Tag Archives: reading

Taking Refuge

Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent some time re-reading one of my most favourite series of books. They feature a wisecracking wizard named Harry (no, not that one) who – along with his friends and sidekicks, and an assortment of spirits, ghosts, demons, fallen angels and agents of God’s will – fights evil around his home city of Chicago. I was really enjoying them, not only for what they were but also for the memories that reading them brought back to me – until, that is, I got to the last one I had bought.

Photo Credit: joelogon via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: joelogon via Compfight cc

I should have remembered that there was a reason I stopped buying these books. I never collected the full series, despite having been a devoted fan, and I guess over the years I just convinced myself I just got lost in a wide world of other books, where shiny distractions abound. However, no. There were reasons why I stopped, and I have now remembered what they were.

Since my last purchase I had entirely forgotten the plot of the final book I own in this series. It starts out very cleverly indeed, narrated from an unexpected and hard to pull off viewpoint (someone, without wishing to give away spoilers, is ‘beyond the mortal coil’ and tells the story from the perspective of their own afterlife, or a version of same) and this means there’s plenty of scope for philosophising and deep thought about what constitutes life, anyway, and how important it seems to be remembered, and remembered well. The characters I love are still there, by and large, and there are even some poignant bits where unexpected people are met on other planes of existence and the truth behind a murder is revealed – but still.

Still.

So much about this book let me down, with a major bang. So much of it fell so flat that I never bought another in the series. This is important, and I’d forgotten all about it.

The lead character in the series (who I do love, I must admit) likes to think of himself as an old-fashioned gentleman. Maybe he is. But because the books are all written from inside his perspective, we see what he sees. We, therefore, see all women he encounters through the lens of his hormones, and that can sometimes be a problem. These aren’t books for children or even teenagers (though I’m sure teenagers would enjoy them); these are adult urban fantasy books, and they’re clever and well-plotted and funny and fast-moving and boy, it hurts me to even admit how much I hated the last one I bought. But I did. Because there’s only so much ‘appreciation’ a female reader can take, when it comes to this character’s perspective on female characters. There are only so many descriptions of long, lean legs and fantastic bodies and undulating hips and so on that can be borne before it all gets too much. F’rinstance, there is a character who is much younger than the hero, whom he has known since she was a child – but every single chance he gets, the physical beauty and appeal of this character (who is now, of course, a grown woman) is described. ‘I’m not interested in the kid,’ we’ll be told. ‘But still. That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate her beauty.’

Ack. No. No, all right? Tell us once, maybe. Give us a description. And then stop. We do not need to be reminded, all the time. We do not need to imagine the lead character as a lecherous old twit. We do not need it.

Women are assessed primarily by how hot the lead character finds them. If they’re not sexually appealing, he’ll be quietly respectful of them. If they are sexually appealing (and a surprising amount of them are), he’ll let this be the most significant aspect of their character, despite everything else they’ve got going on – and admittedly, these books do have some of the best and most kick-ass female characters I’ve read, including a firebrand cop and an actual Valkyrie, for God’s sake. There is a wide range of female awesomeness on display here – we just have to wade through a curtain of breasts and wiggly walks and well-turned calves to get there, and jeesh, does that get tired after a while.

But the thing that upset me the most about this book, the final one I bought, the one after which I thought: After this, no more? The resolution to one of the most complex and painful and interesting love-situations in the series.

Well. I say ‘resolution’. I mean ‘cop-out’.

We have characters who, due to their complex magical heritage, can’t show one another physical affection without incurring serious injury because they share true love, something which is anathema to the sort of demons they carry in their souls. So far, so brilliantly Buffy-and-Angel, except even better. But then, at the end of this book? It all gets solved. Through a pointless, stupid, utterly male-gazed, borderline misogynistic and completely irritating plot device that – if it was really how the author had intended to solve this painful, complex and interesting issue – could have been utilised at any point during the course of the previous five or six books. But it wasn’t. And so it seemed like a ‘whoops, look, we’ve got to get rid of this thing here, and so here’s how we’ll do it, right, with a gratuitous and pandering scene which will really appeal to the boys. Heh heh!’

