Monday, September 28, 2015

In Defense of How-To Books


Imagine you know a young boy who's very interested in butterflies. He wants to collect them, study them. He wants to be an entomologist and study butterflies all day. Now, imagine you tell this boy that the best way to learn about butterflies is to go out and collect them. Just keep looking. The boy trusts you, and goes out and collects butterflies. He comes to know a great deal about what butterflies look like. But he doesn't know the names of the parts, or that males and females are the same species even when they don't look alike. He might not even realize that butterflies start as caterpillars, because he's only been collecting butterflies.

Imagine you told the same boy instead to read about butterflies while he was collecting them. Imagine you gave him a book that you trusted, and let him match up what he saw when he collected butterflies to what was in the book. Now he not only knows what the butterflies in his collection look like and how they move, but can also describe how their parts fit together and how they can fly.

For some people, books are like those butterflies. We can read all we want, but we will never intuitively put together why things work the way they do, or if we do it will be only after spending ten years reading and nothing else. We will never figure out on our own why our books don't work. But once we read a good book or two about why good books work, we can match that information to the books on our shelves and the ones coming out of our fingertips.

On the other hand, it's far too easy to become lost in the sea of how-to books and not do the work of reading and writing. And in the end, if you want to learn about butterflies, you're going to need a net.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Fear of Finishing

A few years ago I read a lovely essay about the fear of finishing writing a book. It was a brilliant piece that made me own up to the real reason I hadn't ever finished a novel-length story, or any story without a deadline. It made me confront it, and from there I started finishing things. (When I figure out how to finish editing a piece, I'll let you know.)

That's not the kind of finishing I'm talking about today.

There's another kind of fear of finishing: The fear of finishing reading a book, or especially a series.

I read YA almost exclusively, where books are published almost exclusively in trilogies. And I've discovered recently that while I devour the first two books in a trilogy in about a day apiece, I drag my feet on the third book. I just returned two such books to the library after finally admitting to myself that I wasn't going to finish them anytime soon.

There are two reasons I'm afraid (I'll use that word, it's honest) of finishing a series. One, what if it's bad? This fear, I feel, is fully justified. A lot of these books were not conceived as series, and a lot of the series end horribly. See Divergent for an example. I could write an entire series of posts about why I hated Allegiant. If the series turns out to end badly, it will sour my love of the other books in the series. It's hard for me to enjoy Divergent when I wanted to set Allegiant on fire.

The other reason is the much bigger one, the one I think a lot of readers relate to. We don't want the book to end at all. It's like the Eleventh Doctor, who ripped out the last page of the book so it wouldn't have to end. (He didn't like endings.) If I drag my feet through the third book, then it never has to end. I can return it to the library unfinished. I don't have to know how it ended. I can make up a better ending. And I can rest safe in the knowledge that I can go back and read it anytime I want, and it will be new because I never finished it.