Today is the last day of my vacation. Yes, I took a vacation because the low-level but persistent stress of 2020 gets tough to deal with, and fortunately, I’m in a position to actually have and use some of that accrued time.
I kicked off my vacation with the #FCPLBookBall, a virtual library fundraiser where you make a monetary donation to the library to “attend” and then just sit and read all day. It was, in a word, glorious. I highly recommend curling up someplace quiet and comfy with one of those “10 hours of ocean waves” tracks from YouTube running in the background. Since I can’t go to the beach this year, this was the closest equivalent, and it actually worked very well:
I’m going to have to try to do something like this once a month or something, a dedicated “Read & Relaxation” day. It worked wonders to help calm and recenter myself. (Also, Saturday August 22nd was the Ray Bradbury Centennial, and there’s a Read-a-Thon of Fahrenheit 451 available to stream until September 5th if you want to check it out!)
Last Tuesday, one of the most prolific and talented writers of speculative fiction died at the age of 91. That writer was Ray Bradbury. I call him an author of speculative fiction because his work can’t be defined strictly along the lines of sci-fi or fantasy or horror or mystery. A lot of the time, his work is very like sci-fi. There are spaceships and aliens and other worlds…but there’s something different. Something almost…dreamlike, something vaguely Gaiman-esque about his tales. Even though he predates Neil Gaiman, they share similar dream-states in their writing where things aren’t always what they seem and never what you would expect.
About a year ago, I was reading a book called Dwellers in the Mirage by A. Merritt and I told a friend:
“For some reason, books from the 1940s and 50s, the ones with the cheap, thin card-like covers and aged-tan pages and that tiny font that looks like Times New Roman but somehow subtly isn’t…they always give me a feeling of dreamlike detachment, like the book is a hallucination, or a flock of cleverly disguised birds about to fly away.”
The book responsible for this impression is my dad’s 1953 copy of Fahrenheit 451. I don’t remember if this was the first Ray Bradbury book I ever read, or if it was just the first one I can remember reading. I know there was a copy of The Martian Chronicles in the house that I read around the same time, but I suppose it doesn’t matter which came first. I think I read Fahrenheit 451 when I was 9 or 10, years before I ended up reading it in middle school for English class. I’ll admit that, at the time, I didn’t understand a lot of the subtly and finesse of the book, but I got the basic idea. Fahrenheit 451 sparked my distrust of authority, public institutions, and the government. The idea that a government would outlaw books and then burn those books along with anyone possessing them terrified me. The idea of outlawing reading was unthinkable! It also sparked my sometimes uncontrollable desire to hoard books, especially old ones, because you never know when they might just “disappear” from record. I am fanatical about having hard copies of everything, thanks to Fahrenheit 451. I still have the same copy I read all those years ago, and every now and then, I’ll flip through the pages and experience the wonder and fear again, as a reminder of the importance of the tangible.
One of the greatest and most basic rules of thumb in the world of writing is: “Write a story you would want to read.”
The next question is, “What kinds of stories do you enjoy reading?”
Once you’ve answered these two questions, your journey into the realm of writing has begun. And yet, so many writers seem to forget these basic questions. Too many get caught up what they think other people want them to write, or what other people want to read, or what kind of story formula will guarantee sales that will make them a multi-million-dollar success. If you start coming at stories from that angle these days, you are only sabotaging your own efforts. Your readers can tell when a story has heart and when it was written with calculation designed to draw them in. To an extent, every writer is trying to pull readers in, but the difference is this: are you trying to hook them because you think you have a good story to tell? Or are you trying to hook them for the money and popularity?