Yeah. Not so much.

Photo Credit: saebois via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: saebois via Compfight cc

So. I finished the book. I put it away, sighing regretfully as I did so, among its peers. (It’s a hardback, and it’s pretty, so at least there’s that). And then I picked up The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first in Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy for YA readers, and I started reading that instead.

And you know something? I’m a much happier reader today. That’s the beauty of books, and of having stuffed bookshelves which you can visit at any point – there is always something else there to read, and some new-old stories in which to take shelter, and no bookish injury is ever permanent.

And in five years’ time I’ll probably re-read the problematic series, once again forgetting why I stopped the last time, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy my righteous indignation all over again. Fun!

It Does Your Heart Good

Over the weekend, I had cause to be out in the world, among people, in an actual city. I even took several forms of public transport, alone and unchaperoned, and I managed to survive the ordeal intact.

In fact, it was rather fun.

Photo Credit: Chris_O'Donoghue via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Chris_O’Donoghue via Compfight cc

Getting out like this is a big deal for me. When one is, as I am, living away from a major urban centre, and stymied not only by an inability to learn how to drive (all right, all right, so more like an unwillingness than an actual inability, but this will be the year, my friends. This will be the year I finally bite that particular bullet!) and also slightly financially embarrassed, getting around can be hard. But I had a friend who was home on a flying visit from a foreign clime (well, the UK. Not exactly Svalbard, but still. I don’t see him very often) and so efforts were made and trains were taken and streets were navigated, and everything worked out perfectly.

On the way home, I took a tram for part of my journey (I did this mainly because I think Dublin’s tram system is extremely cool, and I just wanted to take a short trip for fun. If you’re ever visiting that fair city, do try it). In my carriage was a lady travelling with her father and several of her children, and they were a thoroughly charming bunch.

Yes. All right. So I eavesdropped. It was hard not to. Don’t judge me.

Anyway. During the course of their conversation the lady and her son had a brief exchange, a version of which I have thoughtfully recreated for you below. I do not jest when I tell you that hearing it made my book-lovin’ heart swell, just a little.

Mum: ‘So, we went to the library last Saturday, didn’t we?’

Son: ‘Hmmf.’

Mum: ‘And how many books did we get out?’

Son: ‘Five.’

Mum: ‘Five! And how many had you read by Sunday afternoon?’

Son: ‘Four. And a bit.’

Grandfather: *chuckles*

Mum: ‘Four and a bit. And so then, what did we do?’

Son: ‘Dunno.’

Mum: ‘We went back to the library on Wednesday, didn’t we?’

Son: ‘Yeah.’

Mum: ‘And how many books did we get out that time?’

Son: ‘Five.’

Mum: ‘And when had you read all of those?’

Son: ‘Friday.’

Grandfather: ‘Good lad. Good lad, yourself.’

I felt like cheering (even though it would have been inexcusably rude) or maybe just turning around and giving the kid a high-five. His mum was extremely proud of him, of course – my recreation of their dialogue doesn’t really get that across, maybe – and she wasn’t in any way complaining about all these library treks. She was prompting him to tell his granddad how good he was at reading, and it was brilliant to hear a whole family, over several generations, being so reading-positive and library-positive and praising a young person for being such a great reader. Particularly, of course, when that young person is a boy. Reading has a reputation as being something which appeals more to girls than to boys, which I think is a shame; any child who wants to read, regardless of gender, should be encouraged to do so. Of course. Also, libraries are underfunded and overstretched, and I was so pleased to hear about one family’s enjoyment of their local branch – though it did make me woefully guilty that I haven’t visited the one library I’m a member of in over three years.

Three years. There’s no excuse.

