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Monkeys with Typewriters by Scarlett Thomas – Timely Book Review

Scarlett Thomas - Monkeys With Typewriters

Monkeys With Typewriters by Scarlett Thomas came out in October 2012, making this less untimely than most of my book reviews, and features the popular novelist and creative writing lecturer setting down, in a mere 400 pages (plus footnotes and appendices), her secrets to good writing.

There are, you may have noticed, a lot of books on writing out there. So, as someone who has already done a whole Masters on the subject, did I get anything extra out of Thomas's contribution to the genre? Well, yes and no.

Part One: Shall I Kill Them And When?

Broadly, this book splits into two sections: one on how to structure a novel, another covering the nuts and bolts of writing it. The first of these is the more interesting - Thomas has a lot to say about story structure and plotting, her feelings on “basic plots”, etc.

You might get more out of this if you work in a genre similar to her – fictional novel, probably literary. For any story, though, if you’re struggling to crystallise your ideas into a story shape, this book provides a thorough exploration, including tables and the like.

There are sections where Thomas spends ages picking apart concepts, rather than ploughing ahead; I also don't really agree with her about writing strictly “from experience” (and I'm not even a hard fantasy or sci-fi writer). Still, if you want to learn broad story shapes before playing with them, this is interesting foundation stuff, especially as my particular creative writing MA didn't go into this material in such detail.

Part Two: How Do I Make Their Deaths Beautiful?

The second part, rattling through such piffling items as “sentences” and “characterisation”, isn't quite as strong, and considering how fast we skip through such large ideas, I'm not sure Thomas is as interested in these aspects. The back half's still worth a skim, and if you've never read any writing books/advice before, you'll get more from it. But yes, for those of us who have reached the point of starting blogs about writing or doing an MA, a lot of this might sound familiar.

Still, Monkeys With Typewriters gave me a lot to think about in terms of broader plotting and working with themes, I may even try a few of her matrices. I don't know if this is a single writing book to live by, exactly, but as a solid introduction, it's intriguing.

Also, if you're a huge fan of Scarlett Thomas and want an insight into her process, this book is obviously great. But if you fall into that category, you've probably already bought it.

So, anyone else read this? Did it redefine your writing process?


Jo and the Novelist said...

I've read so many different writing books. I find I gleam bits and bobs from each rather than finding a single writing 'method' to stick to. I nearly always come across a rogue bit of advice that I disagree with and then start to wonder about the rest.

Nick MB said...

Yeah, Thomas got a little heavy on the "write what you know" sometimes, but I like her plotting approach. I could probably do with a little system and less winging it.

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