How to be a Better Reader

The internet is full of articles telling writers how to improve. But there are at least several more readers than writers out there, and better readers make better writers writing better books. So, here are some ways to improve your reading life. There may be a test.

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Read something you wouldn’t normally read. At least once every couple of months, pick up a genre you’ve never tried, non-fiction on a subject you know nothing about, a novel that doesn’t look like your cup of tea. There could be an entire world of new books out there, waiting for you to love them.

Read more non-fiction. Discover something about science.  Explore a random period of history. Pick up something you’ve no reason to care about yet. I want you in the pub, next week, telling people, ‘No, seriously, it’s a biography of this woman who was married to an Archbishop of Canterbury and she never actually did anything much but it’s really interesting!’

There is a special seat in heaven for the reader who spreads the word about a book she loves.

There is a special seat in hell for the reader who leaves a one-star review on Amazon because the book had a printing error or was delivered late. That seat is very pointy.

Annoyed at the price of a book? Please tell me all about it, in a properly edited 100,000-word manuscript. What, does that sound like months of hard work? Oh.

Give yourself proper time to read, not just ten pages on your commute and five pages while falling asleep. You wouldn’t try to watch The Wire in ten-minute snatches, hours apart, would you? Books need attention too.

If you fear that your friends/family/fellow commuters will judge you for your reading matter, you have three choices: read with your head high because they have no right to book-shame you; get better friends/family/fellow commuters; buy an e-reader. Do not stop reading.

The TV is tempting, the dirty laundry is massing, the to-do list is taking on independent life. On the other hand, the entire collective intelligence, insight and discoveries of the human race are spread out in front of you for the taking. Go on, five more pages.

Jean-Paul Sartre was a time traveller. He wrote Nausea, his great cry of existential agony, after visiting the 21st century and listening to the 500th argument about the relative merits of ebooks and print. Let it go.

Given the choice between the movie/TV tie-in cover and the real one, buy the real one. Have book pride.

Authors will keep writing, if you’ll just keep reading.

(This blog was inspired by this very gloomy article in The Guardian.)

Why Bad Books Get Published (or, Nobody knows anything)

So you decide to buy a book from a major publisher, one you’ve seen everywhere. There’s adverts, 3-for-2 promotions, a publicity blitz, it’s the Next Big Thing everyone’s talking about. And you pick it up. And it’s crap. Badly written, clunky rubbish, for which you just paid the best part of fifteen quid.

Why would they publish this book? Why would they do all this marketing for it? Why can I name half a dozen amazing self-published authors who can’t get a look-in, while the Big Six bring out dirges like this? Why???

Well, there are many reasons, and you can probably guess most of them (bandwagon-jumping; contract fulfilment; the simple fact that someone honestly thought it was good), but here’s a slightly less well-known phenomenon: The Boss Book.

Fifteen years or so ago, I worked at an independent general publisher. The founder/owner was highly educated, a very bright man. It was (and still is) a very successful firm. But every couple of months, this happened.

[Boss crashes into room, clutching sheaf of paper or self-published horror with garish cover. Heads rise and turn, like alarmed meerkats]

Boss: I’ve found this. It’s fantastic! Remarkable! We need to get it out now. Lisa, I want it scheduled for March –

Editorial Director Lisa: Excuse me? I’ve never even seen this. Can we please bring it to the editorial meeting so we can discuss –

Boss: I’ve already bought it. Contract signed. Three-book deal.

Editorial Director Lisa [goes purple]

Boss: Set up interviews. I want The Times. I want The Telegraph. I want The Daily Mail.

Publicity Colin: I want gin. Has anyone actually heard of this author? Is there anything worth publicizing about this? Why do you do this to me?

Boss: Bring me a marketing plan tomorrow.

[Boss leaves. Percussive thudding of heads on desks]

Two things about the Boss Books.