Anyway. Today’s mini-post is just to say ‘well done’ to that young man on the tram, and to every child who loves to read and who – like I used to – enjoys nothing more than taking five books out of the library and having them all read by the end of the following day, despite the fact that it leaves them bookless until the next trip (it’s strange how I never really learned the lesson to take books slowly and make them last – I do something similar with chocolate, funnily enough). It’s to say ‘well done’ to every parent and grandparent and guardian and aunt and uncle and older sibling and family friend who praises a child for reading and who encourages them to read. It’s to say ‘well done’ to the fantastic librarians (and, indeed, booksellers and teachers) who help children to find their next great read and who form the reading tastes and, as a result in some ways, the entire lives of the small people they come in contact with. It’s to say ‘well done’ to all the writers and illustrators out there who make books children love and which they want to experience, not just with their eyes but with their mind and their whole being. The books we read and love as children have such an impact on our adulthood, I firmly believe, and when we read as children it’s more immersive and complete than at any other time in our lives.

Sometimes, it can feel like reading is falling out of fashion. Games and apps and TV and YouTube and what have you seem to be replacing books in the lives of many young people, but I learned a lesson this past weekend. No matter how bad things seem, there will always be readers, and they are as committed and passionate now as they’ve ever been. Is it any wonder I skipped off that tram with a spring in my step?

 

 

Readin’? Who Needs It!

The other day, I was reading an article on a science website I frequent. It was about a very (very) rare medical condition called ‘fetus in fetu’ which means, essentially, that a person ends up with an undeveloped, unviable mass of tissue somewhere in their body which may, originally, have been a foetus – perhaps their own twin, absorbed by them in the womb, or perhaps a type of tumour known as a teratoma. The article described a baby girl, recently born in China, who was found to have two masses in her abdomen which appeared to be ‘foetuses’; luckily, the masses were removed and the child was fine. It was a fascinating (if slightly gross) article, which taught me something. I love it when that happens.

But, sadly, I then went on to read the comments.

Photo Credit: LafayetteBeacon via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: LafayetteBeacon via Compfight cc

I am, of course, aware that you should never read the comments (except on blog posts, naturally, where lots of lovely comments are left by wonderful and intelligent readers), but I regularly fall into the trap. I suppose I simply feel, when I read a great article, that I want to bask in the common glow of human learning, and gain from the insights shared by my fellow readers – but instead what I got was a truckload of ignorance.

And not only that, but willful ignorance, which is the worst kind.

The first comments were from people who were, to use that horrendous phrase, ‘calling BS’. I can’t stand this terminology. It’s judgemental, and a clear declaration that the commenter believes they are somehow superior in learning, training or experience to the person who has written the article, and superior enough to declare it faulty or flawed without, of course, providing reasoning, proof or any sort of argument. They’ve just decided it’s rubbish, because it’s something beyond their own sphere of experience, and therefore – of course – it can’t possibly exist. (As well as that, it’s just rude).

Then we had the crew declaring that anyone ‘stupid’ enough to believe the article was one of the amorphous group known as the ‘sheeple’. The definition of this demographic appears to change, depending on who’s describing it, but it seems to be anyone who believes something different to the person doing the commenting. It never ceases to amaze me how the people calling others ‘sheeple’ believe that they (the ones doing the calling) are the only true repositories of knowledge and wisdom. Based on what, I wonder?

There were people – brave souls – wading in among these commenters to supply links to other articles and proof and places to learn more, but they were shot down as soon as they dared to press ‘post’. Actually doing a bit of work, and learning something? No way! Readin’? Who needs it!

It depresses me that there are people whose worldviews are limited to what goes on inside their own brain – their own brain, a miraculous and wondrous organ, capable of changing the world, which they feed on a diet of hokum and make-believe, superstition and pseudo-science, conspiracy theory and reality TV, and which they then expect to work correctly and give them a balanced view of the world they’re living in. There are people who take pride in never reading a book, never reading a newspaper, never actually going out of their way to meet people who aren’t exactly the same as they are, and never thinking about anything for themselves. They have their beliefs, formed from the way they were raised, the communities they live in, and the conversations they have with the people around them, and anything beyond that is ‘BS’.

