In Which I Run Around Like a Headless Chook

Today is a day of much stuff of admin-y tediousness. But it must be done. Le sigh.

So while I’m running around like a headless chook1 I would like to ask some more questions of you, my beloved brains trust:

  • How do you feel about unreliable narrators? I have now heard from three different people that they’re not going to read my novel, Liar, because they hate unreliable narrators. But I have not been about to get out of them what it is they hate about them. Do any of you feel that way? Why?
  • What’s the most unpleasant food experience you’ve ever had? Mine was scooping up what I thought was sugar but turned out to be salt.
  • What’s your favourite word? Mine is currently flibbertigibbet. Scott’s is feculent. And Ben, who’s staying with us, likes spigot.

Have a fabulous day. Think compassionately of me running from boring task to boring task. Later!

  1. If you don’t know what a “chook” is then google it. []


  1. Lizabelle on #

    Unreliable narrators are great as long as there’s a point to them, IMO.

    Trying to eat pork about five years after going vegetarian was pretty horrible. There were various reasons why I was trying to be polite and eat it, but argh, it was disgusting.

    My favourite word is a German one: schwarzwälderkirschtorte (black forest gateau). We learnt it in a German lesson, and it was the first time I realised that languages are related; people don’t just make up arbitrary words for things (except in Iceland). They borrow words, they have words forced on them, they twist them for their own purposes. And that’s what I love about European languages: there’s almost always a connection, a clue that tells you not just about the word itself, but the people and place from which it came.

    I wish I knew more about Aboriginal Australian languages; I should probably rectify that.

    I wish you luck in your headless chookness!

  2. Malcolm Tredinnick on #

    I don’t have a problem with unreliable narrators for the right sort of story. Without a lot of evidence to support it, I suspect they might be an easier form of narrator to mess up (write badly) and a poorly written narrator stands out and ruins the reader’s immersion in a story. So, just don’t mess it up (k? thx).

    Skipping the worst food question, since I’ve just had dinner and don’t want to think about that.

    Antiquarian is a fun word. Also, Mesopotamian.

  3. Maureen Kincaid Speller on #

    Personally, I enjoy novels with unreliable narrators. I am occasionally led to believe this is perverse of me but I enjoy the mental gymnastics of figuring out what’s going on.

    Bad food experiences? I can’t actually think of one.

    And favourite words? At the moment, ‘fussbudget’, and I have no idea why I have it stuck in my brain.

  4. Alex on #

    I prefer an unreliable narrator to a disparate one.

    By which I mean, I want a coherent and cohesive story that I can follow. If I get some kind of straight narrative, even if it’s just a character’s personality arc, I don’t mind having to question it at points, or argue later over motivation or event accuracy. On the other hand a story made up of lots of little pieces of information given by various sources who are ALL implied to be lying, or to have their own reasons to obfuscate, irritates the hell out of me. The reader has to do all the work, and there are multiple narratives to be found, none with any verification other than the reader’s faith in them. The kind of book where you look back and see that all of the events don’t work no matter what way you put them, because both A and B (insert scene, character, motivation, etc. etc.) are in direct contradiction to each other, but both have to be either true or false in tandem for any eventuality to actually make sense. It ends up reading like the only excuse the author has is ‘humans are naturally contradictory and forgetful creatures and that’s why that character gave that blatant misdirection there even though it was in NO-ONE’S interest (not even their OWN) to do so.’ Which when the rest of the book has really strong writing? Is really, really annoying.

    Or whatever. There is a recently published novel that has done this, but namecalling isn’t fun, so I hope I haven’t been too all-over-the-place with my justification. Basically, I will happily read Liar, but I hope that the narrative makes sense, even if part of the fun is working out which lies are consistent.

    And I am unsure on foods – there have been a few bad ones. One of my favourite words though? (Or names, whatever.) Fukuoka. 😀

  5. Nicola on #

    I like the word ‘nefarious’!

  6. Tole on #

    1. I like them.

    2. When i was in year 12 i took a study break in the middle of the night to get a lollypop from the pantry… it had been there for a while, but it looked alright. it tasted a bit funny so i rinsed it off, there were a few black specks but it’s all good. Then i kept eating it and noticed it still tasted really odd. And spicey. And then i looked again and noticed that there were more small black dots. And they were moving. Crawling out of a small hole in the centre. Because they were ants.

