21st century manifestoThis is a start of a short series, The Twenty-First Century Reader’s Manifesto, where I will share what I see as the essential strategies and tactics a reader (you and me) should use to maximize their reading experience here in the twenty-first century.

About ten years ago, an English writer, Michael Allen, wrote an essay called “On Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile”.  It was directed towards writers, and gave a break down of the current state of the publishing industry.

It was one of the most depressing and negative documents I’ve ever read.

Allen was writing well before the indie publishing industry took off, and was staring down the muzzle of a publishing industry that used extortion to control those very few authors they deigned worthy of publishing…and authors felt lucky if they did.

Although the really scary thing about it is that Allen has self-published the essay as a book on Amazon, and it is still available.  How many would-be authors has he scared off in the intervening decade?

It is in part the dire, distressing tone of that essay that made me want to write a different sort of essay:

  1.  One for readers, now that the indie publishing scene is starting to shake itself out, and
  2. I would make it positive, upbeat and inspiring…as there is a lot to be positive and upbeat about these days, especially for readers.

Note:  Stories are to be found in more places than just books.  There’s movies and TV series, just to start.  There are magazines, audiobooks, and even the social networks can throw up the occasional long-form post with a story narrative.  There are blogs and websites.  There are the stories you listen to in the kitchen at work when you’re getting a coffee.  Stories are everywhere.  But for the sake of my sanity and yours, assume that when I refer to stories, I mean books.  But that doesn’t mean I’m discounting any other media or venue where stories can be found…and neither should you.

Stories Rule…because they do.

my logoStories Rule has been the imprint logo on my books since I started self-publishing.

From both the reader and author perspective, the story itself comes first.

As a tenet to live by, “Stories Rule” pretty much shapes every other idea in this series.

The story always comes first in any priority list or decision matrix.

If you’re considering which of two novels to buy, and if all else is equal, you will automatically pick the one that has the most interesting story.

Sometimes, an author’s name will influence that decision, but that’s because they’ve already proved to you they can tell a good story…which means, ultimately, story is driving your decision.

But think about this.

You’re trying to decide what of two new eReader devices to buy.

If you have a lot of stories (books) you’ve already bought, then the decision will come down to what eReader gives you access to all your currently owned books.

If both new eReaders give you access to your books, then the decision will become “which eReader gives a better reading experience?”  Again, the stories themselves are driving your decision.

But holding the story itself up as the ultimate priority can shape far more than the way you read and what you read.

Where do you shop for your books?

I hope you shop wherever the stories can be found.

If you’re sticking with one single retailer because it’s a no-brainer, then you’re missing out on stories you can get elsewhere.

That’s what I mean by “Stories Rule”.  Not only are stories great to read, not only do they shape and form our personalities, values and our resulting behaviour, they should also guide how we consume books.

  • try that new author, if the story sounds promising enough.
  • learn to sideload your books, so you can buy them from anywhere.
  • enjoy the books you do read.  Don’t let reading become automatic.  Slow down and savour, if you have to.

There is a very successful indie author, Kristine Katherine Rusch, who has a resume I admire immensely.  She was the award-winning editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, has published in every genre known to man — including romance, and also including the male-oriented world of science fiction, and much more, including being a USA Today best seller.  Her biography is here, if you’re curious.

The reason I mention her, is because the masthead at the top of her website is “Writer, Editor, Reader, Fan Girl”.    It’s the last two I applaud.

When writers first start writing, and if they listen to anyone in the industry at all, they’re invariably told they must read everything published in their genre and deconstruct it to figure out what the author did right (or wrong) and thereby learn and grow as authors.

Kristine Katherine Rusch craps all over that idea, because deconstructing stories is the same thing as critiquing stories.  “Critiquing” means being critical.  In other words, you’re supposed to figure out what’s bad, sucky, wrong or just plain not working in a story.

How negative is that, huh?

Rusch instead encourages authors to read whatever the hell they want…and enjoy the read.  To learn to read for the fun of it again.  By reading and enjoying the read, authors will automatically be shaping their own writing, and they’ll be influenced by the good stuff.  Not the bad, the ugly and the indifferent — of which there is a large mountain.  There’s so much fiction out there that is not to my taste — and some of it is just bad.