This is fine, I suppose. I don’t like to judge others for what they choose to do, believe or think, and everyone is formed and shaped by where they come from, who they grew up with and the prevailing beliefs of their communities. But when people oppress others for actually daring to read, and learn, and trying to improve themselves and the world, and when they attempt to destroy rather than build, I have to admit it angers me. It angers me, for instance, that people would rather expose their children to disease than take them for their immunisations, based on nothing more than a half-baked theory. It angers me that we forget, so easily, the things that have happened in the past and how hard our forebears worked to give us the skills to avoid the disasters that decimated them, things like diphtheria, which – as anyone who has read about it will tell you – is not a disease we want to see taking hold again. The reason we almost always have to read about it now, rather than experience it first-hand? Science.

But if some people had their way, science would be thrown out the window and superstition would rule instead.

Reading is important. Opening your mind to new ideas, experiences and beliefs is important. You don’t have to open it to everything, and you certainly don’t have to believe everything you read, but you’ll never learn how to filter the ‘bad’ from the ‘good’ if you don’t give yourself wide exposure to what is going on in the world. Thinking is not hard work – or, if it is, it gets easier with practice. It worries me that it seems fashionable, somehow, to remain entrenched in your own beliefs these days. Is it a defence mechanism? A way of shoring up in a world which seems under attack from all corners? A response to the vapid celebrity culture all around? Who knows.

Anyway. I’m ranting, on a par with the type of vitriol I try to avoid in other articles, so I’ll draw a line beneath this blog post and move on. Live and let live, I guess, is the message – and let’s not shoot down new ideas before they’ve even had a chance to get airborne.

Have a great week, everyone. Read well, and read often!

The Joy of Words

Well, last week had this in it.

Image: v8.en.memegenerator.net

Image: v8.en.memegenerator.net

For the unclickables among you, I’ll paraphrase the article I’ve linked to above: in essence, a new app is in development which allows people to read at speeds of up to 500 words per minute, mainly due to the fact that you don’t need to move your eyes at all. The app flashes the words in front of you, with one letter highlighted in red (apparently, just at the optimum point in the word for your brain to recognise and process it without even realising it’s doing so), and your eyes remain steady throughout. All you need to do is look at the red letter, and you read the word automatically.

Image: financialanalystwarrior.com

Image: financialanalystwarrior.com

Yeah. I’m with yonder sceptical dog.

The article I’ve linked to has a trial run of the app (called Spritz), and you can see what I’m talking about for yourself. You can also give it a go, and see how it makes you feel. For me, when I got to the 500 words per minute section, I have to admit the letters were zipping by so fast that I did miss a word or two every so often; my brain put together the sense of the sentence, all the same, but it actually felt like more work, to me, than ‘ordinary’ reading. It also made me feel like I’d just stepped off one of these:

Image: zuzutop.com

Image: zuzutop.com

More than that, though, it made me feel a bit sad. Has it come to this, that we’re living in a world where reading is seen as just another chore, something else to plough through at top speed so that we can get back to playing Candy Crush Saga?

I don’t know. Perhaps the app is intended for people who have to read long technical documents, or complicated legal rulings, or government papers, or something like that. I don’t deny the science behind it; certainly, it worked, exactly as it said it would. But it sucked every droplet of joy out of the act of reading, and I think that’s a retrograde step. There was no time to pause, to reflect, to luxuriate in a beautifully constructed sentence; there was no time to appreciate the skill with which the words were laced together. It was like sitting down before a gorgeous meal, prepared with love and care and painstaking effort, and just tipping the whole lot down your neck, oyster-fashion. Not only will you not enjoy the food, but you won’t enjoy the act of eating, either – the two are closely linked.

A lot like the joy of words, and the act of reading. Just in case you didn’t get the metaphor.

Then, I’m speaking as a person who reads quickly anyway, and who enjoys fluency with words. I’m aware that not everyone is like me, and perhaps this app will help some readers who find it hard to get through longer documents; if it’s useful to someone, then it’s to be welcomed, of course. But, to me, reading (for leisure, that is) should be a pleasant and immersive experience, taken at your own pace – whatever that pace may be. It should allow you time for thought and absorption, time to enjoy the words as well as the content.

Or, maybe it’s just my inner technophobe rising to the fore again.

Image: somedesignblog.com

Image: somedesignblog.com

Anyway.

