We’ve all done it — bought a book based on a good review, passed over another because of a bad review. But why do reviews affect us? And how do they do it?
Once upon a time, only professional reviewers wrote book reviews. The greater the number of publishing credits and letters after your name, the greater your chances of being taken seriously. Of course, it doesn’t take a degree to work out if you like a book (though in the case of Edward Bloor’s Storytime, you might need an MFA to work out why). And a good review is still a good review—whether it’s over at your friend’s blog, or in the Books section of The New York Times.Read More
Every day, we put words on a page. Some of us use pen or pencil. Some of us tap away at keyboards. Most of us do both, handwriting grocery lists, personal notes, even plot outlines, later typing emails, memos, and whole scenes. Some folks lean more toward the paper route, while others tap away on smart phone keyboards instead of grabbing the nearest pencil stub. Either way, we’re inputting words and data, right? Maybe.
Some time ago, I was at a Neal Stephenson talk hosted by the Harvard Bookstore (and held in the First Parish Church in Cambridge, a strangely appropriate venue given he was signing Anathem. During the question session, someone asked Stephenson–a science fiction writer and well-known tech aficionado–
“If you could only teach your kids one or the other, which would you teach? Handwriting or typing?”
Stephenson’s answer was fairly hedged, as if he wanted to say “just typing” but couldn’t bring himself to dismiss handwriting as a fast-disappearing, unnecessary skill. In the end, though, he settled on handwriting because you can always write with a pencil, or a stick, and pay someone else to type it up. And Stephenson has written several of his works the long way–
“The manuscript of The Baroque Cycle was written by hand on 100% cotton paper using three different fountain pens: a Waterman Gentleman, a Rotring, and a Jorg Hysek.”
Back in April (why does that seem so long ago?) I saw Cory Doctorow, another SF (well, sort of) writer with tech roots, and founder of Boing Boing at the Harvard Coop. Giving props to the anonymous guy I’d seen at the Neal Stephenson do, I asked Doctorow the same thing. His reply? “I only have one kid, and I’d teach her to type. Definitely type.” Why? Because his handwriting is so poor! When Doctorow signs copies of his books, he scrawls “Stay Free” beneath the reader’s name. But Doctorow’s “Stay Free” looks a lot more like “stay frog” or “stay froo” (I’ll add a picture from my copy when I get back from sunny-yet-surprisingly-cold Tucson). Doctorow also types pretty much everything.
But not all SF writers and tech-loving folk are so type-set. Neil Gaiman starts out scribbling almost everything by hand then typing it up later. While this may seem old-school, Gaiman is certainly not resistant to technology–he’s an active blogger and tweeter who just happens to be in love with well-made pens and papers.
J.K Rowling, on the other hand, writes almost exclusively by hand, and even sold her original handwritten copy of The Tales of Beedle the Bard to raise money for charity. Rowling, however, is very anti-tech, and determined that none of
her books will ever appear in e-book form.
Kristin Cashore, author of Graceling, Fire, and the upcoming Bitterblue, takes the longhand process a step further–or further back–creating detailed handwritten story journals before setting out on a first draft. Drafts are then written longhand and slowly dictated into her mac every few days, “because I’m afraid the house will burn down and I’ll lose everything.” Cashore even has a fireproof and waterproof safe for protecting her work.
And me? I type most of the time, though I find putting pen to paper gets me through the rough patches, and helps me keep track of random bits of dialogue. But for me, handwriting is also hand-drawing–most of my notebooks are filled with doodles and sometimes relevant scribbles that wind around the text. The scribbles eventually grow into coherent words, though sometimes not until I’ve storyboarded or sketched out a whole scene, complete with stick figure characters and room detail. Why? Drawing–albeit poor drawing–is my way of articulating ideas I can’t quite get my head around on the first go.
Do you type or handwrite? What do you like about your way?
Later this week–pros and cons for handwriting and typing, and why they’re important.
