As documented in previous posts, I decided to have a writing break from the last week in November, and start working through my to-read list. I read more than 25 books and I am so, so glad I did this; I got more out of it than I ever would have imagined.
I’ve actually been sitting down and reading for hours at a time, like I used to, rather than managing half an hour here and there in the bath, or on a journey. I reckon the chances of really getting into a book are doubled if you immerse yourself in it for a few huge chunks of time rather than dipping in and out over a period of a month, as so many of us do. I suppose that goes without saying, really!
After a while I realised that I wasn't just catching up on my Kindle backlog - I was viewing the whole thing from 'the other side', if you like! Here are my conclusions; perhaps you won’t agree with all of them, but I hope some will be of interest.
- No, it isn’t always necessary to start a novel with a big punch. It’s a cliché that’s arisen from a hundred and one writing advice blog posts. Some books can start rather quietly but be just as compelling; you don’t necessarily have to make your main character tell her boss she’s going to kill him/get out of her husband’s best friend’s bed/wake up to find that the world has ended, in the first paragraph.
- Having said that, it’s critical that the first couple of chapters are tight and succinct with perfect, or damn near perfect, grammar and proofreading, zero clunky sentences, and a ‘voice’ that really comes through. I abandoned about ten of the books I started. With some of them, it was because of lazy prose, or flat delivery. You might be able to get away with some less than über-smart writing later on in the book, but not at the beginning.
- Reviews matter. Before buying a book I usually read a cross section and I presume others do, too, because of all the ‘helpful’ or ‘unhelpful’ votes. However, just because a book hasn’t got many reviews, it doesn’t mean it’s no good; my absolute favourite book of last year only has six on Amazon UK at the moment, but it’s best to read some. If you haven’t seen my Top 20 books of 2014 post yet, it’s HERE
- Book blogs are marvellous things. If you aren’t getting your books featured on any, make it a new year resolution to do so! At least one book from my top 20 list I found via a blog, via Twitter. Book bloggers are truly wonderful people! I shall do a post featuring several in a week or so; in the meantime, you might like to look at Rosie Amber and A Woman's Wisdom . I review all the books I finish, on Amazon and Goodreads, and have also started a blog for them, too. Please note, it is not a proper book blog as I don’t take in requests; it’s just a place for me to feature my reviews. It's HERE.
- Pacing and structure matter so much when it comes to maintaining a reader’s interest - another good reason to leave your book for at least a fortnight before its final edit. Some of the books I enjoyed most were those that changed POV (character point of view) at exactly the right time, or took the reader to another aspect of the story, ditto. Once or twice I felt like applauding the author and could be heard muttering “Oh, nice move!” or similar. Never mind whether a book is written in the third or the first person or a mixture of the two; what matters is that the pace works.
- It’s important that your cover, title, blurb and style of promotion reflects the style of the book. I reluctantly abandoned one book that really brought this home to me. I’d been looking forward to this novel for a while; from its blurb, cover etc, I thought it was going to be a witty yet thought-provoking contemporary drama about a subject that interests me. It wasn’t, it was chick lit. Well written chick lit, and I could see from its Amazon page that many people liked it a lot, but it’s not a genre I enjoy, as a rule. A time when I should have taken my own advice and read the reviews more carefully! I also took note of why I chose each next book - I wrote a list that I intended to work through, but didn't. I chose the one I fancied next, instead. This was partly down to mood, of course.
- Ruthless and painstaking re-drafting is worth every minute. One piece of completely non-book related advice from about twenty-five years ago that's stuck in my mind (for some reason!) is to always give your hair a final rinse even when you think you’ve got all the shampoo out. That so works, and stops it looking dull/feeling a bit sticky! Similarly, if you secretly suspect that your novel might need just one more ‘go-through’, you should give it that final rinse, too!
- eReading devices are great! If you haven’t used one, or have one but aren’t sure about it, do please persevere. Mine has a soft leather cover which makes it more comfortable to hold than a paperback, it’s light (which I need because I tend to read lying down, holding the device above), and a great way of shoving ten books into your bag at once! The best thing, though, is the cheapness and convenience. Last night I finished reading part one of a three part series; as soon as I’d read it I downloaded the second part in just a couple of minutes, for just two quid, and off I went again! I also like the fact that you can read it in the dark (when you have someone asleep beside you!) (I use the Kindle App on my Nexus 7, rather than my old Kindle, which didn't have a lit screen) and alter the font size according to tiredness of eyes. I love it much more than real books now.
- Talent matters. I’m fed up with reading blog posts about how hard work, presentation, marketing and perseverance are more important than being naturally gifted; there’s a spate of these at the moment. I think this is so wrong. Over the past year I’ve come across beautifully presented books that are proofread to perfection and follow all ‘the rules’ – the attention grabbing start, the extensive research, the clearly defined genre, the descriptive passages, etc, but are just – adequate. Competent and readable at best. Okay. Not too bad. Worthy achievements, and if I was stuck somewhere with nothing else to read I might carry on with them. But they’re like novel writing by numbers. Creative writing exercises. I think a common misconception in these days of ‘if you’ve got a laptop you can write a novel’ is that, indeed, anyone can write one. Sure, yes, they can, if they want to. But taking a course in watercolours won’t make you anything other than a just okay artist, any more than having all your semicolons in the right place or diligently attending writing classes will make you a compelling writer, if you have no basic talent. I can produce a fairly reasonable meal if I concentrate and follow all the instructions, but I have no flair for the culinary arts, so anything I produce will only ever be just quite nice. A couple of the books in my Top 20 break ALL ‘the rules’, but I couldn’t stop reading them, because the writers have a true gift. I agree that talent will not get you very far without the perseverance, hard work, marketing, attention to detail, etc. But it needs to be there in the first place.
I’ll stop here before this post gets too long; suffice to say that I adored my reading bonanza, not least because I was able to spread the word some wonderful books. I’d recommend it to anyone who’s busy with their own work that they don’t get a chance to do the thing that made them start writing in the first place. I know just what it’s like, and now mean to have at least two weeks off in between every book. There are a few that I fully intended to get to recently that have been carried forward to my list for the next session.
The only difficulty is stopping myself reading, and starting to write again…. now, I must move back to the sofa, my Kindle app is calling me and I must just read the third one in that trilogy...