The finest writers are those who read a lot

Oh well, the last movie I saw was 'Crash', I'll write a review about that soon, also, I'll attempt to continue that feature about the console RPGs I've completed thus far (which is a much arduous task than originally envisioned).

The increasing popularity and traffic of my blog and website during the past week had been rather surprising and flattering. It is a good thing to know that there's life after fanfiction when it comes to writing. I have met a number of aspiring writers and aspiring artists recently, both online and in real life, and they have inspired me to write this entry. (which I am still unsure whether to be categorize as one of my articles or not)

Writing is something I have been doing since I was 13 because I love stories, not just telling it, but listening to it. Even though I am more focused on filmmaking these days, it is, to me, another method of storytelling (that's why it's almost impossible for me to do anything non-narrative with my short films). I tend to believe that the finest writers are the ones who read a lot, after all, there is no way you can live in a vacuum if you intend to become writer.

I shall use Tracy Hickman, one of the co-authors who wrote a series of books that kickstarted the commercially successful Dragonlance series in the 80s, as an example. The first two Dragonlance trilogies (Chronicles and Legends) he co-wrote with Margaret Weis made me a fan of the fantasy genre. However, the saddest thing about him is that neither of his recent Dragonlance books are as good as his old ones, a belief shared by most except for the most extreme fans and apologists of the Dragonlance series. His writing skills and what he wrote just became very stagnant, it is as if he is still living in the 80s.

The main problem with him is that he ceased reading other fantasy books. When asked a few years ago whether he has read George R R Martin's 'A Song of Ice And Fire' series (still one of the finest fantasy series I've ever read), he said no, he wouldn't want to read any of the other fantasy titles out there because he has this 'habit' of wanting to correct the book whenever he reads it, thus taking away his enjoyment. I think what he said was quite possibly one of the dumbest things I've ever heard from a writer. His so-called 'habit' is pretty much something shared by most writers whenever they are reading something else, and instead of lessening their enjoyment, I believe this is a valuable practice for yourself because you will know what works in a story, and what doesn't, and you'll know how to improve yourself by not repeating the mistakes. Isn't this all about being a writer?

If Hickman wasn't being so ignorant, and try so deliberately to ignore everything written by the other fantasy authors, he wouldn't have deteriorated like this. More exposure to the finest fantasy writings out there would have made him realize how different the whole climate has changed and why people would prefer the likes of George R R Martin, Neil Gaiman, Steven Erikson or Robin Hobb more than him, and why the authors I mentioned would be so much more highly-regarded in the fantasy literary circle compared to him. Who knows? If he weren't so stubborn, his Dragonlance books might not actually SUCK so much now. (he had gotten so desperate that he's 'revisiting' the Chronicles series written back in the 80s by writing the points of view of the villains? How lame can you get?)

That's what I'm trying to say. If you are an aspiring writer, exposure is good. The more you read, the better. But don't just stick with the popular, well-known authors, the fact that they are the highest-selling authors do not immediately mean that they are the best, or the most useful influences for you. Many aspiring fantasy writers told me that their writings are influenced by obvious choices like Tolkien, or Rowling, or Pratchett, or Robert Jordan, or Terry Goodkind. Why? Because they are the top-selling authors? Thus they are automatically assumed as the 'best'? I seriously hate it when people come up with rubbish like 'Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth books sell a lot, thus he does not suck'. That's serious bullshit. If you feel that he does not suck, that's your freaking opinion, but don't bring in the 'books sell a lot' part into the argument.

If you are an aspiring fantasy/sci-fi writer, wonderful. But why just commit yourself to only these few authors when almost millions and millions of other aspiring writers out there cite them as influences as well? Why not give the likes of Steven Erikson, Robin Hobb, George R R Martin as well? Why not try read Andre Norton? Or China Mieville? Or Tad Williams? Or Neil Gaiman? Why not try K.J. Bishop? Or Stephen Donaldson? Or Gene Wolfe? Why not just grab a list of the World Fantasy/Hugo/Nebula award winners and nominees and try out each and everyone of their works? Shouldn't this be more enjoyable and fulfilling than spending the rest of your life reading just the same author everytime?

