A look back at 2021, and plans for 2022

Do I need to say that 2021 was another strange year?

My first thought, on looking back, is ‘where did the last twelve months go?’ My second is, ‘what did I do with the year?’ It’s felt very unproductive, and writing has been a struggle.

But I did get things done. I released the final three novels in my Dominions series, a short story, and a novella (which is currently only available to newsletter subscribers). True, most of the writing and editing happened in 2020, but putting five books out in 2021 isn’t too bad. And it’s an achievement to reach the end of the nine-novel arc.

I worked on a new series, too.

This had a number of false starts‌—‌ideas that didn’t feel right, even after completing first drafts of novels. But I eventually settled on a follow-on to my Shadows trilogy, and I currently have the first two books of this series nearing completion.

So this year (2022), I intend to release both those books. I also want to have the third book in that series (the working title is ShadowTech) written and in editing by the end of the year.

I also have ideas for another series (I’m not ready to give any details yet, but it’s a bit of a departure), and aim to have at least two books in this nearly finished. I’m not looking to publish this second series yet, though‌—‌that will be for 2023.

So I have quite a bit of writing (including planning and editing) scheduled for this year. I also need to work on marketing and business.

This is a constant struggle. Last year I explored Amazon ads (again), and while I did get an increase in sales, the profits didn’t justify the ad expense (although it came close for the Shadows trilogy). I did learn from it, and when I try again I’ll have a few different things in place. I also want to revisit some of the books and courses I have on marketing and advertising.

I also want to get back into writing short stories‌—‌not necessarily for publication, but as a way of developing my writing. Yes, spending an hour or so each week on short stories takes time away from novels and marketing, but it’s training. It’s important to constantly improve.

Short stories are fun. They provide an opportunity to play with different ideas, to try new things. As it takes less time to edit and polish a short story, there’s more satisfaction in having something ‘finished’. And, if the story’s any good, I can look for ways to get it into the world (website, anthologies, podcasts and so on).

Related to self-development, I intend to continue writing a post every two weeks, detailing something I’ve learnt through reading. Apart from adding fresh content to my website, this also forces me to think about what I’m reading, and encourages me to read a wider range of books.

So, a quick summary of my plans for 2022:

  • Writing: I’ll have the first two books of the new ShadowTech series out, with a third close to completion. I’ll also have two books in another new series close to completion.
  • Marketing/business: By the end of the year I’ll have a constant stream of money coming in from my books. I’ll have a better understanding of advertising.
  • Training: I’ll write more short stories (ideally at least one a month) as a way of improving my writing. I’ll also continue to write a post every two weeks on what I’ve learnt through reading.

It’s not a particularly detailed plan, but one thing that’s been clear over the last couple of years is that plans can (and will) be disrupted. At least these few points give me something to aim for.

The Importance Of A First Line

MIckey Spillane is quoted as saying ‘the first chapter sells the book; the last chapter sells the next book.’ Well, something like that‌—‌I’ve seen variations in different places (first/last line, first/last sentence, and so on). But the details aren’t important‌—‌it’s the idea that counts. The ending of a book should leave us satisfied but eager for more. And the start of the book should pull us in so we can’t not continue.

I’ve read a couple of stories recently where the openings did just that, and I thought I’d share them with you.

The first is from Brandon Sanderson’s novella Snapshot. It had been sitting on my Kindle for a while, so when I dove into it I had no idea what it was about. And I read this:

Anthony Davis‌—‌one of only two real people in a city of twenty million‌—‌caught the burrito his partner tossed to him. “Which end is the mustard on?” he asked.

I was hooked.

But I also wanted to understand why this worked so well. After all, there’s not a lot going on here‌—‌at least, not on the surface. A character called Davis is eating a burrito with his partner. It’s not riveting stuff. It’s ordinary.

But it’s that phrase in the middle‌—‌‘one of only two real people in a city of twenty million’‌—‌that throws things out of kilter. It gives rise to so many questions‌—‌if the other twenty million aren’t real, what are they? Is this some kind of virtual reality thing? If that’s the case, how come Davis and his partner are simply eating burritos? What’s with the mustard? Is this important? And how can Davis be so blase about being one of only two real people?

We want answers. We have to read on.


The next comes from the Mark Leslie short story This Time Around: A Canadian Werewolf Story.

This time I woke to find myself sprawled naked in the grass, my shoulder nestled in a shrub and the coppery aftertaste of blood in my mouth. It was a cool morning, but humid, the unmistakable scent of the Hudson River hanging in the air.

This one didn’t grab me as hard as the opening to Snapshot, but it’s worth spending a moment examining these two sentences.