First: they were all bad. Whimsical nonsense, medically unsound alternative health books, tedious historicals. There was one fantasy novel so abysmal that I don’t think anyone made it to the end, and I include the editor and proofreader in that. Maybe the typesetter. Possibly even the author. For all I know, the last 100 pages were left blank. I don’t imagine anyone ever looked.

Second: Of every ten Boss Books, seven sank without trace. Two would sell 1500 copies. And one would go nuts. It would take off like a rocket, outsell the next four books on the list put together, and more than pay for the nine duds, because there was something about it that the market really wanted, which the boss saw and the rest of us didn’t. More fool us.

For every ten bricks the boss threw at us, one was made of gold. I’m sorry if you bought one of the other nine.

You may be thinking, ‘But that doesn’t happen now. Books have to go through gatekeepers and editorial meetings and all that publisher-value-added stuff, right? Publishers are much more professional now, right?’

Well, there is another Next Big Thing coming out shortly. Huge promo spend. It will be everywhere.

It’s rotten. Dull, clumpily written, unengaging. I struggled to finish the first chapter. I don’t know anyone who’s made it more than half way through. Nobody likes it. Its editor doesn’t like it. It’s bad.

This was a Boss Book – championed by an Incredibly Important Person. And yes, it went to an editorial meeting, but the IIP will have presented it as, ‘This is wonderful, I will not rest till we have published it, I absolutely insist we do this, it will be huge’, and I am quite sure that a lot of people sat there looking at their nails and thinking, ‘I can’t be the only one to say something. Nobody else is saying anything. Did they all like it?’

And maybe it will come out to a slew of 3*, 2*, 1* on Amazon, and the rest of the books on the contract will be shoved out in cheap editions, and the publisher will write off the advance and curse the IIP under their collective breath.

Or maybe it’s a gold brick. Maybe the hugely experienced IIP spotted something that a big chunk of the market will love, and it will be wildly popular and the publisher will make a fortune, while frustrated readers throw it across the room and unpublished authors seethe at the injustice of it all, and superb published authors fantasise about having ten per cent of that marketing spend, one per cent of its sales. Maybe the IIP is the only one marching in step. Maybe nobody knows anything.

All I know is, it’s a bad book.

Self-editing: Repetition, echoes, and saying the same thing over and over again

The first in an occasional series of self-editing blogs, in which I address common writing errors, and marvel that my fifteen years’ editing experience doesn’t stop me making them.

Today, repetition, which comes in three main forms.

Word repetition

‘Turn round.’ John looked round, and saw the round muzzle of a gun pointed at his face. He sagged, realizing they had been roundly defeated.  His enemy smiled. ‘Round them up!’

It’s appallingly easy to do. I fix this for authors on a daily basis, but I still turned in The Magpie Lord to Samhain with so many unconscious repetitions I was hiding behind the sofa with embarrassment when I got my edits back.

Read the MS aloud to catch these, or if you are in public or find yourself totally word-blind, run your MS though a piece of software such as this free one. I wouldn’t ever use an automated grammar check function, but as a basic highlighting tool to flag duplicate words, this can be very helpful.

NB: Don’t go mad with a thesaurus to change every instance. The above paragraph would not be improved by replacing instances of ‘round’ with ‘circular’, ‘rotate’ or ‘pirouette’.

Concept repetition, micro level

Peter and John are alone in a room.

‘You want me to carry this thing, Peter?’ John asked, prodding the gun with a finger as if it might explode. ‘I don’t like guns.’

Just consider how much of that is repeated concepts.

‘You want me to carry this thing [if you must have a noun here, use one that isn’t null]

, Peter?’ [they are alone in the room, John knows who he’s talking to]

John asked, [there’s a question mark right there to tell us he’s asking]

prodding at the gun with a finger. [what else would he prod it with?]

‘I don’t like guns.’ [A restatement that adds nothing and gives no flavour of his character. Useless. Plus repetition of the word ‘gun’]

And without repetition:

‘You want me to carry this?’ John prodded the gun as if it might explode. ‘I’d rather leave violence to the experts.’