    3. I have LOTS of favorite words right now, because i have been playing my word coach on DS and it is full of fun words like circumlocution, malarky and sycophant. I can’t spell them yet mind you. I do strongly encourage you to try the game if you ever get a chance.

  7. Herenya on #

    I’m not sure what I think of unreliable narrators. I think it depends to what extent and in what ways they are unreliable, and why. Sometimes it can be fun or interesting to analyse the narration as you would dialogue – to work out why the narrator is saying what they’re saying. I recently read a memoir where the author questioned the reliability of memories – her own, and those of others in her family. I found it very interesting to consider the book with that in mind, wondering about silences, motives and reasons.
    But to enjoy a story I often need to be able to sympathise or identify with the main protagonist, and an unreliable narrator can get in the way of that. It can interfere with being able to understand the character, and it can cause me to view a character negatively if I’m irritated by them or start to dislike them due to their dishonesty. So I’ve found unreliable narrators frustrating, irritating and alienating. But I still think it’s worth keeping an open mind.

    I really like “perspicacity” at the moment.

  8. Nicholas Waller on #

    I guess there are several forms of unreliability. 1) out-and-out liars, telling the reader deliberate untruths; 2) people deluding themselves, but in such a way the readers can tell what is really going on, as in Jane Austen’s Emma; 3) characters whose heads you are inside and who are very open about some things but for no reason (other than it serves the author’s convenience) keep utterly shtum about others, until some rabbit-out-of-the-hat moment late on when they reveal, to the reader as well as other characters, they are really police agents or had been married to the Contessa before the war.

    Of those, I think the last is the only bad one, unless carefully handled. The sense that this is what was going on stopped me reading Da Vinci Code early; characters could have told us a lot more than they did while we were in their heads. I was guilty of it in one of my short stories (“Sandtrap”). I tried to justify it with gnomic comments from the protagonist such as “You have to compartmentalise your thoughts and emotions”; he was criticising another character who was a poor liar while telling the reader that this is what he was doing himself, hiding the real reason for his mission, but it was a bit of a cheat.

    I suppose No.1 takes a bit of doing to get right, without the readers feeling they’re being short-changed or living in an utterly random dream-like world where anything could be said. But I am not against them.

    As for food, it was similar to your error: I took a large mouthful of strong horseradish thinking it was mashed potato; this was in public, at The House of Prime Rib, and I very nearly threw up at the table.

  9. Akilah on #

    I LOVE unreliable narrators! One of my favorite novels ever is Monster by Walter Dean Myers, and that’s the kind of unreliable narrator I love—where you trust the narrator and believe him/her because you do but then you realize that maye they aren’t entirely honest truthful. Huck Finn is also unreliable. I think most narrators have to be because they see the world the way they see it or want to see it, period. Also, if the premise of your novel is that the narrator is a Liar and it’s clear she’s a liar, I don’t see what’s wrong with that because it make her as trustworthy as it does unreliable, if that makes any sense.

  10. Autumn on #

    You said chook! I love you. Chook chook chook chook chook!

    When an unreliable narrator is written well, then I enjoy how I’m misled and get to put the pieces together to discover more about the narrator’s psyche than they’ll tell me straight out. Alex and Nicholas do a good job of outlining the not-satisfying kinds of unreliable narrators, so I won’t wring out my brain trying to say the same thing in different words. I will absolutely be reading Liar.

    These days, I’m fond of words like limerent and sempiternal. And chook will always make me giggle. I have a friend who just got a batch of baby chooks and they’re as fun as the word is.

  11. mark c on #


    I will read any kind of narrator if it’s done well – that’s always the most important consideration

    once in Finland I ordered what I thought was chocolate ice cream in a cone from a stall (by pointing at the little picture, as finnish is v confusing to non finns) and it turned out to be liquorice flavoured ice cream instead. vom.

  12. Brendan Podger on #

    have you read Letters from the Inside by John Marsden? Two very unreliable narrators and one very good book.

