A New Feature: Nicking from Novels

I am reading more. I haven’t quite made it to a book a week yet, but that owes as much to skimming several books at once as to a lack of time spent reading. Last week I posted about Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road. That post was more or less a book review. A short one, but a book review.

That’s not what I want to do on this blog. I love books. I sometimes like reading book reviews. My personal reading plan, though, revolves around mixing up books that I “should” have read—ones generally agreed to be good—with arbitrary grabs off the library shelves. Those won’t all be good, and I don’t want to fill up my blog with takedowns of authors who are probably perfectly nice people writing perfectly serviceable fiction that doesn’t please a snob like me. (I reserve the right to flex my scathing review chops if I come across something truly awful, though.)

Instead…instead I’m going to write about literary larceny. Grammarian grand theft. Reckless writerly ransacking. In short, I’m going to approach the books I read like Conan approaching a jungle temple. Even bad books do good things. The point of reading—as a writer—is to take those good things and make them your own when you need to.

Back when I was doing my degree in (music) composition, I had to listen to unfamiliar pieces of new music every week. Usually, I was listening along with the score. Given the average age of the composition faculty, it’s not surprising that we tracked this ongoing assignment with notecards. On the front of the card, we wrote the particulars of the recording and the score. On the back, we wrote notes about what we heard (and sometimes what we saw). In addition to building familiarity with a range of new music, the idea was that we could return to these pieces if there were techniques we wanted to use. I had a big stack of 3×5 cards by the end of my two years. They didn’t make the move from Minnesota, but it was a good project while it lasted.

The new feature here at Walking Ledges will be something similar: Nicking from Novels. For all the books I read, I hope to find a few things that the author does particularly well. I’ll describe those, providing some quotes when applicable. Over time, it will create a compendium of sorts for other people to use (while giving props to the original authors), and be more interesting than just hearing whether some guy in Texas liked a book or not.

Planning the new feature has already changed the way I’m reading. I spent years as an undergrad and grad student picking texts apart—sometimes for content, sometimes for delivery. It was analytical work. Reading novels for technique is not quite the same. It is, again, like the listening I did when I was a composer. The what and why become less important than the how. (This was also the thing that led me away from composition: I really cared about the why.) Sometimes the things I notice are little, like the one I mentioned last week about Chabon sketching his background characters with mini-anecdotes. Sometimes they are larger: how the author deals with magic, with the foundation of the world, with characters’ roots. I don’t expect that it will kill my enjoyment of what I read. I have a better perspective on the questions now than I did ten years ago, and can approach them a bit more like I approach eating things other people have cooked: what’s tasty? How can I use that stuff in my own recipes? Will it work without mushrooms?

Anyway! First proper post of the new feature will likely come tomorrow. The series should continue to run weekly on Fridays.

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