Judging a Book by its Cover

“No!” Screams a friend of mine in disdain as she stares despairingly at the cover of a book I’ve just slid to her, across the table.

“Look just read it, it’s actually quite good,” I tell her, soothingly.

“No!” she cries out, a bit louder now, as the people in the cafe we’re at, turn around curiously, trying to get some tidbit of gossip to pass onto their friends. “I already know, by the cover, I’m going to hate it.”

I scowl. I wish I’d painted the damn cover black. I try telling her that the cover does not accurately reflect the contents of the story it’s wrapped around, but to no avail. She points out that she’s lent me good books and this is what I give her in return. I try not to throw the book at a passing cyclist, in frustration. As people start whispering excitedly at the unfolding action, I push it towards her and manage through gritted teeth, “Just read the damn thing, it’s good!”

She reluctantly takes the book, like a child being made to eat a piece of spinach, with an unhappy, “Fine.” I doubt she’s even looked at it since.

We all know the famous adage. Never judge a book by its cover. And we all know that it is, really, about how we treat other people. But, I do find it interesting that the majority of us are guilty of not adhering to its more literal meaning.

I’ve done it. I’m sure you have. Whenever I browse bookstores, libraries, look over at what someone else is reading while they wait for the bus, I do it. I have to see what the cover will tell me. Because, as much as we would like to be creatures who are not easily swayed by suggestion, the cover of a book gives us a glimpse into what we can expect to find in the pages of the stories we are promised.

It is often the cover of a book that gets our attention, and makes us stop and look at the book before us. Does this make us shallow? Does it make us visual creatures, brought up as television generations who have lost our ability to see past a cover to the “personality” of a book? I think it just makes us human.

Every writer works, among other things, with a very important element – imagination. The stories we write, and tales we tell, the yarns we spin, if you will, they all need to be able to engage the imagination. Even, the non-fiction works out there, get us, not just by fact, but by the way they are written. At least the good ones do. And so it follows, that if we can visualise the world of a character through the words on a page, the cover that holds the book takes it just a step further.

A good cover will get our attention because it works to engage our imaginations. It kicks our belief in possibilities into a sort of over-drive. When I pick up a book beholding its magical cover, I get a small rush of excitement, because the cover looks great. It tells me that this book is about a dark story, or a funny story, or an independent character just trying to make things work. The teaser to the book has done its job and grabbed my attention.

Having said this I have also picked up books, with seemingly simple covers and felt the same little rush of intrigue. Whether it’s a leather-bound book, with just the title of the story and the author’s name or book with the jacket fallen off, it does the same thing. It captures my imagination. I pick up leather bound books, and am immediately taken to the 18th century, where I imagine this book has come from and wonder at the sort of people who picked it up and read it. I wonder at the world it’s come from, what the people looked like, what the done thing was in those days. And in the case of jacket-less books, I just enjoy the curiosity as to what this book might be about. Surely it’s a special, chosen book. I’ve read about tomes like this. They are discovered, their contents breathlessly poured over until they reveal astounding secrets. And sometimes they’re not.

And yes, I do enjoy penguin classics, but even those famous orange and off-white covers promise me something. They promise me a story that has been assessed by many people before me and has been chosen to be part of the all-time literary greats. They are the Penguin Classics. We know them and some of us love them.

Promises, intrigue, curiosity and above all else, imagination. That’s what these covers show us. A small preview of what to expect from these stories. I don’t think it makes us shallow to get a little excited about a book, because the cover looks so good. I think it just makes us human.

 

~Sandy

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Top tips for editing

Seeing that we recently touched on spelling I thought I would give you my top 5 tips for self-editing this week. Now these tips are not just for writers, but for anyone. Be it a cover letter with a resume or an email to a friend, these tips will make you sound better and hopefully stop those bad grammar habits so inherent in today’s society. But as this blog is focused on writing that is where my tips will be aimed at.

Although I always recommend getting a professional edit of any work before publication, some writers prefer to do it themselves. Even if you are going to get a professional edit, you should still give the manuscript a once over at least before sending it off for these services. Your editor will thank you.

