When is it right to give up on a book?

There are many reasons to put aside a book, either for the time being or permanently. Maybe the style is grating, or there are too many typos and grammatical errors. Possibly you no longer care what happens to the characters, either because they feel artificial or you have no empathy with them. Maybe the story is filled with cliches, or the plot is too complicated to follow, or things are moving too slowly. Maybe the writing is either too simplistic or too dense.

Some people give a book a couple of pages to prove itself, and others carry on to the end regardless. Most people are probably somewhere in between these two, but for myself I tend to persevere, although I have stopped reading books on occasions.

FifthDoll_CharlieNHolmbergI was tempted to put aside a book recently. That book was The Fifth Doll, by Charlie N Holmberg, and I struggled through the first few chapters. There was nothing wrong with the writing, but the story didn’t feel like anything was happening. There were hints that something might be bubbling under the surface, but nothing seemed to develop, and I found myself losing interest fast.

I told myself that the book wasn’t that long (about 250 pages), and wouldn’t take too much time to get through, so I continued.

And, slowly, things started to happen‌—‌those bubbles of possibilities rose to the surface and started to pop. The story became more intriguing, and by the time I was half-way through the book, I was eager to continue reading, to discover how these creepy events played out.

By the time I’d finished the book (I didn’t feel the ending worked too well, but I very much enjoyed the middle build), I realised that it would have been difficult to start this book in a more immediate manner. We needed to become immersed in the normal world so that we understood how the subtle disruptions disturbed the main character so much. This wasn’t a jump-scare horror, but one that needed the slow build. If we’d been introduced to something unsettling too early, the intensity of the developing story would have been diluted.

Did this require perseverance to get through those first few chapters? Yes‌—‌but it then rewarded that perseverance. In a sea of ‘instant attention’ media, where the aim is to hook the reader/viewer as soon as possible, this book stood out in how it didn’t pander to ‘instant gratification’, but instead gave the story the time it needed.

This isn’t always the case, of course‌—‌some books fail to grab me all the way through, or even grow worse as they progress‌—‌but the times when I’m pleasantly surprised make up for the time wasted on stories that I don’t enjoy.


This applies to writing, too. Stories rarely work perfectly in the first draft, and it’s easy to become despondent during this stage of writing, and to believe that a particular story is ‘wrong’ or that time would be better spent working on something ‘better’. It’s easier to see all the glaring faults and miss the potential for something that works.

pen-3301338_640It’s natural to compare that first draft to great books we’ve read, but it’ll always fall short. We need to remember that all those wonderful books started off as messy first drafts, and sometimes the writer struggled for years to craft their story. Often, these great books were written by people with years of experience under their belt, too, with plenty of abandoned projects sitting in desk drawers or on hard drives.

I’ve been working on a story since the start of the year (although I’ve been planning it on and off since the middle of 2018), witht he intention of publishing around June, but that hasn’t happened. The whole process had been a struggle. I’ve written a number of drafts that simply didn’t work, and there have been times I’ve considered abandoning it entirely. At one point I took a break, wrote the first draft of something else entirely, then returned to this awkward project with a fresh mind.

But perseverance has paid off. At the time of writing this, I’m deep in the process of editing a working first draft, and can see how the book will turn out. The story’s better now because I’ve spent so much time on it, and because I’ve been able to try different ideas. Those ‘failed’ first drafts have all built toward the final book, which should be out by the end of the year.


My time might have been better spent abandoning that project (or putting it on long-term hold) and going with something new and exciting, just as giving up on reading a book might give hours more reading time for a great book. But perseverance is important‌—‌it’s something that’s too easy to ignore when so much entertainment is instant, when we’re tempted to become passive consumers rather than active participants in a book or a story. We unrealistically expect writing to be easy, forgetting that the only way to improve in something is to spend time and effort.

Of course, blindly continuing on the wrong path is just as bad as changing path too early. So when is it right to give up on a book?

Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to that‌—‌but as with so much in life, experience counts for a great deal. The more we read (and write), and the more we develop our perseverance, the better able we are to judge how to best spend our limited time.

New short story – ‘A New Life’

The idea of starting over always has an appeal‌—‌the chance to forget past mistakes, to reinvent ourselves. But is it really possible?

I think that’s what this story’s about. It came pretty quickly‌—‌only had the idea last Monday, wrote the first draft in about half an hour, and the structure hardly changed from then, just a few edits to tidy it up.

The story’s called A New Life, and you can read it here.

Can the combination of magic and science work in fiction?

I read many different genres, but often gravitate towards science fiction and fantasy. But recently, I’ve read a few books that combine them both, most noticeably in Chris Fox’s Magitech Chronicles, as well as the book I’m currently reading, Alex White’s A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Universe.

