The second book in the ShadowTech series is now available for pre-order

Subtle Weapon (ShadowTech Book 2) picks up where the previous book finished, throwing the crew into even more chaos. It’s out on August 18th, but is available to pre-order now from all the usual places. And, as always, the price will rise a couple of days after release, so pre-order now to get Subtle Weapon for a bargain price.

Kaiahive is everywhere, even on the supposedly deserted island the crew escape to. So are the company’s enemies, the Heralds, and the crew are caught in the crossfire, their options dwindling fast.

Can Deva trust old enemies long enough to get her revenge on those who ruined her life? Can Brice and Ryann escape from captivity deep underground? Has Keelin found people who appreciate her for who she is, or are they only using her? And as Piran dives deep into the incredible technology of the Ancients, can he keep their secrets from the company long enough to help save his friends?

As hostilities grow, each of them must fight‌—‌for themselves, for their friends, and for their lives.

Raising the tension in Lindsay Buroker’s ‘The Forbidden Ground’

I recently read Linsday Buroker’s Death Before Dragons novella The Forbidden Ground. I’ve found her other books to be a lot of fun‌—‌banter, action, fast-paced, exciting‌—‌and this one was no exception. But what struck me was the increase in tension in the climax.

This scene takes place after the antagonist falls through a hole in the ground, discovering an underground lair. She’s joined by a dragon (in human form), but he’s caught in beams coming from four mysterious orbs. Buroker has already established the relationship between the antagonist and the dragon (not a romance, but there are hints that it could become one), so it’s obvious that our hero wants to free him.

The beams are weakening the dragon, so the antagonist must act fast. Already, we have tension‌—‌a life-or-death situation and a limited time in which to act.

She attacks the first of the orbs, using her magical sword. It’s hard-going, but she manages to destroy it. The beam from the orb disappears‌—‌but the dragon is still held by the other three beams, and is now on his knees, clearly in pain. There’s no option but to attack the second orb. She does this, destroying it. The dragon is still held, growing even weaker.

Buroker could have had the antagonist destroy the final two orbs just as the dragon is about to breathe his last. That would have been satisfactory, if a little underwhelming. Instead, she adds another element to the tension.

Up to this point, the antagonist has been in no direct danger‌—‌she’s not the one slowly dying. If she fails to free the dragon, she still gets to live. But now, things become personal.

She strays too close to one of the remaining beams, and immediately feels the urge to turn her sword on the dragon. The beam‌—‌or the magical force behind it‌—‌is telling her to kill the dragon in his weakened state, and it’s taking everything she’s got to fight the compulsion.

The stakes have changed. This is no longer about life and death, but about something far stronger. If she can’t resist this urge to kill her friend, she’ll have to live with the knowledge of what she’s done for the rest of her days. She’s facing a ‘fate worse than death’, or a ‘damnation’.

This shift makes the climax far more exciting‌—‌and far more effective‌—‌but it took setting up. Throughout the short book, Buroker ensured that the reader understood the relationship between these two characters. As readers, we went into this climax knowing that, as annoying as he could be, the dragon has previously saved the antagonist’s life. They have a bond. As dismissive of ‘lesser beings’ as the dragon is, we get the impression he’d miss the antagonist if she were not around‌—‌and she’d definitely miss him if he were to go.

This increase in tension emphasises something that is at the heart of most (all?) good books, and is something that Buroker excels at‌—‌relationships are more important than plot. Without some kind of meaning for the characters, action in a story is nothing more than ‘stuff that happens’. For it to become a plot, for it to become a story we remember, we (the readers) must be engaged. We must care what happens to the characters.

This is especially true of the climax. In The Forbidden Ground, Buroker gives us physical danger and physical action, but ups the tension by making the whole battle personal. She makes things more exciting by engaging the emotions of both the characters and the reader.

It’s a solid story-tellling rule‌—‌the final climax of a story should be personal to have the most impact

Dominions on special offer

For the next few days (until Monday 23rd), I’m offering the first four books in my Dominions series at reduced prices.