In my time doing edits and proof reads, I have always come up against the same issues (even in my own work) because frankly, I get it, we think faster than we can type/write so mistakes are made, but they can be fixed. So here are my top tips on self-editing.

1. SPELL CHECK IS YOUR FRIEND… MOST OF THE TIME

Now spell checks can sometimes get things TOTALLY wrong or make some bizarre suggestions, BUT if you have it set to the right language settings, it will pick up a multitude of sins. So use it but be discerning.  Missing spaces and common misspellings can be eliminated easily (I personally am notorious for typing ‘teh’ instead of ‘the’, and ‘withe’ instead of ‘with the’).

2. CHECK YOUR HOMONYMS.

Homonyms are words that sound the same but are spelt differently. The big culprits are there, their and they’re; your and you’re; its and it’s; wander and wonder; where and wear; weather and whether; and which and witch. If you don’t know which one is right LOOK IT UP!

3. TENSE

This is something I see all the time as an editor. I find several occurrences of people swapping from past to present tense. First step is deciding which tense (past, present or future) you want to write in. Most common is past tense and future being least common (I couldn’t even think of an example of a book written in future tense, if you know one please tell me). An easy way to tell the difference is in connecting words like HAVE of HAS and verbs. I find, if you aren’t sure, reading aloud can help make it more obvious.

4. PUNCTUATION and CAPITALISATION

This one may seem obvious but so often I see missing full stops at the end of paragraphs or marks before quotation marks. As for capitalisation, unless it’s a proper noun (ie a name) or at the beginning of a sentence, you should second guess that capital letter.

5. CONTINUITY

Continuity is something that isn’t as common and much harder to check. If you write fantasy and are creating creatures and names and places, I recommend a running list of all the words you make up and all you’re characters. If a character’s name changes several times its going to confuse people. Also if there are words that can be written several ways eg. no one or no-one, make sure you stick to it.

So happy writing folks. Hopefully these five tips can help you to write better and stop your editors tearing their hair out.

~Sabrina

Published in: on August 27, 2011 at 2:20 pm  Comments (8)  
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Excerpts From The Edge

At the moment I’m reading On The Road by Jack Kerouac, a 1950’s Beat writer who hitchhikes across America, taking drugs, drinking and having sex with fine Mexican women. He writes about meeting people, experiencing their lifestyles and getting to know their journey through life. Kerouac finds solitude on the road. He lives in a constant state of poverty, fuelled only by the need for freedom and adventure. He sits in corn fields and watches the sun come up, he works where he can, picking cotton or begging his Aunty for money so he can live his life the way he wants and write about it.

If you skimmed through my bookshelf you could pull out half a dozen books written by people who live life on the edge. I’m attracted to these types of authors. I like the sense of freedom and careless abandon. I enjoy the fact that they don’t care about where they’re going to sleep that night or worry about house repayments or if they can pay the electricity bill. I like anything that isn’t the norm. I thought about the authors who had done all the things I wish I could do, go on adventures and write, and it made me think about a certain type of writer that seemed to have disappeared. Whatever happened to the times of carelessness, drug taking, beer swilling, travel logs, and madness? Where did these authors go?

One in particular took his own life in 2005. Hunter S Thompson invented Gonzo Journalism, where you put yourself in the story. This is evident in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where he was paid, as a journalist, to cover a desert race and ended up having a wild, drug and alcohol fuelled weekend with his lawyer. His other book, Hells Angels, placed him in another dangerous road trip with real bikies on a run through America. The Rum Diaries took him to Puerto Rico where he worked for a local newspaper and fell in love with his best friends girl. He puts himself into his work, he holds nothing back and has no fear of repercussions. Thompson walked that razors edge that most of us only see in movies or hear about, and are too afraid to actually do ourselves.