    Fruit tingles!

  13. Patrick on #

    Favorite word = spoon.

    I don’t like unreliable narrators because I am an unreliable reader. Unreliable narrators require you to read carefully and that is far too much work for me when I am reading. That won’t stop me from buying Liar though.

    Having googled unknown words from Scalzi to horrendous results, I am passing on ‘chook’.

  14. mb on #

    As a big Eugenides fan, I’m always happy to read a book about a liar. In fact I’m always amazed at people who make up rules about their reading, like, “I don’t like unreliable narrators,” or “I hate books with people named Keith in them,” or whatever. I like GOOD books, not books that follow some set of rules I’ve made up.

    Tonsorial. Always makes me think of Sweeney Todd.

  15. Sigrid Ellis on #

    1. I love unreliable narrators. I recently read the collection of Joe Kelly’s “I Kill Giants,” an amazing YA comic about a girl who, well — she kills giants. And titans. But she is a deeply unreliable narrator for valid reasons. That’s the part that matters most to me — is there a reason for the lack of reality-based presentation? If so, I want to know it. I’m not asking for a Lifetime Weepie of the Week sort of tearful confession. In fact, I prefer to avoid such things. But I do request and require of the author that they make it clear to the reader at some point *why* the narrator is unreliable. Acceptable answers according to me include, but are not limited to:

    the narrator may or may not be insane, and I won’t tell you which it is
    the narrator has suffered a trauma which colors all their interactions in unique ways
    the narrator is in denial of a painful truth
    the narrator is linked to other perceptions of reality

    2. Any taste experience which involves a mucoid texture. Ew.

    3. shenanigans.

  16. eric luper on #

    1. I love unreliable narrators when they are done well. It just so happens I’m reading a novel with an unreliable narrator right now that (so far) is handled extremely well. I swear I’m going to finish it today!!!

    2. My most unpleasant food experience (if you want to call it that) was the time I had a sore throat and someone suggested I gargle with apple cider vinegar and salt. Not only did it taste terrible, but it burned like a sonofabitch! Kind of helped my sore throat though.

    3. Oh, and my favorite word, by far, is ‘moustachioed’ I’m not a fan of the moustache, but that word rocks!

  17. Shveta on #

    @mb: Agreed!

    My worst food experience was more of a medicinal thing. I was drinking calendula infusion (tea), and it was so bitter to my supertaster tongue that I almost vomited right there. I ate chocolate, I brushed my teeth, I did everything I could to lose that awful taste, but it refused to budge for at least two hours. Two horrid, horrid hours.

    A little bitter’s fine. Super-mega bitter, not so much.

    My favorite word? Hard to say, because I’d want to know in which language. But also, I don’t have favorite words so much as favorite shapes (I always notice the shape the word makes on the page). So there, an absolutely useless answer to your question. 😉

  18. Jude on #

    I’m not sure what an unreliable narrator is.
    Food? Finding out the mashed potatoes were whipped turnips. Yuck.
    Word? Paternoster.

  19. Becca on #

    Love an unreliable narrator – and when you think about it, they all are to some extent. I think I started recognizing that in a college history class – where I discovered that even textbooks were written by only one side, and that all storytellers have an agenda of some kind, whether educational, literary, entertaining, whatever.

    Part of the fun of reading is figuring out the narrator’s slant – and deciding to agree with it or not.

    (TOLE – Great ants story. Eww.)

    Persnickety. And crapulent. Often in the same sentence.

  20. alys on #

    I hate unreliable narrators of Nicholas’s type 3 – if you’re in a character’s head, and they’re not lying to themselves, you ought to know what’s really going on. Also I hate it when authors use this to withhold some important event from the reader. (Worst case: the one where the narrator ends up pregnant without actually sleeping with anyone, even though the story appears to show everything she does, from inside her head. I think I did actually shout ‘What?’ or words to that effect, out loud.)

    Worst food experience: Once, while half-asleep, I accidentally poured orange juice instead of milk on a bowl of cornflakes. If this happens to you, do not try to eat them anyway.

