[Douglas Burcham continues his series of articles on writing and reading for pleasure.]
First, an apology!
My third post for August was going to be a first instalment of How to Write Fiction to follow my June post – Why Write > Make a start and July – What to write > What you enjoy writing and reading about.
Instead this month of August – Reading for Pleasure
– instalment one and guess what – all because of Robert Galbraith or as we now know him to be Joanne “Jo” Rowling, OBE FRSL—J K Rowling. During the last three months reading for pleasure has been more prominent in my life than writing for pleasure because I have been doing the less pleasurable but necessary elements of writing craft in self editing and restructuring of existing draft words rather than much new writing. This post reinforces what I discussed in Part Two
but from a reader’s perspective.
2.0 Robert Galbraith and why on Earth should I enjoy his writing?
J K Rowling’s Harry Potter is not my genre although I might have another go because I have not tried reading these again since I started writing in 2010. Her book The Casual Vacancy I found an awful book apart from the clever marketing, stand out, red yellow and black, in your face, cover of the hardback version. I started a library loan of a large print version of Cuckoo’s Calling and found immediate enjoyment. Two free chapters of The Silkworm on Kindle did not spark, but a £10 discounted hard copy of the whole book from Tesco purchased with my milk, salad items, baked beans and wine has proved a great enjoyable read, and for me, the best fiction read so far this year. I cannot put my finger on exactly why this delightful experience—when I have bubbled over with joy and enthusiasm—has occurred, but the following are factors.
In my opinion, as a figures mechanic, the book seemed well written in terms of flow, characters, scenes and overall plot. Given the range of Amazon reviews (as detailed later); this view is not shared by a significant number of readers including those who either stopped reading or did not review. A material amount of displeasure is evident.
I guess a combination of unique personal feelings and emotions in my brain cells are responsible which mark my preferences and recipes for pleasure and enjoyment out from everyone else. Perhaps I need to be connected up to a scanning machine to analyse my thought process when reading.
Maybe my enjoyment of The Silkworm also runs back to my teenage years reading Sherlock Holmes and Watson. The simple formula of a wronged client, a whodunnit plot and sleuthing, must be something which triggers my enjoyment brain cells.
Like Holmes and Watson, Strike and Robin their 21st century contemporaries—also have an interesting relationship with many uncertainties and tensions and have much to offer in further instalments.
In The Silkworm I find myself not particularly concerned about the plots and complications of the whodunnit, too many characters, nor the ending with its revelations and unwinding of a complex relationship. The enjoyment part of the book to me a … R L Stevenson’s … travel hopefully is a better thing to arrive … experience.
I particularly liked the technical background of writing and publishing and the setting in London, my home city of long ago. Also some individual scenes were brilliantly described. Although I derived much pleasure from reading the flip side is depression on my writing activity as I realise how much more work I need to put into my own writing to produce outputs I am happy with, even if they just stay on my own bookshelf.
In bed this morning, on the last day of July, I was thinking about how to finish this post, and it occurred to me that another reason why I enjoyed The Silkworm
was maybe to do with some similarities to the Cross Family Saga, the dragoness I have been struggling to write since 2010. My main character Henry, who is also unwell, and his relationships with his cousin Henrietta who writes with him in their world of time travel and fantasy have similarities to Strike and Robin. Yet again Stephen King
’s advice about writing and reading going together—perhaps like a horse and carriage—is so germane.
In The Silkworm, Rowling makes an observation about there being too many writers and not enough readers in the publishing world.
I appear not to be alone in my positive view of Silkworm
as this post
turned up just when I finished reading the book.
Good writers never stop learning their craft, and the best teachers are other writers.~ Barbara Rogan
My most recent lesson came from J. K. Rowling, a.k.a. Robert Galbraith.
Very few books in a lifetime of reading have delighted me as much as the Harry Potter series, so naturally I was eager to read the adult novels that followed them. The Casual Vacancy was a disappointment, lacking even the ordinary magic of storytelling. But the two books that followed, The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm, published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, showed Rowling back on track. They are wonderfully absorbing novels, hard to put down once begun. Of course, writers can’t simply enjoy stories without poking and prodding the mechanism, trying to see how the thing works. I recognized some of the standard ingredients of good fiction: tangible settings, the skillful use of suspense, colorful secondary characters, and two exceptionally likable main characters in private detective Cormoran Strike and his assistant, Robin.
As I read The Silkworm, it struck me that Strike and Harry Potter actually have a lot in common. They are both orphans, in Strike’s case functionally rather than formally, since he has a living but estranged father …
… Mark Twain once said that his way of telling a story is to chase his protagonist up a tree and throw rocks at him. The harder we make life for our protagonists, the greater the obstacles they have to overcome, the more readers will care. One of the problems I see in a lot of student fiction (and occasionally in my own) is that writers feel too much for their protagonists and thus take pity on them. But writing requires a certain level of ruthlessness. Sometimes, to be kind to our readers, we must be cruel to our characters.
So watch out Henry and Henrietta!
