“I like fantasy books! I used to read a lot of Eoin Colfer.”

“What does that mean, used to? You don’t read anymore? That’s so sa-a-a-ad…”

Our teacher and I had this conversation during our first English class, and I realized I agreed with her. Well, no, of course I still read: news articles, r/AskReddit threads, and the books we get assigned in class. But not fiction, almost. As I later mentioned to my teacher, I followed Sam Hughes’ Ra avidly (something I highly recommend). That was it.

What does my present self still think of Eoin Colfer? Although I adored the Artemis Fowl books when I was younger, my interest faded, but not before I had recommended it to my sister. The conversation spurred me to get out the seventh Artemis Fowl book, which I had stopped reading halfway through a year ago, and finish it. It was still true that I didn’t like it as much, because I couldn’t feel the high stakes strongly in the book and I found that the joking asides compounded the problem. But a few days later, when we took a trip to the Taipei library, I found the eighth book and borrowed it, plowing through nine-tenths of the book before we left. The ending seemed to be happy but still felt counterintuitively poignant for me. In any case, I had closure.

So what’s the lesson? Authors vary in output too. I was naïve to suppose that because I found this book boring, I had outgrown all books that were even vaguely similar. In the same trip, I also borrowed a bunch of other random fantasy books, plus a realistic fiction book about a teenage pregnancy, just for kicks. It turned out to be surprisingly good. In a week, I read four books, cover to cover, despite a typical load of homework and chemo.

Any excuses I made before about not having enough time simply don’t hold water. Still, I have yet to figure out if this sort of reading is sustainable, because not every book is so engrossing. Far from it…

There’s a flip side, of course — writing.

I fancy myself a writer (after being a mathematician and a programmer, of course). But the last fiction story I wrote was in seventh grade, for that Freedom Writers competition that our school held, whose obscure URL I complained about on this blog. It’s an absurd little story where the narrator’s genius best friend gets killed in a car crash melodramatically after creating sentient artificial intelligence, and that’s not even the ending. I was wildly creative back then.

Between then and now, I had four years of English and literature class. Deeply depressing books like The Road, unbearable books like The Woman Warrior, the occasional more whimsical book like The Complete Persepolis, and everything in between. This year, The Stranger (translated by Matthew Ward) and Samuel Johnson. As it happens, Samuel Johnson has a Pulitzer prize, but I absolutely hate the way it’s written. It’s not just boring; I can pick out so many things that I consider objectively bad writing — wastefully convoluted sentences, gratuitous big words, and a consistently patronizing tone — and it enrages me. I think the most prominent effect all this schooling has had on me is making me more cynical.

Sure, my writing has improved — most significantly, I keep a sharper eye out for wordiness. And of course, I’ve learned how to analyze a passage and how to think about literary devices and ask why they’re used. But this set of skills is a double-edged sword, because not every passage is meant to be read into. On TVTropes they call it “planting epileptic trees”.

As a random example, I excerpted this idle conversation from A Farewell to Arms, as Lieutenant Henry eats at a diner somewhere after he gets Miss Barkley pregnant. (You can tell how long this post has been a draft by the fact that we finished reading this roughly in May.)

“What do you want? Ham and eggs or eggs with cheese?” “Ham and eggs,” I said, “and beer.” “A demi-blonde?” “Yes,” I said. “I remembered,” he said. “You took a demi-blonde this noon.” I ate the ham and eggs and drank the beer. The ham and eggs were in a round dish — the ham underneath and the eggs on top. It was very hot and at the first mouthful I had to take a drink of beer to cool my mouth.

Maybe Henry’s choice of ham and eggs over eggs and cheese is a symbolic gesture about his attitude towards the baby. Clearly, ham represents the baby’s pink flesh while cheese represents the milk of the mother, and Lt. Henry has this unrealistic fantasy about what the baby will be like. However, it will turn out to present a difficult situation and will compel him to escape psychologically with alcohol again. Yeah, that sounds about right, and maybe this entire blog post is really an allegory about the Holocaust.

(In the same vein, thus far in world history class we’ve learned that Lord of the Rings is about old European civilizations, The Matrix is about Christianity, and Star Wars is just the Roman Empire IN SPACE! This isn’t unbelievable, but I can’t help feeling that too much thinking along these lines detracts from the story itself.)