William Burroughs is another author who skated that thin line between insanity and normalcy. He put a water tumbler on his wife’s head at a party and tried to shoot it off with a hand gun in front of the whole party. He missed. He shot his wife in the head and killed her. He then went on to write Naked Lunch and Junkie, two books that will forever be remembered and talked about. If you walk into a book store today, Naked Lunch would most likely be in their top 100 list. These books were loosely based on his life and experiences. It was the 1950’s when homosexuality and drug taking were taboo. Burroughs was a pioneer, like Thompson and Kerouac. Their style and subject matter will always be relevant and gospel amongst new writers and avid readers.

Chuck Palahniuk even wrote a part autobiographical/ geographical book about himself in his home town called Non Fiction. He interviews people such as Marilyn Manson and Juliette Lewis, he even talks about his stint as a drug mule, smuggled steroids out of Mexico into America. He has also written a book called Fugitives and Refugees, where he interviews people who spent their lives building castles, crashing department stores dressed as Santa, and interviewing homeless people who prefer their lifestyles over the rich and famous.

My whole life I’ve attracted people who move in a different gear to me, and this may be why I’m attracted to this genre of writing. Some people are drawn to me like a moth to a flame, or maybe I’m drawn to them? Maybe I can see their sense of adventure and unwillingness to confine themselves to working, sleeping and eating – I can see they want more, I can see in their eyes that they are ready to do anything abnormal, to do anything fun and to get away from normalcy. They don’t adhere to expectedness – school, job, marriage, children, death. They have a different prerogative altogether, and I applaud that.

I walked down the streets of Melbourne last year and I saw a man several meters ahead of me. He was unlike anyone I’d ever seen in real life. Probably in his mid-fifties, long grey dreadlocks, piercings everywhere, tattoo up his neck and a long grey beard. He was handing out fliers as people tried their best to ignore him. I averted my gaze and tried not to make eye contact, but my gravitational pull was too strong and he saw me walking through the crowd. Immediately he made a detour and headed my way. In my head I was thinking, ‘please don’t talk to me, please don’t talk to me.’ Then he stood in front of me and put one bony finger on my chest. I thought, ‘oh no! Is this guy going to stab me?’ He was reading the print on my hoodie. He then handed me a flyer and started talking to me like we’d been friends forever. I later told a friend of mine in Melbourne what had happened and he said he was a known local guy and couldn’t believe he stopped to talk to me.

I like people like that, who ignore society’s expectations for conventionality. Who live just outside the realm of what is expected. And I love writers who live that way and write about it. The call for a more wild existence has been too strong for some. I would love nothing more than to hire a convertible, blast some music at top volume and toss a typewriter in the back seat and drive towards adventure and madness.

‘…too weird to live, too rare to die.’ – Hunter S. Thompson

Mitchell Tierney

Literary snobs

I recently read a brilliant argument regarding a book I dislike.

Twilight. By Stephanie Meyer. It has the literary world divided. There are the pro-twilighters and the anti-twilighters. Recently, I came across a brilliant argument made from the I-don’t-care-other-way-ers. It was from a teacher in the US who said that say what you want about the series, he found that kids who didn’t like books, who couldn’t care less about reading were picking up these volumes and having intelligent literary debates and discussions with him about the text. And for the first time in their lives, they cared about the written word. In his book (sorry, no pun intended), this was a definite positive and I must admit, I see the point as being very valid, indeed.

I have re-assessed a lot of my reading choices. My bookshelf is overstocked with books and while I have continually promised myself that I will not purchase another book unless I have finished reading the one’s I have, I have continually broken that little pie-crust promise. And what sort of material stocks my shelves? Well, I have to admit, it’s not always the classics.

Much of the material I have is (much like everyone else, I assume) either that special something that caught my attention, or perhaps something I need to read for a particular project I am working on. For example, when I write children’s books, I spend a great deal of time reading children’s books. It’s a brilliant way to get acquainted with that world, and because I tend to write a lot of adult fiction, it’s a great way to switch between worlds.