4.0 Likes and Dislikes
Of course the likely reason there are so many different fiction books out in the market place is the wide taste of readers. This is supported by later comments and my own experience of many friends who I pass books to having enjoyed them, returning them with adverse comments. (e.g. English Patient and The Good Soldier.)
Looking at the Amazon reviews for some popular fiction I have read recently shows the following.
I have a feeling all these reviews are biased towards the higher star ratings and fail to reflect those readers who stop reading or are unwilling to give a poor review. I notice I get far fewer “review helpful” comments on my four and five star ratings than my one to three star ratings as if my reviews are being deliberately challenged by publishers and writers; I wonder. I have examined the Amazon comments for the four books above and tabulated them for your amusement. I wonder sometimes if have read another version of the book given the disparity of views. I note on Gone Girl in USA, some 21,000 reviews with a similar profile.
4.1 Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
I purchased the book for £2.99 as a special discounted deal in a national newspaper. It lay unread for several months but found its way into my bags when I went to France in June. Some readers have page boundaries when they make decisions whether they read further or not. I pause at 50 and 100 pages. I was about to put the book down when at page 98 the story took off. My overall view was the book would not encourage any man to marry! I am glad I persevered and finished the book. A selection of Amazon review comment headlines for one and five star rating comments are as follows.
There appear to be parallels to traditional publishing agent’s rejection comments!
4.2 Life after Life – Kate Atkinson
I purchased the book for £2.99 as another special discounted deal in a national newspaper. I started reading immediately and really had to finish the book given the huge “what happened then” hook written in the first few pages. Life after Life proved a huge boost of encouragement to my own writing as my stories lurch around into different time periods and are deliberately framed around ocean sailing where one is tossed around or becalmed almost at a moments notice.
The marketing strap line is also good.
“What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?”
Boring, repetitive, muddled, tedious, confusing – (If I published, a certain comment on my writing I am sure!)
Back cover comments are positive—and less liable than many to trade description violations.
4.3 The Casual Vacancy – J K Rowling
I saw the cover and borrowed the book from my local library. As I had read 180 pages of Fifty Shades before giving up I thought I really ought to read at least as many pages of Casual Vacancy given Rowling’s great contribution to the future of the book trade by introducing children to reading through Harry Potter. I thought E L James, for every copy bought another more worthy book may not have been purchased. I did not get past 100 pages.
4.4 The Silkworm – Robert Galbraith
Details in 2.0 above.
There is certainly none of my pleasure at reading the book from those readers making the 1-star comments.
A quick glance at Goodreads shows similar comments and generally more 4 star than 5 star reviews. I have often wondered about a correlation between review numbers and total sales.
As I have stated before in Part Two
(July post), I have found it easy to take Stephen King’s good advice to read widely and have developed six “E” tests for reading books and writing book reviews.
Engrossing and interesting—being hooked in.
Enjoyment —warm feelings about a particular book.
Entertainment —the chuckle and laughter factor.
Emotional —one’s feelings and personal intimate memories.
Educational —learning about a subject for the first time or in more detail. The technical background in my own writing.
Ease of reading —I read fiction for pleasure so books with poor pace, dull stories or poor structure are often discarded
I have applied these tests to the four books above.
6.0 Last words
Looking back over my list of lifetime good reads, they all contain a memorable moment or scene; despite in many cases me having forgotten much of the rest of the book. However, I have had no hesitation in reading them again every ten years or so and in having them on my book shelf. Since 2010, I have drawn inspiration from these books for my own writing.
Thanks to reviewer R J L Snow (who unlike me liked The Casual Vacancy and disliked Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth) for his comment on another best selling book I recently gave up on at page 33 out of 419.
I struggled about a quarter of the way through this book before my Kindle randomly broke – (the screen went.) Anyway, it saved me having to wade any further through this tedious novel. I did a quick look at the Wikipedia entry and apparently it’s just a shaggy dog story with no particular plot or end point anyway so glad I didn’t waste any more time. I know this has won much acclaim so I am clearly in the wrong in my opinion but it just did not make me want to read any further.~ R J L Snow (Review)
So my sign off comment to this post – Reading One
– Write what you enjoy writing as there are so many tastes amongst readers one is bound to find someone who likes what you write
. Contrary to R J L Snow’s comment in his last sentence, there is no right or wrong, as reader’s tastes are so delightfully varied, unpredictable and unscientific. Support to these comments
by Aytekin as will be included in Part Two next month.
Once more good writing and reading to you all … everywhere!
Douglas Burcham started writing on 1st June 2010 and has not stopped since. He was saved from the clutches of vanity publishing by Mick Rooney in TIPM in July 2010. In May 2013 his characters took all his fiction writing and set themselves up as the Allrighters with other writing friends. They self published a book of short stories “Ywnwab!” in September 2013. In their latest Plan, by working in 18,000 word bites, Douglas with the Allrighters are now trying to convert a million words of draft writing into several books totalling 900,000 words of fiction and 100,000 words of non-fiction. The latter being about writing and memories of buildings, trains, boats and planes.
Mick Rooney – Publishing Consultant
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