Thursday, February 17, 2011

Reading Lists and the Little Man

At various times I have compiled reading lists, things that I ‘really should read’. These would vary from either literary classics that my science-based education and subsequent busy life have never given me the time to read, to the latest shortlisted books and stories from local and international awards . Now, I’ve compiled plenty of these lists over the years, and dutifully filed away the occasional emails that came my way that listed the ‘100 top reads’ or ‘List of all time genre classics.’

I’m not sure if I have ever read a single book on these lists. In fact I have just about given up on making them. I was wondering about this recently and I happened to remember an article by John W Campbell (famous for the group of writers he fostered while editor of Astounding that included many of the future greats of SF) about the ‘little man’. I could not find the actual article, which I was given at a writers workshop aeons ago (and which I remember as a yellowed old photocopy shoved somewhere in my bookshelves). I do remember the gist of the article however.

Campbell was talking about his early years as I writer and how he had often found himself having a passionate need to read things that were in no way related to anything he was currently working on. What he noticed over time was that all of these strange books and interests he felt compelled to research and read up on always came into his work at a later date – fitting almost perfectly into context like some mystical jigsaw puzzle.

He evolved the concept of the ‘little man’ inside that urges you to take a little departure, or to read a book or take a direction that may not seem to make sense at the time. He put forward the notion that writers develop a special sort of intuition, and urged writers to follow the voice of the ‘little man’ and not to be proscriptive about what they themselves delve into.

When I read this article it made perfect sense to me. I have basically been doing this for as long as I can remember, and I’m sure I’m not alone!

I guess that was when I realised I had been doing this exact thing with my reading lists. I am always reading something – just not what the powers that be or literati tell me I should be:)

So I am going to happily let myself follow my nose.

Have you come across the quiet voice of the ‘little man’ (or ‘little woman’, Campbell’s article reflects the period in which it was written)? Do you follow your instinct with your interests and research, or do you follow a Game Plan?

12 comments:

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Chris, I call this having a 'flypaper mind', from the days when we used to hang a piece of sticky paper in the kitchen in the hope that flies would land on it and not the food. And they would stick there.

So I read all sorts of things. Kate's post about her research for Vlad - I was thinking, yes, yes ... all things I'd come across in my reading.

It just means that you don't have to do research (except for specific things) and you can write, letting it flow.

This is, of course, with the proviso that you make it accessible to the (not so obsessive) lay person.

MataPam said...

After I've done it, I often look back in puzzlement. "Why on Earth did I feel the need to research the Second Crusade?"

Mind you, I'll never write a greater waste of life, time, money, good intentions, or military stupidity as that. Having that in the back of my mind is infinitely reassuring. My fantasy military campaigns are more believeable than the real thing. Even with the magic.

But it sure was a strange thing to obsess on, at the time.

And reading about secret societies came in handy for a short story.

Umm, yeah, as a matter of fact, I do listen to the Little Man, and hang up the flypaper.

Kate Paulk said...

Plan? We don't need no steenking reading plan!

I read what catches my attention when it catches my attention. The fun part is I can usually remember the gist of it, but not always the details - or where or when I read it. Or what I read it IN.

I've been picking up bits and pieces of Eastern Europe - especially Romania - for years, but also all sorts of odds and sods that struck me as interesting, or neat, or fun.

If there's a little man in there, he's got some really odd tastes.

Anonymous said...

Go, Chris! I read a lot of esoteric things that come in handy in my writing. In fact, one of the books on my TBR list is a history of the tomato in America. And I love to read science essays that I incorporate into my work a lot.

Linda

If you're going to write, IMO you must have a curious mind. You never know what might help you flesh out the character's world and his story.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena. I remember fly-paper. Damn sticky stuff!It sounds like you really enjoy your research.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Matapam. This bent has got me into trouble with employers, however. 'Why on Earth are you researching that?' But even in that arena it usually paid off.

Crusades and secret societies - sounds interesting!

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Kate. Maybe a Crazy Little Man? I'm sure mine is more than a little bit eccentric! Writers are strange beasts, that's for sure.

twittertales said...

I'm more and more inclined to "Game Plan" it.
Lately I've discovered Pamela Freeman and Sandy Fussell (*double swoon*) by simply reading the books of guests at cons I attend (which I thought was merely polite). When I attempted to write an "Aussie Bites" book I read about twenty of them, and discovered that first person present tense is A-OK if your reader is young enough.

Right now I'm prepping to write my first steampunk novel, and I'm reading four things: Victorian history, Victorian technology, Victorian-era novels, and any steampunk novels I haven't read yet.

Every so often I reallyreallyreally want to start writing, but I'm not letting myself run with it. I write down the idea that was so shiny, and I read another book from the list. I tend to write very fast when I do write (NaNo is my normal speed), so it'll be interesting to see if all my self control pays off in the end.

Louise Curtis

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Linda. You're right, it really is a sort of voracious curiosity. What interesting is do the things you track down influence your writing, or is there some sort of subconcious Uberwriter that knows what you need. The directions you take do seem to be uncanny sometimes!

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Louise. I think the Game Plan approach probably makes it a lot easier to home in on publishers current wants and follow hot trends. If you feel driven to research and write about alien killer mosquitoes it might be a little hard to sell to a publisher who is keen on urban fantasy:)

Dave Freer said...

Hmm. Well you could send a few books back to me. My mind really badly wanted Zelazny Night in a lonesome October the other day...
:-)

MataPam said...

I think the odd-ball reading can shape your later ideas about what to write. Once you've got a story idea, that when you specifically research all the applicable subjects.

And a few odd branches . . .