At first, I wasn’t sure what I thought of this combination of technology and magic. Science fiction is based on plausible technologies, but magic is in the realm of fantasy, where the physical laws of the universe as we understand them are easily brushed aside.

But things aren’t quite that simple.

matrix-724496_640

There’s a quote from Arthur C Clarke‌—‌‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ He also said ‘Magic’s just science we don’t understand yet’. If we could pull someone from a hundred years ago to the present day and show them the internet, they’d consider it magic. Tell them about automatic doors, or self-driving cars, or artificial intelligence, and they’d either be in awe of these god-like manifestations, or they’d cower in the face of such demonic forces.

As I pondered this, I came to see that science-fiction and fantasy merge more than I realised, and there are many similarities between the two genres.

The prime example is Star Wars, with the Force. It’s a mystical force that allows users to control matter with their minds (among other things)‌—‌which sounds suspiciously like magic. But what of all the technologies used in science-fiction‌—‌faster-than-light travel, teleportation, and so on? Sometimes there is an attempt to explain things, but often they simply exist in the story universe, and the reader is left to accept their reality in the story‌—‌much like magic in the world of Harry Potter.

It goes back to that first Arthur C Clarke quote.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

FinalEmpireMistborn1_BrandonSandersonYou could argue that each technology serves a distinct role in science fiction, whereas magic can be used as a ‘get out of jail free’ card‌—‌but in my experience, some of the best fantasy books treat magic in a very similar way to science. Brandon Sanderson is a great exponent of using magical systems, where there are rules over what it can and can’t do. For instance, the magic in his Mistborn series is based around metals, and each type of metal gives different abilities. Then there is the training and study that must go into using these magics‌—‌just as characters in science-fiction often need to train in the use of technologies. So Luke trains to use the Force, and Harry Potter studies at Hogwarts so that he can use more magic. Neither technology or magic can be freely used by the uninitiated.

This appears to be the case in the books I’ve read that combine both tech and magic‌—‌neither are devices for instant solutions to problems. It’s interesting that one of the characters in White’s book has no magical ability (it doesn’t seem to hold her back much, although I’m only half-way through the book as I write this). In Fox’s series, he pushes magic into the realm of religion and belief, but still there are rules‌—‌a god’s power can only be used in proportion to the amount of belief their worshippers can give. This gives possibilities for a more social angle, with characters working to encourage that worship to assist their particular gods.

Books that blend science fiction and fantasy are nothing new, though. In Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, the mainly fantasy feel is occasionally layered with a sprinkling of sci-fi. Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books have a strong fantasy trope (dragons), and the settings often feel like fantasy worlds, but they’re also science fiction books. And sometimes, older science fiction can read like fantasy because the science, speculative at the time, has now been disproven‌—‌think of Jules Verne’s Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, or Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.

Of course, the combination of technology and magic isn’t for everyone. Ultimately, it’s down to personal preference. At the moment, I’m enjoying this blend of magic and science, and am interested to see where other writers will take this growing trend.

New short story – ‘Food For Thought’

One thing I love about writing short stories is the challenge of trying new ideas. My latest story came about through such a challenge.

One of the many podcasts I listen to is Writing Excuses, and a recent episode was all about food in stories. It seemed to focus on the way food could be used to highlight culture and character, but it got me thinking. I wondered if I could write a story where food was actually important‌—‌vital, even‌—‌to the story itself.

The result is Food For Thought, which you can read here. And, as always, I’d love to hear what you think of it.

How audiobooks are different to text books

Once squarely aimed at the visually impaired, audiobooks continue to rise in popularity with a whole range of readers who want to enjoy books without holding a physical object or using their eyes to constantly scan screen or page. Audiobooks can be used while doing a whole range of other activities‌—‌driving/commuting, cleaning and gardening, exercising and walking, sitting in a chair relaxing, and so on. This enables those with busy lifestyles to devour more books, and are used by people from all walks of life. For many, it is not the primary (or, indeed, only) method for consuming books.

In some ways, this is storytelling coming full circle. Storytelling has always been an important social activity, and before the written word, before ‘reading’ was a thing, stories were told and devoured orally. Story-telling was used by religious leaders as a way of explaining their ideas. Ancient philosophy was told via story. Even now, when reading and writing are so commonplace, verbally telling stories is important. Parents and teachers read to children. People share stories when they meet up, sharing tales from their lives or sharing those they’ve heard from others. And there’s a long tradition of reciting ghost stories around a campfire.