Repetition of meaning can be tricky to spot. Read slowly, and look hard at passages where your attention starts to skip or you feel the text drag: you’ll probably find concept repetition lurking within. And trim your speech tags as much as possible. See here for how much I hate speech tags (a lot).

Content repetition, macro level

A real example from my soldier/spy romance, which I’m currently editing.

Curtis and da Silva are trapped in a country house. They have discovered that their host is a ruthless villain; if the host learns his secret is out, our heroes are for the chop. That’s crucial for the plot. So crucial, in fact, that I seem to have written three separate conversations where da Silva makes this very point to Curtis – or, rather, where I make it to the reader. Yes, it is dangerous! Lots of danger! Be very afraid!

What’s actually going on here is that I haven’t set up the threat properly in the first place. There are two key plot elements coexisting in the first scene where our heroes are faced with the threat, and I concentrated on the other one, at the expense of the sense of danger. Because the threat only comes across as a secondary element of the scene, it isn’t sufficiently convincing. I wasn’t consciously aware of this as I wrote the first draft, but my lizard brain seems to have tried to patch that hole by demanding extra passages to assure the reader that the danger is real.

Nice try, lizard brain. Unfortunately, repeatedly telling your readers something is not the same as convincing them it’s true. If you find yourself making the same point over and over, you’re probably compensating for something that isn’t working. Go back to the scene that should have established it in the first place, and make it happen there.

Go on a repetition hunt. It’ll do terrible things to your word count, but such glorious things to your text.

50 Ways to Leave your Library: Guilt-Free Book Dumping

A staggering number of people say they can’t dump books. ‘Once I’ve started, I have to finish, even if I hate it.’ Whether it’s out of bloody-mindedness, self-doubt (‘everyone else thinks it’s good…), a vague sense of obligation to the writer, or even misplaced politeness of the kind that makes British people say ‘Sorry!’ when we bump into lampposts, people all over the world are locked into bitter unrewarding loveless relationships with books they don’t want to be reading.

Well, if you are one of those disturbingly conscientious readers, fear not: here is a handy cut-out-and-keep guide to book dumping. (Probably best to print it first).

Does the narrative viewpoint character look into a mirror for the sole purpose of providing the reader with a physical description?

Put the book down and give it to a charity shop when you’re next passing.

Does the female narrative viewpoint character look into a mirror for the sole purpose of providing the reader with a physical description, and then tell us how insecure she feels about her unattractive perfect teeth, blonde curls, cute nose and gigantic breasts?

Put the book down and make a special trip to the charity shop right now.

Does the book contain scenes of sickening violence, misogyny, rape, homophobia etc?

The author chose to include those. If you don’t think his reasons for doing so were good enough, feel free to ditch the book without feeling wimpish.  (Read this excellent article on the rape of James Bond and realism in popular culture for more on this.)

Is a titled character such as Sir Richard Burton referred to as Sir Burton at any point?

Stop reading the book, tie it to a brick, and return it to the publisher via their window. There’s no excuse.

Is the book like this:

A young woman’s slow mental breakdown leads to her being subjected to forced shock therapy. She contemplates suicide and accustoms herself to a life constantly plagued by crippling depression.

But the cover’s like this?

 Image

That’s more poorly judged than deceptive, but there’s a lot of it about. I could name you two cases of psychological horror novels that were deliberately packaged as light comedy because the author’s previous, successful book was light comedy. Don’t blame the author (unless self pubbed), they are probably lying awake screaming. But don’t feel compelled to finish the book either.

Is it a mystery novel and you kind of want to know whodunnit?

The last chapter is right over there. Move your thumb, bit more – there you go. Oh,hey, turns out it was the uncle after all. Aren’t you glad you didn’t wait to find out?

Is it full of errors?