Young adult fiction is full of phonies. It’s not surprising–after all, the majority of YA is written by authors in their twenties, at the least. And teen vernacular is always changing. Words that were popular a few years ago (“wicked” comes to mind) are dated now, pushed aside as a new crop of words creeps in. But forced coolness and past-their-teen authors are just the tip of the phony iceberg. The true issue, lurking like only a giant, submerged slab of ice can, is style.
In terms of writing (in terms of anything, really), style is hard to explain. Everyone has a writing style, because it’s not so much about what we write as how we write it, a mingling of word choice, personal voice, experience, and grammar. Even things as basic as using/avoiding cliches and writing in first, second, or third person are a matter of style. Sometimes, shared experiences (such as an MFA program or time spent on the road as a dalek hunter) lead writers to develop similar styles, though no two people write, without intention, the same way.
What’s this got to do with phoniness? Everything. Writing, more than pretty much any other discipline, has a lot of “unbreakable” rules–rules we learn almost as early as we learn to write. Here are a few I’ve collected from English teachers over the years:
- don’t start a sentence with a conjuction (and, but, because, etc.)
- don’t use a conjunction with a comma
- always start sentences with a capital letter
- always put the comma inside the quotation marks (this is an American one I still can’t quite get me head around)
- always complete sentences; don’t use fragments
- don’t use “I” or personal style in essays and other formal writing
So far, I’ve broken all but “start sentences with a capital letter”. Does this mean I’m illiterate? A poor writer? Will you stop reading this post because I’m a rule-breaker of the worst kind?
Probably not, because the way I’m writing isn’t unusual–it’s familiar.
YA: when to use familiar style, when to skip it
YA readers aren’t stupid. Using big words won’t stop them from understanding your book. But it probably will keep them from reading it.
Why? Big words are phony. When was the last time you heard a teen talk about a soporific sussurus or a grove of arboreal trees? Formal writing has its place–journal papers and Proust and politics are full of it. It’s even well-used in some literary fiction (thank you, Annie Proulx). But formal language does not a good YA make.
Like anything, it’s possible to take familiar style too far–a problem in a lot of YA, published and unpublished alike. Cliches might make it easier to get a certain point across, but they’re cliches, aka the lazy writer’s shortcut. YA is about originality, discovery, and individualism (to name just a few). It’s about saying something in a new way, a way that speaks to your reader, makes them think about an idea from a different perspective. Unless you’re a secret Nigerian scammer, you can’t say anything new with a cliche, which is boring, and boring is what lands books in that magical circular filing bin in the sky.
Addressing the reader is another YA familiar style no-no. But wait–aren’t I doing that right now? Yes. But I’m writing a non-fiction blog post/essay/ramble, which doesn’t require you to suspend disbelief. Any time a narrator says “you know”, “you’ll see”, or some other variation on the you-theme, it pulls readers out of the story because you’re reminding them that narrator is a fictional construct.
Using dialogue tags other than “said” or “asked”, writing in dialect, using easily-dated words (groovy, rad)–there are many, many ways to abuse familiar style. If there are so many ways to screw it up, why use it in the first place?
Because it works.
Familiar Style: what, when, and where
Familiar style is exactly what it sounds like: a way of writing that’s easy to read and easy to understand because it uses common language and expressions. As far as anyone can guess, familiar style was first used sometime around the 16th century–Shakespeare was an early adopter, as was Montaigne. Today, it’s a fairly common way of writing, and part of what makes blogs such popular reading.
The problem with familiar style, though, is that it’s too darned well familiar. Writers (and teachers) love big words (onychogryphosis, a nail condition, was my favorite big word from ages 8-12). We like to sound smart; we love it when someone compliments us on a nice turn of phrase. And writing in a familiar style isn’t easy. The simplest way to get inside a reader’s head is to talk the way they do–except that writing the way we talk is messy, and usually full of “um”s. Familiar style usually ends up falling somewhere in between, using a cliche, then building on it, much like my iceberg line above (and yes, I did put that in just so I could reference it).