Dead Flesh (Dominions II

Dead Flesh (Dominions II) is only 99p / 99c

Deep Water (DominionsIII)

Deep Water (Dominions III) is only £1.99 / $1.99

RIled Dogs (Dominions IV) is only £2.99 / $2.99

(These offers are only available in the US and UK, but the complete series is still available to read for free through Kindle Unlimited)

In praise of ‘satisfactory’

About a decade ago I worked as a teacher. Back then, there were politicians pushing for ‘every student to be above-average’, and there was talk of rearranging lesson observation gradings so that ‘satisfactory’ was no longer good enough.

It was like dictionaries no longer mattered.

Ignoring the linguistic butchery, I understood the intentions. They wanted improvement. On the surface, I’ve got no argument with this. Education should be about improving oneself, in both formal settings (schools, colleges, and so on) and in other areas. Education never stops‌‌—‌life is a constant process of learning and (hopefully) improving.

I can see this in my own life. When I played guitar regularly, I’d practice in order to improve my technique, to play harder music, to get faster. When I use the bouldering wall, I work on different problems, improving my finger strength, body position, attitude and so on. And when I write, I aim to make every new story better than the one before. I read not only for enjoyment but also to inform my own writing. I listen to and read material on writing craft and story structure.

Learning can be hard, though. It’s not linear‌—‌there are times when things fall into place, and we make great leaps forward, but there are other times when we can’t wrap our heads around ideas. We struggle over something that feels inconsequential. Sometimes we need to revisit older ‘learning’, embedding it deeper or reminding ourselves about first principles. Sometimes we need to take it steady, or even take a break altogether.

And even with all this learning, perfection can only be an aspiration, never a destination. There’s always room for further improvement.

Which is why there’s no shame in being ‘good enough’. Sometimes (arguably most of the time), satisfactory is‌…‌well, satisfactory.

Let’s bring this back to reading and writing. I’ve read many satisfactory books. I can’t recall them now, but I enjoyed them at the time‌—‌because they did their job. They entertained me.

I was reminded of this recently as I read Scott Bartlett’s Mech Wars series. The books aren’t literary masterpieces‌‌—‌there were times when the writer side of me would pull me from the story, re-reading passages that were more tell than show, trying to work out ‘better’ alternatives.

But I read all four books. I wanted to know how the story ended, and what would happen to the characters. The series did its job in entertaining me. It was a perfectly satisfactory read.

I should note that this is my personal view. As I often do when finishing a book, I checked on-line reviews. Bartlett has a decent number, for both the series and the individual books, and the vast majority are positive. Readers enjoy the series. It’s military sci-fi‌—‌Bartlett doesn’t present it as literary. He’s telling an action-filled adventure, and that’s exactly what readers get.

The books don’t have the feel of first drafts, so Bartlett edited. I’m sure he made them the best he could, back when he wrote them (over five years ago). And then he reached a point where he felt they were good enough to put into the world.

Which reminds me of an interview I read with the band Massive Attack (after the release of their Mezzanine album). They talked about how they’d be constantly tinkering with the songs, passing files back and forth as they edited, but they eventually had to stop and release the album‌‌—‌but if they had time, they’d continue tinkering.

Works of art aren’t so much completed as abandoned. There’s always room for improvement. But there has to be a moment when the artist (musician, producer, writer, whatever) puts a stop to editing and decides it’s ‘good enough’, that it’s ‘satisfactory’‌—‌that is, it satisfies their own editorial standards, and (hopefully) will satisfy its audience.

And then it’s time to move on to the next project.

But why not continue to polish that first project? If each editing pass improves it, why not keep going?

Because where would it end? Some writers spend years on their first book in an attempt to make it ‘perfect’. But progressive edits yield diminishing returns, while taking up a great deal of time. If the writer wants to improve, they need to practice‌—‌and that means writing more. That means working on new stories and new projects.

A few years ago I re-read my first book, Dark Glass, in preparation for writing more books in the Dominions series. I wasn’t happy with the quality of that book, so I re-worked it‌—‌tightened up the story, added scenes, took away even more, and improved the writing itself. Dark Glass might’ve been the best book I could write back in 2016, but I’d moved on from there‌‌—‌and with the re-write, I was happy with it once more.

