Tag Archives: Reading

Sarcasm Font

“There doesn’t NEED to be a sarcasm font, you just have to actually read with discernment and in context.” So says the lavishly beautiful Helena Hann-Basquait. I agree. As I told her, I don’t just need a sarcasm font, I need a sarcasm light over my head, because I find people often miss the sarcasm when I speak, not just when I type.

But tone of voice is definitely more difficult to convey in writing than in person. How many of us haven’t misunderstood an email, text message or letter, because we didn’t see the tone it was written in?

In fiction, there are two kinds of sarcasm – authorial sarcasm and character sarcasm. If a character is speaking, it’s usually possibly to indicate their tone of voice through the attributions. They can get cumbersome – we haven’t got enough words or universal expressions to mix things up as much as I’d like – but it’s still possible to make things relatively clear.

In narrative, though, there are no such props, and we can hardly take the modern technology-driven shortcut and finish the sentence with a winking emoticon. I think at that point we have to trust our readers, and also accept that some will be left behind. As long as I get a mixture between those who say ‘huh?’  at the end and those who saw it all coming from the first clue, I tend to reckon I’m pitching it about right. Layered writing will leave some people behind; twists and tones of voice are never going to work for all possible readers.

Should we have a sarcasm font? If so, we need a few other fonts as well – an angry font, a surprised font and a flirty font would all help writers avoid needing to think about the words we use and the ways we portray our characters; they would save readers from thinking too. And perhaps that’s the problem, we are so used to having everything handed to us by actors presenting the tones of voice, body language and emotions of a story and by directors and cameramen pointing our attention in the right direction at the right time, that we don’t need to imagine anything any more.

But where’s the fun in that? Isn’t it a bit like saying the easiest puzzle is the one someone else already completed?


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Reading Between The Lines … and the letters

One of the subjects I most enjoyed at school was English literature. Reading a book in that much detail, and with a knowledgeable teacher, is a totally different experience from reading the same book on your own with only your imagination to guide you. Not better, but different. And I relished the challenge of looking at writing in that much detail.

An exercise we did often would be to dissect a short passage of a longer work (usually a novel or a play) in response to a question like “How does the writer show tension in this passage?”. We looked at everything: large-scale elements from pathetic fallacy to pace; details like speech attributions and clipped sentences. Alliteration or assonance almost always came into it, regardless of the question – I’m fairly sure they could be equally responsible for showing romance and aggression!

And I enjoyed it, but my friends and I would sometimes take a step back and ask each other, in frustration, “Do you think the author really sat there agonizing over word choice to that extent?” Did Jane Austen stop and check Darcy’s alliterations every time he spoke? Did Emily Bronte really make the moors bleak and stormy to show Heathcliff’s mood? Was Shakespeare honestly trying to write a great big allegory for English government when he claimed there was something rotten in the state of Denmark?

Well, now I write. And I might not be representative, but in case I am, here’s my answer. A resounding YES. And a resounding NO as well.

Sometimes when I write, I’m being clever. Sometimes, especially in my FF stories – where I have time and energy to pour real thought into each word – there are layers and layers of meaning and implication beyond the surface. And then I read the comments, hoping some people saw them. And I wonder about posting a detailed explanation on the Monday after, but it feels a little like showing off to do that, so I just wait until someone posts a comment remarking on the double entendre of the title, puns, or clues in the wording.

But other times, No, No and No. Pathetic fallacy, for example, is almost always accidental. Maybe I’m feeling dark and stormy, because I’m writing a tense or miserable scene, so the weather in the story is dark and stormy, but that’s by accident, not design. I write the stories the muse conjures in my head – the characters speak that way because it’s how they speak in my head, not because I think it would be clever for them to use clipped sentences, or slang, or alliteration.

What about you? Do you write like the first or second style, or a mixture of the two? And where do you think your favourite authors fit in?


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Taking Liberties

I love it when I read something that makes me think – about my own prejudices or opinions, or about the ways the world works. And fiction can open up many emotions and issues more easily than its more cerebral counterparts.

Perhaps this is why I like books (and films) that deal with difficult topics – slavery, war, crime etc. But you don’t need to delve into the bleakest parts of humanity to explore human nature. Two of my recent FF pieces appear to have sparked discussion on the everyday but critical issue of the battle of the sexes.