Nineteenth century essayist and critic William Hazlitt was a big proponent supporter of familiar style, writing:
I hate anything that occupies more space than it is worth. I hate to see a load of band-boxes go along the street, and I hate to see a parcel of big words without anything in them. A person who does not deliberately dispose of all his thoughts alike in cumbrous draperies and flimsy disguises, may strike out twenty varieties of familiar every-day language, each coming somewhat nearer to the feeling he wants to convey, and at last not hit upon that particular and only one which may be said to be identical with the exact impression in his mind. . . .
Familiar style is most used in general audience writing–advertisers, journalists (newspaper and magazine), and bloggers use it. Some book reviewers (the Boston Globe’s George Scialabba in particular) also use familiar style, though it’s still not common in print reviews (the last bastion of the would-be literary academic set).
Sound Smart? Or be Smart?
In 2006, an igNobel prize was awared to Daniel M. Oppenheimer, an associate professor of Psychology at Princeton, for his paper Consequences of erudite vernacular utilized irrespective of necessity: problems with using long words needlessly. Here’s a section of the abstract:
Most texts on writing style encourage authors to avoid overly-complex words. However, a majority of undergraduates admit to deliberately increasing the complexity of their vocabulary so as to give the impression of intelligence. This paper explores the extent to which this strategy is effective…When obvious causes for low fluency exist that are not relevant to the judgement at hand, people reduce their reliance on fluency as a cue; in fact, in an effort not to be influenced by the irrelevant source of fluency, they over-compensate and are biased in the opposite direction. Implications and applications are discussed.
Oppenheimer’s research was specific to non-fiction writing, such as journal papers and textbooks. But the idea that smart people use big words is a pretty common one–and with good reason. A lot of popular literary authors use big words (Margaret Atwood and Cormac McCarthy come to mind.) And while big words do make us sound smart, clear simple language makes us sound smarter.
A few years ago, I actually put down a novel because the author wrote about “the soft, soporific sussurus that whispered through the grove of arboreal trees”. I’m a patient reader, and I know what every word in that sentence means. The author didn’t. “Sussuruss” is fancy Latin way of saying “whisper”; “arboreal” means living in trees, and while there are a few trees, like strangler figs, that actually do live inside other trees, it’s a stretch to imagine a whole grove of the darned things. Why write a sentence with words you don’t fully understand? As far as I can tell, said author (and I really can’t remember who/which book it was) wanted to create a sleepy atmosphere, so they used soft “sh”-like sounds for effect. Rewriting the line in simpler language would probably kill the author’s lovingly crafted literary atmosphere–but it would also make more sense. And sense is good.
Do you write in a familiar style? Do you prefer familiar or formal books? Did you keep track of my over-the-top cliche use in this post?
Once upon a time, only professional reviewers wrote . The greater the number of publishing credits and letters after your name, the greater your chances of being taken seriously. Of course, it doesn’t take a degree to work out if you like a book (though in the case of Edward Bloor’s Storytime, you might need an MFA to work out why). And a good review is still a good review–whether it’s over at your friend’s blog, or in the Books section of The New York Times.
Some time ago, I wrote about the internet killing professional book reviews, ending with my hope that pro reviews stick around. In my book, the difference between a pro reviewer and a casual reviewer (“amateur” is unfair–how can you be an amateur at deciding if you like/love/hate a book?) is the amount of time spent thinking about the volume in question. Casual reviewers read a book, write up a hundred words in the space of half an hour, and move on. Pro reviewers make notes, flag pages, talk to authors, find connections, and consider the bigger picture (how the book fits into a certain genre, if it makes any particular leaps or bounds &c, &c). Both kinds of review are valuable–few people have time to read a pro review every time they’re on the lookout for something new to read, and short, casual reviews are handy for readers trying to avoid spoilers.
