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Bookstore visits: then and now

March 6, 2011

It’s ironic.  I love bookstores but I seldom find myself in one anymore.  For one, they are disappearing daily.  (Moment of silence.)  Second, who really goes to a bookstore when they need a book?  I just download it to my Kindle or order it (cheaper) from Amazon.  But this post is not about the invasion of the ebook market (I for one welcome our new computer overlords) or the decline of the faithful old brick-and-mortar book seller.  This is an observation on how my bookstore browsing and buying habits have changed over the last few years.

When I started writing, I always went in search of the how-to-write books first.  A decent bookstore will have a reasonable selection but seldom the ones I really wanted.  Lots of grammar books, but I can do grammar, always could.  Several write-a-novel-in-X-days books, not really what I was after, either.  I have picked up good books right off the shelf, though: Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel, several Elements of Fiction Writing books, and others that slip my mind, but I’ve plucked some stinkers, too (not listed).  After that I’d head to the science fiction and fantasy section, rounding out with a tour of clearance items.

Now it’s backward.  I hunt for cheap books first.  Why?  Because I don’t know what I’m looking for.  Just the other day I picked up The Hero (Ringo and Williamson) and The Ice Dragon, a short story or novelette that was retrofitted as a children’s story by none other than George R.R. Martin.  The latter seemed  an intriguing idea and roused my interest.  The former, well I just don’t have any John Ringo stuff.  I suspect it’s mostly the work of his co-author set in Ringo’s world, but hey, it was a buck.  So was The Ice Dragon.  Happy purchase.

Next I go to the sci-fi section to look for WotF 26.  Books-A-Million has it.  I turned it face out last time, a feat that actually put it in front of four out of five copies of another book.  They’ll have me for it, I’m sure.  But if it sells, I guess they won’t have to worry about it.  Other than randomly pimping a book that earns me no more money if it sells, I also look for names I recognize, personally or as a fan.  I seldom buy this way because my backlog is so deep.  If nothing else, it helps me decide what to shop for on my Kindle. I also look at the publishing houses and imprints on the shelves and skim for general ideas of market trends, not to copy, just to know.

The last place I look is the how-to-write section.  This time I did actually make a purchase, my first from this shelf in a while: the Gotham Writer’s Workshop’s guide to screeplay writing, Writing Movies, the victor in a brief page-flipping battle between it and another screenwriting book.  This was not a bargain book, but I wanted a good screenwriting book to balance out the bad one I have.  I’ve been happy with the chapters I’ve read so far.

My recent trip to the used bookstore was similar, but every book there is a bargain book, so it’s a little different.  I like to skim the science books for things that might spawn story ideas or better yet deepen an existing story idea.  I got a little tiny book on Multiverse theory a few weeks back.  Not even sure what it is, but it sounded promising.

Another stop was the travel books.  Face it, I’m not a traveler; can’t afford it and don’t overly enjoy it.  But it’s tough to set every science fiction book in Tennessee, so I need to expand my horizons somehow.  I picked up a 3-D guide to Paris and an insider’s guide to New York for use setting stories in those cities, two books I would never have paid real money for (I have store credit) but will surely see eventual use.  I make a point of wandering through the sf/f section, too.

Basically, I know how to write, I just need help with specific story elements.  Setting, consistency, inspiration, ties to real-world science.  Can I make a Multiverse story set in Paris?  Or a screenplay in Soho (whatever that is)?  My chances are better now.

This of course made me wonder what other writers look for in bookstores.  Maybe I’m overlooking some useful sections?  How do you shop?

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