Sangria was about a middle-aged couple on holiday in Spain. Don thought he’d hit the spot for romance: Julie had wanted to drink Sangria on the Main and here they were doing just that. Julie could only feel disappointment: after years of hinting and waiting to be surprised, she’d had to tell him of her dream, and now they were there, he was more interested in the yachts.

Liberties is about younger characters. Belle is walking through the corridors of her new school with her friend Alice, when some lads make a crude remark about her. Alice is outraged, Belle takes it in her stride and even professes to be flattered.

In both cases, I was interested by the strong feelings I got in response. Many readers condemned Don, but I was pleased at how many also criticised Julie. After all, Don’s trying his best even if he does fall short, and too many women demand mind reading from their partners (I sometimes count myself in their number, I’m afraid.).

The response to Liberties was even more divided. Some saw Belle as a hussy or at best naïve, others saw Alice as jealous or too easily offended. Personally, I am on Belle’s side – I saw her as a confident young woman who isn’t afraid of her appearance or of the effect it has on the boys, but nor is she desperate for their attentions and approval. To me, Belle has discovered at 18 the lesson that you can’t change other people, only how you react to them. If she had been upset and offended by the remarks, it would have ruined her day not the boys’.

A friend of a friend has started the “Everyday Sexist Project”. I think it’s a good idea in many ways, and I am shocked by how much sexism pervades even in modern society. However, I do think some people get overwrought about innocent things – and I count wolf whistles and catcalls in that category. This isn’t a “boys will be boys” argument … if I’d had space, I’d have shown Alice subsequently making a similar casual remark about a band member she likes. I just think people will always make these comments and, like Belle, I value the freedom to do so.

But going back to fiction, I like it when something I read makes me think and question my views on something, but I LOVE it when something I’ve written has that effect on others, and opens up a dialogue between us. Because one of the magical things about fiction is it can be interpreted in many ways.  My précises of the stories about are what I intended, but there’s nothing in the pieces themselves that makes other people’s interpretations invalid. Perhaps, like a Rorschach ink blot test, our reading tells us something about ourselves … perhaps it doesn’t.


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Someone Else’s Thoughts on Other People’s Words

Friend and fellow-blogger Happy Creations posted this commentary recently on writers who use other people’s words in their work.  I’d love it if you read her post and shared your thoughts – here or on her post.

I haven’t read the book she refers to, but her post got me thinking about how I use other people’s writing and how I feel when I read it. My initial reaction is to agree with Happy Creations – our words should generally be our own.

There’s a character issue: one might have a character who is just the kind of person who tends to steal the language of others (For example, a young lover might decide to win over his beloved by stealing Romeo’s best lines). I think that might make an interesting element to a story, especially when those lines are placed into an alien setting, such as the modern world, and when the recipient’s reactions are perhaps different from Juliet’s.

But for me, references are best at that level. If I wrote the hypothetical Romeo book above, I’d enjoy putting oblique references to other aspects of Romeo and Juliet; using the themes of Juliet’s responses, but to completely different ends. If I read it, I’d probably enjoy going back to Shakespeare’s text and trying to find these little Easter Eggs.

It’s the same when I read (or watch a movie of) a modern-day version of or story-inspired-by a classic, I enjoy it in its own right, but I also like to spot the more subtle hints of similarity. Ultimately, though, I think these homages rarely live up to the original. Even Bridget Jones’ Diary is unlikely to have quite the lasting impact of Pride and Prejudice.


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Slow Readers

I-am-in-the-slow-read-ers-group… as the poem goes. Like so many of Allan Ahlberg’s poems, this one absolutely captures the powerful emotions of childhood. I-am-in-the-slow-read-ers-group-that-is-all-I-am-in-I-hate-it.

I’m a slow reader. I always have been, although I don’t think there was a group for it at my school. I don’t know why I’m slow – I enjoy reading and I read a lot as a child. I’m just slow at it. I’m astounded when friends tell me how many books they read in a month – part of that is making time to read them, but it’s also about how many words you can get through in an hour.

I can, if I want, skim read. But doing so is a largely pointless exercise – nothing really sinks in and I get no pleasure from it. That’s fine if I’m scanning for particular information or trying to find the right place to begin, but with fiction, I feel it’s just a waste of time to skim.

As a writer, it’s important to read. We could debate what books are the best – writers’ guides, fiction, books in the genre one writes or not – but everyone agrees it’s important to read. And so I do. I’ve just started Bridget Jones’ diary – partly for fun, partly as research for the chicklit novel I hope to write in November. I’ve got 10 days to read it before the library wants it back (their no-renewals rule is discriminatory against slow readers!).

