Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

  • Is it true you don't read fiction? How can you write if you don't read books?
    The same way you can read and understand books without being able to write them.

    The two processes are not inseparable. You can do one, or the other, or both, but you don't need to do one to be able to do the other.

    It's the same way that a male designer can design clothes for women without wanting to wear them, or a chef can create a dish even if she doesn't like some of the ingredients, and – well, as any professional can create something they don't use or consume. Or the way that a cardiac surgeon can operate on hearts without actually having a heart condition himself.

    Actually, the more I think about that "you can't write without reading" claim, the dumber it looks. But some people cling to it like some religious belief. It just isn't true, you see. I could just as easily tell you that you have to watch a lot of movies to be a good writer, because that's what worked for me.

    The enjoyment for me is in the creation or performance of the skill. It's a different cognitive process to consumption. Many writers don't read, in fact, usually because of time constraints and the fear of subconsciously absorbing influences, but they learn not to say so because of the illogical fury this seems to provoke in some readers and colleagues. But me, I've got a big mouth. I don't care if my non-reading pisses anyone off.

    Reading and writing are not the same thing, which sounds obvious until you consider that readers very often want to be writers. That confuses folks and makes them think that somehow the two are indivisible. Many (if not most) writers came to writing because they loved reading and wanted to create something just like the books that gave them so much pleasure, but that's irrelevant and misleading if you're then going to assume reading is the only path to writing. It's rather like an odd idea my mother once had, that all pharmacists were failed doctors, because all the pharmacists she knew had failed their medical exams and switched careers. It's an assumption based on limited evidence, and like so much of that kind of thinking, it's hopelessly wrong, even if her methodology was pretty much the same as some scientists'. (Which shows you how important sample size and selection is when you're trying to draw conclusions form research.)

    I came to writing via a wholly different route. I liked to write from the first time I was old enough to hold a pencil. I wanted to express myself. I've written for a living for nearly every day of my working life. When I'd had enough of various successful non-fiction writing careers, I decided to give fiction a go. That's all there is to it.

    And I'm living proof that a facility with language and the ability to tell stories can come from anywhere, not just novels. In my case, my writing skills come from reporting – both newspapers and TV – and my storytelling was learned subconsciously watching movies and reading comics. Look hard, and you'll see those influences in the way I shape the structure and the way I handle point-of-view. I could just as easily tell stories in pictures as in words.

    Personally, I like to consume my fiction in images. Or sounds – I still love radio drama.

    I never have liked reading, really. As a kid, I was forced at school to read novels I hated, and it killed any glimmer of a love of reading forever. I didn't grow up in a home where there were lots of books, either. Where I come from, the illiteracy level is 25%. I just learned to read and write at an early age thanks to my parents giving me newspapers and endlessly answering my questions. I read some Golden Age SF as a kid and thought that made me well-read (it did, for my neighbourhood) but a wise friend who's a literary critic pointed out just how little I'd actually read even as a child. Yes: she's right.

    So I don't read novels and shorts because:

    1. I don't enjoy it. There are a few books I did read and loved, but – well, I think it's five or six in my whole life.

    2. I never needed to, and still don't.

    3. Teachers destroyed any love I might have developed for reading.

    4. I'm not really interested in exploring anyone else's fully fleshed-out universe. I need the latitude to explore it on my own terms, which I get with tie-ins every bit as much as I do with my own-copyright work as long as there are empty spaces and open fields. But the more linear it is – the more infilled – the less I enjoy writing it. This is another reason why I have an affinity for game-related fiction. It's more open-ended.

    5. Reading while you're writing is – for me – like hearing a tune that you find yourself whistling for days afterwards, and aren't sure where it came from. Try as you might to shut it out, other books will shape what you write. I prefer to cut out extraneous influences.

    6. I like to find out things for myself, starting from basic principles – and in book terms, that generally means characters developed from scratch, preferably. Writing for me is a process of exploring the world and the people in it. It's my inner journalist at work. So I don't want to see how anyone else writes books. That's like reading a travel guide instead of visiting a country.

    7. When I pick up any book, fact or fiction, I end up editing and proof-reading it. I can't help it. So there's no diversion or relaxation in it for me.

    So there you go. Like Groucho Marx and the flies*, I hope we have an arrangement – I don't read, because that's your job, and writing the stuff is mine. And if I hadn't told you, you'd never have known, would you? QED.

    (* "I have an agreement with the houseflies. The flies don't practice law and I don't walk on the ceiling ." From At The Circus.)

    ©Karen Traviss 2008