As well as learning about Spritzing, last week was a word-filled one for me in other ways. I spent it glued to the computer going through ‘Emmeline’, making a concerted push to edit it, and repolish it, and finally reach a point where I can say: ‘Yes. This book is ready.’ It had already had five edits before I even began this process, but as late as Friday I was going through it and still seeing extraneous words, unclear descriptions, frankly stupid continuity errors and places where the dialogue could have been sharpened.

It just goes to show that an editor’s job is never done. However, a writer’s job is to get their work to a point where they can say they’ve done their best, and then let their words go. That, friends, is the challenge facing me this week.

Today is the day I start to submit ‘Emmeline.’

Quite. Image: athenna.com

Quite.
Image: athenna.com

I am proud of my work, and I don’t think it’s wrong to say so. I am happy with ‘Emmeline’, I am glad to have written it, I love my characters and I think the story is enjoyable. Now, we’ll see what the publishing industry thinks of it, and I’ll report back to you when I have more information.

If you never hear from me again, you’ll know what happened.

 

 

Stepping Back

As a kid, I think I was a very literal reader, or – perhaps – I had a literal, somewhat inflexible brain. I couldn’t understand a nugget of wisdom like ‘Handsome is as handsome does,’ for instance, because the syntax seemed to make no sense to me; it took me years, even after the phrase was explained to me, to really get a grip on what it meant, as opposed to what it was saying. My mother had a fridge magnet which used to baffle me as a little girl – the saying on it was: ‘Housework is something I do that no-one else notices unless I don’t do it.’

Image: suburbanrebelmom.blogspot.com

Image: suburbanrebelmom.blogspot.com

I can’t tell you how many hours’ thought that phrase took up in my six-year-old brain. Every time I thought I had it nailed down, the words would just slither out of my hands again, sticking out their tongues and waggling their ears at me, and run off to cause havoc somewhere else.

To be entirely fair to my infant intelligence, the phrase could have been more clearly put, but still. I look at it now, and I’m embarrassed that it took me so much effort to wrap my head around it. I just wasn’t able to understand how housework could be something you did (because it clearly states at the beginning that ‘housework is something I do’, which I took as a definite statement, i.e. the housework is being done), while simultaneously not doing it.

Now my explanation of my thought process is starting to confuse me. Perhaps we’d better just leave it at that!

Image: laseoulguy.com

Image: laseoulguy.com

Luckily, as I’ve grown, so have my abilities to understand figurative and indirect language, and my facility with visual imagery and puns, and that sort of thing. I’m glad, at this stage of my life, to have had those moments of confusion surrounding certain phrases and sayings, though – it meant I thought deeply about words and what they meant, and how they fit together. It probably did a lot to spark off my interest in creating words instead of just reading them. I didn’t always ask for help with these verbal conundrums, you see – I just took them into myself and pondered them, sometimes for years, until I’d cracked them.

However, there are times, even now, when I feel like my thought processes around language and words are still a bit too inflexible. If I read something and straight away my brain lands on one particular meaning based on the words I’ve seen (even if – or especially if – it’s wrong), I find it hard to over-write it and replace it with the correct meaning. Occasionally, the same thing can happen with my thought processes – I get caught into one way of thinking, and then I can’t see my way clear to get out of it.

This isn’t to say I’m some sort of dyed-in-the-wool type who can’t accept that a way of thinking is wrong, or flawed, or whatever. I’m perfectly willing and able to change my mind on things, to learn new stuff and amend my opinion on a whole range of issues. When it comes to writing, though, I think I find it hard to think flexibly. I put my plot down on paper, and it leaves a heavy impression. Even when I take it back up again to put it down somewhere else, that heavy impression remains. I find it difficult to stop my thoughts following the same old channels, and leaving me stuck in the same old corners as before.

This is a problem.

Yesterday, I found myself getting tied up in a terrible muddle with ‘Tider’. The book is too long, for a start, and I’m very aware of editing it down to a more realistic word count, and – as I said yesterday – there were several scenes which I felt were too wordy, and not necessary, and too slow-moving. I hacked away more than 6,000 words, removing scenes which spoon-feed our protagonist some of the things she needs to know in order to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding her family – but then I found myself marooned on the island of ‘What Now?’