I am in the slow readers group. I’m not a child, so I don’t hate it, but it is annoying. My husband, my brother, and anyone else who has tried to share a newspaper with me will surely agree!


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Who Are You Writing For?

To those authors who read endless guides on getting published, this is a question about audience, market share, and pitching, but to everyone, it is also a question of heart. Whenever I open a book, I stop at the almost blank page at the beginning – the one that says something simple like “For Amy”, cryptic like “For H.K.”, or effusive, like “To Mum, for all the times she picked me up before I fell”.


It’s not the same as the Acknowledgements at the back, although I usually read those too. This isn’t the place for colleagues, research assistants, or a long list of family and friends. It’s a moment of intimacy, even though reading those words tells the vast majority of the readership nothing at all.

I always pause there, but I can’t tell you why. Maybe it reminds me that there’s an author behind the words; that there is a true story hidden behind the fiction. Maybe it just appeals to the romantic within me. Perhaps it’s simply that I am addicted to reading (I’ll read anything – toothpaste tubes, adverts, ingredients lists … even contract small print!) and can’t turn the page without taking it in.

If I ever get a book properly published, I don’t know who I will dedicate it to. There are so many possibilities – people who have changed my life, or shaped my craft; those who matter the most to me on a wholly personal level; various people I have loved and lost; even the people I have never met who have somehow influenced that particular novel (Melanie’s story, for example, could be dedicated to other child carers like her).

Is this something that published authors think long and hard about, or do they go by gut instinct? Is it perhaps just another place where the muse stamps her authority or where a publisher makes suggestions? I don’t know, but I hope one day to find out.

Do you have plans for a dedication? Do you stop and read them, or is that just me?


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Any resemblance…


We’ve all seem the disclaimer at the end of movies – covering the production team from any allegations of libel if someone thinks they have been portrayed unfairly. It’s a danger of any fictional work, of course, because as writers, we draw inevitably from our own experiences to a greater or lesser degree, and as humans, we are inclined to see ourselves in the stories we read.

To some extent, of course, it’s a sign of successful writing. All novels, most obviously those with a clear hero or heroine, play on the reader’s ability to empathise with the main character. Romances work because the readers fall in love with the beau(x), thrillers thrill when we feel the MC’s fear and tension.

But when you know the author, that’s when it becomes a potential problem. Suddenly, you’re reading about a villain who has one or two of your physical traits or quirky habits … suddenly you think the author is writing about you … you decide he or she has secretly thought of you as a villain, a philanderer, murderer, whatever.

Well, no. Here’s my disclaimer. All the characters I write are entirely fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is … actually, not exactly coincidental, but it is specific. I may well have stolen a trait, quirk or anecdote from you, and if that upsets you, let me know and I’ll do my best to remove it. However, one feature does not a character make – whatever I’ve taken from you to build this character, you can assume that’s all I’ve taken. Everything else about the character is either taken from someone else, or is entirely fictitious. Using specific elements from real life makes my characters feels more 3-dimensional; inserting real people into my stories would entirely stifle my creativity and exercising my creativity is the entire reason I write.

The best example I can give is a song. Two years ago, my husband and I did February Album Writing Month. I wrote the lyrics, he composed the music. For one comic song, I wrote lyrics some of which were based on my husband’s anecdotes of youthful drinking exploits. The bits that he recognises are about him, everything else is not. The father and son characters portrayed in the song are entirely fictional, the “banshee” wife is certainly neither me nor my lovely mother in law, and the song is a work of fiction.

So next time you’re reading something where you know the author, feel free to look out for something of you in the story, but if you find it, be flattered that they find you so interesting, and don’t worry that the whole story is about you.

And if you don’t believe me, I’ll leave the last word to Carly Simon


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Not a Reading Blog

This is not a reading blog. There are lots of reasons for that – not least that I don’t read enough to keep up regular posting about books. That might change now, because one of the few adult things I’ve found it possible to do while keeping Sebastian calm is read. At the moment, he doesn’t mind what I read, provided I am reading it out loud. So we have already shared the car seat manual, my previous blog post and various emails.

We have also shared a book. And just as I reserve the right to post about Sebastian occasionally despite this not being a parenting blog, and about the cats despite it not being a pet-lovers blog, this post is about a book I’ve read.

Mitch Albom’s The Time Keeper

Mitch Albom is one of my favourite modern authors. His is one of the names I search for occasionally to see if they’ve released anything new. The last time I did that, I had a nice surprise and a few days later, The Time Keeper dropped through my letter box.

Like most of his books, it’s a work of fiction but with a strong moral compass, and elements of the old-fashioned fable. The story is relatively short, there is not much by way of description, character depth or action, and if you don’t happen to agree with the author’s world view, you should probably steer clear of all his books. But I do happen to agree with a lot of Mitch Albom’s world view, and I find his books both moving and inspiring. He has a simple, easy-to-read style and I believe the lack of detail he gives is one of the things that allows readers to feel so much for the characters – they are a backcloth on which to impose our own self-image.

If you haven’t read any of his books, I would strongly recommend you do. My favourite remains The Five People You Meet In Heaven, but others, like For One More Day and The Time Keeper are also strong. Tuesdays With Morrie is probably his most famous, but it’s a slightly different type of book, being based on a true story, and isn’t where I’d suggest starting.

If you’ve read any of his books, let me know what you think in the comments. Or, if you like Mitch Albom’s writing and can recommend anything similar you think I’d enjoy, please let me know.

Meanwhile, Sebastian and I are wondering whether to go for H G Wells or Dorothy Koomson next…


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Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover

Never judge a book by its cover, right?

Book covers can definitely be misleading. The artwork is almost always done by someone who has had no hand at all in the content between the covers, and certainly not in the writing of the novel. I once bought a boxed set of the Chronicles of Narnia, stories with words and illustrations I have loved all my life. The covers were new and modern and drawn by someone I’d never heard of, but they didn’t change the bits of the books I really enjoy.

Another feature of book covers are those little quotes from reviewers or famous authors. I know I’m not the only person who finds these comments highly suspicious – did Neil Gaiman really read this, or did his publisher just tell him to say something nice? And even if he did read it, could he have said he didn’t like it? Quotes and reviews are also a bit like Literary Prizes. Some incredible novels have won prizes and critical acclaim, but so have some … let’s say difficult reads. None of this is any guarantee that you as a reader are going to enjoy the book.

The best clue is perhaps the blurb: the tantalising synopsis on the back of the book that introduces one or two characters, plot lines and cliffhangers. But even then, it’s not always written by the author, it doesn’t tell you whether the ending will be satisfying or whether the topic will be dealt with well. Its very job is to peak your interest, but sometimes I feel blurbs venture into spoiler territory, giving away more than I wanted to know about the storyline or the twist.

But if you can’t judge a book by its cover, what else can you do? You can open it and read the first few pages, or the last few (I know at least one person who does that!), rely on recommendations from friends through word of mouth or things like Goodreads or just stick with favourite authors – although they’d have to be fairly prolific to keep up with most readers!

What do you do? How do you choose your next read and how do you feel about the things you find on book covers?


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Reading to Write

Every writers’ guide in the world says you can’t write without reading. We should read widely to learn what we like, read the good stuff to learn what works, read the popular stuff to learn what sells and read drivel to learn what does neither. We should not be afraid to mimic (whilst avoiding copying). We should read literary magazines to choose where to send our work, and because it is only fair to read other people’s work if we expect them to read ours. We should read novels and pay close attention to the publishers / agents who took them on, so that in due course we know who best to approach. And of course, we should continue reading for fun, because there aren’t many writers in the world who didn’t love reading first.

And while we’re devouring all these written words, we should ensure that we are not skim-reading but are closely studying the text for every literary device, every style choice and a million other things that I haven’t got space to list here.

All this while we are living on the meagre profits of not being able to sell our work; or trying to fit in writing as a second or third job whilst working to put a roof over our heads and food on our tables.

I don’t disagree with the advice, I am just aware of the difficulties it creates. If I subscribed to every literary magazine I was thinking about submitting to, I’d be broke. So, I am beginning to look at alternatives, like sharing subscriptions with one or two friends. Books (not so much magazines) are available through lending libraries and second-hand shops.  And there is always Christmas – perhaps I will just ask for subscriptions as presents this year.

As for mimicry, I agree that it has its benefits, but there are drawbacks. I recently read over a longish manuscript I had written during a school summer holiday. You could tell from the text when I had been reading Pride and Prejudice and when To Kill A Mockingbird. I think a bit of Douglas Adams might have crept in there too. It was imaginative, in places even good, but consistent it was not!

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