And yes, those little gems I find out and about on my literary treasure hunts aren’t all the big famous Robert Louis Stevensons or Aldous Huxleys. But the truth of the matter is that I just love a good story. And I love a good story-teller.  Whether they’re world renowned or not. Whether they’re apparently the greatest thing to happen to literature since the invention of the printing press, I really don’t give a rat’s right femur. I just want to be told a good story. And so that’s what rocks my bookshelves.

So I have to ask the question, does this make me a literary savage? I don’t own a single Tolstoy. I’ve never read any Goethe. Right, it’s off to the jungle to live on piranhas, with me! But I might be saved from piercing my septum with bones, because I do appreciate Oscar Wilde. But then, does that mean…could I be…am I literary snob?!

When did we become literary snobs? When did the process of evolution involve excluding people from intelligent discussions because they don’t like the same books as you?  Oh, every writer has their particular gripe with certain other authors or books, but have we allowed ourselves to become snobs? Do we look down our noses at people who don’t read the same things that we do, or don’t spend their time on 3000 page tomes, like they should?

Holy Cheese! I hope not. I don’t think of myself as a literary snob. I mean I’ve met some real snobs out there who question your level of intelligence because you aren’t reading Tolstoy and loving it. And I’ll be honest, those people make me want to reach over with a Tolstoy and slap them with it. But, there are a small group of books out there that I remember as the “well, I’m not getting those hours back, again” books and the one’s that I don’t bother to look twice at, because I just don’t feel that some are worth the paper they are written on. But who the hell am I to say that? I’m appalled. I’m terrified that I may be a literary snob. I don’t like the mills and boons books. Crap, I’ve done it now. I’m going to have to join the ranks of the elitists, wear robes everywhere, grow a moustache and smoke a pipe.

But here’s the cheese, there are some ‘classics’ out there that I know as a writer and book lover I should read, but I’m putting off. I know Tolstoy is important. I’ve seen his books. That’s what scares me. I want to give it a shot, because I’ve heard all right things about it. But I hate war stories. Just hate them. So I don’t know how I plan to get through War and Peace… I don’t want to read them. There, I’ve said it. And now I’ve been kicked out of the Elite Book Club, with its capital letters and its holier-than-thou members. I have to hand in my robes and pipe. Damn, I’ll miss the arm-chairs.

I don’t like being defined by these boundaries. And who the hell came up with them anyway? Why should they even be there? Just because you enjoy books, just because you enjoy writing, doesn’t mean you need to be a literary snob. Everyone’s going to come across a piece of writing that they won’t like. Sometimes it’s about the story, sometimes it’s something else. Sometimes you can’t even put your finger on what you don’t like.  It’s just something that rubs you the wrong way. Likewise, I’ve read some books of critical acclaim and wonder who acclaimed it.

And yes, I did read the Twilight saga, and here’s my big take on it. I actually liked the first book. I thought it was well-written and the story wasn’t bad and I didn’t even care about the sparkly vampire sparkling, because it was a different take on a myth, so I let it be. And then it went down-hill. The other books didn’t lift the story for me, they did the opposite and I felt significant chunks could have been taken out of the books, because I didn’t need to hear the main protagonists moan their angst for each other over and over again.  I actually put down one of the books, while I was reading and screamed across the room “Oh, just get on with it for ****’s sake!” I’m not a fan. And that’s just my opinion. Several millions of people disagree and good for them.

The thing is, when something is consigned to paper it becomes almost immortal. And that’s brilliant, but that doesn’t mean all the ideas are taken. And it doesn’t mean that all the stories have been told. Books and writing evolve with the story-tellers who weave these tales. It’s only natural that people are going to find some good literary work out there and love it. And it’s only natural that an equal amount of people are going to not like it. And yes, sometimes it’s about the writing style, but sometimes it’s just about the fact that a particular book is just not your cup of tea.

I like Jane Austen books. I find them entertaining, but according to a friend of mine, Austen is trash. I rebuff this with the Mensa-like intelligent response, “You’re trash.” Having said that, some of my favourite classic authors include Oscar Wilde and William Shakespeare (MacBeth – the darkness in that little genius bit of work, alone, is amazing!) but that doesn’t mean that just because you’re a ‘classic’ author, I’ll love the work.

