‘Delightful and innovative’ – Monkeys with Typewriters by Scarlet Thomas

mwtstI know what you’re thinking, “Not another book on how to write! We’ve read them all and it’s got us nowhere”. But here all similarities with other how to write textbooks end. For as well as being a successful author Scarlet Thomas is also a teacher in creative writing and Monkeys with Typewriters was written following her own experiences in the lecture hall.

Monkeys with Typewriters is both delightful and innovative. Thomas isn’t afraid to stick to the written word to illustrate her points. For instance it is startling and refreshing to see her referring to film, for example Gentlemen Prefer Blonds, to illustrate her point as to what constitutes a good plot. This may at first seem laughable and confusing but stick with it, Thomas’s ideas will become clear and it will be worth it in the end. The first half of the book is concerned with the theory behind writing, the second deals with the actual practice.

In a highly readable chapter entitled “The Eight Basis Plots”, Thomas goes through each one proffering examples from literature both ancient and modern to drive home her point. For example when discussing The Quest we’re told that this is “A group of people led by a hero set off on a journey to accomplish something important.” A classic example of The Quest offered by Thomas is The Odyssey, while her contemporary example is Final Fantasy VII.

Thomas goes to great length to describe both Tragedy and complex plot. She quotes Aristotle who in his Poetics, describes a complex plot as “one in which the change of fortune involves reversal recognition or both”.

The chapter entitled Writing a Good Sentence tells the reader how to do just that. Thomas describes good writing as an art form and that when we look at it “we should feel joy”. She goes into near forensic analysis on how to write and rewrite a sentence. This may at times be heavy going and at times I got bogged down and almost gave up but such is the nature of the book that the advice is invaluable.

Thomas is bursting with encouragement for new writers and tells them that if they’re thinking of writing a novel to get on and do it. She wants people to stop being afraid and to tackle this mythical creature called the novel head on. Thomas tells of her own experiences where, when and how she writes, the battles she’s endured and the triumphs she’s savoured. For the potential writer she asks “So what’s your first line? How does your novel begin?”.

The book concludes with an appendix which contains a novel matrix which prospective writers can use to plot out their own novels and ideas.

Any Cop?: Monkeys with Typewriters by Scarlett Thomas is best suited for students and for those just starting on the path of learning how to write. Ideally this book is that it is not to be read straight through, a mistake I made, but rather should be taken in bite sizes, where it can be best savoured and appreciated.

Joe Phelan


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