    Favourite word: so hard to choose! How about prestidigitate? Or luminescent? Also quite like some short ones, like squish and spork…

  21. Andrew Wheeler on #

    All narrators are unreliable, really — nobody knows everything, and everybody lies now and then. I would look with great distrust upon a writer who claimed to always avoid them — that would imply to me that said writer didn’t have a strong enough grasp on how to dole out information and the difference between what is true and what a particular character knows.

    So I’m hugely in favor of unreliable narrators. All first-person narrators should be at least a little bit unreliable; that’s the whole point of first-person.

    When I was young, I once bit into a zucchini thinking that it was a cucumber. I don’t think I actually lost any stomach contents, but it was very close.

    For favorite words, I’ve always liked antidisestablishmentarianism for its pointless splendor and fun words to say like crabcake and inordinately.

  22. Q on #

    I don’t like it when narrators do things that don’t feel in character or who change too quickly. I’m not worried about Liar, because I’m expecting the narrator to lie.

    The most unpleasant food experience…..It probably had something to do with mushrooms, though I’m not quite sure what.

    My favorite word is currently promiscuous, just because of how fun it is to say.

  23. Klara on #

    Unreliable narrator is good depending on the story I think.

    The worst food experience I think I’ve had is when I took a drink of water thinking it was milk… That was so disgusting.

    Hmm there’s so many words I can choose… I would probably have to choose Doki doki which is Japanese for the sound of a heartbeat.

  24. Jaya Lakshmi on #

    As long as a story is done well and you like the protagonist enough, their reliability can be debated.
    There was a lot of controversy over Lolita mainly because the narrator Humbert is unreliable but gifted with words. But some people have admitted that it’s their favorite book, mainly because of the language.

  25. Karen Bass on #

    Well done is the key to any narrator. Liar doesn’t worry me in the least since your title certainly forewarns the reader.

    Worst food experience: As a child I accidentally poured hard sauce (for carrot pudding) on my mashed potatoes. Same colour. My dad made me eat the potatoes anyway.

    Favourite word: gargoyle. I love the way it flirts with being onomatopoeic, the sound of water gushing from the statue’s mouth.

  26. Devon on #

    Hey, I read that one where the narrator randomly is pregnant and doesn’t know why–I was like, wtf? And then the big reveal explanation at the end wasn’t even all that satisfying (to me, at least). But normally I really like unreliable narrators, especially in YA books. I’m reading The Fat Girl by Marilyn Sachs to my 10th grade class, and it’s been fun to watch them slowly figure out that Jeff has a warped perception of his relationships.

  27. Talulah on #

    1.) I dislike them because I can be incredibly lazy and I don’t *like* having to question everything that I’m being told. Which is ironic, given the way I rip into nonfiction. Maybe I just want to give my critical thinking skills a break? I dunno. However! Sometimes I think that unreliable narrators are unreliable in ways that are simply UNFAIR. I recently read a book where the narrator was unreliable in small ways–particularly in instances of “good taste”–and that annoyed the CRAP OUT OF ME. Mostly because it was set in the 1600s, and since I’m not exactly an expert on Restoration England, how was *I* supposed to know what was considered tacky?! I didn’t figure it out until the afterword, and man, did I feel dumb.
    2.) Without a doubt, developing the stomach flu right after I’d eaten cheese sticks. For years afterwards, even the *smell* of cheese sticks made me want to hurl.
    3.) Currently, it’s “gauche.” God, I love the word “gauche.”

  28. Steve Buchheit on #

    Unreliable narrators are fab, when they’re done well and work for the story. The ones like most are “magicians” who get the reader thinking about the unimportant hand, even though you’re seeing them work the magic with the other hand, the distraction is more important. The other type that works well for me is the ones that start off with saying, “I’m a liar” and then makes it a game to find the lies.

    On the flip side, this is the type of narrative voice that can fall flat quickly. If the reader feels they are being intentionally kept away from the story, or that important parts are happening but we’re not being shown them, the unreliable narrator gets tossed.

    I think it’s like making your villains loveable. We have to enjoy the narrator, and over look their faults. Intentionally hiding something until the last minute to make a plot point work breaks that.

    Most unpleasant food experience was having my brother cook steaks. Really try to avoid that.

