I am very busy with my self-editing course at the moment (point of view and psychic distance in case you’re interested) so it’s a short blog post from me this week. You might or might not have gathered that I’m a bit of a book geek – I have a Pinterest board called “Books books books”, to which I like to pin anything and everything book related that I come across.
I thought some of you might be interested to see a few of these yourselves, so I have rounded up my favourites below (note: an embarrassingly large number of my pins are from Buzzfeed – I honestly don’t have too much time on my hands):
It is my ultimate life goal to have a reading nook. That is when I will know I have made it as a reader. Hot chocolate optional (I’ll have wine in mine instead please) but fairy lights compulsory.
I love a grandiose library. Especially if it smells of “old book”. I can recall countless trips to stately homes in which I ignored the flock wallpaper and wingbacked armchairs to scan the shelves of books just out of pure nosiness.
It’s no secret that I love to be scared. If you do too, these books should do the job. Some personal recommendations that are not on the list are (I’ve mentioned them before and no doubt I’ll mention them again) Dracula and House of Leaves.
I have only read fourteen of the books on this list, but I’m looking forward to working my way through the rest in my future reading nook on a dark and stormy evening, perhaps with a dark & stormy in hand.
Which reminds me…
Anyone who knows me will tell you I love cocktails almost as much as I love books (although I’m more of a negroni and old-fashioned girl than a fan of tequila sunsets and blue lagoons). Some of the recipes and books are a little tenuously connected, but I won’t tell if you don’t. What better combination than books and booze?
Given how much I enjoy cooking, a few years ago I decided it would be cool to set up a blog in which I made up recipes inspired by dishes I read about in books (Silence of the Lambs, I’m NOT looking at you). However, I decided it would be pretty time consuming and it turns out a few people have beaten me to it anyway. It sounds like a Harry Potter-themed dinner party is in order…
If you want an even more challenging challenge, my mum is working her way through this – it’s great for me as she weeds out the best of the bunch and passes them along.
I hope you enjoy the above! There are plenty more book-related pins on my Pinterest board if you want to visit bookshops of epic proportions or literary-inspired bars, need gift ideas for a book lover or just want inspiration for what to read next.
A fortnight ago, I promised a post on conventions and clichés in book and film. I am a week late in delivering this, but better late than never, right? (No cliché intended.) So what are conventions and clichés, and what is the difference between the two? Are they good or bad? Why do we care?
Convention or cliché?
This article pertains more to film than to literature, but it does a good job of explaining the key concepts regardless.
To summarise, a cliché is an overused character type or plot device or descriptive phrase. For example, the beautiful, perfect maiden (with hair that’s golden like the sun and eyes as blue as the sea), who goes on an epic journey then wakes up to discover it was all a dream.
A convention is a guideline or rule of thumb (usually specific to genre) that a reader (or viewer) expects to be adhered to, and might or might not be disappointed if it is not. For example, a happy ending in a romance story or a love triangle in a piece of young adult fiction. This blog post is a useful guide to some of the genre conventions often employed in books.
So are they good or bad?
The prevailing opinion is that clichés are bad and conventions are good (especially if you are writing genre, as opposed to literary, fiction). My view is that things are a little less black and white than that. Clichés, surely, are usually best avoided if you want to be original (but maybe you don’t), but it’s important to remember that whether or not something constitutes a cliché is entirely subjective. There will always be the reader who has never ever read a book with the “and then I woke up and it was all a dream” ending, and thinks it is a brilliant, innovative idea.
Furthermore, one person’s convention might be another person’s cliché, so it can be difficult to entirely delineate the two. I have seen anecdotal evidence that, despite it being the thing to do, many YA readers are now becoming bored of agonising love triangles. So the convention turns cliché.
And my favourite rule (rebel that I am) is that rules are made to be broken. There are definitely situations in which a cliché might work, for humorous effect, as an example.
As for conventions, I think it depends on the type of book you want to write (or read), and how much risk you are willing to take on.
When are conventions good?
As readers or viewers, we have (often subconscious) expectations of how a story is going to turn out, formed by years or decades of reading and viewing. We root for the will they-won’t they couple to get together, we want to know what the villain’s dark secret is and for everybody to live happily ever after. Or do we?
Some readers really, really do. I read a comment on a blog recently where somebody said they threw a book across the room because the ending was unhappy – they felt betrayed by the author and vowed to never again read anything by them. Some readers are hardcore fans of, say, romance or crime, and become very disgruntled if things don’t turn out as they expected them to.
If, as a writer, you want to be able to say, “I write in X or Y genre”, then common wisdom has it that you need to fulfil genre tropes or risk incurring readers’ wrath. Readers’ wrath = loss of sales = lack of commercial success. So it seems that genre conventions perhaps do matter if you want to write in a specific genre for a specific type of reader, and want to earn a decent living from it.
More generally, some conventions exist because they are effective. Stories about intrepid heroes going on quests are popular because a story about a coward deciding to stay at home instead most likely wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. If you do want to fulfil genre conventions, the trick is to make your story original despite some elements being as expected.
When do conventions not matter?
I often read that to ignore genre conventions is to do so at your peril, that a romance novel without a romance (or a crime thriller without a crime) will turn readers off. But if a book doesn’t contain romance, then it ISN’T a romance, simply a book that has been misclassified as such. My point here is that applying a genre label to a book means nothing. Genre is subjective and a sliding scale. As I alluded to earlier, the more literary the novel, the more likely a reader won’t be annoyed if you don’t fulfil genre conventions –if there is no genre, there can be no genre conventions.
If you are willing to risk some readers being displeased or not “getting” your story, then break all of the genre conventions you want. The important thing is to be aware of genre conventions and the fact that readers might expect them – then you can make a conscious decision as to whether or not to break them.