It may not be in the powers of the author to write, plot or characterize well. It is one hundred per cent within the powers of the author/publisher to have the text edited for spelling, grammar and punctuation. If they can’t be bothered to do that, you need not bother to read the work. This applies to self-published books as much as any. Yes, including free ones.

Did it win prizes, and you feel dumb because it’s doing nothing for you?

A.L. Kennedy was a Booker Prize judge in 1996, and called the Booker “a pile of crooked nonsense” with the winner determined by “who knows who, who’s sleeping with who, who’s selling drugs to who, who’s married to who, whose turn it is”. All of which sounds like a terrific reason to get on the prize judging committee, but not to feel compelled to finish a book. Remember, Vernon God Little won the Booker, and it’s more toxic than sarin gas. Dump! Dump!

Has everyone else in the known world read this book?

It’s 50 Shades of Grey. Feel free to kill it with an axe.

There you go. Walk away from the cycle of literary abuse. Find a new book that will treat you as you deserve. Be free.

Where [oh God please please don’t say it] do you get your ideas? An unexpected inspiration

Gabriel García Márquez was driving his family on holiday when a childhood memory of touching ice came into his head in the form of the first line of what would become One Hundred Years of Solitude. Apparently he slammed on the brakes, turned the car around, jettisoned the family holiday, and returned home to write. I somehow doubt his Nobel Prize for Literature is on the shelf next to a Father of the Year award.

When C. S. Lewis was sixteen, he had a daydream of a faun carrying an umbrella and a bundle of parcels through snowy woods. With somewhat less urgency than Marquez, he got around to writing a novel around that two decades later, adding a lion, a witch and a wardrobe.

Stephen King got Misery from a dream. Arthur Conan Doyle got Sherlock Holmes from his tutor at medical school. Chuck Wendig claims to get his ideas either from shady men in trenchcoats or from you while you’re sleeping.

Mostly, let’s face it, there isn’t an amusing story. You think of a thing and there’s another thing that kind of goes with the first thing, and a what-if, and a where, and then you wonder what kind of idiot would get into that situation, and then you have the outlines of a plot. You didn’t get the idea, it just grew in your head, like blue woolly stuff on forgotten cheese.

All that said…

My four year old likes to play with fridge magnets and present the results.

‘Mummy, how do you say that?’

‘Kgeuntbd.’

‘What does it mean?’

‘Nothing, sweetie.’

‘WELL WHY IS IT WRITTEN, THEN?’

The other day he called me over to display the word ‘feximal’. Well, if ‘feximal’ doesn’t mean something, it should. Is it a superlative like ‘optimal’, and in that case, what would be a feximal outcome? Is it a classification of nature – animal, vegetable, feximal?

Or is it a name? And if it is a name, whose name is it? What kind of person has a name like that? And what first name could possibly go with it?

Well, I can now tell you. Simon Feximal is a Victorian ghost-hunter, in the mould of Thomas Carnacki and Dr Silence. He has a complicated private life, and a set of living occult tattoos constantly rewriting themselves on his body, and his first story has just been submitted to a publisher.

So that’s where I get my ideas, apparently. Kiddy fridge magnets. How about you?

Book Shaming: ‘You Don’t Read *That*, Do You?’

A: Hey, what are you reading?

B:  It’s called The Screaming Girls and it’s a thriller about a serial killer who horribly tortures pregnant women to death and then nails their uteruses to the wall. He’s called The Virginia Woolf Killer because he’s creating a womb of his own. I’m really enjoying it. What about you?

A: It’s about two people who fall in love.

B: God, I don’t know how you can read that stuff.

Or, as George Moore said, “I wonder why murder is considered less immoral than fornication in literature.” That was in 1888 and nothing’s changed.

