About Suspensions of Disbelief and American Horror Story

Happy new year everyone!

I know I’ve been excessively absent for a while, but one of my resolutions is to post at least one thing every week, even if its small. Maybe that will involve more reviews of books, movies, and TV shows and the narrative elements which work in them or the ones that fall apart.

Like many people over the winter holidays, freed from the requirements of work and school, I’ve taken to binge-watching TV series’ on Netflix. That phenomenon, and how it has changed the way TV shows are written and produced, could very well be the topic of another post. Today, however, I want to talk about the show I watched: American Horror Story. Specifically, I want to talk about season two: Aslyum and why it felt weaker to me than seasons one and three.

Small Spoiler Warning

While I won’t be talking about specific plot points in this post, I will be discussing the premise of each season, which may necessarily reveal some of the plot. If you haven’t seen the show yet and want to watch it completely unspoiled, I recommend it. If you’ve already seen it, or want to take the risk of a big plot element being revealed, then read more to hear my take on it.

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About Light Novels and the new Standard of Readability

If you don’t know what a light novel is, it’s a kind of literature pretty much limited to Japan.  They’re written primarily for young-adult audiences, but are distinct from traditional young-adult novels. They’re usually serialized chapter-by-chapter in magazines before being gathered into full-volumes (a topic which I’ll probably discuss later because I love the idea of serialization).

Rental Magica, a Light Novel written by Makoto Sanda

Rental Magica, a light novel written by Makoto Sanda

A lot of people define light novels by the fact that they’re illustrated, which they are (usually in manga-style), but I disagree with that. I think it’s possible to have an illustrated novel that isn’t light and a light novel that isn’t illustrated. To me, the difference is wholly in the style of the writing, and that’s why I’m so interested in them.

The first thing to notice about how light novels are written is that they tend to be…shall we say playful…with the conventions of the language. It’s not uncommon to see musical notes used as punctuation, as well as things like “What???!!?!?!??” and my personal favorite: “…” to indicate a pointed silence. Whether it’s grammatically correct or not to use ellipses that way I think it’s fantastic. And sometimes they go on forever, taking up entire lines so that you can actually feel the awkwardness of it as you read.

But that’s all superficial. The real differences is that they’re very minimalistic in terms of their writing style. They’re generally shorter than regular novels, though not always (and, just as we see in regular novels, they tend to get longer the farther into a series you go). The good ones use their illustrations to make providing descriptions quicker and more fluid (a picture is worth a thousand words, after all), which can be helpful in cutting out some of the bloat. But again, that’s not necessary.

What really makes them faster reading is how their paragraphing is laid out. It’s rare in a light novel to see a paragraph longer than three sentences. This actually makes a huge difference in terms of reading speed. On my best day I can get through a full-length novel in eight hours. I can get through a light novel in three and get just as much out of the experience. The best example I’ve seen in American literature is the Danial X series by James Patterson and various co-authors (no paragraph is longer than three sentences and no chapter is longer than three pages).

This actually brings me to my main point, about what it means for a novel (or anything for that matter) to be “readable.” By definition that would mean if you are capable of reading it, it’s readable. But when we say that, we’re usually only thinking in terms of legibility, of whether or not it can be understood. Yes that’s an important thing to keep in mind, but there’s another question that is equally important that must be kept in mind: Is anyone going to take the time to read this?

There are some people who absolutely love books. For them, reading is its own reward. For them, the time spent reading isn’t a factor. That’s fine, and that’s why books like Ulysses get published despite being hellish verbal bogs through which readers must fight for every step forward. But I would argue that most of the market for novels isn’t made up of this kind of bibliophile. They’re not reading to be reading, they’re reading to be entertained. To hear a story, to see something different or unusual. And for a time, books were the only game in town if you wanted that kind of diversion.

But not anymore. Now books need to compete with movies, TV, video games, and comics to earn the right to entertain us, and just looking at the time commitments involved books don’t look so good. Let’s say it takes an average person ten hours to read a full novel. In that time, they could watch nearly seven movies or an entire 13-episode series of a TV show (I should know, I spent the first part of my winter vacation getting caught back up on How I Met Your Mother when I still have unread books on my shelves).

