Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Reading and Writing With Neil Gaiman

On Sunday night Mighty Reader and I (along with 800 or so other Seattle folks) went to Town Hall where Neil Gaiman read from and was interviewed about his latest release, the 10th Anniversary edition of American Gods. It's the "author's preferred text," which means that Mr Gaiman's publisher gave him the opportunity to add in all the stuff his original editor made him cut a decade ago, plus make whatever other changes he wanted to. The current edition, if I understand Mr Gaiman correctly, now clocks in at better than 200,000 words.

I'll come clean right up front and say that I am not a huge fan of Mr Gaiman's writing, though I enjoyed Neverwhere and I've read all the Sandman comics and I follow Mr Gaiman's blog. He's very charming and funny and he seems like a Really Nice Guy and I wanted to go last night because a) Mighty Reader is a NG fan and she bought the tickets, and b) Mr Gaiman has attained nearly legendary status as a fabulous reader and I wanted to see what that was all about. Plus, you know, he's funny.

It was well worth attending, and my advice to you is that if you ever get the chance to see Mr Gaiman in person, go see him. He reads aloud, frankly, beautifully. The biggest lesson to learn from Mr Gaiman's reading? Read Slowly And Distinctly. When he began I thought, "Gosh, he's moving at a snail's pace" but after a minute you fall into his rhythm and maybe it's his dreamy English accent or the dreamlike mood of the piece he read, but time really did stand still. The second bit he read was more dialogue-heavy and he did American accents for the characters and he also read slowly to great effect. I should note that these were pretty long excerpts he read, too. He could have skipped the interview and the questions from the audience and just read all night and that would've been fine with Mighty Reader and me.

Except, of course, Mr Gaiman's reading all night would've deprived us of his "advice to a novice fantasy writer." That was good stuff, and I'll paraphrase for you. First, his general advice to writers: "Write. Finish what you write." More specifically, his advice to genre writers: "Write. Stop reading your genre; read everything else and become influenced by the whole world of fiction. If you are interested in a specific mythology/religion/time period/alternate reality, then read primary sources, not other genre fiction about it. Read the Book of Kells or the Vedas or Homer or Dante or the stuff that Bram Stoker read when he was researching Dracula. Don't be one of those people who fall in love with Lord of the Rings and then decide to write Lord of the Rings, because Lord of the Rings has already been written, a lot better than you could ever write it. Tell the stories only you can tell." There was more, and it was all funnier than I relate it, but in sum Mr Gaiman gives good advice. Write a lot. Finish what you write. Read widely. Rinse and repeat.

Mr Gaiman, Amanda Palmer and singer/accordionist/pudding fan Jason Webley are apparently going to be together in Seattle, back at Town Hall, on 11/11/11 for a Big Event of some kind. Mr Gaiman and his wife, pop chanteuse Amanda Palmer (of the Dresden Dolls) are maybe going to do some kind of tag-team tour up the west coast between Halloween and November 11th, so for those of you who live along the Pacific Ocean, there'll likely be another chance to hear Neil Gaiman read aloud. You should go.


  1. I must say that, "Stop reading your genre; read everything else..." is one of the boldest, and most on pieces of writerly advice I've heard in a while.

    Weird sense of deja vu just now.

  2. Is there an echo in here? Mr Gaiman did say that you should be aware of what's going on in your genre, but he also said that the best thing that happened to him as a writer was getting a job writing book reviews where he didn't get to choose the books.

  3. Gaiman definitely sounds cool. I don't know that much about him, but if he comes by--as I live near the Pacific--I'll check him out. Finish what you write is excellent advice. I wish I had learned that lesson about nine years ago.

  4. Scott, I definitely agree that, especially as you begin to approach publication, awareness of your genre is very important, but I've always felt my writing more fully enriched by reading other stuff. But then I feel silly because everyone always pounds reading your genre.

    It's nice to get a different perspective on the topic.

  5. I think maintaining a diverse personal reading list is imperative to growth as a writer. I find that when I read many works in a row from one author, I start to take on some of the nuances of that author. It's similar for me with music...if I listen to a lot of one band or style, it's reflected in my playing.

    That's good and bad. Good because it can help you to fit in with your peers in a genre, but bad because if you fit too comfortably you may not stand out.

    Thanks for posting this, Scott. I envy your experience, hopefully he'll come by Ohio sometime.

  6. Kind of. I've mellowed out some in my old age (I turn 40 in October). My primary instrument is bass guitar, and I also play 6- and 12-string guitar and dabble on the keyboard.

    Last gig I played was July 24, 2004...4 days after my second son was born. Personal highlights from the show: bass solo during Aeroplane (Red Hot Chili Peppers), singing Purple Rain (Prince) and Born to be Wild (Steppenwolf).

    Current musical aspiration: learning Moonlight Sonata on piano. I have the first 9 bars down. Long way to go.

  7. Rick, I've been tempted to find a teacher to help me learn Moonlight Sonata. It's a beautiful piece. Aeroplane is pretty awesome too. With you and Scott...and Michelle and I on our clarinets...really, the possibilities are endless.

  8. Add some glong khaek for rhythm and you're set.

  9. Last summer my kids asked me to learn Mozart's Turkish March. I started on piano but quickly realized I don't have the dexterity on the keyboard to pull it off, so I switched to guitar. I chipped away at it all summer and by the end of the summer had learned the whole thing, but had become so bored with the piece that I resorted to playing it with a jazzy swing beat to make it fun again.

    We should totally make a video and blow those cello-playing YouTube guys out of the water!

  10. I love Gaiman's writing, Neverwhere and Stardust were a lot fun. And great writing advice from Gaiman himself. Thanks for the update!

  11. Scott, thanks for putting this up, and thank you for sharing the advice that Gaiman shared. I've never, never read in the genre in which I'm currently writing. I READ that genre, just not while I'm writing it, and you know how I flip back and forth between genres. :)

    I've always felt it was a silly thing to read what you're trying to write because I'm so easily influenced that I thought, well, hmmm, I don't want my stuff to sound like other stuff! I want it to be mine!

    So...it's very refreshing to hear a big-time beloved author back that up.


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