Stories are meant to be shared, and this can occur through reading or speaking/listening (and through other means, but I won’t go into that here). But there are differences in how stories are shared, differences between the page and the voice.

podcast-3939905_1280It’s often said that a good writer has a distinctive voice, but so do narrators. With audiobooks, a poor narrator can kill a story, and a great narrator can make a good book even better. Sometimes, the success of a book is due, in part, to the success of the narrator, such as The Martian. It gained a following as Andy Weir shared it over his website, and sold well when he first published it, but it’s popularity really soared with the narration by R C Bray, leading to more sales of the book, and then a film deal (which is a whole other way of telling a story).

One way narrators can impact a story so much is in the nuances of voice they bring to a project. Some use different accents to distinguish characters’ dialogue, but there is so much more to ‘telling a good story’. The words on the page are only a starting point.

Think of the classic ‘punctuation is important’ sentences, ‘Let’s eat Grandma’, and it’s less cannibalistic alternative with an added comma, ‘Let’s eat, Grandma.’ Say those two examples out loud, and listen to the way your voice changes. In the second version, you’ll probably find that you pause at the comma. But listen closer, and you’ll notice how your pitch varies too. It’s likely that, in the first version, your voice rises on the first syllable of ‘Grandma’, but you’ll speak the second with different patterns of pitch.

You can also use voice to give differing emotions to the same sentence. Try it for yourself‌—‌imagine the second version said by a child eager to tuck into a family meal, and then by a bored teenager who wants their elderly relative to stop their reminiscences so that they can enjoy their food. Stress the first word, and the sentence becomes a plea to finally have food. Stress the word ‘eat’, and eating becomes the chosen activity from an undisclosed list. Stress ‘Grandma’, and we have another alternative, one where the speaker is maybe questioning the reality of the relationship.

To bring out all these meanings, the writer would need to use further sentences, or structure surrounding material in a way that made the nuanced meanings clear in context. But the narrator can paint these emotional pictures with three simple words.

writer-1421099_1280So narration can give meaning in ways that text cannot (at least, not as succinctly). But there are things in text that a narrator cannot easily convey. Think of spacing in poetry, especially in shape poems such as Lewis Carroll’s ‘A Mouse’s Tail’ from Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland.

Then there’s the textual syntax of things like text-message conversations, or the way Iain M Banks’ ships communicate in his Culture books. In my Shadows series, I use italics and <> symbols to denote tech-aided mind-to-mind communication (as opposed to the usual speech marks enclosing vocal communication), and I have no idea how a narrator would make an audible distinction between these.

There are other ways the appearance of text can aid meaning. Newspaper reports can be displayed in ways that look like old paper. Some books use maps, and others use diagrams or symbols‌—‌in Terry Pratchett’s Nation, a couple of characters communicate through drawing, and the different interpretations of these drawings are important to the story. A narrator would have to describe these drawings, which would very probably become cumbersome, and these parts of the book would struggle to work.

So text-based storytelling and vocal storytelling have their own pros and cons. But at the moment, audiobooks are almost always a straight reading of the text. The emotional nuances a narrator adds are often also ‘written’ into the text, and so the audiobook listener gets the same information twice.

In some ways, this makes me think of the early days of film and television, when productions were basically filmed plays. But as cameras became easier to manipulate, and editing techniques developed, film-makers understood how they could use this technology to tell stories in different ways to static, dialogue-heavy stage performances.

african-3408112_1280Maybe audiobooks should develop into their own form of storytelling. Maybe writers should produce two version of their stories, one for reading from the page, and another for narration. But writing and narration are different skills, just as producing a stage play and a film are very different processes, so maybe audiobooks will become close collaborations between writer and narrator, either stripping down the original text or working up from a ‘bare bones’ version of the story. Then, the audiobook will become not a repetition of the text, but a complement to it, a way of telling the story the writer created but utilised to capitalise on the audio environment. If a narrator can impart meaning through their performance that would take a couple of sentences of text to impart, then the audiobook can become leaner and more focused, allowing the story to take advantages of all the medium can offer.

After all, if so many people are increasingly opting to devour stories through their ears, doesn’t it make sense to provide them with the best experiences possible?

 

New short story ‘Worth Fighting For’

Something a little more positive this time. Much as I enjoy reading and writing short stories with dark twists at the end, it’s good to have a balance.

So if you want a five-minute read that isn’t depressing, and might even contain a bit of hope, try Worth Fighting For.

And if you’d prefer something darker, try one of my other short stories‌—‌the complete list of links can be found here.

The villain is the hero of their own story

It’s often been said that what people look for in entertainment is a response to the reality of their lives. When times are good, there’s a greater thirst for stories that provoke thought and challenge. When times are rough, people look to entertainment as an escape.

There seems to be a lot of confusion in the world at the moment. There’s political divides (Trump’s presidency, Brexit), religious conflict, and social unrest. As the world grows smaller with technology, it seems to splinter into an increasing number of factions as people search for belonging.

Maybe this is why superhero films are so popular at the moment. Maybe this is one of those moments when many people want to watch films and read books in order to forget the problems in their daily lives.