We know, from the book’s subtitle, that we’re dealing with werewolves here (or at least one werewolf). When I read these sentences I immediately recalled the scene in An American Werewolf In London where the main character wakes up naked in the wolf enclosure in London Zoo, after his first transformation. So it seems likely that the narrator in This Time Around is in a similar predicament.

There’s also the aftertaste of blood in his mouth‌—‌he’s fed. But on what? Or who?

Yet there’s something almost comforting in this opening, at odds with the apparent violence beneath the surface. The description of the surroundings is relaxing. Notice the use of the word ‘scent’‌—‌not an unpleasant stink, but a neutral smell. And it’s not cold, but cool.

The feel of the opening sets the tone for the rest of the story. This isn’t a jump-scare horror, or a gore-fest. It’s the story of one man dealing with his affliction. It poses an initial problem, and hints at what we can expect as we read on.


I’ll turn to another first paragraph, this one from Amanda Carlson’s Danger’s Halo, which does a very good job of setting up the main character and the world.

“Nobody survives that jump, kid.” Judging by the boy’s ragged clothing, he’d been living on the streets for a while. He couldn’t have been more than about ten. “It’s a lie. They tell you that so they can steal from you once they discover your dead, mangled body on the rocks below.”

It’s intriguing. It throws us directly into the story, yet it still gives us a great deal‌—‌not in details, but in impressions. This is a dangerous world‌—‌if ‘they’ have no qualms about luring a child to his death, then nobody is safe.

The tone of the passage‌—‌and especially the dialogue‌—‌says a lot about the main character. She’s tough, not someone who’s likely to show her emotions. She doesn’t plead with the child not to jump, but tells him he won’t survive if he does. Even though he’s young, she leaves the decision to him.

She calls him ‘kid’. That could be dismissive, or simply the way she talks. But the fact that she’s even bothering to talk to him indicates that she cares what happens.

Already, there are depths to this character. She’s clearly got an attitude, but possibly a caring side. And she seems to know the streets, has probably gone through a lot in her life. She’s a survivor.

And we want to learn more. We want to continue reading.


Three very different openings, setting up three very different stories. But in each case the first few sentences did their job admirably‌—‌they draw the reader in, settle them into the story, leave them wanting more.

How Samuel Delany increases tension in a scene with little action.

I recently read Samuel R Delany’s Nova, the first of his stories I’ve experienced. He’s not one of the big names in classic sci-fi, but he’s a fantastic writer. Maybe his more literary style put off many genre readers‌—‌which is a shame, because there’s so much in Nova that impresses.

Cover of Samuel R. Delany's 'Nova' (SF Masterworks edition)

For example, there’s a scene about halfway through that develops into a Tarot reading. On the face of it, not much is happening, but there’s an incredible build in tension. In some ways, it’s a pivotal scene, the moment when the characters realise how their fates are entwined in one another and their captain’s mission. Yet there’s no action, besides the turning of cards.

I was intrigued‌—‌how does Delany build tension in such a seemingly passive scene?

The scene starts relaxed. Tyy (the character doing the reading) is initially using the cards for her own enjoyment. When Lorq (the captain) talks to her about the cards, it feels like a simple, friendly conversation. Katin joins in, spouting information about the cards as if he’s some kind of expert. Another character, Sebastian, sits quietly on the fringes.

And then there’s the Mouse. Despite coming from a social class that uses and believes in the Tarot (as Katin is quick to point out), the Mouse is sceptical.

This is important. Tyy seems to believe in the cards through something like faith, Lorq could be going along with it simply to keep his crew on-side. Katin approaches the whole area with logic and study. And the Mouse doesn’t believe.

Straight away, Delany’s set up uncertainty here. As readers, we’re unsure if there is anything believable or even important in the Tarot reading Tyy gives the captain. Should he trust her impressions, or disregard it? The cards are open to interpretation, which increases the uncertainty. As the reading progresses, Katin tries to show off his knowledge, but is often put in his place by Tyy, who offers alternative meanings. Who is right?

The cards are initially drawn slowly, with much talking (arguing?) between each one. But the pace increases‌—‌and this builds the tension. Any talking is in fragmented sentences now. Even Katin isn’t as verbose as we’re used to. He’s cut off with a look from the others:

“The Tower reversed!” Katin whispered. “Uh-oh. I know what—” and stopped because Tyy and Sebastian looked.

With earlier cards, Delaney gave a description of the images they showed. But as the pace increases, the description disappears. The prose itself becomes sparse.

“Again choose.”
Lorq chose.
“The King of Swords. Here it place.”
The King went to the left of the cross.
“And once more.”
Lorq drew his ninth card.
“The Three of Wands reversed.”
Which went below the King.