My opinion as a writer
This is all easier said than done, however. How do you know how literary your book is, how predisposed to disgruntlement your potential readership is? You don’t. I don’t think you can sit down and say, “I’m going to write a literary novel that subverts genres and will leave readers amazed”.
That is why I just write what I want to write – much like genre, conventions aren’t something I explicitly consider. If I end up subconsciously adhering to a set of conventions, great. If I don’t and my book is regarded as relatively literary, also great. I am painfully aware I risk alienating some readers (and agents) through this approach but that is my decision and my risk to take on. Other writers might hold the opposite viewpoint and choose to write in a specific genre (and fulfil the corresponding conventions) from the start.
My book doesn’t have an out-and-out romantic subplot, and the ending could be considered bittersweet. Will this please readers? Only readers can be the judge of that. I have, however, enjoyed writing it and that is the bottom line for me.
My opinion as a reader
Personally, I LIKE to be surprised – it might make me feel sad when the will they-won’t they couple won’t, but I relish that sadness. The book is making me think and changing my expectations as I go along. But I don’t necessarily always hate conventions either – it depends on what I’m looking for that day, and the author’s unique spin on the convention. It is entirely possible for a book to be original without breaking a single rule, and, conversely, for a book to tear up the rulebook itself but be a terrible read.
Conventions: the last word
The article I linked to at the start of this post mentions that novice filmmakers often, idealistically, set out to break boundaries and conventions, but soon realise they are an effective storytelling tool. This could be perfectly true – perhaps I will learn to appreciate conventions in my own writing a lot more in years to come.
But I still believe that you have to at least start out by writing exactly what you want to write. This is necessary to figure out your own rules and exactly where you position yourself on the potential trade-off between risk and reward. After all, breaking the rules CAN be rewarding. Every convention starts somewhere – somebody, one day in the past, told the first story about boy meeting girl and living happily ever after. So who knows, if you are writing a book where boy falls in love with girl’s mother instead, you might end up being the first of many. Even if girl does have hair that’s golden like the sun and eyes as blue as the sea…
I was going to post about clichés and conventions in writing this week. However, I have been busy with my self-editing course (the first instalment was on plot), and so haven’t got any further than a brief outline of what I wanted to write about. I would hate to publish a blog post late (regardless of my lax approach to punctuality in real life) and so I have decided to take the easy way out for a second time.
As I mentioned the first time I took the easy way out, I have been keeping my creative juices bubbling (and having a lot of fun) working on exercises from “642 Things to Write About”. Here are a selection of pieces I have recently written. I feel the need to tell you again (to save my own blushes) that these were written without too much thinking, are entirely unedited, and, therefore, on the silly side.
So… to the writing…
The girl with no face
Prompt – “A strange girl who hides herself under layers and layers of clothing”
I imagine she has red eyes, or maybe no eyes at all. That would explain the veil tugged down to her chin. Perhaps she doesn’t even have a face. I know she’s a girl though. I can tell she’s a girl despite the man’s coat and the numerous cardigans and the wellington boots. She tilts her head like a girl and sips her drink like a girl. She’s turned towards me now, twisting her cup with one hand. I think she likes me.
Reading, ‘riting and raising a thief
Prompt – “The first lie you were caught in”
It had been an empty Oxo tin, the foil-wrapped cubes now replaced by words. Cat. Dog. Rat. Scrawls on scraps of paper, only just beginning to represent animals in my head. My parents wanted to test me on my flash cards but I suspected an ulterior motive. “Get your tin”, they said.
I walked to my bedroom, thumping heart and fussing fingers. I picked up the tin, clutched it to my chest. I imagined the contents sizzling white, turning the scribbled letters to ash. My prize possession. My stolen goods. “Open your tin”, they said. Was it me or were their smiles knowing? I removed the lid. “A conker!” they said. I blushed, stammered, stuttered.
“I found it in the playground.” I couldn’t do it though. “No, actually, I took it from the nature table when no-one was looking”.
That was better. The truth was out.
(True story, by the way)
Prompt – “Write a story that ends with the line, “And this is the room where it happened””
The bathroom isn’t to my taste. Clean enough, new enough, but why so grey? He opens a cabinet, gestures to the shelves inside. “Deceptively spacious”, “small but perfectly formed”, “cozy as a skinny man’s coffin”. Estate agency buzzwords. Well, except for the last one, perhaps.
We move into the hallway. It’s long, carpeted and I like it, but not enough. I’ll let him show me the rest anyway. It’s a bit like a day out, house-hunting – a poor man’s National Trust or English Heritage card. He leads me into the bedroom.
“It’s a good area, you know. Good schools. Nice pubs.” He looks out of the window. “Got a missus?” He’s a chatterbox, this one. I nod, even though it’s none of his business really. I glance at the bed. She’d love a bed like that. Not that we’re taking the place.
He passes me on his way into the hall. “There have been a few problems though. It was in the news.”
We duck into a second bedroom and a study before he speaks again.
“It involved Ivory Lettings actually.” He points at the badge clipped to his jacket pocket.
“How so?” I ask.
We’re at the bottom of some stairs now. I sigh. It’s only the first viewing of the day. Five more, two of them with this guy. He leads me up the steps.
“A man got hold of some business cards. Pretended to be an estate agent”.
I shake my head because I hadn’t heard that – I’m not local. He’s at the top now, stopped in front of a door. “Not everything made it into the paper though. He killed a man.” He pushes it open, flicks a light switch.
“And this is the room where it happened.”
I hope you liked them! I have noticed I tend to write in quite a different style when doing exercises – maybe I view it as a chance to branch out and try something new. It’s all good practise in any case, and I’m off to apply what I have learned to my self-editing course exercises. I will be back next week with my already-planned out (and, for me, far less embarrassing) post on conventions and clichés.