Becky Allen Books

YA fantasy writer. Not a morning person.

On reading, as a writer


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Hello, friends!

So much for my goal of sending a newsletter every month. I kept trying to think of March themes and then didn’t. You came very close to seeing a timeline of my pandemic hair situation but it felt too silly. (Both the newsletter and my pandemic hair, thankfully long since shaved off.)

First off, the news: at long, long, long last, I have finished the manuscript I’ve been working in in different variations since, uh, 2018. Hooray! But of course, this is really just a first step. Now begins the process of trying to get it in front of the right set of eyes with the hopes of finding someone who wants it, something over which I have minimal control. I have a bunch of hurdles to clear there, so it is very much still in the “may never see the light of day” phase. There’s a certain amount of relief, and an at least equal amount of anxiety, in letting go and acknowledging that what happens from here is largely out of my control. I’ve written the best book I can, and for the moment that’s all I can do.

Except recently I read the first page of a novel, slammed it shut, and muttered to myself — out loud, in the middle of a park where I was reading! — “god DAMN it, I’m a hack.”

I am not actually a hack. And despite the revelation just there which tempted me to, I am not going to rewrite my manuscript again. At this point that would be masochistic and also pretty pointless. What hit me was this: I’m not very good at description, which is a thing I have known for a long, long time, and I assume it’s a result of me not being a very visual person. I don’t notice how things look. I will look at a lovely piece of art and say “oh, that’s nice,” and then hear someone else describing details in it that I hadn’t even noticed. Once someone draws my attention, I can see them! But I just don’t pick up on visuals well, and when I’m writing, I don’t see things in my head. What do my characters look like? Heck if I know. What does the room they’re standing in look like? idk…it has… walls?? Those are not things I care about or notice particularly, so it’s very hard to incorporate them into my writing.

So I read the first page of this novel, and I don’t know what it was exactly, but the point of view immediately made sense. There was a lot of description but it resonated for me because it was also clear how the point of view character felt. It all flowed from that, and I had this moment of realizing, I can do that. Something clicked in my brain in a way that’s hard to describe; if nothing else, I realized my third-person POV is not as close to the characters as I thought it was. Which is okay — there are lots of ways to tell a story, lots of ways to tackle point of view, and having a more middle-distance POV doesn’t mean that my manuscript is lacking. It just means that I got a sudden mental injection of a different way to approach things, a way that might help solve one of my big weaknesses, and it’s both exciting because yay! I can try that in the next thing I write! but also so frustrating because why didn’t I have this revelation years ago?!

This is why it’s important to read as a writer. Taking in all forms of storytelling is good — I’ve learned a lot about structure and twists and story revelations from TV and movies — but you can’t really absorb how other authors do things specifically with words from other kinds of storytelling. Film can do similar levels of POV — very close, very removed — by choosing what the camera lingers on and how shots are framed, but you don’t have a camera in prose. You need to learn to do it with words, so if you want examples, you have to go to prose.

A stack of books, focused around The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

I am, like a lot of people I know, eternally in a struggle to Read More. This isn’t universal by any means, but I have a lot of friends who read a ton as kids and teens, but considerably less as adults, and who know they love reading but have a hard time actually doing it. I suspect there are a lot of reasons for it, but that’s a newsletter for another month. In my case, specifically, I haven’t read nearly as many recent fantasy novels as I’d like to, and so have been making an effort to read more. The genre has evolved since the paperbacks I stole from my dad in the 90s, and aside from knowing the market I’m attempting to be part of, it’s also really cool and interesting to see those changes. (Though certainly some of those cool and interesting changes are selection bias; I feel like there’s a lot more non-European-ish, non-only-male-character-centric fantasy these days, but that could also be because I just don’t pick up novels about men in vaguely European fantasy settings much. I do think fantasy is more diverse and interesting now, but I have no idea what percentage of the genre that is because it’s the only part of the genre I’m interested in reading.)

There are also other interesting things you can get out of reading in your genre. A few years ago, I picked up a long, standalone fantasy novel and really enjoyed it, though not without some notes that I jotted down for reference. But the main thing I got out of it? I could see how the author did it.

It wasn’t like anything I’d written, but was the sort of thing I wanted to write, and was trying to write, and realizing that yes, I could see how all the cogs and gears turned behind the scenes to make the story work was a reassuring revelation. The book felt like it was just above where my skills were at the time, but within reach; it gave me a model for “here’s how you introduce pieces, here’s how you move them around on the chess board, here’s how you bring them together to pay it all off” that was very helpful for understanding the structure of a more epic story than any I’d written at the time.

That understanding helped me with the manuscript I just finished. And despite my frustration, I know my more recent thoughts about description will help me with my next project, one that I’m just starting to think through. It gives me something to reference, and a target to shoot for, and the knowledge that as much as I love the manuscript I’ve just wrapped up, I can make sure the next one is even better.

(In case anyone’s curious, the books I’m referring to are The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri, which is India-inspired fantasy about women’s power and anger, and The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon, which is also about women’s power and politics, and has dragons. Oh, and they both feature f/f relationships.)


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