But the next couple of books were originally written at the same time (2016), and while I’d learnt from Dark Glass, they’re still not representative of my current writing. A part of me was tempted to rework both Dead Flesh and Deep Water, but I realised this could be a never-ending process‌‌—‌by the time I reached the end of the series I could very easily return to the start, making more improvements. And that would leave no time for writing anything new‌—‌no time to put in the practice and actively improve.

Stories need to be shared. If Bartlett had continued editing Mech Wars, he might not be finished yet‌‌—‌and that would have deprived thousands of readers of the enjoyment they derived from those books. If he’d waited until the series was ‘perfect’, he wouldn’t have had the time to write his other books, books that his readers continue to devour.

There are times we want ‘literature’, times we want to wallow in expertly-crafted prose and marvel at poetic word-play. But, for the majority of readers, and for most of the time, we want entertainment. As long as the writing is good enough to carry the story, we needn’t ask for anything more.

A story that satisfies is good enough.

Desert Bound is now on pre-order

It’s been a while, but I finally have something new coming out‌—‌Desert Bound, the first book in the ShadowTech series.

Ryann never wanted to be a commander. Nor did she want to be a fugitive, on the run from the company that trained and enhanced her. And she definitely didn’t want to end up in a lawless desert city, hunting an ancient tech relic for a double-crossing crime boss.

The relic is the key to untapped power, and others hunt it with ruthless determination, willing to kill any who get in their way. As enemies close in, as the company watches from the shadows, and as her crew crumbles around her, Ryann must fight like she’s never fought before.

The ShadowTech series picks up from the end of the Shadows trilogy‌—‌so if the ending of Shadowstrike left you wanting more, here it is. And if you haven’t entered this world yet, Desert Bound is a fine place to start, especially if you want some fast-paced sci-fi adventure.

Desert Bound is released on 20th May on all the usual ebook sites, with paperbacks through Amazon. And you can pre-order (the ebook) right now for the limited-time price of only 99c (or your local equivalent)

What Neal Asher’s ‘Jack Four’ taught me about my reading preferences

Enjoyment of books is a very personal thing. It’s also difficult to define. Am I appreciating the mental exercise of reading? Is my entertainment dependent on the story, or the characters, or the writing style? How much does my enjoyment of a particular book rely on external matters that have nothing to do with the story or the writing?

I think it’s a combination of all these factors and more.

I was pondering this recently while reading Neal Asher’s Jack Four. This is only the second of Asher’s books I’ve read. The first was Gridlinked, and that book impressed me. But I struggled with Jack Four. It started strong, and the first chapter was full of promise, but as I continued I found it hard to focus. As much as I wanted to enjoy the book, there were times when I’d reach the end of a page (screen) and have no recollection of what I’d just read.

Why? I started to analyse.

The first thing I noticed was the ebook formatting. I like my ebooks to look like print books, with justified text (straight lines to either side), but Jack Four had been formatted left-justified (left side straight, right side ragged), and playing with my Kindle settings didn’t change that. For some reason, ragged-right doesn’t feel like a ‘proper’ book.

But I’ve read and enjoyed other left-justified texts. If the writing grabs me, I can ignore formatting. So there had to be something else going on with Jack Four.

It wasn’t pace. Jack Four is filled with action‌—‌almost too much. As soon as the main character (the titular Jack Four) has overcome one obstacle he’s faced with another. There’s also mystery tied up in the story, with Jack Four trying to figure out what’s happening. If anything, a let-up in the pace would’ve been appreciated.

For much of the time, Jack Four is on his own, and for the first half of the book, there’s very little dialogue. Is the constant prose an issue?

Possibly. But I’ve enjoyed other books with a character on their own. The first that springs to mind is Andy Weir’s The Martian, and I can’t recall struggling through that book. Far from it‌—‌Weir’s book was a fast read, and constantly kept me engaged.

But in Weir’s book, his main character (Mark Watney) is relating his struggles in a very personable way, as if he’s talking directly to the reader. It could be argued that the whole book is dialogue (or maybe monologue). And Watney’s a fun character. Even the technical problems are described in a conversational tone, with humour never far from the surface.

Jack Four’s style is different. Action is described with precise language, in long paragraphs. There isn’t much character in the writing.