    And my favorite word at the moment is “wack-a-loon.”

  29. El on #


    just think about the phrase “running around like a headless ….”, fill in the usual word if you’re an American (she said, hoping she’s narrating reliably), and you’ve got “chook.”

    Unreliable narrators–

    As long as I know when they’re being unreliable by the end of the story, no prob. It’s when I haven’t a clue what’s really going on that I have a problem. Although I can imagine books in which it mostly doesn’t matter which parts are unreliable. Just so long as I don’t end up feeling cheated at the end, I’m good with it.

  30. Stephanie on #

    I do love the word milksop.

  31. john cash on #

    Unreliable narrators give you a very good picture of what they think is going on, and a great look inside their heads. Great for character, not so much so for plot — unless you can find a way for them to indicate what is “really” going on while they tell you what they think is going on. Like in “Catch-22.”

    Worst food experience was my first taste of plain yogurt. I love yogurt nowadays. Funniest was eating former-East-German “chicken curry,” which was grilled chicken and potatoes plus some curry sauce.

    Favortie word: “gyümölcsök” (Hungarian, means “green-groceries”), close tie with “yclept” (Middle English, past participle of “to be named”). In modern English: cellar-door.

  32. caitlin on #

    I like unreliable narrators. I really hate being able to predict how a book is going to turn out. That was one huge reason I liked Liar so much and couldn’t stop reading until I’d finished around 2amish. Worst food experience? Does opening a wee packet of salt and having the salt spurt into your eyes count? Speaking of food one of my fave words — garbanzo because it’s so fun to say.

  33. Adrienne Vrettos on #

    -I think with unreliable narrators there’s a sort of honor among thieves; you are (sometimes?) able to figure out certain topics that they are always, always honest about. Of course, then it’s all the more infuriating/exhilerating when you find out there is no honor they are just great big liar faces.

    -Two gross food experiences come to mind, both cases of mistaken identity, both from childhood. First, I though it was peanut butter I had paired with jelly. But it was mayonnaise. Second, I thought it would be milk I was sipping, but it was orange juice.


  34. Electric Landlady on #

    I used to hate unreliable narrators, and then I read a book where the concept just clicked for me. (I believe it was Bucket Nut by Liza Cody.) I finally got what the narrative purpose of the unreliable narrator was, and that really helped. Now I like ’em a lot, with the usual caveats about they have to be well done, etc.

  35. Julia Rios on #

    Once I poured salt all over my pizza, thinking I’d reached for the Parmesan cheese. It was… not edible.

    I like the combination of diaphanous gown. It starts all fluttery and then gets big and round, as if the object itself were billowing out of your mouth.

  36. Katherine on #

    1. I don’t particularly care one way or the other, they’re simply subject to my main rule: If the protagonist annoys the crap out of my, I’m likely to stop reading.

    2. My favorite burger at my favorite restaurant ordered medium and taking a bite that was so charred that it was all I could taste and wanting to throw up. Yeck.

    3. Trebuchet. It’s an amazing word to say. I also like Xenophobe. The way my mouth moves to say them just pleases me. Saying some words just feels like savoring a delicious food.

  37. Emmy on #

    I don’t read much with unreliable narrators, but it sounds interesting and I’m really looking forward to Liar. I trust that you will be able to do it well.

    I’m a picky eater, so I have lots of bad food experiences, but one interesting one was the time my sister gave me cold tea and told me it was apple juice.

    Hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliaphobia – just for the irony.

  38. Jenn on #

    Unreliable narrators just make you think. It depends on my mood whether or not I’ll read books with them.
    The worst has happened a couple times, when it comes to food. I’m an extremely picky eater. One time I drank some bad milk. It kind of tasted like chocolate milk, and then I was like, wait a second, and it was kind of flakey. Ew. Also, plain yogurt disgusts me. One time I went to a frozen yogurt place and was like, yum, frozen yogurt. Except their yogurt was actually frozen yogurt, not the stuff that tastes like ice cream. I took a nice big bite and spit it right back out. And one time when my twin sister was seven, we were at a family party and she grabbed a clear glass of what she thought was her apple juice, but it was actually brandy. She spit it out all over the floor!
    My favorite words are phenolphthalein (fee-nol-THAY-leen) and carcinogen. Phenolphthalein because it has five consonants in a row and changes to a very pretty pink color in neutral solution (it’s an acid-base indicator used in titrations), and carcinogen because it sounds very daunting (and is very daunting).