I love Mary Shelley and love the way her evocative words still haunt me. I’ve had a similar experience with many Anne Rice novels. Supernatural fiction does things to me, I love it. But there are some supernatural authors whose works I never want to look at again. Just because the genre is awesome, doesn’t mean I like the way you weave a story.

Most people, myself included, look at a book as its own individual body of work and despite what people have said I like making up my own mind and deciding for myself if it is in fact a brilliant bit of work or not.

It doesn’t make us literary snobs to have an opinion on literary work. And likewise it doesn’t make us literary savages to not like what other people like. It makes us individual human beings. It makes us people who are willing to decide for ourselves what is truly deserving of such praise or not. And it’s a good thing that a lot of us disagree on things. We need to have discussions of this calibre. We need to debate why we liked a body of work and why we didn’t. We should question. We should read and decide. And to be honest, I’m sick of people who look down their noses at you because you disagree with their ‘fine’ opinion.  Screw you, snobs! I’m going to tell the world the truth about me right now, and shed this literati shame that follows people around, dragging its good friend, guilt, behind it.

I have no interest in reading Tolstoy! I’ve tried reading Dostoyevsky and haven’t even made it past the first chapter, but I’m keeping the book because the person who gave it to me means more to me than he’ll ever know! I’ve never read Dante’s Divine Comedies, though I plan to. I enjoyed Pride and Prejudice and Zombies! I refuse to read Jodi Picoult’s work! The first and only time I read Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, I thought it was as boring as guano! Now, I want to try it again, because the premise is good and I think I could appreciate it more. I barely made it through Lord of the Flies! I think To Kill A Mockingbird is damn good!  I’ve never read Plato’s Republic or Marx’s Das Capital or anything by either Nietzsche or Kierkegaard. (Although I am intrigued by Thus Spoke Zarathustra) and I hate Tess of the D’Ubervilles because it’s an appalling piece of work that makes you want to slit your wrists and take casualties.  I think The Prophet is clever and wise and I love Terry Pratchett because he is the penultimate genius.

And I think literary snobs can kiss my literary dust.

By Sandy Sharma

The Dead Chicken Hypothesis

I was watching a cooking show the other night on TV and saw the head chef talking about respecting the food and the animal they were about to cook with. They clean their benches down and take away the waste and never let an animal lying somewhere where it could be tainted or otherwise thought of as disrespectful. One of the contestants didn’t treat their chicken with the utmost respect when cooking it and was reprimanded for it by the head chef. I get the respect nature of cooking an animal, giving its life (involuntarily, but let’s not get into it), so you can eat. Respecting the process and the body after death is expected when preparing food. I thought  about the respect we give to the dead animal and it made me think of respect given to books.

I was walking through the hollowed out shell of Borders in Chermside Shopping Centre, (as its closing down due to bankruptcy), trying to find the hidden gems that might have fallen behind other books, or down the side of the shelves. Unlike a dead animal that we’re about to cook, I still thought books deserve equal respect. This was highlighted at that very moment. Seeing the books thrown onto shelves, their covers bent and dusty. They’d been moved around so much you can see fingerprints glistening off the once shiny, new covers. Then, just as I was about to wonder over to the Horror section, a Borders employee came over and started tossing the books on top of one another, moving them with such careless abandon that I felt shocked. I had to hold back everything inside of me not to leap over and tear his hands off the books and yell, ‘For god sake man! Treat these books with respect!’ They were once side by side with Stephen King, Hunter S. Thompson, Dean Koontz, Terry Pratchett, just to name a few. People looked at them and marvelled at what could possibly be entombed between the two flimsy covers and here is this brute throwing them around, aggravated that he will lose his job in a few weeks and lose any benefits he had worked hard for. Fair enough, but seriously, got kick a fence or something, don’t take it out on the books.

