Monkeys with Typewriters

:How to Write Fiction and Unlock the Secret Power of Stories

by Scarlett Thomas.

The title for this book (and therefore this post) is drawn from the author’s reflection that it actually does make a difference to us whether books are written by our fellow humans or by monkeys playing with typewriters and striking lucky with Hamlet.
Because stories tell us what it’s like to be human, and monkeys, regardless of whatever genetic overlap they may have, simply have no idea.


Scarlett Thomas’ advice on writing has been refined by years of teaching writing (as well as writing herself), which gives her work a rather practical (if elementary) edge.

There are some areas, however, where I found myself unable to relate – for example, the matrices she has her students draw up to consciously mine their pasts and interests for writing material, in the section on How To Have Ideas. I don’t know about you, but I have no trouble coming up with ideas. It’s getting the time to work them out and finish them off that I struggle with.

There is also the matter of differing styles of writing. Thomas is experienced enough to have realised that not all writers are minimalists, and therefore paring every sentence to the bone will not be a fruitful exercise for some. While all can benefit from considering whether their words are pulling their weight, effect-wise, there’s no use trying to edit yourself to this:


if your natural style is something more like this:

Carnevale di Venezia - 2010

No prizes will be offered for guessing at which end of the continuum I frolic.

The part of the book which I enjoyed the most, which has stayed with me the longest, and which I think for me at least is the most challenging, is a relatively short section near the end of this book (not counting appendices, notes etc etc).

It deals with the concept of the thematic question – the big universal question with which your story deals (although, please note, rarely answers). What is the nature of power? What is love? What is truth? What does it mean to be human? and so forth.

Then, as with her students, she sets the challenge of boiling it all down to one word – a seed word, as she calls it – which encapsulates the thematic elements of the story and resonates through it in all manner of ways.

my name on a grain of rice!

It is, she admits, not an easy exercise – she suggests practising on other people’s novels – but once you find the word for the work it is enormously exciting and enlivening and helps you keep your story on track – because now you know, right deep down at the heart of it, what it is about.

Plus, as she points out, it’s much handier for fielding the question at parties: “what’s your book about?”

Disclaimer: no-one gave me a copy to review, nor did I part with my hard-earned for it. I borrowed a copy from the library. You may consider that this makes me a Scrooge who won’t support her fellow artists; I consider that this makes me an unbiased reviewer.

Mining Nightmares

When I was younger, I suffered from nightmares.

Not unusual, you might think, but this was Every Night. At first I escaped by the simple method of forcing my eyelids to open. Of course, it was only a matter of time before my subconscious caught on to this, and I ‘woke’ into another layer of dream which rapidly became nightmare.

So I came up with a new, sure-fire way of waking myself up: screaming. Of course, this had the side-effect of waking up everyone else in the house (and, at peak lung capacity, neighbouring houses) but at least I wasn’t trapped in my nightmare any more.

But as they say:


what has been seen cannot be unseen.

And once I was past the age where my screams would summon a soothing parent (i.e. into double digits), I would spend what seemed like the rest of the night either too scared to close my eyes or too scared to get my head out from under the bedding. Or both.

But then I had an epiphany. (Or it could have been the lack of oxygen under the blankets. Hard to tell.)

What terrified me could be useful fodder for writing – after all, how much more primal and high-stakes could you get?

It still took forever to get back to sleep, but at least now I woke screaming “pen and paper!!!” and not just “aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrgggggghh!!!” Sometimes I even tried to get back into the dream if I couldn’t figure out what happened next.

I haven’t gone as far as Sheridan Le Fanu, mind you – he used to intentionally eat foods that would make for disturbed sleep and then weave his nightmare into his draft on waking. (This may be partly because my nightmares aren’t due to eating lobster: they are due to going to sleep.)

Admittedly, this also works for dreams that do not qualify as nightmares, but they are harder to harvest as they are less likely to wake you up suddenly – and I have yet to acquire the talent of taking notes while still dreaming. Even the notes I have taken shortly after waking are mostly illegible, except possibly as a pigeon tap-dancing sequence.

Some of the dream-nuggets I’ve mined over the years include alien royalty being abducted from a fashionable restaurant, a Questing Aunt getting stuck on an enchanted stone bed, and the gut-dropping moment before the ‘reveal’ when you realise the ‘stunt’ lava tank the apprentice has been lowered into is real – and the stage magician knows.

Eventually it dawned on me that my sub-conscious is actually a much better writer than I am, and after a while I got over being jealous and came to terms with it.

Now I will even go to sleep thinking about my story problems in the hope that my sub-conscious will sort it out for me while I sleep. It used to work (Form Three?) but once again my sub-conscious has wised up to me and will derail my train of thought with the sudden appearance of a gytrash to swallow me whole.

I’d be interested to know if anyone else finds inspiration in their sleep – and what they pull up on the long-line of their dreams.

But one word of caution: when falling, always wake up before you hit earth.
If necessary, scream.