‘You are what you read,’ by Jonathan Wood

You are what you read dragon[cp_dropcaps]I[/cp_dropcaps]n a bookstore, my finger traces titles along spines.  I come to a book facing out, pause.  The title is spelled in monumental block capitals.  Below it, the author’s name is emblazoned in the same gold embossed font.  A glimpse of a jungle and a temple is squeezed in between the two.  There is no question: this is the trashiest of airport thrillers.  It has almost certainly sacrificed characterization and lyrical proses at the altar of pulse-pounding action scenes.  It also looks hella fun.  And really, where’s the harm in that?


Like many writers starting out, I read a fair number of writing instruction books. Some were helpful, others weren’t. Eventually I was guided towards Samuel Delany’s excellent book, About Writing. It is not a typical writing instruction manual. For starters, it suggests that people don’t learn to tell stories from writing instruction books. Rather, they learn from reading other stories. I wasn’t really sure I believed that at the time. I felt like I’d learned a fair few things.

Fast forward to my discovery of the New Weird movement. Perhaps that should have been enough for me to realize that you learn from what you read. Because in the works of China Miéville and Jeff VanderMeer and others, I suddenly saw the shape of the fiction I had been nascently grasping towards. Fiction that broke free of traditional western genre conventions and cavorted madly through the shattered pieces that remained.

I launched into a very ambitious project. In my less generous moments, I’d describe it as a bloated, bleak, Weird novel. Because as much as Perdido Street Station and City of Saints and Madmen helped consolidate my thoughts about genre, they are not perfect examples of tight plotting. In slightly more generous moments, I’ll acknowledge that it had its strengths, but telling a coherent story at anything resembling speed was not one of them.

I was fortunate enough to have the Weird novel snag me an agent, but not fortunate enough to sell the book. Editors noticed that I didn’t know how to plot too. My agent looked at the responses coming in, then looked at me. “You need to work on pacing,” he said.

That’s when I finally realized that Samuel Delany might just know what he was talking about. (I know, I know… I was young…).

My literary diet had, up to that point, been very restricted. I like fantasy and scifi, dagnammit, so that was what I read. All I read. And that clearly wasn’t cutting it. I decided I would branch into thrillers. That, I reckoned, was where the tight plotting must reside.

It was slightly intimidating just looking at an entire new genre and trying to pick an entry point. A lot of internet research was involved. In the end I discovered that my love of all things Pulp dovetailed with a certain action-oriented group of writers. I picked up Sandstorm by James Rollins.

In retrospect, this was one of my better ideas. Because desert storms, and underground cities of glass, and action scenes that go on for chapter after chapter, and cliffhangers, and suspense, and mysterious women who reproduce asexually. Yeah, maybe the last one wasn’t so helpful… But it had me ripping through page after page. I wanted more.

Next up was Relic by Preston and Child. Mysterious Amazonian beasts prowled the bowels of the Natural History Museum while the floodwaters rose, and the pages flew by. Why the hell hadn’t I been reading these books before?

Perhaps the thriller writer who taught me the most was British writer Andy McDermott. The Hunt for Atlantis may be a terrible title for a book, but inside… Andy McDermott’s action scenes are amazing constructions, like ink blossoming in water. Whenever it seems they must end, a new tier blooms, elevating the action higher and higher. Chapter builds on chapter, escapade on escapade, a constantly ratcheting mechanism which culminates (I kid you not) in a man riding his motorbike out of a plane’s cockpit moments before aforementioned plane impacts on the bad guy’s lair. I was pulling that book out of my pocket at street corners so I could get a page in waiting for the lights to change.

There was no moment, reading those books, when I consciously sat down and tried to work out exactly what they were doing.  It doesn’t work that way for me.  Story seeps in.  Shapes infiltrate.  Story has a feel to it.  If I did this, then it must do that.  Reading is a way to learn to intuit those shapes.  And reading those books helped me learn new shapes, new ways to put the building blocks of fiction together.

When it came to build my own novel based on those lessons, the result was No Hero. It wasn’t really the novel I expected to write. Parts were recognizable to me. I’d tried to instill a sense of the Weird into its bones. I’d done my best to get the prose up to a level I’d be proud of. But the shape those elements filled was different. I’d written something where large chunks dedicated to pure two-fisted action. The final action scene went on for tens of thousands of words. Cliffhangers charted the path to it.

I’m the last person to be able to tell you the quality of what I produced, but unlike anything else I’d written, it sold.

I still enjoy trashy thrillers. I sometimes feel guilty, worry they may make me a worse writer. I stand with my finger on the spine in the book store, and think will this push me too far away from being able to write about characters and motivation?

Maybe. But not necessarily. Another piece of advice that’s helped me out since I’ve finished No Hero is the importance of diversity in a writer’s reading diet. I try very hard not to limit myself just to one genre or two. I like to dabble in biography, and mystery. I chase down articles on line, flick through magazines. As a writer you are what you read. So read widely. Read voraciously. Every books is a lesson. And when the lessons involves jungles and temples and Nazis then it’s fantastic fun to learn.

Written by Jonathan Wood

Jonathan Wood is an Englishman in New York. There’s a story in there involving falling in love and flunking out of med school, but in the end it all worked out all right, and, quite frankly, the medical community is far better off without him, so we won’t go into it here. His debut novel, No Hero was described by Publisher’s Weekly as “a funny, dark, rip-roaring adventure with a lot of heart, highly recommended for urban fantasy and light science fiction readers alike.”