Notice how matter-of-fact this is. Also notice how (almost) every sentence is its own paragraph. Gone are the flowing sentences and long paragraphs. This is sharp and punchy, urging us on.
Then we get this exchange:

“Do you see Prince in there?” Lorq asked. “Do you seem me, and the sun I’m after?”
“You I see; and Prince. A woman also, somehow related to Prince, a dark woman—”
“Black hair, but blue eyes?” Lorq said. “Prince’s eyes are blue.”

Notice how Lorq is putting words into Tyy’s mouth. Lorq wants (needs?) this reading to be true. There’s a desperation about his questions that feels out of character, hinting at an urgency beneath his calm exterior.

And then there’s the Mouse’s reactions. Initially, it feels like he’s trying to ignore the whole thing, seeing it as superstitious nonsense. But that changes. Take this exchange, for example [the first speaker is Tyy]:

“The cards mostly swords and pentacles are. Much money I see. Also much struggle about and around it there is.”
“With seven tons of Illyrion?” the Mouse mumbled. “You don’t have to read cards to see—”
“Shhh…” from Katin.

The Mouse is being drawn in. And notice how Katin cuts him off. Interrupted sentences help give a sense of urgency and pace. The Mouse might not place any importance in the cards, but others do‌—‌and Delany uses that to pull the reader along. And near the end of the scene, he gives us this:

“That with material increase you are concerned, this card reveals. But the Page of Swords you crosses.”
“That’s Prince?” [this is Lorq talking.]
Tyy shook her head. “A younger person it is. Someone already close to you now it is. Someone you know. A dark, very young man perhaps—”
Katin was first to look at the Mouse.
“—who somehow between you and your flaming sun will come.”
Now Lorq looked up over his shoulder.
“Hey, now. Look…” The Mouse frowned at the others. “What are you going to do? Fire me at the first stopover because of some stupid cards? You think I want to cross you up?”
“Even if he you fired,” Tyy said, glancing up, “it would nothing change.”
The captain slapped the Mouse’s hip. “Don’t mind it, Mouse.”
“If you don’t believe in them, Captain, why waste your time listening to…?” and stopped because Tyy had replaced the cards.

If the reading meant nothing, the Mouse would’ve dismissed Katin’s accusation offhand. But it gets to him. He struggles to put his indignation into words. Then he turns to his captain for support. Does he get that support, or is Lorq only pacifying him? It’s hard to say.

But there’s tension within the crew now. Even for the sceptic, this Tarot reading has changed things. Notice that the Mouse stops talking when Tyy returns to the cards. The Mouse can’t ignore them now. Even though he doesn’t believe it of himself, could he betray the captain?

The scene has gone from friendly banter to something far more threatening. Delany brought this about through subtle changes in his characters, and backs this up with the way he moulds his words. He shortens sentences, and cuts description.

It’s definitely made me want to check out more of Delany’s writing.

Why is dialogue and inter-character tension so important? A look at Andy Weir’s ‘Project Hail Mary’

[SPOLIER ALERT: The following might give spoilers to Project Hail Mary.]

Andy Weir made his name on the survival story The Martian. That book was impressive for a number of reasons, not least how Weir holds the reader’s attention when the majority of the time is spent with a single character.

Good stories need tension and conflict. They also need believable, interesting characters. Even in stories with external tension, much of the conflict will be inter-personal. Characters will argue. They’ll say one thing but mean another.

It’s tough to get this kind of tension with an inner monologue, so it’s no surprise that dialogue drives many stories. This is especially true with stories on the screen, despite film and TV being very visual media. A script will be predominantly dialogue.

So coming up with a riveting story when there is no dialogue is very hard. Weir pulled it off in The Martian. For his next book, Artemis, he had a cast of characters interacting, but in his latest book, Project Hail Mary, he’s returned to the lone character struggling to cope with a difficult situation.

So how does Weir keep our interest in this new book? How does he stop the challenges becoming introspective and dull?

First off is the premise. The character/narrator in Project Hail Mary is suffering from amnesia. He emerges from a coma to find himself aboard a spacecraft far from home, his two crewmates dead. He can’t remember their names. He can’t even remember his own name.

Then there’s the narrator’s voice. The action isn’t a simple description of what happens, but is filtered through the character’s personality. Through his struggles (and his internal monologue) we get to know him as he finds out who he is.

His memories return, and Weir gives us these as flashbacks. In these flashbacks we get other characters, and we also get some of that much-needed interaction. The flashbacks provide a welcome respite from the solo scenes.

[Incidentally, Weir’s use of tense is worth nothing here. The flashbacks are all written in past tense, while the space scenes are written in present tense. This could’ve been annoying, but the main character’s voice carries through, and the change of tense almost becomes invisible.]

Still, much of the time is spent alone with the main character (Ryland Grace). While the puzzles he’s forced to solve are interesting on an intellectual level, for me the book started to flag. Watching him solve problem after problem felt too distant. I started looking forward to the flashback scenes because I needed that interaction and dialogue.