  39. Jenn on #

    Reading comments above, I also like hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliaphobia. Fun to say, no one knows what it means usually, and is ironic in the same way that tridecaphobia is.

  40. Joey-la on #

    I’d say it has been done before – but a family friend of mine (in my company) ate a HUGE blob of wasabi thinking it was avacado (I think that is spelled wrong).

    I find unreliable narrators interesting and fun – they keep you guessing!

    I’m in english class and meant to be doing work, so I won’t tell you about my (many) horrible food experiences oops… I should be working

  41. Cristina on #

    1. I like unreliable narrators, there are moments when they sort of frustrate me because part of my brain wishes to get all the answers at once, but it’s often the uncertainty that keeps reading.

    2. A couple of years ago SOMEONE decided it would be funny to give me a CRICKET taco, which I innocently ate before realizing what it actually was.

    3. Currently the word is “gracious” which my friends and I incorrectly use instead of “thank you” for the Spanish word “gracias”. According to us, it sounds fancier that way…

  42. Werner von Purple on #


  43. Amy Fiske on #

    I love unreliable narrators! Especially in the hands of a good writer. (Pretty much anything in the hands of a bad writer is…well…just bad.)So, waiting eagerly for your book.

  44. tess on #

    1) I love unreliable narrators. I admittedly haven’t read much where every single thing the protagonist says is under suspect, but most of my favourite characters are at least a little unreliable. Honest characters never seem to make for good reading.

    2) I ate a burger from the ferry. It was a little gross, but, you know, ferry food, all good. Six hours later, I proceeded to puke my guts out. Puke and puke and puke, and just when I thought I couldn’t anymore, I took a sip of ginger ale and realized that I could. Much more. I can’t eat burgers anymore. Even the smell makes me sick.

    3) Sitzpinkler! German, slang for wimp, literally ‘a man who sits to pee’. I love John Green.

  45. Aimee on #

    I like a well-done unreliable narrator but I’m very suggestible and can be won over to just about any of my literary pet peeves if they’re done well (most recently, I decided novels where the protagonist is a writer are not so bad after all when I read Carol Shields’ Unless). Unreliable narrators are fantastic because they require re-reading.

  46. bookwormchris on #

    1) Unreliable narrators can be fine. I guess it depends on how unreliable they are and how it is all done. If I like the story, I’ll spend the time figuring out (or trying to figure out) what is really going on.

    2) I have issues with most seafood. Or at least my body does. It isn’t enjoyable when the gag reflex kicks in. I’m usually fine with canned tuna (dolphin?) for some reason, but not a whole lot else can get past my mouth. (Ants in my favorite cereal weren’t so bad, I just pretended they were something else and tried not to look at what I was eating.)

    3) Favorite word? Hard to say. Maybe suasion because I didn’t know it existed until a year or so ago. Although, carminative is amusing, especially in the context of Crome Yellow, where I first discovered it.

  47. Amber on #

    As long as it’s a well-written book, I’ll take any narrator. (Well-written to me includes but is not limited to: flowing well (not choppy), has good pacing, developed characters, a nice balance of showing and telling, a solid storyline, interesting passages, …)
    I don’t think you want to hear about my worst food experience. It involves a lot of throwing up.
    I don’t know what my favorite word is. It is currently too late for me to think well and am therefore resorted to using much too simple words such as “it”.

  48. Nif on #

    I got Liar at BEA and I just have to say


    (Eats 4 exclamation points and sits in the corner to calm down.)

    When I was in 9th grade my English teacher asked us what we thought the most beautiful word in English was. I said, “Extension.” Fortunately, he liked me and I got one.

    I don’t have a favorite word, but long, cool, or obscure words do tend to roll around in my head. I particularly like the Latin names of plants, as an anchor and a guide through the shifting messy mass of common names. (I’m a pretty passionate gardener.)

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