Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Bunch of Cults No.4: Perdido Street Station

This is part of an ongoing series of weird and wonderful stories from off the beaten path. Others in the series can be found here.

This post is in two parts. Firstly a look at one of the brightest stars in British sci-fi/fantasy, a work of great creativity. And secondly a few thoughts on the way we read, in particular skimming. How we do it, why we do it, and is there anything wrong with it?

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville is a steam punk novel set in a world with similarities to Victorian England, but with odd machines, alien-looking inhabitants and a touch of magic. The world created is very convincing and inventive. The story is about a tyrannical and oppressive regime sent into convulsions when an unstoppable monster is accidentally released into the city skies. (For a more detailed review of this book please check out my profile on Goodreads—anyone also a member of that site feel free to friend me, always looking for fellow readers to discuss books with).

The Hook
A plethora of interesting new creations, monsters, adventurers, scientists and rogues. slake moths that suck your dreams out through your mouth, bird men that believe all crime is choice-theft, insect women with beautiful human bodies. Fantasy without elves and dwarves is quite a departure from the norm, and to be this successful must mean there's something new and exciting here. And there is.

700 pages. It's a monster.

Live up to the hype?
There is a very exciting story here. The problem is it doesn't start until after 300 pages in. The build up sets the scene very nicely, you get a very clear picture of the world and since it's so alien maybe you need that. But I found myself skimming large parts to get to the good bits. 

Not that it stopped me reading. And for sure I'll read other books he's written. This was a good book. But I didn't want all of it, I just wanted the good bits.

Now, it could be said the slow burn gives you an attachment to characters that you don't otherwise get. And certainly I have read books that get straight into the action, many of Elmore Leonard's books, where it all moves at a fair old clip but you never really get more than a rough idea of who the main characters are and don't care all that much what happens to them.

Which bring me to the second part of this post:

You Be Skimming

It is always very clear to me when reading, which bits I can skip without missing anything. Sometimes it's a long wodge of description. Sometimes it's leaving the good storyline and re-entering a storyline I'm already bored with. Often it's journeys between places.

This happens in some very good books. I get to a section and I just don't care. The writer must have felt it was important or interesting or worthwhile putting it in. The writer was wrong. Because when it comes to reading I am the one in control and the writer can't make me read what I don't want to read. 

The part I will read is at the start, the part agents and publishers tell you must be captivating and engaging from the off. If I've heard a book is good I will struggle through two or three chapters of nothing happening no problem.  I think that's where you can get to know the characters. But after that I won't follow the road signs, I'll judge for myself what's pertinent and what's not.

Which makes me wonder as a writer, how do I find the balance between boring the reader with endless description of stuff I've been daydreaming about and which seems wildly interesting to me, and leaving the reader in a vacuum where characters come and go without being missed? I know I can spot it a mile off in the books I read, surely I can train myself to see it in my own writing. Or is it just one of those things that are always invisible to ourselves?


Suze said...

Wow. 300 pages. Now, that is a slow burn.

Munk said...

Your discussion on skimming is very intriguing.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I found myself skimming sometimes in George R.R. Martin's novels. Something about fantasy writers says that when you've put in your time and got an established name, you can write till there are no more trees left in the world to print your book.

Nas said...

Thanks for sharing this interesting post, and I also tend to skim at times so how do we get the balance between boring and necessary information?

Angela Cothran said...

China Mieville is great. I love his book Un Lun Dun!

mooderino said...

@Suze-makes my novel seem like a rocket launching.

@Munk-I only wish I could understand it a little better.

@Michael-I think it's terrible and lazy and those people are undeserving of their huge wealth. I wish I was one of them.

@Nas-if I knew i would tell you.

@Angie-I'm thinking of reading The City The City next. Anyone read it?

Tiyana said...

For me, as a reader I tend to want just info that’s relevant to the scene at hand (which may be part of the main plot but could be a related sub-plot) delivered gradually in bits and pieces or in less than half a page, but this isn't always the case. Sometimes I actually find longer chunks of info amusing, depending on the voice and style it is told in. Though, as you can see, this is very subjective to my tastes as a reader. (And hey, sometimes it’s nice to have chunks of descriptive exposition breaking up long stretches of dialogue and/or action. I prefer a mix.)

Ultimately, I think that writers should write descriptions they know they’d want to read, personally. Other people can give you their opinion as to what works and what doesn’t, which may/may not help, but ultimately you are the judge of what’s important and what’s worth caring about in your own story.

I actually blogged a little about this earlier yesterday and there was some discussion about it, and one fellow reader/writer even points out a good exception to the general rule I use. (I always find it strange when I learn that someone else it talking about the same things on the same day, lol.)

Brent Wescott said...

I've been meaning to read Mieville when I get a little time. Whenever that is.

Anyway, I've never been a skimmer. I can't tell, as you can, when I won't be miss something important. Plus, I really like to focus on the language. I don't really care if the plot is bogged down if the description is good. I can read Neal Stephenson all day without getting any further into the plot because his language is so fun.

Alleged Author said...

Ugh...300 pages in? Stephen King is the only one I have patience for when reading quite a bit of characterization before plot, and even then he tries my patience sometimes.

mooderino said...

