Thursday, 1 March 2012

World Book Day

As an author I feel obliged to take note of the first of March, though I know that no comment I could make will be half as impressive as the celebrations at my grandson's school, where the children are arriving dressed as their favourite fictional characters. (I mean, really, what words can compete with the faces of a lot of excited four- and five- year-olds?)  Still, the occasion offers a chance to reflect on the craft which has engaged me all my life.

Like most authors, I read a lot, at least when I'm not writing myself.  (I'm supposed to be writing now, but the latest book is stuck--again--so I've been giving it a break and loading up the Kindle.)  I enjoy books of many different types:  literary fiction, science fiction and fantasy, murder mysteries, popular science, poetry--everything, really, except romances, which I just don't get. (They seem to me nothing but improbable obstacles to an inevitable outcome.)

When it comes to style, though, I can't seem to arrive at any conclusions about what I like.  I know what my principles are when I'm writing. Never use a long word unless it really adds something that isn't there in the short one; never use a Latin word when an Anglo-Saxon one will do; whenever possible use a verb instead of an adverb, a noun instead of an adjective;  look for ways to cut, rather than expand, descriptions; if a metaphor feels strained dump it, and so on.  When I'm reading, though, I'm inconsistent.  I condemn some books (high-brow and low-) as over-written, word-heavy, too elaborate.  Persicos odi, puer, apparatus! as the poet Horaces says, 'Boy, I hate these Persian gewgaws, these interwoven crowns can never please me.'  I recently read Carol Birch's Jamrach's Menagerie; after the first chapter I found the dense, vivid language wearing, and by the end I was skimming paragraphs, only stopping to read them through if it looked as though something was actually happening.  How much better, I thought, was the limpid prose of, e.g., Andrew Miller's Pure, everything in its place and every nuance counting!  Yes, I told myself, simple, clear prose really is better . . .then I remembered how much I love the verbal extravagance and inventiveness of Neal Stephenson or Michael Chabon.   I certainly can't claim them for the simple and limpid school, but I absolutely love the way they write.

I'm on firmer ground with fiction's other ingredients. I like it when characters have distinctive voices, so that you know who's talking before you reach the 'X said'. I like characters who aren't too simple, and I like to be shown, rather than told, what they're like.   I like books that have a plot--not necessarily an action-packed one, but there should be a conflict which is resolved somehow at the end.  I don't like epics; I want what I read to have a beginning, a middle and an end--but that's a matter of taste, not an aesthetic judgement.

There are times when being an author myself prevents me from enjoying something I otherwise might.  This happens most often when there are holes in the logic of a plot.  I try very hard to avoid these when I'm writing, with the result that I notice them at once when I read them.  No, I think, the timing doesn't work; or Why does she think that? Nobody would think that! or Why the hell does the bad guy bother?What's in it for him?--and then I can't read any more of an otherwise entertaining author.  There are other times, though, when being an author myself means I enjoy something most people miss.  Patrick O'Brian, for example, had a mastery of narrative which was extraordinary: he could make time speed up or slow down, move from breathless action to long weeks of calm without jarring; convey details in dialogue or slip into first-person narration through journals and letters without once slowing the momentum of the book--all without calling attention to himself.  That's real writing.



  1. Very interesting - I will have to check out some of those authors that you mentioned.
    By the way, you are one of my favorite authors- I discovered your books via Goodreads and loved the Beacon at Alexandria so much that I checked out about 30 of your books from the library and read them all in a row. Looking forward to your next one, hope you aren't stuck writing it for long!

  2. Thank you, Callie Ferman! You are the first person to comment on this blog. I was beginning to think I was talking to myself!

  3. I am fascinated to hear that you admire Patrick O'Brian. Antonia Forest and Diana Wynne Jones were some of the joys of my childhood and as an adult reader I have loved your work and PO'B's. I always meant one day to write to each of you and thank you, but never got round to it. Sorry to sound morbid, but you are the only one left alive now, so I would like to say: thanks!