkner

I am a picky reader. If I had my druthers, I’d probably confine myself to coming-of-age novels written within the last two hundred years, primarily by Southern and/or rural writers with a quick wit and a dark sense of humor.
I didn’t even realize this was my default preference until I took a look at the books and stories I most often assign or recommend in my English and writing classes. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Peace Like a River. Cold Sassy Tree. As I Lay Dying. Provinces of Night. All Over But the Shoutin’.
But I know that, as a writer, I can’t seal myself off from the rest of the literary world. Even if what I hope to write is a coming-of-age novel with a Southern feel, I have to read more widely – otherwise my novel will have clean, neatly browned edges, and while that’s a good trait in a Christmas cookie, it’s yawn-inducing in a novel.
And so, I force myself to branch out. Here’s what a few somewhat-recent reads have taught me, which I hope will affect and improve my own writing:
YA: The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
Never hold back. Never let convention dictate who narrates the story. Had I come up with the idea to use Death personified as a narrator, my timidity and devotion to convention would most likely have prevented me from doing so. But Death is the only one who could tell this devastating, wholly original story. I’m glad (and fiercely jealous) that Zusak isn’t the coward I would have been.
Pulitzer Prize Winner: Tinkers – Paul Harding
There’s no telling what the literary elite will like. The writing is gorgeous and intricate, but the story made my head spin. (I’m apparently too stupid for this kind of book, but if you loved it, that’s fabulous.) Here’s what I learned: I don’t need to shoot for literary recognition and prizes, which, honestly, used to be my goal. By reading this book, though, I realized that story is more important to me than language/concept/high art, even though I’m a language junkie. I don’t need to write above my own intellect, attempting to be critically acclaimed. I just want to write a meaningful story (with lovely language) that readers can sink into and adore.
Memoir: Same Kind of Different As Me – Denver Moore/Ron Hall/Lynn Vincent
This book is structured so that two narrators alternate chapters, telling their sides of the central story, with a third author acting as the invisible “as-told-to” scribe. I learned a few things from this book: first (narrator #1), don’t dumb down your writing by too much misspelling and misspeaking, even if that’s accurate to the narrator’s speech patterns. A little bit of dialect goes a long, long, long, long way. Second (narrator #2), ease up on metaphors. Just say what you mean and don’t try to be clever. It’s annoying. Third, if the story is gripping, mediocre writing can be forgiven. This story is the kind that works its way into your heart and changes it from the inside. Beautiful enough to (mostly) overcome the writing flaws.

Modern British Lit: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime – Mark Haddon
Don’t ignore a novel in the bookstore just because it has weird sketches imbedded in the narrative. I picked this book up and put it right back down again because of the odd diagrams and happy faces I saw while flipping through. It was two years before I picked it up again because a trusted friend recommended (insisted) I read it. So that’s the lesson as a reader. The lesson as a writer? Let the events in the book drive the emotion. Don’t pile a bunch of sentimental language on top of the horrible thing that’s happening—the language will muck it all up and dilute the effect. This book is narrated by a boy with Asperger’s syndrome – he is fundamentally incapable of feeling, interpreting, and expressing the emotions that the rest of us can’t hold in. So the language is about as matter-of-fact and detached as it can possibly be—yet I bawled like a baby multiple times while reading it.

A Novel That’s Not a Novel: Olive Kitteridge ­– Elizabeth Strout
Don’t let rules and boundaries stifle the story you have to tell. (Note: this is a Pulitzer winner, too, and in this case, I whole-heartedly, boisterously agree!) I don’t have any idea why/how “they” classify this book as a novel. It seems, instead, to be an anthology of short stories, all set in the same town, told chronologically, and with a certain grumpy woman named Olive appearing in each one. Olive is the POV character in only a few of them; the others may feature her prominently, moderately, or even in cameo-like fashion (in one story, she simply appears in a restaurant and is overheard being pushy with her husband – that’s it). But the book is a triumph of language, heart, and humor, and a brilliant treatise on the human condition (that is: we suck but we need each other anyway).

Classical Lit: A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
There’s a reason books become classics. Don’t overlook them just because your frizzy-haired, frumpy-clothed English teacher assigned them. Nobody creates characters like Charles Dickens, and this, to me, is his shining example. He wasn’t paid by the word for this one, so he gets right to the heart and manages to create a living, breathing, eternal character in 60 or 70 pages.

Popular Fiction/Thriller: Iron House – John Hart
Don’t judge a book by its sales. As someone who leans more toward literary fiction than blockbuster, I sometimes assume that a book with great sales numbers probably isn’t well-written. I expect a tight plot, but flat writing, cardboard characters, little emotional impact. With all four of John Hart’s books, I’ve been wrong, but most notably with Iron House. This book has taught me that character development enhances and even causes the tension in a story, regardless of genre. I don’t have to choose one or the other; I can (and should) have both.
I haven’t given up my persnickety reading habits. I admit that there are books and genres I probably won’t ever read (I won’t mention them here, because everyone’s favorites are different -- as Andre Maurois said, "In literature as in love, we are astonished at what is chosen by others”).
But I will continue to force myself out of my comfortable orbit, and I hope that all of this reading will make my own writing better, wider, broader, more.

What books have taught you something specific about your writing? 
What have you learned from reading outside your genre or comfort zone?

About the Writer:  Mandy Brown Houk is a freelance writer and editor, and she teaches at a small private high school in Old Colorado City. She's written for several magazines and anthologies, and has completed two novels--only one of which is worthy of the light of day. Mandy is currently seeking agent representation. Her web site is

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