But how does a book review work? What is it that makes a book review useful? Why care what reviewers think? Who cares what reviewers think?
Getting Inside the Reader’s Head
Much like a good story, reviews need a strong hook, clear voice, pacing, and balance. Longer reviews often achieve this by tying the narrative to a personal story, giving the reader something to hold onto. Although this may seem slightly narcissistic (there’s something slightly narcissistic about all writing, I suppose), it’s actually a very useful way for the reviewer to get inside the reader’s head. Let’s say I’m writing a review about one of Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic books. Since they’re an old-world fantasy setting with herb lore, metal-working etc., I might include a snippet about my experience with botany and herbalism:
Back when I was studying botany at university, I took a particular interest in medicinal herbs. Most of my professors looked down on herbalism, and, by extension, herbalists–genetic engineering and the Flavr Savr tomato were the order of the day. Years later, when I befriended herbalists of both the crunchy and non-crunchy variety, my professors’ reluctance to talk about herbs beyond photosynthesis and the CAM cycle became clear. But Pierce’s treatment of herbalism should irritate few–her descriptions are akin to science, her characters carefully harvesting, testing, journaling, and distilling in a manner familiar to anyone who’s ever studied the scientific process.
The personal anecdote gives the reader a chance to consider my opinion, and compare or contrast theirs. Someone interested in homeopathy might find my views too different to theirs to give my thoughts any weight. Similarly, a biology major might be more likely to pick up the book because my thoughts on herbalism run parallel to theirs, suggesting similar tastes.
Although anyone can read a book review, they’re of particular use to writers, agents, editors and anyone in the story-making industry (and yes, “stories” includes non-fiction). Reviews generally cover books that stand out in some way. Get enough of these in a similar style (think wizard>>vampire>>dystopia) and we have a trend. Keeping tabs on the stand out books can yield valuable market information, helping book folks keep on what’s hot, and help them make predictions about what will be hot.
Interestingly, casual blog reviews may give a better sense of trends, since important “lit” books are not always crowd pleasers (Annie Proulx and Margaret Atwood come to mind). In terms of straight out trend analysis, numbers are more important than an in-depth review–even without tallying the positives and negatives (there’s no such thing as bad press). Some pro reviewers, though, include trend analysis–recent books in the genre, what they contribute to said genre–in their work. If you’re in the story-making industry, these reviews are definitely worth the time. A lot of books cross a reviewer’s desk, and pros spend a lot of time doing lit analysis, fashioning general opinion and careful, critical reading into an easy-to-read trend report.
Writing is a tad narcissistic, though reading, particularly literary reading, may be more so. We humans love to hear “you’re right”. Most of us love to say “I told you so”. Book reviews give us the opportunity to say both at once. I’ve been known to shout “Exactly, that book sucked!” while reading at my local coffee shop. I’ve also used positive reviews to convince my husband to read something I loved. And while this may be the pettiest reason to read a book review, it’s arguably the most common.
They Make Us Think
I often read reviews after I’ve read the book. I know it seems backward, but reviews often bring up a lot of issues that color my experience with a story, and that make it hard to concentrate on reading. Picking one up after the fact gives me a chance to sort out my own impressions of the book, then dig into them, exploring and dissecting my thoughts about the author’s story, style, etc. Reading this way encourages critical thinking, a useful tool for, well, everyone. Good book reviews are challenging, forcing readers to consider new angles and broaden their horizons.
Do you read reviews before or after the book? Do they influence you? Have you used them to keep track of trends?
There are certain rules about writing about my color. Be polite, but realistic. Don’t make it an issue if it’s not. Make sure the skin color of your protagonist matches the skin color of your cover model (you heard me, Bloomsbury). And don’t use cliches like “coffee colored” or “rich and smooth as cocoa”.
