An offer for Kobo readers

I’ve got a lot of time for Kobo‌—‌not only are they a serious competitor to Amazon/Kindle in many places, but they are also incredibly focused on books and writers. They run a great deal of promotions, and their latest gives readers 40% off certain books.

I’m mentioning this because they’ve accepted two of my books for inclusion in this offer, Shadowfall and the Dominions Box Set. The offer runs until the 24th February, and to get the 40% discount simply use the promo code FEBSALE at checkout.

Shad1_lowShadowfall (Shadows Book One)

The company enhanced Brice. They promised him action and adventure. But he’s stuck on a malfunctioning craft, with a crew who treat him like a child. He’s miles from home, in the worst storm of the season, and night is falling.
And in the shadows the creatures wait, their hunger growing.
The company prepared Brice for many things, but nothing can prepare him for what he must face when the shadows fall.

2017-1326 TW Iain 3D Box Set on white on transparentDominions Box Set

When Rodin, professional assassin, is forced to take a contract in the perfect society of the Dome, he expects enemies. But he doesn’t expect to start questioning his own motivations, or the deadly threats from a past he no longer remembers.
Dive into the dark Dystopian world of Dominions with this collection of three novels and one novella, and begin to uncover the secrets buried beneath the glass.

Don’t forget, use the promo code FEBSALE on Kobo to get 40% off‌—‌that’s almost half price.

And to check out more books in the sale, click on the following links for specific Kobo stores: UK, US, Canada, Australia, Ireland, Germany

Why ‘Alien’ works

One of my favourite films is Alien, but only now do I appreciate how well constructed the story is. When I started working on my sci-fi/horror series Shadows, Alien was a major influence, and I’ve learnt a great deal from considering just why the story of Alien works so well.

Alien_poster

It’s easy to relate to the setting and characters

Yes, the film’s set on a spacecraft, but the setting is also surprisingly mundane‌—‌it’s a working vessel, populated by a crew who are simply doing their job. For some of them, the job’s clearly important (the captain, Dallas, takes his role seriously). But others, like Parker and Brett, are the kind of workers who turn up because they have to. It’s easy to imagine these two sloping off somewhere for a sneaky break when nobody’s watching.

Alien_2And, as with any bunch of co-workers forced together, there are tensions. Some of them get on well with others, but there’s a lot of animosity just beneath the surface. Just like any other work environment.

It’s also worth noting that the Nostromo isn’t some sleek, high-tech craft like the Enterprise, or a fast fighting vessel like the Millennium Falcon. It’s scruffy, dirty and in need of repair. It’s a floating factory‌—‌and once again, this is the kind of environment that many can relate to.

Nobody is safe

Most stories focus on a hero, and in films this role is normally played by a big-name actor. We can usually be pretty secure in guessing that this character will survive, with the lesser characters (played by actors we don’t recognise) becoming fodder for the monster.

But Alien</ em> turns this on its head. John Hurt was one of the bigger names attached to the film, and he’s the first to die. With him gone, maybe we assume Dallas will survive. After all, the film starts with him alone on the Nostromo, before the rest of the crew wake. He’s the captain, and Tom Skerritt was another fairly well-known actor at the time.

When Dallas dies, it’s a shock, and it leaves things wide-open for who will eventually survive (although as the crew dwindle further, Ripley does step up to be the hero). With with lack of certainty, tension increases.

Horror can come at any time

The alien bursting from Kane’s stomach is probably Alien’s most memorable scene, but it’s worth noting the setting. This moment of gut-wrenching (sorry!) horror comes not in a dark corner of the craft, or on an alien planet. No, it occurs while the crew share a meal. They’re eating and joking. It’s a bonding moment, something we’re all familiar with‌—‌right up to the moment Kane’s stomach starts to bulge.

Alien_1And this tells us that nowhere is safe. Even if characters are together, in brightly-lit familiar rooms, they’re still in danger. We don’t need to peer into the darkness looking for monsters, because they could leap out of anywhere, at any time.

We’re in the dark with the crew

We never get to see the alien in its entirety until the very end of the film. In part this was down to film-making restraints at the time, but it makes the film so much more effective‌—‌we never quite know what’s after the crew.

Jaws pulled off a similar trick, in refusing to show the shark until the second half of the film. We see the victim through the shark’s eyes, and we see the effects of the attacks (the swimmer being dragged under, the blood soaking the water). But we don’t see the shark itself.

What we can’t see is far more scary than what’s in front of our eyes. Our imagination fills in the blanks with our own worst nightmares.

There are things we have no control over

Its worth taking a closer look at Dallas’ death.

Alien_4The rest of the crew are following his progress through the ducts. They have audio communication, but the only visual is on a map, with a marker to indicate his position. And then a second marker appears, indicating the alien’s position‌—‌and it’s closing in on Dallas. They yell for him to get out, but as the alien approaches there’s nothing they can do to prevent the inevitable.

In that moment, the crew are helpless witnesses, with no control over the outcome. Just like us, watching events unfold on a screen, unable to alter events.

We’re helpless, just like the crew.