And the [spoiler alert] Grace comes across an alien.

At this point, for me, the book really picked up. There’s another entity in the story now, clearly intelligent, and Grace starts to communicate with it. While the intellectual problems remain (and are compounded now, in figuring out how to communicate and then work with a very different being), there’s more interplay. Grace and Rocky (the alien) develop a means to communicate, and start to work together. They develop a rapport, start to anticipate one another. They bicker, and they work together. Now, instead of Grace talking through problems to himself, there’s a dialogue. They bounce ideas back and forth.

They’re both trying to save their respective home planets, but they’re also trying to save each other.

This is worth considering in a little more detail.

We enjoy stories with high stakes, and there’s little that tops saving the whole of humanity. But high stakes like this, while exciting, are so far outside our personal experiences that it’s hard to relate. And if we can’t relate to the problems the character(s) face, we’re outsiders, passive observers. We don’t feel connected.

To help readers connect, there has to be something more personal. This is why so many high-stakes stories also involve the hero saving a loved one. Bond has to save the day, but he also has to save the girl.

Grace, in Project Hail Mary, has little attachment emotionally to anyone back on earth. Yes, he goes on about his kids (the students he teaches), but that’s as much a justification for his existence as a personal attachment to any of them. This detachment might make him suited to the mission, but it doesn’t make him relatable.

But as he and Rocky grow closer, he finds that connection. This isn’t a romance/love story‌—‌it’s more a buddy thing‌—‌but it gives Grace (and the story) an emotional edge that we, the reader, can relate to.
And this development is shown in the interplay between characters‌—‌in the dialogue, both spoken and non-spoken.

This struck home for me when, toward the end, Grace and Rocky go their separate ways. We return to the internal stuff. I found myself alternately trudging through these pages and rushing through them, wanting‌—‌needing?‌—‌to reach a point where Grace was with others, either human or alien.

The ending highlighted this even more. Without spoiling too much, the book ends with Grace finding contentment in others. It’s a decent closing to the book. We might not be able to relate to Grace saving humanity, but we can relate to him coming through his ordeal a changed man.

This book showed me how important inter-personal conflict is in stories. It also highlighted how dialogue can help engage readers, and how tiring description and internal monologues can be, no matter how well-written the character voice.

And on a final note, I love how Weir constantly pushed himself with his books. He could have so easily written a different version of The Martian (same ideas, different planet or something.) But he didn’t. He followed it with a thriller (Artemis, which I enjoyed a lot). And although Project Hail Mary starts with a similar feel to The Martian, it is a very different book. I look forward to the next book Weir puts out. I don’t know what to expect, but I’m sure it will be well worth reading.

Show, don’t tell … unless it’s better to tell

Show don’t tell. It’s a classic piece of writing advice. As Chekov (allegedly) put it:

‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.’

But what does ‘show don’t tell’ really mean?

At the most basic level, it means the words shouldn’t be expository. They shouldn’t tell the reader what’s happening, but should describe the effects of what’s happening. Instead of telling us a character is sad, the words should show us the pain etched on their face, their struggle in putting words together, their reluctance to take part in a conversation. Instead of telling us a character is fearful, the words should show their frantic movements and their raised heartbeat.

One of the big show don’t tell ‘errors’ is in exposition. This is ‘stuff the reader needs to know in order to understand what’s happening’. It’s background or backstory, or maybe technical details. It could be details about the world (especially in ‘other-world’ genres like fantasy and science fiction).

There’s a danger of this becoming an info-dump‌—‌a passage that only exists in order to explain stuff to the reader. It can slow down pacing, and can drag us out of the moment.

A way around this is through dialogue, especially if one character is unfamiliar with the world or the situation. Then, a different character, one who is immersed in the world or situation, can explain things to the ‘new’ character. But this still has its problems. Readers aren’t stupid‌—‌they’ll see through this ploy unless it’s done well. Why is that character explaining all about the wizards from the north while the characters are running from the goblins? Why is that mysterious shady character suddenly talking like a textbook while telling the protagonist about that super-computer the bad guys have been working on? Why are those two servants telling each other what’s going on in the stately home when they both know all this stuff anyway?

(This last example is often referred to as ‘maid-and-butler’ dialogue‌—‌‘As you know, my dear, the master is due back from his recent convalescence at the coast,’ and so on.)

Descriptions (of characters, setting or objects) can cause issues too. Rich, vivid, poetic descriptions have their place, but for many books (especially genre fiction), the story is more important than the writing. Purple prose (fancy writing) can seem out of place. So a talented writer will embed the description in the action. For instance, rather than describe a character as tall, we’ll have the character reach for an object on a high shelf. Rather than being told that a character is loud, we’ll have them dominating a conversation. Rather than painting a picture of a desert with words, we’ll have a character suffering from the dry heat.