The world is full of people ready to tell you what you should be reading. You should be reading plotless lapidary prose about the slow decline of an aristocratic family in pre-war Hungary. You should be reading books written 150 years ago, at least. You should be reading the genre I like, the ones with the good covers. Scandinavian crime in translation, not cosy mysteries. Thrillers > sci fi > fantasy > romance > erotica. You certainly shouldn’t be reading books for children. Reading the wrong books is just wasting your time. God, you don’t read that, do you? I thought you had to be an idiot/pervert/nerd/pretentious jerk to read that stuff. You actually like that? What’s wrong with you?

And it’s worse as a writer, a thousand times worse, because now it’s not just your interests being attacked but your abilities and imagination. Especially if you write either romance or children’s, both of which are frequently regarded with a sneer. (Hmm, which gender is heavily associated with those two genres of writing? Oh, what a coincidence.)  When are you going to write a proper book? Don’t you want to write something more challenging? Aren’t you good enough?

The excellent children’s writer Jenny Alexander blogged about being made to feel lesser in ‘Are you a Proper Author?’

The group was made up of successful authors from every area of writing – medical books, Black Lace, children’s fiction, ELT, poetry… Without exception – well, except me; I wanted to have a go at poetry – they all harboured a secret ambition to write a literary novel. They said they wouldn’t feel like a proper writer unless they could achieve it.

Well, I’m an experienced editor, published author and holder of a degree in English Literature. I’m entitled to judge ‘proper writing’. And to anyone who tells me what to write or read, I am now summoning up all my well-honed literary powers to say: Get stuffed.

I write romance, fantasy, thrillers, blogs, sticker storybooks. I do all of those things to the best of my ability. If I feel the urge to write a villanelle, literary novel about the futility of existence in fin de siècle Paris, history of the Victorian transport network or YA zombie apocalypse space opera, I will do that to the best of my ability too. I will keep writing, and I will try to keep getting better at it, and if you want more than that from me, then get in the goddamn queue, because I’m busy.

I’m not talking about being undiscriminating. There are plenty of books I think badly written, plotted or edited, or all three; lots of genres I don’t care for; lots of subjects I find repellent. I don’t have to read them; I don’t have to be nice about them. But nor do I get to say that you’re wrong, stupid or lesser if you love a book I loathe, or read a genre that strikes me as absurd. All I can say is, you saw something good where I didn’t. It’s even possible that if I ask you what you saw, I might learn something.

Matt Haig’s tremendous piece on book snobs deserves a complete read but I’m just going to quote my favourite bit here:

The greatest stories appeal to our deepest selves, the parts of us snobbery can’t reach, the parts that connect the child to the adult and the brain to the heart and reality to dreams. Stories, at their essence, are enemies of snobbery. And a book snob is the enemy of the book.

Read the books you love, love the books you read. If you write, then write the best book you can, about whatever you want. Do what you want, as long as you put your heart into it. And don’t presume to tell anyone else what they ought to be reading or writing. That’s their heart.

Writing the Synopsis: giving the editor what she wants

I hate writing synopses. I feel embarrassed looking at my plot and characters reduced to a few paragraphs. The whole thing looks stupid and childish. Why would anyone read this dumb crap anyway?

Moreover, I have never met an author who likes writing synopses. Virtually every one I get is prefaced with ‘I’m rubbish at writing these’, and usually the author is correct.

And yet, we all have to write them, so suck it up.

But KJ, why do I have to?

Because you need to convey to your editor if it’s worth her while reading your submission. That includes telling her how the story develops, right to the end. Synopses that end: ‘But can Boris persuade Florence of the truth?’ or ‘…Will they survive?’ or, most loathsome of all, ‘If you want to know the answer, you’ll have to read the book!’ are a waste of the editor’s time.

But doesn’t that spoil the book for her?

No. It may well be relevant to her decision whether to read the damn thing at all. If your novel ends with the hero going back to his wife, leaving the heroine devastated, it may be a very good book, but it won’t work for Harlequin Romance. If it ends with a cliffhanger, and we need to read Book 2 to find out if the hero survives, and if the editor is not empowered/inclined to commit to two books, there’s no point her looking at book 1. Ditto if your book depends on the entire middle section being conveyed through the medium of an embedded interpretative dance video. The editor would like to know this sort of thing before she embarks on reading it, and she won’t thank you for the surprise.

