Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Sometimes, you have to be a reader, not a writer.

And sometimes you need to hear old wisdom in a new way …

You may remember my son, Child # 1, aka Cheesemonkey, from his guest post earlier this year. He’s a voracious reader and this week, while he’s been home on school holidays, we’ve had some very interesting discussions about books and writing - in particular, about what works for him as a reader. And some of his thoughts and insights have blown me away, especially what he thinks about some of the writing “no-nos” we writers all strive to avoid (or should do!)

So I thought I’d share with you some of his twelve-year-old wisdom, from his perspective as a hardcore reader, in his own words …

I hate it when a book goes on and on telling me what a character looks like. I just want the basics - black hair, shorter than most men, that sort of thing, so I can fill in the rest with my imagination – that’s the coolest part about reading!

It’s really boring when you get to a big chunk of description of something like a room or a village or a city or a field or a jungle, anything like that. It makes the story stop, and I usually skip it.

Why do some writers fill up their first chapters with so much boring explanation about everything that’s happening? I like it when an author writes as though you already know what’s going on, and as if you already know the main character; it means I can get straight into the story and figure out everything later.

Then he quoted me a few lines from the second page of his latest read, THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins, as an example of what he likes:-

He hates me. Or at least distrusts me. Even though it was years ago, I think he still remembers how I tried to drown him in a bucket when Prim brought him home. Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed. But Prim begged so hard, cried even, I had to let him stay. It turned out OK. My mother got rid of the vermin and he’s a born mouser. Even catches the occasional rat. Sometimes, when I clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the entrails. He has stopped hissing at me.

Entrails. No hissing. This is the closest we will ever come to love.

Well, apart from now understanding why this series is the hit that it is, this snip is a great illustration of how to open with an intriguing character in a mighty curious situation, a unique voice … and does exactly what my son wants, which is to be led deeper into the book with a tantalising trail of “now, what’s that all about?”

And then yesterday, Cheesemonkey came to me bearing one of his all-time favourite books, LEVIATHAN by Scott Westerfeld … and some advice for me -

CHEESEMONKEY(flicking through the book): Mum, see how there’s a really cool illustration in each chapter?

ME: Awesome! (and they are – check out some of them here, if you’re interested.)

CM: Well, I just read an interview with Scott Westerfeld and he says that when he decided to have illustrations in this book it made him really think about writing each chapter with something in it that’d be worthy of an illustration. He had to have something happen, you know; not just characters sitting around talking. He reckons thinking about that when he was writing his book made it a much better book than it would’ve been … so, um, mum, maybe you should have illustrations in your book, too; you know, so you don’t make it too boring.

Yeah, thanks for the vote of confidence there, Cheesemonkey …

But he did get me thinking – about the dialogue in my WIP, and whether any of it could do with more action and/or stage business to enliven it; and then, thinking of the pictures I try to paint with my words, whether the visual imagery I use could be heightened, or more detailed, or more vibrant. And how I try to use locations and images not only to draw a picture for the reader, but to deepen the themes and messages of a scene, and whether I could be doing that better …

Basically, my son has reminded me of the benefit – and necessity – of standing back and looking at my story as though I am a reader, not a writer.

And for the first time, I do believe school holidays are going to be good for my writing!


  1. Out of the months of : ) Tell your #1, I would have loved teaching such an insightful student as he obviously is. Great post.

  2. Rachel, this is a great post. Stuff we (me, anyway) need to be reminded of frequently. Your Cheesemonkey has a fresh way of saying it. :)

  3. What a great idea! Tell cheesemonkey :-) thanks! I'm going to flip through all my chapter divisions and see what I've got...

  4. Zan Maire - You know, he's had the most fabulous teacher this year, and I credit her for a lot of his insight. She's taught the class about POV and story structure and plotting and character arcs ... she's fantastic. And yet the whole class started off the year hating her, because she really pushed and challenged the kids and, importantly, made them so very responsible for the quality and timeliness of their own work (all done with the aim of preparing them for high school next year) but now, these kids love her. She's one of the best teachers my kids have ever struck, and come the end of school year I'll be sure to let her know how much both #1 and I appreciate her ...

    Lori - oh, I need to be reminded of all this too, on a regular basis!

    Deniz - I'll let him know, for sure!