So what are we to make of passages like this, from James Patterson?

‘Justine Smith was an elegant, serious-minded, academically brilliant brunette in her midthirties. She was a shrink by trade, a forensic profiler, and Jack Morgan’s number two at Private. Clients trusted her almost as much as they trusted Jack. They also adored her; everyone did.’
(Private, Chapter 4)

This is straight description. Patterson’s not showing us who Justine Smith is, he’s telling us.

Is this ‘wrong’? Does this make Patterson less of a writer?

Some will argue that he’s a ‘popular’ writer, not a ‘good’ writer, but he’s one of the most commercially successful writers around. That doesn’t make him a hack‌—‌it means he’s a writer who delivers what his readers want, and does so with such skill that they keep coming back for more. And, as I mentioned before, readers aren’t stupid. The average reader might not know why a book doesn’t work, but they’ll know when they’re bored, or when the story just doesn’t work.

There’s more going on here than meets the eye, clearly.

Let’s take a step back.

‘Show don’t tell’ is a classic piece of writing advice. But it’s not a rule. In writing, there are no rules, only guidelines. Even grammar and spellings are fluid. While writing guidelines can help turn a messy first draft into a finely-crafted book, they aren’t set in stone. There are times when it is ‘better’ to disregard a particular guideline.

Patterson writes fast-paced thrillers. His readers want the buzz of the journey, cutting from scene to scene, racing through the story. They want‌—‌and he delivers‌—‌stories that start fast and don’t let up.

If Patterson rigidly followed ‘show don’t tell’, he’d have to slow things down when introducing a new character such as Justine Smith. He might write a conversation between her and a colleague or friend, or include a scene showing her at work. He’d have to take his time to paint a picture of her, to show us how her clients trusted her, so show us her brilliant mind at work. He might have others comment on the elegant way she wears her clothes, have someone moaning that they could never pull those combinations off. He’d throw in comments about her brunette hair and her age. He’d have to show how everyone adores her, with at least one example of why this is the case. He’d need to show her character over a conversation, a scene, maybe more.

And instead of a short paragraph, we’d have pages or chapters introducing Justine Smith to the reader. Those readers who want a fast-paced thriller would have closed the book before the story continued.

‘Show don’t tell’ is advice, not a hard rule. It’s a tool. A writer of Patterson’s standing, with so many satisfied readers, isn’t after fancy, award-winning prose. He’s telling stories. To do this successfully, he uses the tools in his writer’s armoury as and when they’re needed.

Terry Pratchett and the art of concealment

I read Terry Pratchett’s Dragon At Crumbling Castle collection recently. It contains his very early writings, and compared to his later Discworld books they aren’t much to speak of. But there are hints of what would come. While the humour feels drawn out and immature a lot of the time, it’s possible to see seeds of his later, more successful writing style.

The example that struck me the hardest is how he doesn’t describe everything. He’ll build up to some kind of action and then, at the last minute, he’ll cut away. Instead of describing what happens, he’ll allow the aftermath to subtly show us, allowing our minds to fill in the blanks.

He pulls this trick time and again in his books. It not only keeps his writing cracking on at a decent pace, but it also adds both tension and comedy.

Take the first scene in The Amazing Maurice And His Educated Rodents. He starts with a conversation, in a coach, between a kid and a talking cat, and also introduces the smart mice. Then he has a highwayman hold up the coach. But things don’t go well for the highwayman‌—‌as he’s talking to whoever is in the coach (he can’t see inside clearly) he feels the mice climbing his legs, inside his trousers. After agreeing to Maurice’s deal, the mice leave. The highwayman is safe, and believes he can still win.

Then Pratchett gives us these lines:

He waited for his moment, then spun around, and ran forward.
Slightly forward, in any case. He wouldn’t have hit the ground so hard if someone hadn’t tied his bootlaces together.

Pratchett doesn’t describe‌—‌or even mention‌—‌the mice tying the man’s laces together. He doesn’t describe the highwayman falling. He doesn’t give any reaction from Maurice, the kid or the mice.

And the scene ends all the more powerfully because of that.

What isn’t included is as important as what is.

This doesn’t only work in writing. There are many examples in film. Think of the ending of Seven, where Brad Pitt’s character is confronted with a plain cardboard box. We’re never shown its contents, or even explicitly told what it contains, but through dialogue, and his reaction when he finally opens it, we know.

If David Fincher had decided to show us the contents of the box, through a model or CGI, the effect would have been diminished.