Image: arabia.msn.com

Image: arabia.msn.com

Of course there’s a way around this. Of course there’s a new plotline that will satisfactorily bring my characters from Point A to Point Z and everywhere in between in an elegant, clever and interesting way – but the harder I tried to find it, the bigger grew my muddle. I found myself sinking my head into my hands at several junctures yesterday, lamenting the fact that I just couldn’t see around my old plotlines – the trails they’d left through ‘Tider’ were so deep, and so clear, that trying to bypass them or reroute them or dig them up altogether was just beyond my power.

So I turned off my computer at 6 pm yesterday, as I normally do. I went about my other duties, as I normally do. At the end of a ‘normal’ writing day, however, my brain is usually fizzing and firing off ideas and suggestions and images long after I leave my work behind, but last evening I made a huge effort to ignore it and give myself a little bit of space to decompress. It’s very hard for me not to panic when I feel an idea that once worked well no longer fits ‘the brief’ and needs to be changed; I feel like I’m trying to force a river to alter its course, and cut a new path through the earth. The harder I try to make myself to think in a different way or to read what I’ve written in a more flexible way, the less likely I am to be successful.

So, I went against my urge to keep hacking away at the problem, and I took an evening off. I watched some TV – I didn’t even read, which is unusual for me. I allowed myself to get lost down a totally different track, and I realised how tired I was. My brain was asleep long before my body was, I think.

And you know what? I woke up this morning with the tiniest little seedling of a new approach growing in my mind. It’s not a huge change; it’s so tiny, it’ll probably take less than a sentence to achieve. I hope that it will make a huge difference to today’s writing, though.

I’m also fully convinced that I never would have seen it unless I’d given myself permission to step back. Sometimes, trashy TV really is the answer to all of life’s problems.

Happy Friday – I hope a happy weekend is unfolding for you all.

 

Bookish Bamboozlement

So, I spent most of the weekend reading.

Even though this looks extremely uncomfortable, I still want to do it... Image: lifedev.net

Even though this looks extremely uncomfortable, I still want to do it…
Image: lifedev.net

No surprise there, really. What was surprising, though, was the effect the books I chose to read this weekend had on me. You might expect euphoria; you might expect joy. You might also expect something like total absorption and utter devotion, because – of course – this is normally how I describe my reading life. There’s very little I like doing more. Reading, for me, comes a close second to breathing.

But, this weekend, I was irritated. I was annoyed. I was left disappointed and somewhat disillusioned at the end of my long and weary struggle to finish reading the books I’d chosen. I don’t like giving up on a book, so I kept going till the bitter end, but I’m being honest when I say that both these reads were a challenge (and not in a good way.) I’m not going to name the books, because I don’t believe in doing that – plenty of other readers have, clearly, loved these books, so who am I to criticise their taste? – but let me just say that the books I read were ones written for children, and they had received great reviews. They were both written by authors with long and successful careers (though not as children’s authors – one writes for adults, usually, and the other is more involved in the film industry.) They’d been given excellent cover ‘blurbs’ from established authors I admire, and both of them promised wonderful things, if their back covers were anything to go by. They were enticing enough for me to pick them up and buy them, at least.

Reading them, however, made me feel like this:

Image: teachingchildrenmanners.com

Image: teachingchildrenmanners.com

Both these books were long – in the region of 500 pages. Both were epic, sweeping stories, the first (apparently) in their respective future series. One was slightly better than the other in terms of being in touch with how real children speak and think and act, and featured a group of siblings fighting for survival in a fantasy world that seems to change and twist at random (even though it’s plainly obvious what’s happening to any reader with a speck of intelligence); the other was written in language which no child since Shakespearean times has used, and it was filled with long monologues of exposition, in which characters explain things to one another. This doesn’t just happen once or twice, in which case it’s excusable – it happens all the time.