But we still desire well-told stories. As much as we want to see things in black-and-white, and dive into stories of good-vs-evil (where we know, from the outset, that good will triumph), we still require some kind of realism‌—‌and this is especially true of our villains. The moustache-twirling baddie, the pure-evil adversary, the antagonist who simply wants to take over or blow up the world‌—‌these seem passe, or one-dimensional. They might be watchable for a while, but they have no real substance. In a shallow comedy a villain like this could work, but not in anything more serious.

Think of some of the great villains in stories, and there will be something that draws us to them, something that holds our interest, something we can relate to. They’re not cardboard-cutouts, but real, rounded characters. Yes, they want to harm others, or take what isn’t theirs, or stand in the way of progress‌—‌but they have their reasons. They are driven by understandable motivations, even though we can see that their reasoning is flawed.

There’s a phrase that springs to mind here‌—‌everyone is the hero of their own story.

MichaelDouglas_FallingDownI can recall watching the Michael Douglas film Falling Down when it first came out on video (yes, I’m old enough to remember video tapes). There’s a brilliant moment at the end, when Douglas’ character, D-Fens, is facing the police officer, a gun trained on him. His brow furrows, and he says, disbelievingly, “I’m the bad guy?”

It’s a fantastic moment, because we’ve been following D-Fens throughout the film. We’ve seen and understood his frustrations, and even as his actions have become worse his justifications still make some kind of sense. We’ve travelled with him, and even though he’s not an easy character to warm to, we’re still on his side. We believe that things will turn out for the best, that he’ll somehow redeem himself‌—‌until this confrontation. This is when it all comes home. D-Fens is the villain, even though he couldn’t see it for himself.

The best villains are driven by deep, relatable motivations, even when their actions are unacceptable. Think of Hans Gruber in Die Hard. When John McLane’s wife calls him ‘nothing but a common thief’, his controlled expression slips for a moment. He rounds on her, stating that he is ‘an exceptional thief’.

In this, his actions become more understandable. He’s not driven simply to steal, but to steal in style. Criminality (or robbery) might be his career of choice, but he wants to be the best at it. He’s like Rocky, pushing to become the best he can be. He’s like so many artists, fighting to produce their best possible work. He’s like doctors who strive to learn more, or lawyers who want to be well-respected for their work. His drive could be something to admire, had his sphere of work not been so anti-social.

Seeing what drives a character, be they ‘good’ or ‘bad’, instantly makes that character more interesting‌—‌and also helps propel the story on. At the moment, I’m slowly working my way through the Dune books, and I’m finding it fascinating how Herbert lets the reader in on so much of what his characters are thinking. We know the plots everyone is forming, and we know many of their secrets‌—‌and there is justification for all of them. At times, Herbert is able to blur the line between ‘goodie’ and ‘baddie’‌—‌the characters are all simply trying to make their way through tricky situations, with an aim to survive at the end.

George RR Martin’s Song Of Ice And Fire books do this, too. His narrative follows so many characters, and there is a constantly shifting tableau of conflicts and alignments. An ally can become an enemy, and an enemy can become an ally. Some characters might be ‘purer of heart’ than others, but all are real, dealing with internal conflicts, and simply doing whatever they feel they must do.

So we have stories with clear villains whose motivations we can understand, and stories where a cast of characters have shifting alliances. But there are also stories where the ‘villain’ is the protagonist. Think of Tony Soprano, or Michael Corleone. We find many of their actions despicable, but because we get to know their inner turmoils, and because we get to understand why they do what they do, we become invested in their struggles. These are both men doing what they feel is necessary to protect and provide for their families, and that in itself is an honourable thing, even if we recoil at their methods. And there is a depth to both characters that makes us believe they could change. Tony Soprano has his doubts, and there’s that glimmer of hope that he might somehow redeem himself. Michael Corleone’s arc is a downward slope, but because we saw his good side at the start of the story, we have to believe that it is possible for him to rise up again.

There is a flip-side of this, too‌—‌heroes don’t always do good things. In Die Hard, Sgt Powell tells John McClane that he shot a child some years ago. In The Lord Of The Rings, Boromir can’t resist the urge to own the ring‌—‌and at the end Frodo is unable to relinquish the ring. But this is good storytelling, because perfect heroes are boring to watch. We’re drawn to a character like House not only because of his brilliant mind, but also because he’s such a flawed character.

I could give more examples, but this should be enough. Heroes don’t always do the right thing, and villains have strong motivations behind their actions. Hero and villain are labels we apply to characters to help us understand the story‌—‌but the roles can change, depending on our own perception of the actions. Ultimately, everyone is the hero of their own story.

And that’s as true in real life as it is in fiction.