But, okay: I don’t actually try to analyze typical stories this way. I know that most writers don’t write political allegories or satires of the human psyche. Nevertheless, there are some even more basic requirements that I now, more than ever, need everything I read and write to have: logical and consistent characters, a plot without holes, overall flow and coherence, a solid climax, and no terrible clichés. (I’m willing to concede the last two if they’re subverted cleanly and deliberately, but that doesn’t except many books.) So when I’m reading a story and I notice plot holes, I have to find the explanation; if there are passages that appear pointless, I need to find a significance; if a word is chosen oddly, I must determine what that choice is meant to tell me. But with average fiction, there isn’t always an answer, and reading becomes an intensely cerebral yet unrewarding process. The run-of-the-mill story grabbed off the internet usually leaves me screaming thoughts like these into the metaphorical abyss:

  • No sane character would respond to this situation this way! Not even a psychologically imbalanced character would respond that way!
  • Nobody in this story is behaving for any other reason than “the author wants to write about what happens if they do”.
  • If you’re going to break the fourth wall this flagrantly, at least don’t squeal like a two-year-old!
  • Seriously? You call that an ending?

This is not even including the grammar errors. Imbalanced series and comma splices are still deal-breaking annoyances to me (although I’m easing up, partly due to reading the blog Motivated Grammar — for instance, I tolerate singular “they” because there aren’t any good gender-neutral alternatives that don’t sound avant-garde.)

But when I look at my own fiction I realize I can’t even write up to these Internet standards, much less those of anybody whom a publisher accepted. Really, I have a difficult time reading anything I wrote more than about a year ago — I can’t handle the cringing and facepalming I’d have to do with a close reading.

  • The main character is an idiot!
  • No, seriously, the main character is an idiot. Is he okay? Does he need surgery?
  • A three-sentence paragraph is not enough to justify the main character having access to a DNA analyzer! (Do you know how DNA works, anyway?)
  • All those hints about memory-wiping in the second “chapter” are awfully clichéd! And a cheap cop-out! Did I mention transparently, mind-bogglingly clichéd?!
  • I can’t just spontanously claim, without a glimmer of hinting in the initial expository, that this dude is also “known for his evil pranks” one page in! My characters have absoutely zero consistency!
  • And a fiction story is completely the wrong venue for arbitrarily listing the random interests I happen to have in the real world!

Here, I copied this straight from the Freedom Writers story and it’s making me cringe so hard that my ears feel warm.

Robert also had an uncommonly fanatical interest in computers. And I don’t mean video games or anything related. I am talking about Turing-completeness proofs, professional typesetting, a little coding for various browsers, and a chess-playing engine nobody at our school came close to being [sic].

You can tell from the randomness that this was inserted as a cheap shot at ego inflation. The straightforward version says, “I’m smarter than the reader because I actually know how a computer works and everybody else only uses them for video games!” The only relevance this has to anything in the story is that one computer appears later, once.

And yet — I still want to write.

I still like words. They have that magical power to build something out of nothing and whisk people away into their own world. But whenever I’ve tried to do that recently, I’ve gotten stuck. This plot is too unsympathizable because it requires too many characters with too little space for developing each; I can’t figure out how to make this plot conclude satisfactorily without contradicting itself or pulling a deus ex machina; I know how I want this other plot to go, but not what my characters’ motivations are. It’s not so much writer’s block as an unwillingness to enter the zone, because I’m convinced that fuzzy idea of an awesome story won’t work out on paper. So here I am again, writing about myself because there’s nothing else I can write about to my satisfaction. And I know (I’ve combed through the r/writing FAQs and everything) that this is a terrible excuse: the best remedy by far is to keep on writing whatever I want, even if it sucks. But again, with the meager willpower I have left after everything else going on in my life, I have serious doubts that trying to do so is sustainable.

Even though I can pick out a thousand things wrong with a random fiction story on the ’net, at least they finished the story and showed it to somebody. And often it’s still interesting.

After everything I’ve learned, if I can’t motivate myself to finish writing anything on my own because I don’t think it’s good enough… am I really a better writer?

(note: the commenting setup here is experimental and I may not check my comments often; if you want to tell me something instead of the world, email me!)