If You Like This, You’ll Love That

A couple of weeks ago, I received two copies of Is There a Book in You? by Alison Baverstock through the post. However, I have no memory or record of ordering them. They were professionally packaged in a grey polythene envelope with a printed address, but had no other identifying features.

Did you send me these books, or do you know who did? None of my friends have claimed responsibility, even the ones who are liable to such jolly japes.

There is one possible explanation. I’m a subscriber to Writing Magazine, and I ordered two extra copies of the September edition because it featured my release The Purple Spotlights EP. Perhaps whoever put the order through accidentally marked it as a new subscription and it triggered off a welcome gift. If it is, they’re not getting them back, because it’s a lovely surprise, and when I’m ready to edit my novel again, I’ll be sure to dip in.

This year alone, I’ve really enjoyed books I’ve been lent by friends. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro was a prime example, and the similar The Girl with All the Gifts by M R Carey. I would group these two books thematically with the P D James classic The Children of Men, although I bought that one for myself and didn’t find it quite as entertaining as the other two.

English: Stack of books in Gould's Book Arcade...
English: Stack of books in Gould’s Book Arcade, Newtown, New South Wales (NSW), Australia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Girl with All the Gifts has now been turned into a film, and I’m curious to see how well it’s been done. Ditto the Paula Hawkins novel The Girl on the Train.

Poetry-wise, it’s been a strong year of lending as well. I was given Tonguit by Harry Giles and What They Say About You by Eddie Gibbons. The former collection gave me lots to chew upon, especially in the poems Piercings and Your Strengths; the latter volume had me laughing right past the poems to the endnotes.

Word-of-mouth is always a strong marketing tool. The people who recommended all these books are good friends, and by extension, I trust what they recommend. By and large, this trust is well placed.

In fact, there has been only one recommended book where I didn’t enjoy it: The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. The main character is Don Tillman, a professor with autism, and that’s shown extremely well through the narrative. However, he’s at the peak of his career with a packed schedule that’s timed to the minute, so I felt he lacked a strong motivation for wanting to find a partner. There was a time I would have persisted with a disappointing book, but I stopped reading at page 41.

That said, I’m a strong believer that people should make up their own minds about which books they like and don’t like. Plenty of people love the novel, but it’s not for me. By the way, that referral came from my boss, so you can’t tell anyone I’ve admitted all this.

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Readjusting My Reading Ratio

Over the last few weeks, I’ve devoted a lot of time to writing my MLitt dissertation. I’m pleased to report I submitted it on Wednesday, two days before the deadline. Yet I’ve also found I’ve been reading more than I have for months.

The dissertation totalled more than 17,000 words, so rather than edit on a screen, I printed the full document for analysis. I like to leave some time between making one set of corrections and the next, and since I’d cleared my writing diary to work on the piece, I would read a book to fill the gap. This was especially true when I spent a couple of days in rural Aberfeldy with patchy Internet access. I tackled the following works:

  • Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson
  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
  • Morning Breaks in the Elevator by Lemn Sissay
  • Tonguit by Harry Giles

I can recommend all these books. When I’m writing my blog posts, Zemanta generates a list of related articles, and it seems Barack Obama has also been reading The Girl on the Train.

Reading is, of course, a vital part of becoming a better writer, and as I begin the next on my list – Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse – I wonder about the optimum ratio of writing to reading that an author should achieve. Is 75% writing to 25% reading an ideal proportion? Perhaps half-and-half would be better? Could an argument be made for reading more than you write?

Let’s factor in other forms of storytelling. Yesternight, for instance, I watched In Time, set in a future where time has become currency. The film benefits from some terrific writing that shows most of the workings of the fictional universe through dialogue and camerawork without a narrator having to explain the rules. So could some of my reading time be devoted to looking at screenplays?

I know I haven’t answered these questions for myself; whenever I do something else, I feel as though I need to be productive. And yet without outside experiences and influences, a writer is at risk of covering the same topics from the same perspective time and again.

One of my aims on the MLitt course was to create a diverse portfolio of work. I succeeded, but in the creative part of the dissertation, this diversity caused difficulty in making the pieces flow by theme. Jennifer Goldman’s Electric Scream is in a diary format, and was a way of bringing together my different styles of work.

I’ve also spent much of August at the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe. One place I went was The Janice Forsyth Show, recorded as-live in front of an audience for later transmission on BBC Radio Scotland. While I was there, I realised it might be possible to adapt my dissertation piece for the stage, so I’ve acted on the impulse, and I have a meeting with a playwright tomorrow to discuss the possibilities.

If I hadn’t taken that time out of my writing to visit Edinburgh, I might still be questioning what to do next with the piece. And should I come up with a definitive answer about the optimum writing-to-reading ratio, you’ll be the first to know.