Does Your Book Pass the Bechdel Test? Does It Need To?

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The Bechdel test was developed in 1985 in – perhaps unusually – the comic strip of Alison Bechdel, an American cartoonist and 2014 recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant”. In it, two women discuss going to the movies and one of them outlines her requirements for seeing any of the films being shown. They have to meet three criteria:

*The movie has at least two female characters.
*The two female characters talk to each other.
*The conversation is about anything other than a man.

Bechdel credits the idea to her friend Liz Wallace, who was in turn apparently inspired by some of Virginia Woolf’s writing. Twenty-five years later, the Bechdel test gained mainstream recognition (maybe a sign of the times). Continue reading

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The Thirty Books That Spark My Joy

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Anyone who doesn’t live under a rock will have heard of Marie Kondo, the tidying expert. She helps people to declutter their homes and their lives and when it comes to books, she lives by the following motto: “I now keep my collection of books to about thirty volumes at any one time.”

As happens frequently on the internet, this statement went through a huge round of Chinese (or perhaps that should be Japanese, in light of her nationality) whispers and suddenly everyone was saying that Marie Kondo was telling people to throw away most, if not all, of their books.

She wasn’t saying that. Her general advice is that the items you do keep should spark your joy. And if books spark your joy, then feel free to have as many of them as you want.

Books spark my joy. I have thousands. I have an entire room just for my books. I could have bought a cheaper house if books didn’t spark my joy so much. Still, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to find the thirty books that really spark my joy. Continue reading

The Rules of Reading

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Sometimes I have a love-hate relationship with reading. I love to read. I hate finishing a book and wishing it had been better. One-third of the way through reading a non-fiction book that has been well-reviewed, that has set the author up to write a series of similar books and has established her as a figurehead of the “fuck up the patriarchy” movement (I’m paraphrasing but that’s definitely the kind of language she would use), I was finding it a bit… tedious. So much so that the idea of picking it up again made me not want to read at all.

I looked longingly instead at my TBR pile. And then had guilt. The most ridiculous kind of guilt. As if I was considering cheating. On a book. Because of some arbitrary rules that I must have set for myself somewhere along the way without realising it.

So I’m creating a new set of reading rules (as much for myself as for anyone else).

You don’t have to buy a book.
If you want to own a book, then you have to buy it. But if you just want to read it, then you can borrow it from a library or someone you know who has a copy of it. But whatever you do, you must never steal a book. Never download a pirated copy of a book. It is stealing from the author. If you can’t afford to buy a copy, become a member of a library and borrow it. Some authors will even give you a free copy of their book if you ask nicely. It doesn’t cost anything except a little bit of your time.

You don’t have to read all genres.
Reading widely is a great way of expanding your knowledge of the world. But most of us read simply for pleasure and the expansion of our knowledge is just a by-product. If we are reading for pleasure, then it’s unlikely we are going to enjoy all genres of writing. If you don’t enjoy a particular genre, then you don’t have to read it. It’s completely counterintuitive. If you only enjoy one genre and you only want to read that one genre, then you are perfectly within your rights.

You don’t have to stick to one genre.
There is also nothing that says you can’t read more than one genre. Read them all if you like. Read any combination of genres that satisfies your reading appetite. Read the popular and the obscure, read the bestsellers and the flops, read the critically acclaimed and the universally panned, read fiction and non-fiction, read romance and horror, read thrillers and dramas, read sci-fi and historical, read steampunk and erotica, read fantasy and urban realism, read crime and westerns, and when you’re done reading all the genres that exist now, look for new ones because they are being invented every day.

You don’t have to read age-appropriate or demographic-appropriate books.
Most fiction seems to get divided up into categories based on which age group it is meant for: pre-school, new readers, middle grade, young adult, new adult and adult. And then there are the categories we’re told we should like based on who we are: women’s fiction for women, adventure for men, sci-fi for nerds and so on. But you can read books from any or all of these classifications. Most publishers stumble into books that go on to be bestsellers and that’s if they aren’t too busy falling all over themselves to reject them completely. The idea that they know who should be reading what, better than the readers themselves, is laughable.

You don’t have to read a book just because everybody else is.
FOMO (fear of missing out) is real, even when it comes to reading. But just because everybody else is reading a book because it was Oprah’s pick or it had a billion dollar marketing budget or it’s currently being made into a movie that may or may not suck doesn’t mean you should feel obligated. Getting sucked into reading a book that everybody else seems to be talking about often means it will fail to meet expectations because they’re almost never as good as the hype suggests. It’s perfectly reasonable to instead spend that time reading something you actually want to read rather than something you have just been tricked into reading.

You can read the last page of the book before reading the first.
Oh, how it pains me to write that! You will never catch me reading the last page of a book before reading all the other pages before it linearly. Mostly because the words have no real meaning to me if I haven’t read all the words before them. But if reading the last page of a book before diving in at the start is what floats your boat, then go for it. If it’s a crime, then it’s certainly a victimless one.

You don’t have to finish reading a book just because you started it.
On several occasions, I’ve read books – struggled through them actually – only to find that getting to the end made all of that struggle worth it. And with just as many (probably more), I’ve struggled through only to find that it wasn’t worth it at all. And then there are the books that I never finished. The one I always cite is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. It just didn’t speak to me. But there have been a few others. The Haldeman Diaries, a memoir kept by HR Haldeman for the four years he was Richard Nixon’s Chief of Staff. It’s still in my library with a bookmark marking the place where I gave up over a decade ago. I might go back to it one day. But I might not. And that’s perfectly okay.