Time is running out / the false ending

As the alien takes out the crew one by one, Ripley sees only one way to destroy the creature‌—‌self-destruct the Nostromo while it’s still aboard.

This give a tense race against the clock. As alarms blare and Mother counts down to self-destruct, Ripley rushes to the shuttle while trying to save Jones the cat and avoid the alien.

Alien_3But she makes it. From the shuttle, she sees the Nostromo explode‌—‌and then realises she’s not alone on the shuttle. The alien is with her.

The tension and fear jump up a notch now. There’s nowhere for Ripley to run.

It’s a wonderful ending to a beautifully constructed story.


This list isn’t exclusive, and I know there are many great moments and ideas I’ve left out. But even this limited look at Alien shows why the story is so effective at pulling us in and keeping us engaged right to the end.

None of these things are original, of course. But the creative minds behind Alien used them to great effect, giving us a film that still works, over forty years after it hit the screens.

New short story – ‘Get The Right One’

This story’s part of something I’ve wanted to try for a while now.

I enjoy reading books in a series, but cliffhangers between books frustrate me. In my own series, I’ve always aimed for each book to tell its own story, while also being part of a larger story, told over the whole series.

And I wondered if I could write a series of short stories in the same way‌—‌each one its own thing, but all connected.

I’ve done something similar before, with For Blood (I) and For Blood (II), but that was one event viewed from two different sides. But now, I have a series of four stories, under the title What Goes Around. They’re set in the world of Dominions, and this first story, Get The Right One, is another tale of Rodin. He prides himself on always fulfilling a contract, and he’ll pay close attention to the wording, too. Even if that means he has to look past the obvious.

You can read Get The Right One (What Goes Around, part 1) here.

How Neil Peart is pushing my reading into new areas

 

The musicians I grew up listening to are getting older, and many are no longer around. Of course, it happens to everyone eventually, and in large part I’m pretty philosophical about this. Yes, it’s sad that they’re gone, but they’ve left behind a great legacy in their music, and in that a part of them will live on.

But when I heard of Neil Peart’s passing, earlier this year, I felt sadder than I expected. Maybe it was because I’d been listening to Rush for so many years. Or maybe it was because they’d had the same line-up for so long that there was something permanent about them. Even though there was unlikely to be any new music from the trio anyway, it felt somehow wrong that he’d died.

Rush in concert at MGM Grand, Las Vegas, America - 25 Jul 2015

In case you’re unfamiliar with the name, Neil Peart was the drummer and lyricist with Canadian band Rush. Their music didn’t bother the charts much, but they could sell out arena and stadium tours around the world, and had an incredibly loyal fan-base.

I saw Rush on tour back in the eighties, at a time when just about every band would thrown in solo spots for different musicians, mainly guitarists and drummers. These solos bored me. If there were seats at the venue, I’d have a rest while the guitarist tapped away, or while the drummer hit everything within range as fast as possible.

But Peart’s solo was different. It felt like a structured piece of music, with peaks and troughs, passing through different ways of playing, drawing on different emotions. Rather than a way of showing off, the solo was an exploration into what a drum kit was capable of. And even though the band played rock, it was clear that Peart drew from many different styles.

He wasn’t content to sit still as a musician. He took his playing very seriously. He’d practice for an hour before each concert. And he continually sought to improve‌—‌listening to other styles of music, seeking other techniques, taking lessons from drummers who might not have been technically as proficient as him, but who still had something he could learn from, something new he could incorporate into his own playing.

It’s an important attitude for anyone creative, be that in music or sculpture or stories or hanging baskets. There’s always more to learn. To quote one of Peart’s own lyrics (from Mission),

‘the point of the journey is not to arrive’.

It’s impossible to reach the end of knowing, to become perfect. There’s always more to learn, and it’s important to absorb new influences and techniques, to develop, so that the next song, the next model, the next book, the next basket surpasses the previous one.

When I worked in education, I used to tell myself that the moment I felt I knew everything about teaching was the moment I should stop‌—‌not because I would know everything, but because that moment would signal the end of the desire to improve.

In my writing, I feel like I’m only just starting out, and there is so much to learn. One very important way I can widen my knowledge is through reading‌—‌not only in genres I’m naturally drawn to, but also in pushing myself to explore new genres. It’s why I’ll read the occasional romance book, or historical book. It’s why I’ll read books by new and old authors, independently-published and those who work through traditional publishers.

There’s always more to learn, even from books I don’t like. I read the Twilight series and the first couple of Fifty Shades books (haven’t been able to face the third yet) in part because I wanted to understand what made them so popular. And it’s why I very rarely give up on a book. Even books I don’t enjoy, or stories I don’t feel are particularly well told, have things to teach me.

I know some people take a different approach. Some writers dive deep into a particular sub-genre, writing and reading only that one thing, focusing their attention on becoming an expert in it. And that’s fine‌—‌but for me, I’d feel like I was missing so much. When I read books with a strong romantic element, I can garner more insight in evoking believable relationships. When I read literary fiction, I can absorb ideas on how language is used. When I read mysteries and thrillers, I can better understand how to keep the reader guessing. When I read books that evoke different times and locations, I can attempt to unpick how words can be used to give a sense of period and setting without being too on-the-nose.

