Today we welcome back Dr. Kate Lechler who retired from FanLit so she could focus on her writing career.
I’m a writer and a teacher. By day, I teach English literature at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, MS, and at night, I write about genetically engineered dragons and unicorns. My work has appeared in Podcastle, Metaphorosis, and Arsenika, and is forthcoming from Superstition Review. From 2014-2016, I reviewed SFF for FanLit but in December I retired so I could concentrate on my fiction. But nobody writes in a vacuum, and I started reflecting on how reviewing helped me become a stronger writer. Then I asked Bill and Marion, also accomplished FanLit reviewers and authors of fiction, to share their thoughts as well.
I started reviewing for FanLit in the spring of 2014, right after I finished my Ph.D. dissertation. I had promised myself two things once the dissertation was done: first, to start writing fiction; and second, to start reading SF/F again, since I hadn’t had much time in the past few years to dig deeply into the genre I loved.
Immediately I saw how reviewing would make me a better writer. I had thought I knew SFF pretty well, but really I mostly knew big-name writers who had a lot of mass-market success: writers like Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, J.K. Rowling. When I started reviewing — and reading the reviews of my peers — I got more familiar with other names in the field … not just authors, but names of publishers, magazines, other websites doing work adjacent to FanLit’s.
After a while, reviewing helped me build a picture of what kind of stories are being told. I noticed, after reading a lot of books — some good, some bad — what basic SFF plotlines are. Tropes that get used again and again, like many of these in FanLit’s Collaborative Cliché: Urban Fantasy edition. Seeing these, and having them called out by other reviewers, helped me to see more clearly where I was being lazy, trite, or too expected in my own writing.
I think the most I got out of reviewing, though, was being forced to read books I didn’t like, but from a craft perspective. In order to really talk about why I didn’t like a book, I couldn’t just rely on my knee-jerk response. I had to think deeply about what turned me off, and why. I began to zero in on specific authorial techniques that had an effect on me as a reader, and think about it from a reader’s perspective, not a literary critic’s. This made my own writing stronger. I built a bigger toolbox, stocked it with more tools. ~Kate Lechler
Like Kate, I both write and teach. My teaching occurs at two local universities as an adjunct English instructor (also like Kate, I wanted to focus on my writing so I quit my full-time high school teaching job). I write creative non-fiction, short stories, plays, and children’s stories/poems. My work has appeared in several anthologies such as Man in the Moon: Essays on Fathers and Fatherhood and Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction, literary magazines like Alaska Quarterly Review and Colorado Review, and children’s magazines like Spider and Know. I’ve been reviewing here at FanLit for a decade now, and if it hasn’t made me a better writer, I must be doing it wrong…
At its simplest level, reviewing helps me as a writer because reviewing means more reading which yes, does mean less writing (gnashing of teeth), but also usually leads to better writing. The more reading you do the more attuned you become to language, to character, to worldbuilding, transitioning, structure, and more. That’s true of reading generally, but because reviewing calls for closer, more critical reading (and often notetaking and highlighting), you’re even more attentive to these things. As a reviewer, you file them away to mention in your review; as a writer you file them away as solutions to possible problems, as inspirations to try something similar, or (and wouldn’t it be nice if this were never the case) of things not to do. You add new words to your list-of-words-I-want-to-use-more-often (of course you have one), which is different from your list-of-words-I-love-but-can’t-use-too-often which is different from your list-of-words-I-do-use-too-often. You jot down interesting structures to play around with — to warp and meld to your own uses or just to shamelessly steal as is. You swear to yourself you will always have your teen characters sound like teens no matter how much the security guy at the mall eyes the way you’re hanging around the food court or the Apple Store.
More narrowly, reviewing essay collections tends to give me ideas regarding structure and ways to broaden my focus outward beyond the personal, reviewing children’s books keeps me on my toes in terms of making sure I’m not using text where the illustrations can better carry the meaning, reviewing genre books makes clear how some genre tropes can seem old and tired while in another’s hands they can read like someone sprayed a whole can of New Trope Smell on them, and reviewing literary fiction opens up my mind to the nuances and exuberance of language.
As for actually writing the reviews as opposed to preparing to write them, any practice in concision is bound to help anyone’s writing (something I’m forever emphasizing to my students, who keep writing decent five-page papers inside their eight-page ones). And writing for a different sort of audience keeps me aware of my predilection in my creative writing for lengthy sentences, semi-colons, and dashes (I blame my early exposure to Faulkner). You aren’t always writing for brevity and clarity, but it’s always good to know when you aren’t achieving it and if there’s a reason for it. ~Bill Capossere
I’ve been telling myself stories and writing them down for as long as I can remember. Recently, my fiction has appeared in Flash Fiction Online and Daily Science Fiction, with work forthcoming in Podcastle and Strange California. I’ve read speculative fiction since my childhood; A Wrinkle in Time was a gateway drug for me. I’ve been reviewing for Fantasy Literature since 2011, and I love it.
Reading a high volume of newer releases with an analytical eye gives me an idea what’s out there in the publishing world right now. I’m not talking just about ideas or trends. You can see a lot about how certain publishers like to see character revealed, or the kinds of structure they like or don’t like, and so on. Even allowing for a two-year time lag, it’s helpful information.
There is nothing like reading a really good book in an analytical mindset to help me pick up tips on plotting, character, telling details, and so on. My most recent example is in John Langan’s book The Fisherman. In the middle of the book, Rainer and the other immigrants go off to confront the Guest (a powerful and evil wizard). For the scene to be truly terrifying, it has to happen at night, so Langan casually says, “After work, they…” etc. That could have been really hokey, except, before this, he has given us a lot of detail about the work and the lives of the workers on this project. Instead of looking like a throwaway insert for “I had to wait ‘til it got dark,” this one line carried a lot of resonance about the lives of the workers. Of course, I plan to steal this technique just as soon as I figure out exactly how Langan did it.
On the flip side, reading work where characters aren’t revealed consistently or works that are filled with plot-holes help me apply those same measures to my own work, at least, theoretically.
Ultimately, even books that don’t get high ratings from me are inspiring, and there is something about immersion that helps keep me going. That is probably the biggest bonus. ~Marion Deeds
Are you a writer? How has reading and reviewing helped you become a better writer? One commenter wins a book from our stacks.