Sunday, July 4, 2010

The two page rule

I developed a survival strategy long ago.  Being a fantastic impulse buyer - fantastic in the sense that I spend a lot of money on things I don't necessarily read - it came to the point where, in order to store the number of books I owned, I had to buy three additional bookcases  Only after they'd been delivered or assembled and I'd filled them with books, the contents of which were entirely foreign to me, did I come to understand that perhaps this wasn't the way to go about reading, after all.

I'm one of those people who dream of having a dimly lit room, all four walls of which are floor to ceiling bookcases.  Musty leather, the scent of old paper and a big, comfortable arm chair are the stuffs of paradise, as far as I'm concerned.  It took me a long while to figure out that it would be a far better dream if I'd read all of the books on those shelves.  By this time, though, I had several hundred books to my name, and nowhere to put them - more importantly, I couldn't read the books I had before I acquired more, due to my aforementioned impulse buying.  Knowledge is the root of power, and all.  It was around this time that I heard of a theory on how to save yourself from reading books you weren't enjoying.  The idea was to read 100 pages.  If you still weren't enjoying the book by then, it was best to give it up.  The rest of the theory also said that you should take 10 pages off those hundred for every year you were over 60!

That worked out for me for a long time.  I felt that, if I read 100 pages, I'd really given the book a chance to hook me.  Unfortunately, that was before I became so picky.  You see, the more I studied and taught writing, the easier it was for me to pick up on when characters were speaking... out of character.  I became a lot less patient with silly-sounding names, for the sake of sounding silly, and far less tolerant of grammatical or period errors.  If a fantasy-based character used words like 'cool' and weren't referring to temperature, or weren't a cast-off from our own society, that was grounds for immediate dismissal.  All of this pondering and being picky inevitably lead to another theory, this time one of my own :

Every page of a book should  be good.

Much like screenwriting, where every scene needs to serve a purpose, every page of your book should be contributing something to your story.  There should be no unedited pages.  There should be no page where you, as the writer, think, "Oh, what the heck, I know it bears no relevance to the story, but it's just gotta stay."  That's bad for you, and bad for your audience.  For you, it's about discipline.  For your audience, it's about feeling like they haven't wasted their time.  So I came to a conclusion : if I read two pages of a book, and turn the page without thinking, it goes on my pile of 'things to read'.  If, by the end of those two pages, I feel completely ambivalent about continuing, it goes.  And, if, by the end of those two pages, the author  has committed some unforgivable writing sin, they go in the 'to be donated' pile and I memorise their name for future avoidance.

This all sounds incredibly harsh, I'm sure.  Writers do improve.  I wouldn't be keeping this blog if that weren't the case.  But when someone starts off writing a diary entry, then changes point of view halfway through the diary entry, that's a pretty serious offence.  That tells me more than just, 'No one edited my work.'  It tells me the author doesn't understand what they were doing and, more importantly, neither did their editor.  That makes me worry for the brand, not just the author, and I will carefully scrutinise anything I consider buying from that imprint in future.

And, while we're here - silly names.  I'm as guilty of this as anyone, or was, back in the day.  I'm sure some people would still find the names I come up with silly, in some way or other.  Here are a couple of name choices that will instantly put me off a book, with no save roll.

1) Men with feminine names, and vice versa.  If I have to rethink my visualisation every time I read something spoken by a character, I'm going to get angry.  For example, a buff, masculine, salty pirate captain shouldn't be called Lily.  A woman who's supposed to be delightfully gorgeous shouldn't be named Marco.  These things are distracting, and when I get distracted, I no longer care about what I'm reading, especially  if what I'm reading is what's distracting me.

2) Overly complicated or punctuated names.  We all love a good apostrophe, but don't overdo it.  This falls under the same category as writing your characters as speaking with accents.  It seems like fun at the time, but it's a major headache for your reader.  T'hrax'ylcillia'a will get a frown of disapproval from me.

3) Names that sound funny when spoken aloud.  I don't know about you, but when I read, I hear my own voice in my head.  Having a weird name rolling around in there may either make me giggle, or I may be frustrated by having to hear such a silly name over and over again.  Names like Boog, Spoor, Riggub, Peen or Hurk will make me shake my head at you.  It's especially a wise idea to avoid any names that may sound like bodily functions when vocalised.  If other characters can't take your character's name seriously, why should your reader?

4) Real-world names that have been 'fantasy-ised'.  Eric is not Eryck.  David is not Davyyd.  There's some leeway here for other Anglo-Saxon origins of now-common names, but the general rule in my world is that if it sounds the same as the less complicated version when they're both spoken aloud, use the more commonly accepted variant, or find another name.

5) If you're writing a parody - and know enough to know you're writing a parody - feel free to make good use of rules 1-4.  Everyone will love Mr. Aleeshya Panteloon Foog'umpi'riasa, the stunningly inadequate financier of the second emperor's concubine's dog, whose ability to look like a tree stump when seated has fooled many an earnest gardener.

That's a (very) condensed list, but suffice to say that, following my two page rule, I've managed to cut my book collection down to a meagre couple of hundred.  I even have space in some of my bookshelves!  Now, to visit Borders to find something to stop up those gaps...

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