Ladies and gentlefolk, I write for you a normal blog for a change. That is, a prose about some of my thoughts. A strange thing to do on a blog page you might think.
More than a blog, I would like ideally for it to be a discussion. We’re all here blogging because we like to write and therefore, I assume, to read.
My thoughts today are, what do we particularly like to read, and more controversially, what do we dislike?
Now by like and loathe, I don’t mean “I like to read books about kittens with chainsaws trying to take over the world.” We all like different genres and feline world domination gore is undoubtedly one of the best. But what is it inside the books that you particularly enjoy? You know, those little gems, the tiny details that really make it stand out. An unexpected twist in a plot line, or a character so well developed that you feel you know them intimately. A particularly smart turn of phrase or that little bit of hidden clever humour that feels like an inside joke.
I have my little peculiarities that make me smile or make my blood boil, and my top three of each are here.
One of my favourite authors is the one and only Terry Pratchett, and I absolutely love the way he makes little comments in his footnotes throughout his writing.
Sometimes he gives a little bit of extra information on a character, sometimes a little tangential story. I think it’s the way he does it in such a dry and unassuming manner that I most like though.
For example, from Terry Pratchett’s “Moving Pictures” where Ruby is giving Detritus the troll advice on courting:
“You got to, to sing outside a girl’s window,” she said, “and, and you got to give her oograah.”
“Yeah, pretty oograah*”
*Trolls have 5,400 words for rocks and one for vegetation. “Oograah” means everything from moss to giant redwoods. The way trolls see it, if you can’t eat it, it’s not worth naming it”
By hiding it in a little joke, it’s actually a really subtle and clever way of giving the reader more information about a particular character or race, without them realising it. We’ve found out that trolls eat rocks, have a limited vocabulary and enlist eating as one of the most important things that they do in their lives.
Commenting in footnotes is something which I enjoy and include in my writing – and I have to say a good footnote gives me a lot of satisfaction. I’m afraid to admit though, that I do laugh at my own jokes!
2) Big shocks:
I don’t particularly like books where it’s shock after shock after shock as they lose their resonance, but when a really good one arrives unexpectedly it’s really satisfying and it can really shape the story and characters.
My favourite example I’ve read so far is in the second book of Fiona McIntosh’s “The Quickening” series. It was one of those proper shout out loud moments when you really want to warn a character of what is happening. I won’t spoiler this, but it really made the character Wyl Thirsk for me. Highly recommended.
3) Short chapters:
I love books that have really short chapters. They just work better for me. None of these thirty-odd pages of sprawling prose, I like it short and sharp.
Douglas Adams had short chapters in “The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and this really worked for me. I think that he possibly had the chapter breaks in the same place as other authors would have in terms of plot, but his chapters were shorter because he didn’t like to over-describe everything. The reader is given plenty freedom in which to make up their own mind about how characters should look.
Description of Zaphod Beeblebrox from “The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”
“He was roughly humanoid in appearance except for the extra head and third arm. His tousled fair hair stuck out in random directions, his blue eyes glinted with something completely unidentifiable, and his chins were almost always unshaven.”
Adams gives you a few pointers about the character and then lets you make up your own mind. I do like this, but maybe this is why few of the characters in the film were as I had imagined?
Not how I imagined Zaphod. knaster.com
Another author who utilised short chapters in a very different way is Kurt Vonnegut. I’m currently reading “Cat’s Cradle” and I love it. There is so much information in this book, but the fact that every chapter is only a couple of pages long makes it far easier to take in. And it looks friendlier. “Yeay I’m on chapter 30 already!!” you think. It’s page 43.
As a kid I would have hated this book though – the “I’m just finishing my chapter” excuse to stay up later would never have helped me!
This is the harder part, as I do like more things than I loathe (I wouldn’t be a writer otherwise would I?!) However some things do get on my nerves.
1) Over-used vocabulary:
My first loathe is over-use of a particular word. We all have our favourite words (my current favourite is “fish” which fortunately isn’t too easy to over use in novel writing.) And it is quite easy to think of a good word and use it a few times in succession. This kind of problem is what editing is for though.
I don’t really like to give examples of authors who’ve done these things as it’s a little unfair to criticise people’s work – however I will with this one as the author is very successful and undoubtedly talented and I’m sure this minor moan wouldn’t cause any offence! Plus I loved the book anyway.
In the book “The Last Gospel” by David Gibbins, the main character Jack Howard grinned lots of times in the space of a few pages (I counted it once, but I can’t be bothered to go back and do it again!) I was ready to throttle him (Jack not David.) Why couldn’t he smile or laugh for a change?
Anyhow, a few pages later Jack stopped grinning so much and I didn’t want to wipe the look of his smug face any more.
We all do this – I find myself editing the words “anyhow” and “anyway” out of my writing ALL the time!
It’s very occasional, but sometimes the occasional spelling mistake creeps through an edit. It’s also very understandable, there are a lot of words in a book. And it’s not really the bad spelling that irritates me, it’s the fact that I notice it and it interrupts my concentration.
But it’s not just bad spelling that does this, it’s different spelling too. I’m UK English so of course we spell a lot of words differently to US English – colour, humour, centre – just a few examples.
So although it’s obviously not wrong, as the majority of books I read are by American authors, whenever I see a word spelled in American English I slightly double-take because it just doesn’t seem quite right to me!!
If I had spelled the word “humour” without a u in a spelling test at school, I’d have been marked down and told it was WRONG! So I just can’t help but notice these things!
It would have been so much easier if we just spelled things the same!!!!
Although, hypocritically, once I’ve finished my books they will probably make their way to E-book (whether published or self-published) I still think that E-books are a sad state of affairs for three reasons:
1 -I like to hold a book. Call me old fashioned, but I like to turn pages of a real book and not stare at a screen for at least part of my day.
2 – I hate the thought that art could fall out of the literary field. There’s something about the cartooned pictures on the front of a Terry Pratchett, and the mystical landscapes and dragons on a Tolkien that give a book some added charm and character. There are many books which I have been drawn to because of their front covers – such as the ninjas on the spine of Brent Weeks’ “Night Angel” Trilogy.
Night Angels Trilogy cover
One day books and music could go entirely electronic and we could lose this character.
I believe that e-readers are useful for when you are travelling and you cannot carry a bookcase with you. I prefer to trade at a second hand book store myself though.
3 – It is already so easy to publish an e-book, that it doesn’t matter whether or not you can write well, you can still publish. Traditional publishers will struggle or have to adapt accordingly. Will this make it harder to find good authors as a reader in the future? Will the e-shops of this world become so over-saturated that the next Terry Pratchett or Stephen King is not discovered because he is rubbish at self-advertising? Who knows..
My final point on e-readers is that you’ll all be bored when there is a really long power cut. I’ll be sitting in the dark next to my bookcase.
That brings me to the end. I quite liked doing a proper blog entry for a change, maybe I’ll do it again.
Anyway, if you’re still awake I hope you’ve enjoyed my literary likes and loathes.
What are yours, and why?
(Please don’t say you loathe my writing!)
Copyright © Matty Millard 2012