There’s another classic example in The Hitcher, in the scene where Rutger Hauer’s character has a woman tied between a lorry cab and trailer. He sits behind the wheel, foot on the clutch, with the story’s hero in the passenger seat. The hero could shoot Hauer, but then his foot would leap from the clutch and the cab would lurch forward, tearing the victim in half. There’s no way the hero can win this round, and his cry when the cab lurches is almost enough to drown out the roar of the engine.

We never see exactly what happens to the woman, but we know. And, again, our imaginations are far more effective than any special effects could be.

Imagination is powerful. Given enough clues, we can fill in the blanks. Someone with Pratchett’s level of mastery knows exactly how much to give and how much to conceal, knows just how far to trust the audience.

Amateur writers tell the reader what’s happening. Good writers show. But masters imply.

Information without info-dumps in Craig A Hart’s short story ‘Loose Ends’

I’ve read enough free books that I always go into them with low expectations. That way I’m not so disappointed by poor storytelling and writing, and anything half-decent is a bonus. So it’s a pleasant surprise when a freebie makes me sit up and take notice.

This happened recently, with the short story Loose Ends by Craig A. Hart. Not so much for the story itself (which was an enjoyable way to spend half an hour), but for the quality of the writing. One of the things that stood out was how Hart feeds the reader information.

cover image of Loose Ends by Craig A Hart

The story is a noir thriller, with a typical wisecracking protagonist. This is set up perfectly in the opening line:

Nothing ruins the benefit of a good night’s sleep like being awakened by the muzzle of a pistol being jammed into one’s ear.

There’s no panic in this phrase, even though such a situation would be terrifying for most people. So the narrator‌—‌the man with the gun to his head‌—‌is either used to being in scrapes like this or he’s calm under pressure. Or both.

Already, we’re intrigued, and want to read on.

The narrator has been woken up, and it’s only natural that he’s a little disorientated. His thoughts start to wander‌—‌specifically to his ‘lady friend’, who he imagines being

thrust into the role of a modern day Sisera, playing the part of Jael by hammering a nail through my temple.

I’ve no idea who Sisera and Jael are, but I assume they’re characters from old stories, possibly biblical or mythological. And this tells me something about the man in the bed‌—‌he’s well-read. And, again, the way he’s not focusing on the gun at his head says he’s still calm.

But he’s a detective, so he has an analytical nature. Hart reinforces that in a quick summary.

I was lying in my own bed, in my own hotel room on Key West, and a gun was pressed to my ear.

It’s blunt, a stark reminder of the situation. It also drops clues about the setting‌—‌we’re in the man’s hotel room in Key West. His hotel room, so this isn’t a ‘wake up in a stranger’s bed after a wild night’ situation. He hasn’t mentioned anyone else, so we can assume he’s alone‌—‌apart from the person holding the gun.

We’re still missing a lot of information, though. Who is this man? We need to know more, and we get that in the next few lines.

“Not a move, Wolfe,” a deep voice growled.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” I said, quite truthfully.
“You expecting visitors?”
“Yeah. King Jabin’s army. You’d better get out while you have the chance.”
“What the hell you talking about?”
“I take it you’re not a scholar of ancient texts.”

So, we have a name now. We also know that this isn’t a random hit‌—‌the gun-man is targeting Wolfe specifically.

We also get another reminder of Wolfe’s intelligence, with the reference to King Jabin’s army (again, not something I’m familiar with). But we also see more of his character. It’s a stressful situation, but he’s calm enough that he’s wise-cracking. This might be a trope of noir thrillers, but it’s a fun one, and it’s something we expect in a story like this.

Hart’s given us so much information here, without forcing it down our throats, and we’re not even off the first page. He’s also set up an intriguing situation. We’re hooked.

A good thriller won’t give us everything straight away, of course‌—‌there has to be mystery and intrigue. But we’re still missing information that will help ground us. For instance, when is this story set? We might assume it’s mid-twentieth-century simply because that’s the golden age of noir, but we can’t be sure. That is, until Hart again drops a beautifully placed clue in dialogue.

“I’m just joshing you,” I said. “Trying to lighten the mood.”
“Keep your day job,” the little man growled in his paradoxically deep voice. “You’re no Jack Benny.”

The only thing I know off the top of my head about Jack Benny is that he was an entertainer or comedian around the mid-twentieth-century. It’s unlikely that the gun-man would reference someone who wasn’t contemporary to the story’s settings, so our original assumption of time seems to be correct.

But there’s more in this little exchange. The gun-man’s reference of another person mirrors Wolfe’s mention of King Jabin, but also highlights their differences‌—‌one contemporary and popular, the other older and more esoteric. It also hints at cracks in the gun-man’s confidence‌—‌he’s trying to beat Wolfe’s wise-cracks, but it doesn’t quite work. Even though he’s the one with the gun, it already feels like Wolfe is in control of the situation.