There’s so much to learn out there, so many lessons that I can use to improve my own writing. But that’s only going to happen if I concentrate.

This, I feel, is something Peart understood. It’s not enough to simply consume. Learning is active. It involves both study and practice. It’s a never-ending cycle that is the only way to improve.

Or, in the words of Peart himself,

What is a master but a master student? And if that’s true, then there’s a responsibility on you to keep getting better and to explore avenues of your profession.

Story lessons from The Rise Of Skywalker

The art of telling stories is complex, and there is always more to learn. As I read books or watch films, I’m always on the lookout for tips and ideas, seeking to learn how good stories work and why other stories leave me unimpressed.

star-wars-the-rise-of-skywalker-logo

I went to see the latest Star Wars film recently, and while it was enjoyable enough as an escape for a couple of hours, the overall story didn’t excite me too much. I also didn’t feel it totally succeeded in closing the whole Star Wars nine-film epic story in a satisfying way.

When I analysed why this might be, I came up with a number of lessons for my own writing.

Lesson One: Actions should have consequences

There was one moment in The Rise Of Skywalker where I was genuinely excited for the direction the story was taking. Rey attempts to rescue a friend, but while using the Force she ends up destroying the craft she believes him to be on.

Kylo Ren has been trying to get Rey to join the dark side, and so far she’s resisted. But with a moment when her own mastery of the Force comes into question, and when ‘good’ use of the Force has such a negative outcome, surely Rey will start to doubt. This, I felt, was going to be the start of her descent toward possibly turning to the dark side.

But this wasn’t to be. In the very next scene, we (and Rey) learn that her friend was on a different craft. Her failure to use the Force ‘correctly’ has no consequence (at least, for her), and she carries on as if nothing has happened.

The problem goes deeper, though. If the choices a character makes has no bearing on their success or failure, then they’re just along for the ride. And if nothing they do really matters, why should I care about them?

Second lesson: Story events must come from somewhere

There’s a well-known saying‌—‌plot twists should be surprising yet inevitable. They should shock us in the moment, but in hindsight it should be clear that this was the only way events could be played out. Think of the reveal in The Sixth Sense, and how it seems obvious on second viewing.

The Rise Of Skywalker fails in this right from the start, by suddenly mentioning that Palantine is not only alive and well, but also behind everything that happened over the two previous films. This reveal hasn’t been foreshadowed in these films, and his death seemed pretty definitive at the end of Return Of The Jedi.

It feels like a cheap move, or an attempt to pander to fans by bringing back an old character. Through the lens of story, it doesn’t work.

Just as actions must have consequences, events too must have origins. Otherwise, the story becomes nothing more than a bunch of stuff that happens.

Third lesson: The ending of a story is for tying everything together, not for introducing new characters and ideas.

There are some interesting ideas in The Rise Of Skywalker. We get insights into Poe’s back-story, and are introduced to a new (to us) character from his past. Also, we learn that Finn is not the only stormtrooper to have defected.

But this is the final chapter in a longer story. There isn’t the time orspace to develop these ideas, and ultimately they mean nothing. They feel tacked-on.

Maybe they serves some minor plot-point, or were an easy way to move the story on‌—‌but a well-told story would have found some other way of doing this. The ending should build on what has come before, not introduce new ideas and characters in order to work.

Lesson Four (the big one!): Have a vision for the whole story

The original Star Wars trilogy had a clear over-riding story (and I’ve written about this before, in this post), as did the prequel trilogy. But these latest three films, the sequel trilogy?

As one story, they’re a mess‌—‌and the reason for this seems to come down to a lack of clear direction. When JJ Abrams made The Force Awakens, it seems like he had some idea of where things were going, introducing plenty of open loops. But in The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson took things in his own direction (and, by all accounts, actively reversed many events set up in the previous film.) So in The Rise Of Skywalker, Abrams had to weave together a whole array of disparate plots.

Whatever he did, he was always going to disappoint people‌—‌fans of Johnson’s direction would accuse him of trying to undo, rewrite or ignore the previous film, while fans of his first film of the trilogy would moan about how Johnson derailed the whole thing, forcing Abrams’ hand too much.

A story should build. Yes, it will probably go through twists and turns‌—‌but eventually, these will be resolved in a way that (in hindsight at least) makes sense. Again, a story is not just a bunch of stuff that happens, but a coherent whole.

This is true of individual stories (books, films etc), but also true of a series. The seeds of the eventual ending should be sown early on, and the final chapter (episode) should build on everything that has come before.


So, four reasons why The Rise Of Skywalker left me underwhelmed, as both its own story and the final chapter in a series. And (more importantly) four lessons that I can take into my own writing.

New short story – ‘Where Does The Time Go?’

Another short story this week. I had the idea for this one ages ago, but only got round to actually writing the thing a couple of weeks ago. It came out pretty well as a first draft, but I’ve made a few changes and tightened things up a bit.

After going for a positive story last time (with Sentinels), this one is definitely darker (just to warn you). It’s called Where Does The Time Go, and you can read it here.