You don’t have to finish reading a book before starting to read another.
Ah, the dilemma that propelled me into writing these rules. I’m not very good at remembering what happened in a book if I don’t read it all in one go, so I try to stick to one book at a time. But whether it’s circumstances or the book itself, sometimes you feel like reading but don’t feel like reading that particular book. So it’s completely acceptable to read something else instead. You might go back to the other book. You might not. It’s entirely up to you.

You don’t have to like a book just because everybody else does.
I won’t name the two books that I dislike the most but one of them is considered a classic (my review: “this is the story of – to be frank – nothing very interesting and nothing much happening… the kind of bad novel a teenage boy might write before compiling a manifesto and then going on a killing spree”) and the other was made into a TV show (my review: “the only redeeming thing about this book is that it serves as an important lesson for everyone out there writing: if something as bad as this book can be published, then there’s still hope for the rest of us”). Different books speak to different people for different reasons and just as often they don’t speak to us at all. There’s no right and there’s no wrong when it comes to opinions, just lots and lots of them.

You don’t have to like everything one author writes.
Some writers write to the same formula in book after book. If you like the formula, then you’ll probably consider that a good thing. But it’s possible that you might get tired of the formula after a while. Similarly, some writers bore themselves sticking to the same writing formula, so decide to try something different. They might like the results. You might not. It is not compulsory to like everything that comes from one writer. And if the day comes that it is compulsory, then they’re no longer an author, they’re a cult leader.

You don’t have to review a book once you’ve finished reading it (but the author would probably appreciate it if you do).
If it isn’t clear by now, let me spell it out for you one last time: when it comes to reading, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. And that includes posting reviews. Yes, writers like reviews (particularly positive reviews) and if you can manage it, they’ll be eternally grateful. But if you can’t, then don’t worry. You don’t owe them anything. In fact, if you’ve read their book, then you’ve already done more for them than most people have.

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So that’s it. And the rules of reading all really come down to one thing: do whatever the hell you want. As long as you keep reading. After all, as Mark Twain so eloquently put it, those who don’t read have no advantage over those who can’t read.

Should I Stop Telling You What to Do?

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Recently, I was scrolling through Twitter (as I do several times a day) when I came across a post from either someone I follow or someone who had been liked, retweeted or commented on by someone I follow. (It’s hard to tell sometimes.) The poster essentially said that unless you were Stephen King or some other bestselling writer, then he didn’t think he should read or follow any advice you might have about writing. Most of the comments agreed with him. Some even thought that the only way to improve was to write more (but not to listen to advice on how they might be able to write better).

I have no problem with Stephen King. I have his book On Writing. I’ve read it. I don’t consider it a Bible on the craft. I’ve written and published two books on writing myself. I’m close to completing a third. I don’t consider any of them definitive guides on writing. (Obviously, if one of them was a Bible on writing, I’d be a lot more successful than I am now and I wouldn’t have needed to write the other two.) I have many books on writing. None of them render all other books on writing irrelevant. Continue reading

Why I Don’t Go to Libraries Anymore (and Why I Love Them Anyway)

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My local council has recently built an architectural award-winning building (even though I’ve heard people describing the outside as looking like Donald Trump’s hair) and moved both its offices and the library into it. I’m assured it’s beautiful inside. I wouldn’t know. I haven’t gone in and don’t have any plans to.

I don’t go to libraries anymore. The last time I went to a library was with my sister and her then pre-school aged daughter on one of their weekly trips to return the children’s books they’d borrowed and select some more. Before that? A body corporate meeting of unit owners where I lived that just happened to be in a hired meeting room at a library. And before that? During my undergraduate studies, which I finished when I was twenty-two (nearly half my lifetime ago). Continue reading

How to Proofread Like a Professional

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You’ve written, you’ve rewritten, you’ve had your manuscript assessed, you’ve rewritten again (and possibly again), you’ve had it edited and it’s finally time for your book to be published. If you’ve already paid a manuscript assessor and editor and you can afford a proofreader as well, then go ahead and do it. A professional will always be able to do a better job than you. But if you’re looking for a way to save a few bucks and you’re confident you have the skills to take on the final stages yourself, then here’s how to proofread like a professional. Continue reading

Preparing for the First Time You’re Asked for Your Autograph

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Anna Scott: Oh, signed by the author, I see.
William Thatcher: Um, yeah. Couldn’t stop him. If you can find an unsigned one, it’s worth an absolute fortune.
Notting Hill

Rufus: Can I have your autograph?
Anna Scott: Sure. What’s your name?
Rufus: Rufus. [She writes on a scrap of paper and hands it to him.] What’s it say?
Anna Scott: That’s my signature and below it it says, “Dear Rufus, you belong in jail.”
Rufus: Right. Good one.
Notting Hill

There is nothing quite so humbling for an author as the first time you are asked for your autograph. I distinctly remember my first time. It was just a few weeks after I’d released my debut novel and it was a guy who worked with my mum. But since I’d released Enemies Closer as an ebook only, I couldn’t sign a copy of my book for him. Instead, I printed a copy of my one and only professional head shot, wrote a message about how this was the best I could do until I did publish the book physically, autographed it and emailed it to my mum so she could forward it on to him.

For some, though, being asked for an autograph can also be a little bit frightening. After all, if you haven’t prepared for that moment, it can be flustering. Why? Here are a few reasons. Continue reading