Book review: Monkeys with Typewriters by Scarlett Thomas

4/5 stars

I’ve actually had this for a couple of years as I read that a writer I like (I forget whom)  used it and recommended it. And honestly, how can you not love that title? For me it will always be associated with that scene in HHG where Ford and Arthur have just been picked up by The Heart of Gold and Arthur is accosted by an infinite number of monkeys who want to talk to him about their Hamlet script.

Which brings me to a point about referencing things – which this book does A LOT.  On the one hand it is very useful to see concrete examples and analysis of everything from classic literature to reality shows in order to gain a good understanding of how plot works and how basically everything fits into a relatively narrow subset of narratives and styles. On the other hand, if you don’t know the thing she is talking about, it loses its impact a little IMO. For instance I have not read Great Expectations (or if I have it’s so long ago that I don’t remember anything from it), and it is used throughout the whole book a lot as an example. Sure, she does go into some detail about the scenes she’s using to illustrate something, but it resonates a lot more if you’re familiar with the work. This is not really a criticism, just more of a heads up that what you get out of those sections is also somewhat dependent on what you have read/seen.

The book is divided into two sections, the first one of which is theory. Having studied literature in university the theory section was of course familiar, but it’s been quite a few years since I graduated and it was nice to get a recap. And if you have not done any literature studies this bit will definitely help you get an understanding of the basics.

The second section is about practice. From how to have ideas (which sounds a bit weird because why would you want to write if you don’t have ideas – but it’s useful to structure ideas you already have also), to how to write a good sentence, to how to actually start writing a novel. There’s a lot of this I wasn’t able to apply to my first draft (which is aaaalmost finished!) as I read the largest part of this book in the few days leading up to NaNoWriMo and then just wrote like a madwoman for all of November. I will say that it’s still useful advice further on in the process and also with an eye on revision. And I have no doubt I will return to this book in the future.

I do not agree with everything Scarlett Thomas says (like referring to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as a comedy – I honestly feel that this is trying too hard to fit everything into the categories you have decided on) but I definitely found a lot of the book useful. And of course you can pick and chose what you want to adhere to.

It’s nice to get concrete advice on everything from plot, to sentence structure to how many words your novel should have from someone who has actually published novels. It’s full of useful information without getting heavy, and I like Thomas’s style. I am curious to read one of her novels now.




One Comment Add yours

  1. jeremyjames says:

    I do like books that reference books…seems to generate some good recommendations


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