I tell you, when I first came across this idea of reading for pleasure (d’uh!) in one of her books, (and she speaks about it in books, on her blog and more), it felt like I was being given permission to read for fun again.  Up until that time (which was only about eight months ago now), my reading was a disciplined breakdown of every well-selling book in any genre in which I was interested in writing.  I had long ago reached the point where I did not enjoy reading fiction anymore.

I used to tell people that I didn’t enjoy reading fiction because I couldn’t turn off the internal editor, which would chatter at me the whole time I was reading, pointing out the bad grammar, the clunky phrasing and more.  My internal editor would also “rewrite” books while I was reading them.  (“Well, I wouldn’t have plotted the book this way at all!”)

As it turns out, that’s a crock of shit, too.

I took a few deep Zen breaths, then picked up an old, old favourite book of mine, Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey.   I read it, and every time I heard myself critiquing something in the story, I told myself firmly to shut up and find the fun in the story instead.  Gradually, the internal voice quieted.

Three weeks later, and thirteen books into the series, I came up for air.

I shook myself off, looked around, and realized I was wearing a big, stupid grin.  God, that was fun!

Since then, I have been massively buying and downloading a staggering number of novels.  Anything that looks fun, interesting or intriguing, no matter who the author is, no matter what the genre is, and regardless of whether I’m interested in writing in the genre or not.  If the story sounds good, I’m trying it.  And I open every book with a positive expectation that the story will be great.

I’ve been vindicated more than I’ve been disappointed.

The reason I told you about this is because you have a choice, too.

Thanks to the Internet and social networks, and above all, Amazon and every other bookseller encouraging reader reviews, it’s no longer possible to just read and enjoy a book.  Everyone exhorts you to leave a review (I do it, too!).  Discussion sites like Goodreads, for example, and every book group you belong to on Facebook and elsewhere, automatically force you into giving your opinion about a book.  And that’s fine — that’s a great way to find out about new-to-you stories.

But if you’re not careful, you can slide into a critiquing mindset.  You can start to see the bad in every story.  As every story ever written has weaknesses, including the best-written and best-selling novels of all time, you will always be able to find the bad in a story.

Pretty soon, all you can see are the flaws in a story because you’ve trained yourself to spot them.

And (oh, horrors!) reading stops being fun.

It doesn’t have to be this black and white, either.  If you find yourself opening and reading the first few pages of a dozen novels inside thirty minutes, it’s possible you’re suffering from this same malady — you’re picking out the errors, the sour notes, without realizing it.

But that’s where you have a choice.  You can chose, instead, to think of stories positively.  To enjoy them. To find the fun in them.

Get back to reading for pleasure.  Make the story itself the priority, and let go of the fact that the author has some writing weaknesses that might otherwise jar you out of the story.  Feel the story instead.

Roll around like a kitten with a ball of wool, leaping on any stories you find.  Try them on for size.  Try anything interesting.

Yeah, there’s a lot of crappy stories out there.  I’m not going to deny that for a second.  But I guarantee that most of the stories you think of as “bad” are just stories that are not your cup of tea.  They don’t appeal to you, and that’s a good thing. For every story you find that doesn’t work for you, there will be another reader somewhere who just loves it.  If you loved Harry Potter, just think of the one thousand and more one-star reviews the first book got, as an example of a story not working for everyone.

When you come across a story that doesn’t work for you, let it go.  Don’t get upset at either yourself for the time lost, or the author for wasting your time.  Don’t fume about the tsunami of crap out there these days and how difficult it is to find something decent to read.  Just let the book go, both mentally and physically, and move on to the next one, with your expectations held high.

And that’s the trick.  If you’re willing to dive in and try anything that looks interesting or fun, and if you let yourself just read for the pleasure of soaking up a damned good story, then the chances are you’re going to find way more stories that you like.  Make the story the priority and the pleasure will follow.

Stories Rule…because they just do.

And everything else comes second, including the next post in this series.