Posted by: Tyler Mills | June 4, 2011

Analyzing the Bookcase

Sorry for the delay in posts, folks! I have been really busy with a new job and also staying on top of my writing and all those other concerns of life. Excuses aside, more reviews are to come shortly but today’s post is more about helping you readers get to know me as a reader. This post is largely for my own benefit as I find my own thoughts become much clearer as I try to write them down than when I just try to think them. I hope you will find it interesting.

I am a huge fan and student of a Podcast called Writing Excuses. The purpose of the podcast is to help aspiring writers and others improve their craft and I have found the advice offered on the podcast invaluable. Writing Excuses  is hosted by Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. Brandon Sanderson is a fantasy author of titles including Elantris, the Mistborn Trilogy, Warbreaker, The Way of Kings, Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians, and is the author chosen by Robert Jordan’s widow to complete the last few books of the  Wheel of Time series. Dan Wells is the author of the John Cleaver horror books, I am Not a Serial Killer, Mr. Monster, and I Don’t Want to Kill You. Howard Tayler is the online web cartoonist who created Schlock Mercenary. The trio have fantastic chemistry and variety of writing experience that never fails to offer good advice and plenty of laughs along the way.

I learned about Writing Excuses after meeting Brandon Sanderson at a College convocations presentation  in which he was the keynote speaker. I was impressed with him and afterwards read the Mistborn books and have since become a major fan of his work.  The podcast has been running weekly since 2008 and one of my goals for the summer is to catch up on all the podcasts that were posted before I discovered Writing Excuses. A recent podcast advised me to take an introspective look at myself and really ask myself what I love to read, so that I can better know what to write. So this morning as I took notes from a Writing Excuses Podcast and stared at my bookcase for what seems like the first time I realized what a rather odd collection of material I have.  Some books are newer and others are careworn paperbacks  I read as a child but without fail each  is a book I return to with fond memories and a smile.

As far as non-fiction I have a lot of historical books, mythology, biographies, and memoirs. Utah Ghost Towns, Tales of the Mountain Men, Butch Cassidy my Brother, Bulfinch’s Mythology, The Arabian Nights, Empires that Shook the World, Swimming to Antarctica, The Iliad and the Odyssey and a variety of other history and writing-improvement books line that section of my shelf.

My fiction is far more varied, I am packing heat with historical fiction including Charley Skedaddle, By the Great Horn Spoon, the entire Little House series, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Am I Not A Man?: The Dred Scott Story, and SOS Titanic. I also have a lot of Science Fiction and Fantasy stories. Harry Potter, Animorphs, The Lord of the Rings, various Magic: The Gathering Books, Artemis Fowl, Fablehaven, The Lost Years of Merlin,  and the Inheritance Cycle. I own about twenty Star Wars titles and I also have some contemporary fiction I really enjoy such as Devil’s Bridge.

Then we have the classics. Robinson Crusoe, Moby Dick, Mutiny on Board the HMS Bountry, Captain Courageous, The Call of the Wild, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Swiss Family Robinson, and Treasure Island being some of my particular favorites.

I also have a lot of books on my “Buy Soon” list which includes fantasy, westerns, and more books on writing and publishing. I’m including them for the purpose of better analyzing my reading interests so I can really pick apart what interests me about the stories I read.

It’s been difficult and interesting trying to place what attracts me to all these different types of books. Narrowing down the elements of story that keep me eagerly turning pages and devouring book after book. I started the process by noticing what I consciously avoid- Horror and Romance. That isn’t to say I don’t enjoy stories with good romances and scary elements in them, but I greatly prefer  stories that don’t rely on sex and graphic violence as major parts of the story (I consciously avoid these things). The same goes for mysteries. The only real “Mystery” book I own is a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories. That isn’t to say that I don’t like mysteries in my stories, but I think the reason I tend to avoid mystery is that I prefer to follow the growth of a character rather than simply the solving of an outside problem.

