Monday, 19 March 2012

A little about When God Was A Rabbit, but not really.

I've mentioned it before - I'm always fascinated by the behind-the-scenes of blogging.  I know when, how, and where I write my own blog posts, but I'm aware that each blogger does these things slightly (or, indeed, very) differently.  I've recently finished When God Was A Rabbit by Sarah Winman, which I'm going to talk about a tiny amount, because my musing on it headed me off in a different direction - about how we structure blog posts.  Yep, it's going to be a meta-post, if you will (stolen joke alert: I'm so meta, even this acronym.)

How do you start?  (Sorry, non-bloggers, these questions won't mean much to you.)  How do you structure your posts?  I have realised that, increasingly, I start from one or two key quotations, noted in the book (in pencil, naturally) and one or two key bullet points, in my head.  Without those (especially given the gap in time between reading and reviewing) I am rather lost.

But how do I go about finding those quotations?  The short answer is, I don't know.  I think my blog reviews are a little more reliant on supportive quotations than many bloggers, but I know there are some of you who also quote a lot - how do you choose?  Studying English literature, especially when at undergraduate level, I was well trained in the art of reading a novel without knowing how I would write about it - usually, then, without having a predetermined essay question - so I'd just be reading, say Fanny Burney's Evelina and hoping to find a good essay topic in the midst of reading.  (In Evelina's case, I wrote about laughter... did you know that she half-laughs and almost-laughs and thought-of-laughing a huge amount, after the embarrassing laughter scene at the ball, but doesn't actually laugh again until she is engaged?  Truedat.)

Gosh, I am easily sidetracked.

So, how do I (how do you) choose these excerpts?  I tend to have a pencil at the ready, to note down any particularly amusing or poignant sections - or, preferably, a paragraph or two which seem to me to encapsulate the feel of the book.  Which is quite a nebulous and ill-defined brief, but perhaps you do the same, and thus can understand?  I certainly have almost no hope of finding a useful quotation once I've finished reading the book.  Once I've got that, I can expand outwards - my summary and response of the book needs that central few examples to circle out from.  If I didn't make a note of the page number whilst I was reading, then... those are the posts which don't have any excerpts.

Which brings me onto Sarah Winman's When God Was A Rabbit (2011), which I read recently for book group.  I quite liked it; I thought the writing was good and the structuring not very good.  There was just far too much in it - a bit like a soap opera.  I think Winman will either go on to write increasingly good novels, or she will stop now, having put everything she could think of into When God Was A Rabbit.

But the main reason I'm not going to write a full-length review of the novel is because I got to the end of it without having noted down any excerpts.  There wasn't a single passage which struck me as being especially noteworthy - for whatever reason.  Of course, you could simply say that this makes Winman very consistent; there weren't any pages I noted down for being awful, either.  But it does make it more or less impossible for me to begin to structure a post about the book.  Or, rather, it would end up like one of the reviews I wrote when I started my blog - very short and very hazy!


So, there you have it.  If a novel doesn't present two or three of these excerpts whilst I'm reading, I'm all lost at sea.  How about you?  Do you flick back for quotations after you've finished, or make notes as you go along?  And are there any books you've just felt incapable of writing about - for different reasons than those discussed in relation to In Cold Blood last week!   Just because you don't know where to start, or how to frame it.

Gosh, Stuck-in-a-Book is just becoming a place where I discuss why I'm not reviewing books, isn't it?!

29 comments:

  1. I read this a while ago and it did not do anything for me despite reading such a lot of very positive reviews on this book.

    Your style of blogging is perfect so do not change anything!!

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    1. Thanks Mystica, what a lovely thing to say!
      And we do seem to be similarly nonplussed by Winman's novel...

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  2. I find I can still review any book I read whether I have an excerpt or not. I find an excerpt will just jump out at me as something I was moved by or noticed it specifically. I tend to go with the first or second one b/c otherwise I'll be distracted by looking for more. If nothing stands out, I look for another angle to the book. Agree with the comment before this one. Don't change a thing.

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    1. I'm impressed that you can find them again - I certainly can't! I tend to remember whether the particular quotation was on the left-hand or right-hand side, but that is all...

      And thanks so much :)

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  3. “We’ve got to start by finding a ruined city of giants,” said Jill. “Aslan said so.”

    “Got to start by finding it, have we?” answered Puddleglum. “Not allowed to start by looking for it, I suppose?”

    Read more: http://www.quotesquotations.com/narnia/the-silver-chair-quotes.htm#ixzz1pXs1vmeE

    I guess your answer lies here - just keep looking!

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    1. Ha! I think noting them down in the first instance saves a lot of time ;)

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  4. I make notes as I'm reading of quotes, key ideas etc. I just note down page numbers in my phone, so I can alter the exact wording I take, depending on how the rest of the book turned out.

    Last week, I attempted to review Oliver Twist, and just couldn't do it, because I felt that my audience already knew everything I was going to try and tell them. I ended up telling the story of how I got my particular copy instead, which is more interesting than it sounds!

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    1. I jot down in pencil in the book, because when I make notes on bookmarks or on my phone, I invariably lose/forget to look at them!

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  5. Is it possible that not finding a quotable quote is a pretty useful marker in itself for judging a book? I didn't get beyond the first few pages of the Rabbit book simply because it felt so bland and familiar, despite being packed with incident.

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    1. I think it might well be, Sally! It certainly suggests either consistency or mediocrity...

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  6. Not a blogger, just a blog reader. When I read for a book group discussion, I just have to note the crucial quotes, no chance they will let themselves be found later.