@Tiyana - I assume writers always think what they're writing will be interesting, even fascinating to the reader. They're often wrong (as far as I'm concerned anyway) but I think they must feel it's all gold. No?

@Brent - I can enjoy it in a short story maybe, but not a novel. Maybe that's the norm.

@Alleged - yes, King often likes to go long. I wonder if anyone's mentioned it to him. Probably not.

Alleged Author said...

Heh heh...I'm guessing not because he makes agents/publishers a lot of money. :P

Tiyana said...

Ultimately I think most writers hope that what they're writing is interesting, though I can't say that all writers actually know that what they're writing is interesting--because "interesting" is a subjective thing. It's different for everyone.

You originally asked if spotting uninteresting content is something that is always invisible to the writer. In one sense, I think it is because you can never know what everyone else finds interesting. The best you can do is sample a few opinions from early readers and gauge your work from there.

Yet, in another sense, I don't think it's always invisible because some readers will end up having similar ideas about what's interesting as you do. Though, in the end, isn't that the audience you want to be writing for?

John Wiswell said...

It can be imperceptible as we're writing. Some highly critical writers may be able to pick up the elements of boredom and "darlings" from the first draft. I've caught a few recurring indicators in my work, like when one character goes on talking for more than a paragraph. In my experience, though, I hedge bets. I always put anything over 2,000 words away for at least a month, and with novels it's longer. I have to come back to it forgetting how much of it was composed and how I felt at that time. With a reader's eyes, like you said Moody, it's very easy to spot what needs trimming, reshaping or utter removal. Even if I develop a keen sense of what to cull on the fly, I'll still invest in a period of removal within the drafting process.

Christa Desir said...

Hmm...hard to say on this one. I am a skimmer. Frequently. I find over description to be fairly annoying and there is a very rare time when I need a world "built" for me. Even in fantasy. There are only so many variations of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones that can be done.
However, my betas constantly call me on my lack of descriptive settings, etc. I am an underwriter when it comes to that sort of thing. I guess the answer is to lean heavily on your betas until you master it yourself.

Rebecca Bradley said...

If it took 300 pages to get going I know I would have put it down. I think my reading habits have changed. When I was a teenager I used to read some doorstop size books, but now I need things to be quicker. It's something I've heard discussed before. Our lives are so busy we rarely have the time to sit and indulge in a slow moving descriptive world. I need fast movement and I hope that I can put that into my own writing. I do wonder when writing though, if I'm actually cutting too much out!

Unknown said...

Great series..i have been looking for this kind of books.Really find interesting and insightful.Such a truly powerful book and a beautiful testament to the impact that mere words can have!
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mooderino said...

@AA-I suspect you're right. Make money, do what you want.

@Tiyana-I think as a writer you believe what you are writing is interesting, so others will also fing them so. And sometimes you're right.

@John-yes, time certainly helps. But as in the case of this book, the writer probably went over it many times, had professional editors to help him, and still chose to indulge in a glorious, sweeping panorama of description that I completely bypassed. Maybe that's okay.

@Christa-I don't mind description per se, it's when it goes on and on just as an aside that it gets boring for me.

@Rebecca-the thing was the second half really was very good, and there was a lot of stuff in the first half you needed to know. Just the pace of it that was killer.

@daniel-glad you're liking it.

Arlee Bird said...

When I'm reading fiction I cannot bring myself to skim, but sometimes I do read without retaining much. I have even at times in cases such as these gone back to reread. Uninteresting is not good, but one has to wonder why an author would retain portions such as this, and if perhaps it is only uninteresting to certain readers while being tremendously interesting to others. It makes me think of when reviewers or others will quote passages from a book and I'll think, "What's so great or so interesting about that--to me it's rather blah." It may come down to matters of taste. An example might be a lengthy description of a chess game, a sports event, or something for which I have no interest and the passage doesn't resonate with me therefore I just pass through it without gaining anything from it or retaining any of it. Ultimately, it comes down to how well written the passage is--a masterful recounting of something I would normally find boring will hold my interest if it somehow touches me.

Tossing It Out

F said...

I haven't read this one. I really love China Mieville, and I was going to buy it, but Em said he thought we already had it. If we do, it's in one of the great boxes of books waiting for the living room shelves to be built so we have somewhere to put them. I should maybe just get it from the library.

RE: Skimming
I don't do this consciously, not often. Though there are times when I find myself thinking "Wait, huh, what?" and flipping back to realize I don't remember the past two or three pages at all. I don't know if it's the writer at fault. I do most of my reading in the evening, so it could just be my tired brain.

There are times when I do skim consciously, like you said, often wodges of description. I have, on occasion thought, "Oh god, blah blah blah, GET ON WITH IT ALREADY." I won't embarrass any books by naming them, but they are the ones I've begun to put down.

As far as the writer's decision, I think it's partly dictated by genre. With Meiville, I think extensive description is practically a hallmark of the fantasy genre. Certainly it's more tolerated than in thrillers or serial romance. (Though there are exceptions.)

mooderino said...

@Lee - I agree there is an elent of personal preference in what we're talking about, but sometimes I do wonder.

@Frankie - I think everyone does that thing where they realsie they haven't taken in any of the last two pages, I just wonder if it's the same two pages for everyone.

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