Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The somewhat terrifying launch of a two-year reading odyssey

Ask any successful author, publisher or agent for tips and advice on how to get published and, by and large, the responses will have a common theme running through them.

They’ll talk about taking your time and not firing out your first draft to all and sundry, but hiding it away in a desk draw for a month or two and then going back to it. And rewriting it. And polishing it. And then polishing it again. They’ll talk about researching the industry, about the need to create and develop your ‘platform’, and, vitally, they’ll all say you must write. Often. Every day if possible.

There’s another point they will all agree on – the need to read widely, and not just in the genre in which you write. To develop as a writer, you must read how others write, not just to know what the market is looking for, but to learn.

I don’t read anywhere near as widely as I should, and I suspect I’m not alone among other would-be novelists. I can plough through a book in a few days, if I have a clear run, but books tend to find a home on my bedside table for anywhere between a week and a month. It’s not good enough, but I’m a busy lad. Family, with two young kids. Work. Writing. Starting a publishing business. Trying to exercise regularly and get fit. Learning to speak Manx. Having some vague excuse for a social life. Reading, I’m afraid, is something of a luxury, although I always try and read a few pages, no matter how few, each day.

But it’s not just the length of time it takes me to finish a book. I mainly read crime, adventure and, more recently, young adult novels because they are the areas in which I write, and they tend to be on the contemporary side, usually within the last twenty years. For a long time I’ve known that I’m severely lacking when it comes to those authors whose books are considered to be the best works of fiction ever created. We’re talking Faulkner, Hemmingway, Steinbeck, Dickens, Tolstoy.

I was thinking about this the other day and before I knew it I was googling the ‘top 100 greatest ever books’ to see just how lacking I was. The number of top 100 lists was dizzying, but it soon became clear I was way out of my depth. So I had a thought – I’d print off a list and start making my way through them.

But which list to go for? There was nothing bang up-to-date, and some focused on readers’ favourites (with every Harry Potter book in the top 30), while others were compiled by reputable publications and looked very high-brow. Some focused on works in English, others widened the net to include books translated into English.

I was lost, until I stumbled across a list on articlet.com that was compiled by adding together a book’s appearances on other greatest book lists. The more times it appeared on a list, the greater its reputation, and thus the higher its position in this table. For want of anything better, I printed out a copy and made a mark by all those I’d read.

There are 113 books on the list, as those who were tied on three appearances could not be separated to give a round century. After a quick scan, I came to the embarrassing conclusion that I’d read just ten of the books, and several of those at school.

So, here we are. Those books I’ve read, I’ll tackle again. I’m going to make my way up the list, starting with those tied on three appearances, and I’ll keep going until I reach the seven books that made seven appearances on these so-called ‘greatest books ever written’ lists.

With this blog, I’ll be passing comment/judgement on each of the books. The bottom line - are these books any bloody good? I don’t know how long it will take. If I can bang out a book a week, it will take just over two years. So I’ll aim for getting them done within two years. There’s nowt like a bit of pressure.

The aim? To become a better-read writer. The hope? That it will, in some small way, make me a better writer.

Let’s see where the journey takes me. To start, I’ve picked one from the bottom of the list that I’ve been meaning to read for years – Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. I have a half-memory of seeing the Gary Cooper film as a young lad, but I could be mistaken.

If you have any thoughts on the books I mention here, please join in the discussion by leaving a comment. Hell, if you want to read a particular book - or several - at the same time, feel free to join in the fun. I might even buy a sofa.

So, here goes nothing. Page one, chapter one:

He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest...