The Speed Of Words

Reading & Writing

Last night I went to the 25th anniversary party for indie publisher Serpent’s Tail, appropriately held in Shoreditch’s Book Club, and was talking to Jake Arnott about different writing methods. On the way home, I started wondering why film and books have diverged so radically.

If you’ve tried to watch a comedy from the eighties lately – the ‘Naked Gun’ series is a good example – you’ll see how slowly they unfold now. At the time they appeared to move with lightning speed. Digital editing has paced up the cutting and density of onscreen dialogue, so that the first five minutes of ‘Glee’ or ‘The Simpsons’ imparts twenty minutes of old-style information.

Why hasn’t this shorthand hit books? Only James Ellroy has taken this on board – a great many English novelists are writing more laboriously than ever before. Ploughing through endless crime thrillers, I’m often staggered by their traditional structuring. Set-up, weather description, reveal, dialogue – the reader is outpacing the dinosaur-slow chapters when it should be the author who’s telling the reader to play catch-up.

There’s a patronising argument that says the core audience for print books is the 35+ housewife, and she likes everything neatly and carefully laid out (I’ve heard this from several publishers).

I tend to underwrite so severely that I’m forced to expand my novels in their second draft. Surely, if you plan to come back to a novel a second time it should contain mysteries that are still yielding themselves to the reader? Does everything have to be laid out pedantically?

BTW, there’s a great article on speed-reading here.

9 comments on “The Speed Of Words”

  1. Daniel says:

    I’m with you 100% on this. That’s why I love your writing, as well as the work of Jake Arnott, who you mentioned, Glenn Duncan and China Miéville*. I’m one of only a seeming handful of people who hanker for a return to the old days of pulp publishing (with the qualifier that it has to be good pulp). The skill of a great writer lies in imparting the most information in the fewest words possible. Something a lot of current editors/writers/publishing execs (I’m really not sure where the trend for more is better originates) seem to have forgotten.

    A good reread is the one where a single sentence or a particular word usage or turn of phrase illuminates something new, not the kind where you spot entire passages you only half read in a daze the first time around.

    It may, or may not, please you to learn that after my third reading of Spanky, and even having read Spanky Rides Again, I’m still not sure how “real” Spanky was** and, if totally “real”, how much of what occurs can actually be blamed on him.

    * Yes, some of China’s books are mammoth tomes, but he manges to seamlessly weave in enough story to require filling several volumes of the more turgid type of fantasy.

    ** Admittedly, I could just be a particularly dense reader. Just ‘cos a person reads clever writers, doesn’t mean they actually get them.

  2. Alan Morgan says:

    I agree. There’s nothing wrong with a brick-on-a-stick as long as there’s plenty happening (Martin Millars Lonely Werewolf Girl for example). A great sprawling tale can be something to go for a long swim in once in a while.

    Daniel: You’re not the only one that misses good pulp, although it’s easy to forget the weight of dross. Interzone/Black Static might reward you checking them out?

    I read Spanky as being part of Martyn, a bit like a Tyler Derdon or a Ferris Bueller (to use big film examples).

  3. Helen Martin says:

    I like the sound of a writer’s work in my head so I’m not a likely candidate for speed reading. Now that I don’t have to read professionally I can indulge. The Greeks, apparently, took a long time to learn to ‘read silently’. When you got a letter or a manuscript you read it out loud to get the meaning, even if you just whispered it. It was a great surprise when they discovered that you could read inside your head.

  4. Andreas says:

    God, I hope this never hits books. The last, I don’t know, 15 seasons of the Simpsons have been unwatchable.

  5. noonski says:

    Well, I must be a voice of dissent, at least partial dissent.

    If I am watching a TV or a movie, I like to get lots of information quickly. I like when each scene makes it’s point in a reasonable amount of time, then moves on. I think that’s because movies affect multiple senses at once: sight and sound. While the characters in a movie are talking and giving us the information, our eyes are taking in all the visual clues that an author has to explain.

    When I am reading a book, I like to have the scene described. I enjoy reading all the little details about the weather, about the room, about the street on which the scene takes place. I like a novel to unfold before me. If I wanted to read a short-version of a book, I’d buy a Reader’s Digest Condensed version. But, I can’t stand those. Too bare bones for me.

    I will, however, agree that there can be too much wordiness, too much verbosity. Take, for example, “Clan of the Cave Bear” by Jean Auel. Decades ago, when the book came out, it was a huge success. I worked in a bookstore at the time, and thought I’d give it a try so I could see what all the fuss was about. There is a scene early in the book where she goes on for pages and pages about a tree. It was as far as I made it in the book. I don’t mind a sentence, maybe even two, about a tree. I’m fine with even less, things like “ancient oak tree” are quite descriptive enough for me. But pages and pages? That’s overkill. (This is why I don’t much get into Cormac McCarthy either: long, endless sentences that take forever to read because the man uses no punctuation other than a period. In my mind, hell, if it existed, would mean being forced to read and reread Cormac McCarthy for eternity.)

    So, while I agree that reading multiple pages of things that do not advance the storyline can be annoying (many historical mysteries fall into this trap: long pages of arguments about why someone could or couldn’t have done something, or long arguments about motive; if a writer does the job well, the reader should be able to pick up the movties/means on their own. This of course, assumes that the reader is intelligent. I forget that writers often have to write for the masses, which aren’t always as smart as they should be.), long passages of description can be nice, if done right, and add to the feel of a scene. Not every small detail needs to be described–knowing what should or shouldn’t be stated in multiple words is a gift that not all writers possess.

    If you want a book that unfolds like a movie: quickly and decisively, read anything by James Patterson. Not a spare word in the book. They’re perfect to read on a plane where getting lost in a story can be tough with all the distractions going on around you. Patterson requires very little concentration or thought. But, thankfully, not all books are written that way. Massive missives of words that really don’t mean very much have their place — there will always be fans of that snobby Real Literature genre. That’s fine. And, there will always be devotees of the quick, easy Patterson/Grisham read: a story that makes you turn the pages, but has little substance and is soon forgotten.

    For me, I like my novels to have both: story and substance. Sadly, the balance between the two gets tougher and tougher to find.

  6. Wayne says:

    I like deep rich texture, i love to read about every detail how wet the ground was, how the streets of Kings cross smell, the way the street light filters through the trees… I like all these things because it helps me visualize the scene. Don’t hold back give us it all….

    BTW Helen I like your comment.

  7. Vickie Farrar says:

    Hear, hear, Wayne! A good writer will make it seem as if I am standing right next to a character, observing invisibly; this is something CF does remarkably well. While awaiting his next tome, I am reading John Lawton, whose Troy series does for 1950’s / 1960’s England what CF does for all-time London; Lawton also makes the reader feel inside the story. And both CF and Lawton do it without ever being boring or long-winded.

  8. J F Norris says:

    I like description. I like character detail. I loathe wardrobe updates. Why are clothes so important in popular fiction all of a sudden? Paragraphs about what everyone is wearing. Over and over. One of my writer friends told me her editor reminded her “Don’t forget to describe the dresses!” Granted she writes a historical thriller series and Victorian era dresses may be interesting to read about for a certain readership, but come on. Surely there’s better advice from an editor. Her response? It rhymes with duck.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    I agree with JF Norris – who cares whether he’s wearing Doc Martins or not, manolo whatevers or not, unless there is a fee being paid to the author by the clothing company? You describe things if they set the scene, advance the plot or identify the character (“Today’s shawl was purple with large daisies, a particularly eye smacking number.”)

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