That said, here are some major themes that frequently seem to appear in the books I read:

Alternate settings, worlds  that I can experience vicariously with the characters. Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and the many other fantasy stories I own offer a playground for the imagination. I remember as I kid I would watch the Star Wars movies and go outside and jump on the trampoline while choreographing star fighter battles in the air around me complete with sound effects. My brothers couldn’t stand it. I love reading into a fight scene or a conflict where the main character is a Jedi or a wizard and I know what their abilities are and I can try to imagine how they will use their powers to win the day. It’s the greatest feeling when the author uses those skills in a way we didn’t think of and the world becomes that much more amazing and fun to play in.

The sense of wonder and possibility. This also has to do with setting. I am a history major, and I love the way that I can look into history and see that alternate world that is so different and interesting, even though it is connected to our own. I imagine myself being a cowboy or a gold miner or a sailor and having all these amazing (though incredibly dangerous and trying) adventures. The Boy Eagle Scout in me loves going out and experiencing the big wide world, and its even more fun when that world can have magic and pirates and dragons and gunfights. I have a very complex love/hate relationship with Eragon and the rest of the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini. Its a post for another day but suffice it to say that the reason I keep reading it even when the inner writer sometimes wants to explode with frustration is because of the sense of wonder evoked by the world and the magic system that he created for Alagaesia (which is broken and too powerful for a good story. Again, another day). I love books that let my imagination go nuts, I can sit there and think about it for days or weeks afterwards. I don’t know anyone alive who can read Jumper without imagining what it would be like to teleport and what you would do if you could go anywhere and do anything.

Emotional connection to the character. Newsflash! I’m a human. I love to love things. My big problem with An Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England that I reviewed a few weeks back was that the main character was a bit dim-witted and I didn’t have a good enough reason to love him and care if he solved his problems. As a reader if I don’t like the character and want them to succeed then I don’t like the story. The movie Pursuit of Happyness was really a great example of emotional connection to a character because as the watcher I was with this guy the entire step of the way and we know exactly the pressure he is under, how poor he is, how hard he is working to accomplish his goals. We know what he has gone through and decided somewhere along the line that this is a good guy and he deserves to make it and when he finally does we are so happy for him we can barely contain ourselves. That’s how it was for me anyway.

Connection to deeper underlying truths. One of my favorite books, The Once and Future King, (which for some reason I don’t own, need to remedy that) is a prime example of this. I love mythology and I know the stories of Merlin and Arthur and I know whats going to happen. When he is going through all his trials, trying to do good for his people.  When all is lost and he is about to fail he realizes the true lesson of his whole life, even though its too late to save his life and his marriage and friendships and kingdom. So when all is lost Arthur does the only thing he can, passes what he learned to the next generation, hoping that young Thomas will learn from an old man’s mistakes. It is a cool story with great characters in a setting that grips my imagination but learning Arthur’s lesson is what really sticks with me about the whole novel. Not all stories need these kind of deeper lessons, but I think the strongest books that will stand the test of time have them. The Once and Future King is also a great example of using history to create tension which is one of my favorite writing tools in Historical Fiction, but that is also a discussion for another time.

Summary: I like character driven fiction with a world of adventure and possibility that lets my imagination have a lot of fun playing with the ideas and deeper meaning the story presents. I am a ponderer, and I like having substance to ponder whether its deep and introspective or whimsical and fun.

Its fun to stop and think about what really keeps stories interesting for you. This exercise has made me think a lot more about what I love to read, and hopefully will help me find stories to write in the future. I recommend that all writers do this if they haven’t already, it offers a lot of perspective.

The following are links to Brandon, Dan, and Howard’s websites as well as Writing Excuses if you want to check out the podcast. It has been a great tool for me to improve my writing. I highly recommend it.

Brandon’s Website.   Dan’s Website.    Schlock Mercenary.    Writing Excuses.


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