It’s a wonderful demonstration of how the craft of writing is as important as story itself. It’s a fantastic lesson in how to give information without resorting to info-dumps. It shows how phrases can do double-duty (providing information and giving insight into character while moving the story forward.)

And it’s definitely encouraged me to read more of Hart’s work.

It’s worth reading these freebies. Every so often, you come across a gem.

Ready Player Two and the problems with sequels

I’ve just finished reading Ernest Cline’s Ready Player Two. I enjoyed Ready Payer One‌—‌fun, action-packed story, with loads of eighties references that reminded me of my childhood. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to read the sequel. The first book felt complete. I wasn’t sure it needed a sequel.

Cover of Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline

See, I’ve read and seen too many sequels that failed to live up to the promise of the original. Too often, they feel driven by commercial considerations rather than a desire to tell a good story.

Before I go any further, I should stress that I’m not talking about stories in a series. I don’t see The Empire Strikes Back as a sequel, but as the continuation of the Star Wars series. Also, I’m not thinking about series like James Bond or Jack Reacher, where a recurring character goes through a number of separate adventures.

I’m thinking of those cases where a second story was created after the success (or non-success) of the original. Often, the original is a self-contained story, with no real need for any kind of follow up.

Of course, sequels aren’t necessarily inferior to their originals. The Godfather Part II is widely viewed as a better film than The Godfather, paying respect to the original while also expanding the story’s range. When James Cameron took the helm of Aliens, he built on the claustrophobic horror of Alien but took it in a new direction, producing a film that is both different and also a worthy sequel to the original. Sometimes a sequel can feel more like an improved reboot or retelling‌—‌think Evil Dead / Evil Dead II or El Mariachi / Desperado.

Toy Story is an interesting example. The second film was expected to be a straight-to-DVD release, but when it turned out better than expected it was given a full theatrical release. Many people consider it as good as, if not better than the original. The series has evolved over two more well-received sequels, proving that it is possible, even for a financially-motivated major film studio, to produce sequels that are artistic as well as commercial successes.

Unfortunately, there are many examples where this isn’t the case. Take Jaws. The original is widely regarded as a classic, with nuanced characters pushed to their limits as the tension increases. But the sequels fall short of that original standard, and by the time we reach Jaws: The Revenge we’re pretty much into (unintentional?) parody territory. Even those involved, such as Michael Caine, don’t think much of it. When asked about the film, he’s quoted as saying ‘I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.’

Sometimes, sequels can be lost in the glow of the original. There are probably more examples of this in books, such as Joseph Heller’s Closing Time, sequel to his famous Catch 22, or Dodie Smith’s sequels to 101 Dalmatians, The Starlight Barking. Many people know of Robert M Pirsig’s Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance (even if they haven’t read it), but fewer know he wrote a sequel, Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals.

The desire to produce a sequel is understandable. There’s the aforementioned commercial/financial draw (the sequel will already have an audience in those who enjoyed the original), but there might be more to the original story that the writer wants to explore. Heller’s Closing Time catches up with the characters of Catch 22 years later, and imagines how their earlier experiences have changed their lives (and it’s worth noting that these stories also pretty much book-mark Heller’s own writing career). After dealing with the question of ‘value’ in Zen…, Pirsig used his sequel to look at morals. Since writing Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh has returned to that novel’s characters a number of times to explore how they’ve changed. After completing his Foundation trilogy (yes, I know it’s a series, but it’s possible to view it as a single story, ending with the location reveal for the Second Foundation), Isaac Asimov decided there was more to tell in the universe he’d created, writing Foundation’s Edge and a number of other sequels and prequels.

So there are varied reasons for producing sequels. But sometimes it’s better to resist. So far, Andy Weir has not written a sequel to The Martian, although from listening to interviews I get the impression that he considered it. He didn’t follow through because the ideas he came up with were either increasingly unrealistic (’Oh, look, Mark Watney’s got himself stranded on a distant planet again’) or would involve him telling a far-too-similar story but with a different main character.

It’s worth taking a moment here to consider how sequels attempt to ‘improve’ on the original. In essence, they attempt to take what was successful in the original and increase that aspect. For instance, in Alien the crew of the Nostromo battle a single alien, but in Aliens there are far more, as well as a mother-alien. The stakes are usually higher in a sequel, too. Sticking with the Alien example, the first movie pits the alien against a small crew, but in the second the aliens have already destroyed a whole settlement, indicating that the single beast in the first film was not an anomaly, and that the aliens now represent a serious threat to humans.

Sometimes these attempts to make sequels ‘better’ backfire, or produce something totally different. In the first John Rambo film and book (First Blood) he doesn’t actively kill anyone (although his actions in self-defence do result in one death). But the sequels have higher and higher body-counts. In the Jaws sequels the shark attacks become larger (including a helicopter in Jaws 3 and a sea-plane in the fourth film), and also less realistic.