Within those pages are stories that you’ll be dreaming about, that’ll wake you up in the middle of the night, turn the light back on and keep reading. It’ll make you cry and weep like a small child, it’ll make laugh and want to thrown up. The fact is, you’ll never know what’s inside them, and therein lies the mystery of books. You can’t tell a book is bad/good by looking at it (except maybe the cover, but that’s another blog altogether). You could possibly be walking past the greatest book you’ll ever read, or the worst. It could inspire you to write yourself, to go and explore where the characters are based, or visit a country or town.

Sometimes people don’t give the books the respect they deserve. I mean, the writer has poured time and energy and thought and blood and sweat (and sometimes beer), and money into those pages. They given up something to try and write a book, be it family time, work, house duties, partner duties, whatever it may be, there is a level of respect that is needed. When I see someone folding the corner of a page to use as a bookmark it makes me feel ill. Is it so hard to tear off a piece of paper and use that? Maybe a receipt from shopping? Or just remember the page number?

I must admit, I did find a great book at one of those Newsagency weirdo book bin things. It was a Clive Barker book called Abarat. A milestone in his career (which I’ve talked about before). Abarat is a grand book, which took Clive Barker in a different direction in which he had been travelling in for so long. Abarat is a world which exists just past the ocean that comes from an open field with a lighthouse. The main character goes exploring for a report for school and stumbles upon amazing creatures and adventures. Clive Barker painted over 52 paintings for Abarat and over 300 for Abarat 2: Days of Magic, Nights of War. His paintings are extreme and talented. His creatures are monsters never thought of before, with strange descriptions that defy gravity and common sense. And there it was, in a cheap Newsagency book bin for $2.95. I bought it because I couldn’t let it go for that cheap, being brand new. I later found out it was a strange, stripped back, bare version of Abarat. It didn’t have any of the pictures in it. No paintings, no maps, no sketches, nothing. The cover was lame and boring and not like the cover I was used to, or had ever seen before. Is this what publishers do? Have one version for $30 with drawings and maps, printed on nice paper, sitting on a shelf in a bookstore that has a coffee shop in it, and a lame, naked version that looks sad and boring for a quick buy sale at the newspaper stand? To me, that’s disrespecting the chicken.

I couldn’t talk about disrespecting books and their contents and not talk about second hand bookstores. I don’t get the feeling of disrespectfulness when going into a second hand bookstore, I get the feeling of preloved, handing knowledge down, passing on a great book, recycling. I get the feeling as if they’ve already been treated well, or read by numerous people. It’s strange to say, that at first, I don’t like people bending the page to make a bookmark, or breaking the spine, but with second hand books, it seems ok. They were once new and hopefully handled well and read by numerous people and now it’s my turn to read it and pass it onto the next person.

There are some books that I just will NOT lend to people. ‘I’m sorry, no, you can’t borrow that,’ is what I normally say, this is follow by a strange perplexed look. Seriously, some books mean a lot to me, they’ve either been brought from somewhere at a time I cared a lot about, or they are amongst my favourite books that I want to keep in good condition. Some people, you can just tell won’t care about it, they’ll toss it in their car and forget about it, read it in the toilet, or break its spine and peel it back over itself like eating a piece of fruit and leave it outside in the rain. I used to be super strict with my comic collection too. I’d have all my comics in plastic sleeves with a backing board, so they wouldn’t bend. They were kept on a shelf and only read once.

Last year I read a book called ‘Good Omens,’ by two of my favourite authors – Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. In the prologue they talk about fans bringing the book to signings all ratty and broken, in pieces in a plastic bag and covered in coffee or mud. At the time I thought it was disrespectful, but the authors gave the readers permission to treat it like this. They wanted it to happen. Read it when you can, wherever you are, at any time. Who cares if you spill something on it or bend it, it’s just a book. After reading that, I don’t put my comics in plastic anymore, they’re on the shelf with the other books. I keep coffee cups near them and don’t mind too much if someone wants a loan of one. From now on, I’d rather people borrow my books and comics, so they too can have that great read like I had. I can recommend things to them and hand it over without the fear of destruction.

 

Mitchell Tierney