This fits the main character. Jack Four is a clone, only just ‘born’. He might have knowledge he shouldn’t have, but he has no direct memories, and is very much a blank slate. He’s not emotional. As Asher is writing in first-person, from Jack Four’s point of view, of course, the descriptions are going to be analytical and unemotional.

And this, I believe, is where my issues with the book rest.

The more I read (and the more I write), the more I’m drawn into the characters of a story. I can appreciate well-written action, but there has to be an impact on the characters for the story to engage me. I want to be with them on their journey, even if their internal growth is only implied by the words on the page. And I enjoy reading dialogue, especially fast back-and-forth.

This carries into the prose, too. The books I enjoy are ones where the writing is in the character’s voice, where I feel as if I’m experiencing the world through them rather than watching events unfold from on high.

So when I read a book like Jack Four, told through a blank-slate character, it’s no wonder I struggle.

Does this make Jack Four a poor book? Of course not. It simply didn’t resonate with me as a reader. And it did pick up for me in the last half, as Jack Four interacts with others.

Will I read more books by Neal Asher? If Jack Four was the first of his books I’d read, I might be reticent about trying another. But I enjoyed Gridlinked, and that’s enough to show me that he’s a decent writer. I might steer clear of the next Jack Four book for a while, but I’ve already got another one on my (always growing) TRB list.

It’ll be interesting to see how I engage with that one.

Dune, Chris Fox, Star Wars – ways to extend a series

If a story is popular, readers want more. Sometimes pressure from fans forces a writer to produce a sequel, but often a book is written with a series in mind. Some series are finite (they tell an overarching story that concludes at some point), while others are more open-ended.

But both types of series can be extended. Even if the main series story-arc is completed, there can be loose threads that lead to more complications. Isaac Asimov extended his Foundation trilogy, as did Frank Herbert with Dune (initially planned as a trilogy, then extended into six books, and I believe Herbert had plans for a seventh).

The Dune example is more interesting, though. Since his death, others have taken over writing in the Dune universe, taking Herbert’s ideas and expanding in all kinds of directions.

I read one of those ‘new’ books recently‌—‌Brian Herbert & Kevin J Anderson’s The Winds Of Dune. It doesn’t add to the end of the series but fills in (some of) the events between the first and second books.

It’s another way of extending a series‌—‌take events alluded to in the main series, and expand them into their own stories. I think of these series-extensions as ‘side-stories’‌—‌not vital for those wanting to follow the main series story-arc, but fascinating for fans of the series.

And it’s a technique used more and more often. Writers can produce short stories or novellas as ‘bonuses’, either for publication on their own or in anthologies. Stephenie Meyer did this with The Short Second Life Of Bree Tanner, a novella following one of the minor characters from her Twilight series. Stephen Donaldson resurrected a discarded chapter from The Illearth War (his second Thomas Covenant novel) as the (long) short story Gilden Fire. In the Star Wars universe we have Rogue One and Solo, along with the ever-increasing TV shows.

Fans of a series always want more. They want to explore the lives of their favourite characters. They’re intrigued by back-story. They want to know what happens next, and also what happened before.

I’m currently reading Chris Fox’s Void Wraith Origins series. It’s a self-contained trilogy, but it’s also a prequel to his six-book Void Wraith series. He’s done something similar with his Magitech books, writing a six-book Magitech Legacy series to complement the original.

He’s also extended his Deathless series (originally a trilogy), and has tied that to the Magitech world.

Multiple series, all based in the same world, all connected.

The idea is to have a ‘flagship series’, one that is the focus and the most popular, and then build more series around that. Star Wars is a prime example, with the multitude of book series, the animated series such as Clone Wars, and the newer additions like The Mandalorian and the upcoming Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Star Trek has spawned a number of ‘spin-offs’ (Voyager, The Next Generation and so on), as has NCIS (with NCIS: Los Angeles, NCIS: New Orleans, and more reportedly in production). The Harry Potter series has spawned Fantastic Beasts.

In books, romance writers have long exploited this idea (because romance writers are always ahead of the curve). They might have one series following three brothers, then have another series focused on a group of friends, but both series will take place in the same small town. Friends of the love interests in one book or series will spin off into their own stories and series.