The following paragraph isn’t, of course, taken from the book. It’s taken from the pit of my imagination. But it may give you some sense of what the book was like:

‘Humphrey, as you’re aware, when the moon and Venus, planet of beauty and love, reach a particular alignment in the heavens, the Gods of the West Wind will be so enraged by their intimacy that they will unleash a storm of fearsome and unprecedented force upon us poor weaklings here below.’
‘Why, yes, Gerald! Every child, from their earliest sparks of understanding, is taught the story of the Jealous West Wind at their mother’s knee
. But surely you don’t mean…’
‘Yes, Humphrey! Yes. We must face it. Look upon the sky and tell me what you see.’
‘Why, a raging red mist, spreading from edge to edge along the horizon. What can it portend?’
‘The storm, Humphrey. The storm! It is coming!’
*cue alarms, distress, swords clanking, etc.*

Oh, really? Image: jannawqe.com

Oh, really?
Image: jannawqe.com

Very little irritates me more than the Huge Monologue, where characters get up on their soapboxes – much like I’m doing here, funnily enough – and rant on about something or tell one another things which could have been uncovered through adventure and storytelling instead. Another thing which annoys me in children’s books is the use of coincidence – oh, look, we’re being chased by the bad guys with swords, so let’s race for our lives down to the docks and hop on the first boat we come across which of course happens to be the one which contains the magical cargo we need to get to our destination (sorry, I’m running out of breath); or – wow, how cool is this – the one person we come across in the course of our adventuring is the only person in the world who knows exactly what we’re looking for, how to find it, and is willing to bring us for a reasonable fee.

Don’t worry about that sound you’re hearing – it’s just me, grinding my teeth.

This book – the one I’m not going to name, with the ridiculously complicated and old-fashioned and tension-free monologues in it – was also packed full of coincidences. The protagonist (I hesitate to call him a hero, because he doesn’t actually do very much. For example – by the time he comes back from his quest, the reason for which had nothing to do with the conclusion of the book, the people of his home city had – in his absence – arranged to overthrow their despotic leader. Yet, somehow, when it comes time to give credit for their victory in battle, our protagonist is responsible for all of it) was continually running into people who were falling over themselves to help him, or finding things to give him a hand along the way.

I needed to take a few deep breaths by the time I was finished reading this book. It was either that, or fling it against a wall.

The book read like it was written by someone who doesn’t read children’s books. In fact, both of them did. They were both too long – the book about the siblings felt, to me, like someone had taken every single thing they thought would be cool to include, and flung them all, regardless of sense or interest or plausibility, into the plot just for laughs, and don’t get me started on the other one – and could have been edited to make them far more crisp and exciting. I found my attention wandering, my eyes sliding off the page, and my brain being strangled by the sheer tedium of sentence after sentence after sentence.

I am a person who reads. I am used to it. I am a person who loves and adores and lives and breathes children’s books. I didn’t find the books hard to read because they were written for kids. Reading them, however, has made me want to read something totally different for my next book, in order to try to re-set my brain, and I think that’s sad.

But the thing that upset me the most about this weekend’s reading?

Both these books are published, have been successful, and – to my mind – break every ‘rule’ that children’s books are supposed to have.

It’s almost enough to smash one’s tiny, tiny heart.

Image: colourbox.com

Image: colourbox.com

Happy Monday! Onwards and upwards from here, chums.

To Beta, or Not to Beta?

I follow a lot of writing blogs, as is to be expected from a person in my position. I regularly find nuggets of wisdom on these blogs, ranging from tips and tricks to make my writing better to book recommendations, support for the writing process, encouragement and hints on how to best present work to agents, and so on. One of the things I come across most often is the idea that every author, everywhere, needs a team of CPs (Crit Partners) or, as they’re sometimes called, ‘Beta Readers’.

Frighteningly enough, I don’t really have these.

Nope. Not even in here. Image: drbristol.wordpress.com

Nope. Not even in here.
Image: drbristol.wordpress.com

Very kind people have offered to read bits of things I’m working on (or, have agreed to read these bits after I’ve asked them to), but nobody has ever read a whole manuscript of mine. Is this a bad thing? Well, I don’t know.