I met a guy in university, an aspiring writer too, who named Dan Brown as one of the best writers he'd read (along with Tolkien, which has become an almost obligatory answer), but immediately, I knew that he probably hadn't read enough. Yes, 'Angels and Demons' and 'The Da Vinci Code' are very enjoyable books, when I read them, I couldn't put them down because of its entertainment value, but I do know Dan Brown is not THAT great a writer. I have yet to read this guy's writings, but I think my expectations for him would be much higher if, instead of going for these obvious choices, he had named a few obscure writers as his favourites as well.

Not everyone has to be into arty stuff, even though I read Umberto Eco, I can't really say that I enjoy his stuff either since they are too heavy. But come on, I think this university guy could easily become a much better writer if he actually bothers to read stuff from the likes of Italo Calvino, the aforementioned Eco, Margaret Atwood, Paul Coelho or Michael Chabon. And why just expose yourself only to western literature? Why not try a few doses of Haruki Murakami as well? Or Banana Yoshimoto?

You don't necessarily have to enjoy them as much as you enjoy what you usually like to read, you probably won't either at first (after reading Umberto Eco's Name of The Rose, reading Neal Gaiman's much simpler American Gods was a relief for me). But I think if you want to be a writer, the more you read, the better you'll get, and even better if you don't limit yourself only to popular literature, or just one genre. Because if you do so, that is the equivalent of being an aspiring filmmaker who only uses Hollywood blockbusters for influences, especially Titanic MERELY because it is the top-grossing movie of all-time.

I am currently reading Kate Atkinson's 'Not The End Of The World', a collection of stories by her. To tell you the truth, I have NEVER heard of Kate Atkinson before I read this book. I picked up that book for the sake of exploring authors I've never read before, and I don't regret this at all. I was hanging out at the bookshop few days ago and I managed to read a quarter of Isabel Allende's City Of Beasts and I think it was really good too. So, there you go, my own opinion on how to improve your writing is simple, just read more. I don't really believe in those 'writing rules' (they are good guidelines for beginners, but using those to completely define how you write will end up making you sound bland and boring, stifling your author's voice, boundaries can be challenged, rules can be twisted, it's all a matter of whether you want to do that or not).

Now I'll move to the aspiring artists, I'm not much of an artist, so this might be much trickier for me, but I'll voice my opinions too. I've met a growing amount of good artists who adapt this anime and manga style due to their love for anime and manga. Yet they complain about the fact that most people who saw their drawings don't believe that they drew it. This isn't very surprising when their styles resemble the Japanese so much.

Are they aspiring artists? Or aspiring 'anime' artists? Being in love with anime is one thing, it is their right to build their ambitions based on what they love. But I am rather tired of hearing someone telling me that he or she wants to 'make it big in Japan as a mangaka'. Anime and manga are part of the Japanese culture, how can you, an outsider, expect yourself to be better than the originators? What makes you so confident that the native aspiring artists in Japan will be neglected in favour of you? What is it that makes you so special that you think you'll have a much better chance in Japan than the actual Japanese who live there?

Despite being a filmmaker, I do not have lofty dreams of becoming a Hollywood director who is given a $150 million budget for every single film he makes, whose works get nationwide releases in the United States of America. All I think of, is to make my own film which I hope is good enough to appeal to a wide range of audiences, something that has both artistic and commercial value (commercial as in accessible, not how much I make). I aspire to make films with a distinctive feel in it, just like how some of the finest Hong Kong and Korean filmmakers do (especially the latter). The Korean filmmakers don't try to imitate Hollywood too much, even if they do, they still retain this unique Korean flavour they have (compare 'My Sassy Gal' with those Meg Ryan type romantic comedies, compare 'Old Boy' with your generic Hollywood thrillers).

As I've said, I'm not too sure about how artists work. But shouldn't an aspiring artist be doing this as well? To invent a distinctive style that separate themselves from the others after they know the basics and fundamentals? Having influences are fine, I'm sure Salvador Dali, Damien Hirst, Picasso, Yoshitaka Amano have their share of influences as well, but I'm sure they became so famous because of their own unique styles.

Well, that's all I have to say. This turned out to be longer than I've expected.

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