The last one is pretty much an industry standard–last week, agent Colleen Lindsay even tweeted about it, saying, “When writing about people of color, find a way to describe them that doesn’t involve comparisons to various coffee drinks or cocoa,” (if you’re not following @ColleenLindsay, get thee to Twitter this instant–she’s full of excellent advice and #pubtips). But if we can’t describe black/brown characters as coffee or cocoa without setting off editorial alarm bells, what can we say?
Technically, I’m a person of color. My skin is brown–not full Indian brown like my father’s, but a brown tempered my mother’s fair Scottish skin, a brown I used to call “baby poo”. Nowadays, though, I call it milky coffee, or caramel. My uncle describes it as burnt toast. Once, I even looked it up on a Behr color chart. I’m 350F-5, also known as camel. Now, much as I like camels (Who doesn’t? They’re sea-sickness on legs!) they bring to mind dry hair, cracked toenails, Mick Jagger lips, and a bad attitude. Which is why, If someone else described me as camel-colored, I may have to fight the urge to spit in their face. (Just as a defense mechanism, of course.)
In When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead uses the term “Swiss Miss” as an unintended racist slur, a way for her white main character, Miranda, to recognize bigotry (Miranda uses it because she thinks Julia, the girl the slur is aimed at, pretentious). Throughout the book, Stead uses color in an absent sort of way–Julia, is never given a clear ethnicity. And while I don’t automatically associate myself with the brown character in a book, I did imagine Julia as half-Indian, like me. In fact, the “Swiss Miss” comment even reinforced the idea.
While I’m reasonably sure that this rule comes from a good place, from a desire to not cause offense, I can’t help but wonder if it’s really necessary. My brother, paler than me, isn’t offended to be called white; neither is my mother. White is simply their coloring. Is there a similar rule for other colored characters? Granted, even I know Daleks hate to be called pepper shakers and that Triffids hate it when you call their mothers celery sticks, but is it really bad form to describe elves as pointy-eared, or zombies as gray? Do I have to start describing them as rotten brain-loving necrotids?
The zombie, a rich, caesious sort of color gazed into my eyes, his pools of festering erythema locking on with an intensity that made me flush all over. “BRAAAAIIIINS!” he moaned, reaching out a large, misshapen greige hand. “BRAAAAAIIIINS!”
Interestingly–if we believe the over-simplified writing do’s and don’ts lists out there–browns are the only colors off-limits. No one appears to object to olive or peaches and cream. And some browns are okay–nut brown, and almond brown show up a lot. Perhaps it’s a specificity issue, a result of the ever-growing melting pot. Describing someone by their heritage or country of origin can create a certain image. It’s okay to describe someone as African or Chinese, Swiss or Mexican. But in countries like the US, Australia, and the UK, citing race may not be enough–hence our reliance on coffee and cocoa.
Or maybe it’s deeper than that. Do terms of color fall under the same umbrella as the N-word? (I’ve been called the N-word is both contexts.) Is it okay for me to say I’m a milky-coffee color because I am, and not okay for my mother to say it because she’s not? Are they now a sign of solidarity? My spam filter’s a little overzealous–did I just not get the memo?
And then there’s the all-important question of, uh, importance. How much does the main character’s heritage lend to a story? Has the author described their character as coffee-colored because it matters (Sarah’s reaction to her mixed background is a vital plot point), because it’s what they know (I’m Indian, therefore my character is Indian), or because they want to appeal to a certain audience/catch the “ethnic” crowd? In the first two cases, maybe the industry, the gurus who sit on high and declare writing rules (or the really very nice editors and agents who are trying to help) won’t really care how you describe your character’s skin color. And if it’s the latter? I’m not sure, but I probably won’t be reading your book.
Despite my somewhat flippant attitude, I have been known to take offense–I do take offense–at some things. But I think it’s important to remember that words are just words. A word’s power is not innate; it comes from the meaning we give it. True, the N-word will most likely always be off-limits, despite its neutral origins, because we’ve given it that perjorative power. But coffee and cocoa? Why not reclaim them, before it gets out of control?
Photo Credit: David Blackwell, via Flickr.