So how does Cline’s sequel to Ready Player One hold up? (Note: there will be spoilers ahead, for both books.)

He does increase the stakes. In …One, there is a real threat to the lives of the main characters, but in Two the fate of millions hang in the balance. The original focuses on the ownership of the Oasis, but in the sequel the whole world is at stake.

Cline also doubles down on the task/nostalgia elements from the original. The game-quests in Two are more specialised and more detailed. The quest is more personal, too‌—‌it’s made clear early on that Wade is the only one (apart from Og) who can actually complete these tasks. This does take away some of the fun of the original, where much of the excitement was in Wade struggling to complete each task before others.

The technology’s evolved, too. Rather than relying on gloves and goggles, players can now access the Oasis pretty much directly through their brains (it’s explained better in the book). And one thing I liked was how this new access method was also important to the plot.

So is the sequel a success?

That depends. On its release it received a poor reception, but looking at Amazon reviews suggests that a lot of people love the book (a 4.3 average, compared to the original’s 4.7).

For me, it doesn’t work. There’s a great deal of potential in the (over-long) set-up, but I don’t think the rest of the book delivered. I found myself skimming much of the action, especially in the quests. Where the original relied on a combination of obscure 80s trivia and Wade’s thoughts and actions, the sequel too often has Wade simply following another character around or being directed to complete the quest. I found Wade too passive to be an interesting main character.

There are sections that I could imagine looking great on-screen, though.

And it’s not a bad book. But, like many other sequels, it’s simply not as good as the original.

Always have variety in scenes? Agatha Christie and repetition.

Repetition leads to boredom. Even high-adrenaline action can become draining if we don’t have time to slow down occasionally.

One common piece of writing advice is to mix up scene types. If one scene has two characters talking in an office, the next scene should have more action. If one scene concentrates on a single character, the next should focus on a group. Scenes should move between different, varying locations.

Then there is ‘scene and sequel’‌—‌after a burst of action, the next scene should involve the characters processing what they’ve just been through. There should be a mixture of movement and dialogue, of open reflection and private musing.

In short, readers appreciate variety.

So how come Agatha Christie, in Murder On The Orient Express, has over half the book consisting of Poirot asking characters questions in the dining car of a train?

Cover of Agatha Christie's Murder On The Orient Express

After the set-up and crime, we’re presented with a whole series of chapters all titled ‘The Evidence Of…’, followed by a character’s name or title. In these, Poirot asks each character similar questions to ones he’s asked others. Even when the action moves to various other carriages and rooms in the second half of the book, it soon returns to Poirot’s interviews in the dining car.

Despite this repetition‌—‌of setting and of action‌—‌the story keeps moving forward. As I read the book, I never felt bored. In fact, I was eager to hear how the next character would respond to Poirot, and how they’d answer his repeated questions.

How does Christie pull this off?

There are a couple of considerations here. The first is genre. Murder On The Orient Express is a mystery, and mysteries are puzzles. The enjoyment in these books comes from trying to solve the case before the detective does‌—‌and when we fail to do this, there’s the enjoyment of finally seeing how all the pieces fit together anyway. In order to solve the puzzle, we as readers need information. We need to learn as much about the case as we can. So as Poirot asks similar questions to each character, we’re looking at their responses, trying to decipher their unsaid meanings, trying to see what others have missed. We live these scenes through the detective, wanting to beat them at their own game.

The second consideration is this‌—‌mysteries like this are about people, not fast-paced action. We don’t read a Poirot story to experience a high-speed chase, or to have the sedate Belgian detective fight for his life. Yes, there’s action in Murder On The Orient Express, but it’s ‘soft’ action, very downplayed. The train grinds to a halt because of snow. There’s a murder, but it happens off-page‌—‌we only see the aftermath. There might be conflict between the characters, but rather than show fights Christie will give hints‌—‌subtle clues that Poirot (and the observant reader) will pick up on.

The ‘action’ is small stuff‌—‌a stumble when answering a question, a glance to one side before answering another. And by keeping so much of each scene the same (or similar), Christie allows readers to focus (if they can) on these tiny clues, just as Poirot does. The repetition highlights differences. And it is these differences that keep the reader engaged.

Christie knows exactly what she’s doing. The mystery is a ‘closed-room’ one, so the limited settings pull us tighter into the real story‌—‌who the characters are, their motives and their actions. The variety here isn’t in action or setting. It’s more intimate than that. Too much variety in setting and action would drown out the important stuff.

And Christie pulls it off like the master she was. As with all skilled storytellers, she knows the rules of writing and‌—‌more importantly‌—‌knows exactly how and when to apply them.