Alright! Fine! I’ll write a full synopsis. So how do I do this, then?

There’s no one size fits all, but here are some guidelines that work for me, and (the things I do for you) some examples from the synopsis for my first book.

The Set-Up

Summarize the necessary information at the start of your synopsis, to make your plot clearer and to ensure that, if the editor doesn’t like that kind of thing, she can hand it to someone who might.  If there’s a complex setting, eg a fantasy world, kick off with that before you get into the story. Do not try to weave in the information in the same order as it appears in the book, or to include all the main characters and every plot development. This is a synopsis, not a very heavily edited MS.

My synopsis for The Magpie Lord began:

A fantasy / M/M romance set in a late Victorian England where magic exists.

It gets you started nicely to say who the book is about:

Lucien Vaudrey, the younger son of the seventh Earl Crane, was exiled to China by his father aged 17. He built a new life as a smuggler and trader with the aid of his manservant/valet/henchman Merrick. Now the suicides of his father and his elder brother have made Lucien the new Lord Crane, and he is forced to return to England and to Piper, his decaying family home.

Why has he had to come back to England? It doesn’t matter from a synopsis point of view (it’s not directly relevant to the main thrust of the plot), so I’m not saying, but I’ve included ‘forced’ so it’s clear he’s in a difficult situation. His family is relevant to the main plot development, and Piper is where the action happens, so they need to be in here. Merrick is a major supporting character, but in fact I should have left him out – he’s vital to the book, but not to the synopsis. Wasted words.

Tip: If you’re not completely sure if your details are relevant, stick them in and then, if they don’t recur in the completed synopsis, take them out again.

Now the basic set up that introduces the other hero:

As the story opens, Crane is suffering attacks of what seems to be suicidal mania. He seeks magical assistance. Stephen Day arrives to help.

And who is he when he’s at home?

Stephen’s family were destroyed by Crane’s father and brother. He loathes the Vaudrey family. But he is a justiciar, enforcing the law of the magical community, and duty demands that he help Crane now.

This paragraph jams in all the backstory we need about a major source of conflict in the central relationship, and tells us about Stephen’s (relevant) job too. It’s an info dump but that’s fine: that’s what a synopsis is.

At this point I went into the plot (which I won’t copy here – if you want to know what happens, you’ll have to read the book! Oooh, that felt good.) But it was a lot easier to summarise the plot once I didn’t have to keep breaking off to explain stuff, plus I’d ensured the editor knew from the first lines whether it was something she might want to read.

The Main Plot

Conveying the set-up is generally more important than giving the plot itself. Once you’ve established your main characters, situation and their problems, you almost certainly don’t need to do more than say ‘and then stuff happens.’

A lengthy chase around Europe’s art capitals ensues, as Uncharacterised Man and Token Woman seek the clues they need, hampered at every turn by an offensive albino and a poorly concealed villain.

Only really massive plot twists need to be included, not a blow-by-blow account.

Tip: If it’s a ‘romance with other’ (ie romantic fantasy, romantic suspense) don’t forget to indicate the progress of the relationship along with the progress of the other plot. It’s easy to summarise why the hero is fleeing the mafia and what steps the heroine takes to protect him, but if you’re writing a romance, your editor needs an idea of the conflict between the main characters, how their relationship goes up and down, and how issues are resolved. (If there is no conflict or up-and-down in your central relationship, you’ve done something wrong.)

 

So, to synopsise: Introduce your setting, introduce your characters, show us your central conflicts and plot drivers, and don’t forget the ending. Lengthwise, follow guidelines, but if there aren’t any: one side of A4, single spaced.  And don’t worry if it makes you cringe. We’re all in the same boat there.

Go on, tell me how you write them…