It’s great for readers‌—‌they get that holy grail of something fresh (in a new story) with something familiar (a world they know). And it’s a great way to write, because it takes away the need to world-build afresh with each book or series.

It’s something I’m doing at the moment. I wrote a trilogy a few years ago called Shadows, a sci-fi with horror leanings, and even though I liked the way the three books work together (they feel complete), there were still open loops, and more I wanted to explore. So I’m now working on a new-but-connected series, ShadowTech, following on from the end of Shadows. I’ve pulled back on the horror elements, and this new series has more of a sci-fi adventure feel, with a larger scope, faster pace, more action. It’s different, but still connected.

Hopefully, what readers want — novelty alongside familiarity.

Subtleties that say so much in Ted Lewis’ ‘Get Carter’

When a film is a success, it’s sometimes easy to forget about the source material.

Mention Forrest Gump, and most people think of Tom Hanks, not the novel. Think of The Birds, and the Hitchcock classic is well-known, the Daphne DuMaurier short story less so.

Another example is Get Carter. It’s a classic Michael Caine film (and a not-too-successful Sylvester Stallone remake). But it’s also a novel by Ted Lewis, originally published in 1970 as Jack’s Return Home.

It’s well worth a read, and it stands up very well alongside the film version.

The story’s told in first person, and Carter’s no-nonsense, hard character makes the book wonderfully bleak and brutal. From the start, we’re drawn into the character as much as the mystery surrounding Carter’s brother’s death. A casual reader will get the impression that there’s a dark side to Carter, that he’s involved in a murky underworld in London, that there’s more to him than he shows.

But he’s hard and cold. He doesn’t do a great deal of introspection, and there’s very little internal dialogue in the book. Instead, we learn what Carter’s really like through his actions and external dialogue.

When Carter first arrives at his childhood town, he takes a taxi, and his exchanges with the driver are cordial, almost friendly. There’s no indication of judgement from the driver, and Carter appears relaxed. When the taxi stops, and the driver jumps out to open the door for Carter, we get this exchange.

“How much is that?” I said.
“Five bob,” he said.
“Here you are,” I said. I gave him seven and six.

It doesn’t seem like much‌—‌Carter’s paid his fare, and included a tip. But later, in The George Hotel, there’s another exchange concerning money.

The barman at the hotel isn’t interested in Carter, only reluctantly serving him. Once he’s poured the pint, Carter asks how much it’ll cost.

“One and ten,” said the barman.
I gave him one and ten and went and sat down…

Notice there’s no tip, no ‘keep the change’. Carter pays what he owes, then turns his back on the man.

The contrast in these two examples is telling. Carter isn’t the type of person to willingly make a scene, but he’s affected by others. And he treats them according to how they treat him. He might be involved with some very dodgy people‌—‌nothing’s been explicitly said about his life in London, but the clues are there‌—‌but he has a certain moral code. Don’t upset Carter, and he won’t upset you.

Later, he’s looking for a room to let for the weekend. He finds a suitable house and makes enquiries.

There’s something strange about this conversation, though. Carter hesitates. He seems almost embarrassed. In previous exchanges he’s come across as confident, but here he’s the opposite.

Once he’s finished talking to the woman who runs the house, he leaves. And we get this:

I smiled. It amused me, the picture she’d got of me, the way she thought she’d got me weighed up. It might turn out to be helpful.

So we now know more about Carter’s character‌—‌he’s acting. He manipulates conversations and interactions. While he seems to have treated the taxi-driver in a friendly manner (and turned his back on the brusque barman), his actions can’t be trusted.

We’re not even at the end of the first chapter, and already we know this is going to be a dark tale. We’re along for the ride with a manipulative narrator. He hasn’t lashed out, but already we get the sense that he’s no stranger to violence.

These moments are subtle. If we’re not paying attention, they slip past us‌—‌just as Jack Carter’s comments can slip by, seemingly innocent but with a deeper, unsettling meaning.

There’s nothing accidental about these moments. In this first chapter, Lewis is setting the scene. Through his titular character, he’s taken us up to a dreary north of England, where death hangs in the air. And he’s already telling us that this Jack Carter character is darker than he appears.

Michael Caine might have made the character his own, but Ted Lewis gave him everything he needed