I’ve been thinking about the idea of beta readers over the past few days, and about how such a system would work. Clearly, it’s no good asking someone who is not a writer to be your beta reader, because then the system of favours would only benefit one person – you. A beta reader relationship, like all relationships, needs reciprocity, equality and generosity – so, there’s no point in asking your best friend (who works as a hairdresser/architect/toothbrush inspector) to read your book for you. Well, that is unless you have expertise in the fields of tonsuring, house design or dental hygiene, and can offer your services to your friend in exchange. I’m also wondering about how it works when you write a draft of a book, have your beta reader expend energy and time critiquing it for you, and then redraft your book – do you expect your beta reader to spend more of his or her time on the same book, reading and critiquing this next draft?

I don’t think I could ask anyone to do all this for me. It sounds like a massively time-consuming thing, and I don’t know if it’s altogether fair.

The benefits of having beta readers are clear, however. Having another pair of eyes look over your work can only be a good thing; a second reader can see mistakes, inconsistencies, flubbed phrasing, wrongly placed dialogue tags, and more. If they fall asleep as they read or start skimming through certain sections, it’s a reasonable indication that you’ve wandered off the point a bit too much and your work needs tightening up. They can also tell you what’s good – what works, what grabbed their attention, what brought the tears to their eyes, what made them care. Then, hopefully, you can revisit your work and dial down the boring bits while turning up the volume on the interesting parts. But what happens if you and your beta partner disagree? What if you feel your digression about man-eating Venus flytraps in the middle third of your Great Novel about uranium mining on a distant planet against a backdrop of inter-stellar war is not only beautiful, but necessary, and that your beta reader’s assessment of it as being ‘flabby, pointless and snore-inducing’ is overly harsh?

What do you mean, you don't see the point of the last four hundred pages? It's *art*, dammit! That's the point! Our friendship is over! Image: nitratediva.wordpress.com

What do you mean, you don’t see the point of the last four hundred pages? It’s *art*, dammit! That’s the point!
Image: nitratediva.wordpress.com

You might think, then, that engaging the services of several beta readers is the way to go. If they all come back with the same report – ‘kill the man-eating Venus flytraps’ – then perhaps it’s a clear indication that the world is not quite ready for your vision. But what do you do, then, if they don’t agree? What if they all come back with different reports? Perhaps one will love your opening scene – a huge explosion cruelly disfiguring your brave and noble hero – and another will think it’s a clichéd mess. Maybe one reader will adore your conclusion, thinking your decision to have the inter-stellar war end on a note of universal harmony as the spaceships, once mortal enemies, fly off together into the sunset, is a work of genius; another reader may (probably rightfully) hate it. What, in a case like that, can you do?

It can be difficult to take criticism of something you’ve created; I know this. It’s a common failing among anyone who writes, or paints, or spends their time making things. I’m sure it makes it even more difficult when a person whose opinion you trust and who knows their stuff tells you, as gently as they can, that the work you’ve done isn’t very good. Not only that, but they can tell you exactly where you’ve gone wrong, and why. This is immensely helpful, but also immensely hard. I’m sure, too, that there’s nothing a beta reader hates more than having to tell a friend they don’t like something they’ve created. The last thing anyone wants is to cause pain, but that is an inevitability.

So, one must weigh up the benefit of having another (very kind, and very generous) person read their work before they do something crazy with it, like submit it to an agent or a competition. Is it worth the pressure put on your relationship with this other person? Is it worth the suffering? Is it easier to receive criticism from a person you do not know?

In a funny twist of fate, yesterday a friend of mine offered to read some chapters of ‘Tider’ in exchange for my reading of some of her work. I was already planning this blog post when her offer came through, and it made me smile. If I was the kind of person who believed in the numinous nature of all things and the benevolent interconnectedness of the universe, perhaps I could’ve taken it as an indication that I am desperately in need of a beta reader; perhaps I should just take it as an example of good timing, and the kindness of a friend.

So. If you write, do you also beta? Is it a good system? How do you get it to work for you? Let me know. I’m taking notes.

Image: kids.usa.gov

Image: kids.usa.gov