    This post is fascinating, Simon, nothing I like more than a good glance behind stage to see how the magic is being achieved.

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    1. I love it too, Martina! Our blogs all look more or less the same (within a fairly broad spectrum) but I suspect the way we create posts, from reading the book onwards, is very different.

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  7. I just start writing -- I may rewrite the beginning later once I get further on in the review, but I just let it write itself, basically. I do quote quite a lot, but only if the prose is striking enough to warrant it. But I don't mark or note down passages or very rarely -- I just note them in my head, and then have a terrible scramble sometimes finding them again. Not the most sensible way of doing things! But I am not very organised when it comes to that sort of thing -- obviously I was when I did a lot of writing, but now I just let things slide and hope for the best. Usually there are only one or two passages I feel like quoting anyway, and I can remember more or less where they are. Too much information, I expect, but you did ask.

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    1. I did ask, and I am really interested!
      Very impressed by your ability to find the quotations, even if it is a scramble - I'd have to re-read the whole thing, probably.

      I don't really edit, but nor do I write my reviews in a linear way. I do a quick intro to how I came upon the book, then type out all the quotations, and work backwards from there...

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  8. Very interesting, Simon. I do as you do - noting anything which stands out as I come upon it. Like you, I had no notes on that book and I agree that there is far too much in it (and to a degree that's implausible). I likened it to an over-decorated Christmas tree.

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    1. A very good comparison! I'll be intrigued to see what she does next - or perhaps she has exhausted her stock of ideas?

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  9. As I read I put slips of paper to mark pages/quotes that grab me (or those sticky tabs if I have them), but I don't necessarily search for quotes to go into my write-up. If I don't find some, I don't worry.

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    1. How do you go about structuring reviews, then, Annabel? I'm always fascinated!

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  10. I've been keeping reading diaries since 2006 so as I read I'm always copying down interesting or favourite passages and random thoughts. Once I finish reading, I write a more detailed reaction to the book. Generally, these entries form the basis for my blog reviews and I find them terribly useful since I'm not the most timely reviewer. With my diaries to hand, I can always go back and review books I read four or five months ago and be able to see how I felt about the book immediately after reading it. When I don't have a lot to say about a book immediately after reading it and haven't copied out any quotes, that's usually a good sign that I'll never be able to work up the enthusiasm to review that particular book on the blog!

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    1. That is incredibly disciplined of you, Claire! I had a notebook where I wrote interesting/funny quotations, but I stopped in about 2005 (after a year) and I also had a book where I wrote mini-reviews of all the books I read, but that seemed to die around the same time. How thorough to have a hard copy and a blog!

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  11. Something I wasn't expecting to find useful in my Kindle is its highlighting capabilities. If you like something then as you're reading you can underline it and the Kindle automatically puts it into a text file for you, with a note saying where it's from and when you highlighted it. I use that file to write blog entries later. Because I only blog about books once a month, when I sum up what I've most enjoyed reading since the last time I blogged about books, it's really helpful to have a reminder of what I most remarked in a book.

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    1. Oh, that would definitely be helpful, rather than scrambling around for a pencil, and then trying to find everything later. But I'm still unconverted ;)

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  12. I try to mark good bits with page flags as I go. No page flags usually equals no review, unless the book was so awful that I feel like giving it a good kicking.

    Some things are just too bland or dull to bother reviewing. If something is confusing, however, writing the review usually helps me sort out what I think about it.

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    1. Haha! I feel I especially need quotations if I'm going to give something a kicking, just to SHOW how bad it is! And I rarely have trouble noting down really awful excerpts :)

      I must say, though, that I don't often find that writing a review helps me sort out my thoughts. I have to have the thoughts first, or the review goes all awry!

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  13. I'm not sure if I can call myself a blogger as I hardly post these days and I can't remember the last time that I blogged about a book. I even have to confess that I have lapsed into another non-reading phases. My whole life needs a good sort out. When I did write about books and indeed when I used to write essays on books/ plays etc i had to start by reading straight through.In the case of an essay I would need to know the title and then with my take on the essay question I would scim read to find appropriate quotes. I would have a rough idea of where in the book I would find what I wanted and then flick through till I found it. My book blog posts were much less structed. I approached them more as a friend excitedly telling someone why they absolutely have to read the book and what they would be missing if they didn't.

    Maybe if I spent less time reading other people's blog posts I might actually have something to write about.

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    1. I love that approach - of an enthusiastic friend. So true - when I'm telling someone how much I love a book, I don't neatly structure my words! However I also forget almost everything about plot and character, so...

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  14. I wasn't too keen on When God Was a Rabbit either.

    I don't blog, so I am in awe of how you are able pull off so many reviews (which I enjoy BTW. Our reading tastes don't totally jive, but you have WILLED me to read Elizabeth von Arnim, Nancy Mitford and Murial Spark and I am currently reading Cold Comfort Farm) when I struggle and agonize over a few paltry lines on my goodreads account!

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  15. Hello Simon! I was fascinated by this post and by all the comments; so much so that I shamelessly filched your idea and re-used it on my own blog (http://gallimaufry.typepad.com/blog/2012/03/on-writing-book-reviews.html#comments). I don't plan at all and am finding this rather nightmarish, so have been gleaning tips from here...

    Have a nice weekend!

    Helen

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  16. I bookmark pages as I'm reading, and then hope when I come to write my review I'll remember what on that page I had been struck by. But I probably only do this for one in three books that I read. The rest I just review structure-free. Generally the ones I have bookmarked are the better written, or at least the ones that use language better, but not necessarily. To be honest I'm a bit haphazard. As a fellow English lit graduate I should probably be more structured!

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