I believe that each media has some advantages over the others. There are things books can do that movies will never even come close to touching. But are those things really worth a whole 8.5 hours of someone’s life per book? With more things to occupy our time than ever before, now more than ever every moment is valuable and how we choose to spend it matters.

In light of this, I think the traditional ideas of readability, as well as the traditional idea of the novel, may need to change and adapt to the modern marketplace or else face extinction. This is why the style of the light novel interests me so much, because anything we can do to make our writing just that much faster will definitely help it stand out and ultimately survive.

But those are just my thoughts. What are yours?

Podcast: FSoG Critique, chapter 1

Hey everyone!
As promised, here’s my podcast critique of the first chapter of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey. Download link below:

Download it Here!!!

Sorry if it’s a little rough, this is my first time doing something like this. The quality gets a little better towards the end, but it is what it is. If you enjoy it, feel free to share the link.

Remember I do not own this book. This is only my opinion and is meant to use the text to teach and talk about writing. Feel free to read along with me and share your thoughts in comments. If you don’t have the book, you can buy it here.

Music courtesy of Piano Society. Seriously, check them out if you like classical music.

Let me know if you enjoy this or find it helpful/interesting. If you want me to keep going and do chapter 2 as well let me know, or if there’s another popular book you’d rather hear me talk about next.

About Reading [Poorly Written Books]

Sometimes it makes you want to pull your hair out, but it's worth it...usually.

There are two ways to learn how to write: by reading and by writing. Both of them are equally important. All it takes to get experience writing is a pen and paper or a word processor and a laptop. As for reading, you read all the best books you can get your hands on. Isn’t that enough?

I don’t think so.

I think a flaw in the way we teach English in America, at least in terms of preparing students to write their own stories and novels, is that we have a bias toward good books. Think about it, what did you read and analyze in high school? Shakespeare? Moby-Dick? Huckleberry Finn? Catcher in the Rye? Chances are, you read nothing but classics. Even if you had a progressive teacher who had you reading current books, I’ll bet they were still award winning and well-written.

There’s nothing wrong with reading good books. That’s how we as budding writers begin to develop our own voices and styles. We read them to see how they did what they did, so that we can one day write like them. From the good books we read come our aspirations and inspiration.

But that’s only half of the picture that we, as aspiring writers, need to be successful. Watching a master dance effortlessly through a mine field might take your breath away and inspire you, but it won’t do anything to show you where the mines are buried. Maybe one rare genius may be able to follow in their footsteps exactly and not blow herself up. But for the rest of us it can more helpful to watch someone else step on a mine so that know where it’s buried.

That’s where poorly written books come in. Notice I don’t call them bad, because I believe a book can be at once both good and poorly written. To me, a bad book is one that fails to meet its own expectations. Books like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, despite being written with all the grammatical understanding of a gerbil, are, I would argue, good books. I certainly don’t enjoy reading them, but many, many people do. And that’s all those books want for themselves. They’re not meant to be literature, to withstand the test of time and be this generation’s Sound and the Fury. They’re meant to be the potato chips of the literary world, consumed quickly and without thought, and by anyone’s count they’ve certainly succeeded at this.

But they are still poorly written, earning their success in spite of their writing as opposed to because of it. Books like this can get away with being poorly written, but they don’t have to. And these authors all make a lot of the same mistakes.

So even though it can be painful, read them. Learn from their mistakes so you don’t make the same ones in your own writing. You may not enjoy yourself, but I think your writing will be better for the experience. After all, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

What do you think? What are some of the most poorly written books you’ve ever read and did you learn anything about how not to write from them? I’ll share some of my own experiences later. I’m even thinking of making a podcast reading and critiquing Fifty Shades if that would be something anyone is interested in (I’m certainly not looking forward to the idea but I think it’s worth doing).