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

Weaving a story – Neal Asher’s ‘Gridlinked’

Gridlinked is the first Neal Asher book I’ve read (even though I’ve been aware of his name for some time now, and have had the book sitting on my kindle for a couple of years). It’s a great read. Asher combines a detailed, realistic world with a plot that is in turns mystery, thriller and suspense. And it’s the development of this story that was, for me, the stand-out feature of this book.

At the start, this felt like a standard thriller-style book. We kick off with a disaster in space, and it’s fairly clear that this will be the root of the investigation to follow. We then move to the end of Cormac’s previous mission, where he’s forced to kill a terrorist. This shows us his strength, both physically and emotionally‌—‌he doesn’t flinch from violence‌—‌as well as hinting at personal problems that might play out later in the story. But the death has ramifications too‌—‌the dead terrorist’s brother wants revenge.

Asher gives us point-of-view scenes of the brother, Pelter, as he plans the murder of Cormac. And this is where the book becomes more of a suspense story. The pace slows, but the tension increases. As Cormac continues his investigation, we (the reader) are aware of the coming danger from Pelter, can see Cormac walking into possible traps. Yes, there are still action set-pieces, but it isn’t a full-on adrenaline rush now (although the pace does increase when Cormac’s and Pelter’s paths converge).

Asher has more twists lined up as more side-characters take on larger roles. There’s Stanton, one of Pelter’s close companions. Through Stanton’s point-of-view scenes we learn that he’s growing uncertain about Pelter, and wants to escape by killing the terrorist and taking his money. There’s Jarvellis, smuggler and love interest to Stanton, a character who initially appears fairly inconsequential, but who (through her relationship with Stanton) becomes a farm more major player as events unfold.

Then there’s Dragon, an alien creature/biological machine. Dragon has influence over both main strands of the story (Cormac’s investigation and Pelter’s vengeance mission), but we get no point-of-view scenes from Dragon. The creatures is manipulative, and can’t be trusted. Now, along with the known dangers to Cormac (mainly in the form of Pelter), we have an unknown quantity. It adds another layer of tension, another mystery to confound things. It means that we can no longer accurately anticipate what’s going to happen.

If this is sounding complicated, it isn’t. At least, not the way Asher weaves these strands together.

I don’t know anything about Asher’s writing process, whether he plans first or writes what comes to mind and then pieces the story together, but there’s clearly been a lot of work gone into the editing of this story. There are diversions that initially feel unnecessary (yet are still interesting), but their importance becomes clear later on. Asher keeps facts hidden until just the right moment, when they will have the greatest impact.

It’s a reminder that convoluted stories are painstaking works, that the puzzles need to be worked out in detail, that the order of events is of vital importance. Creating a story like this can’t be a case of starting at point A and writing through to the end. Even if Asher did plan the story out before writing his first draft, I’m sure he moved things around, added scenes, scrapped others.

Gridlinked, when looked at through the lens of story structure, is a reminder that actual writing is only a part of the creation of an effective story.

The art of subtle description in Scott Lynch’s ‘The Lies Of Locke Lamora’

I recently got round to reading Scott Lynch’s The Lies Of Locke Lamora, and thoroughly enjoyed it‌—‌wonderful world-building, exciting twisting plot, and great characters. One minute it’s full of fun and wit, the next it’s dark and hard-hitting. And the descriptions were masterful‌—‌not for the images his words painted, but how he managed to conjure these mental pictures in different ways.

I’ll take a couple of examples, to show what I mean.

Cover of 'The Lies Of Locke Lamora' by Scott Lynch

Early on in the book, we’re introduced to the Thiefmaker, a Fagin-like character who takes in unwanted children and moulds them, as his name suggests, into his army of thieves. There’s no clear physical description, but there is a line that says he is ‘a miserable curiosity‌—‌a pickpocket with nine broken fingers.’

Broken fingers, on a pickpocket? It implies that the man himself is broken, no longer able to personally ply his trade. And that’s the only reference to nine fingers, until he has his wards together and is giving them a speech. The sequence starts with these lines:

The Thiefmaker held up three crooked fingers, as though on cue.
“Business,” he cried. “Three items of business.”

He progresses through his first three points, and it is left to the reader’s imagination to see him counting these off on those twisted digits. Then, once he’s gone through his trio of points, he sums up like this:

‘The rules are simple! You’ll learn them all in good time. For now, let’s keep it like this. Anyone who eats, works. Anyone who works, eats. Which brings us to work, my fourth‌—‌Oh, dear. Children, children. Do an absent-minded old man the favour of imagining that he held up four fingers. This is my fourth important point.”

There’s no description of action, but it’s easy to picture his hand twitching, then his eyes turning to the place where the digit used to be. If we missed the mention of nine fingers before, or wondered if the tenth was, in fact, unbroken, we now know for certain that it is missing.

Lynch painted this image without breaking dialogue. He implies action so well that we can’t fail to ‘see’ what’s happening.

In another example. Lynch managed to paint a whole scene while physically describing next to nothing:

The Broken Tower is a landmark of Camorr, jutting ninety feet skyward at the very northern tip of the Snare, that low and crowded district where sailors from a hundred ports of call are passed from bar to alehouse to gaming den and back again on a nightly basis. They are shaken through a sieve of tavern keepers, whores, muggers, dicers, cobble-cogs and other low tricksters until their pockets are as empty as their heads are heavy, and they can be dumped on ship to nurse their new hangovers and diseases. They come in like the tide and go out like the tide, leaving nothing but a residue of copper and silver (and occasionally blood) to mark their passing.

Lynch starts with the kind of description that wouldn’t be out of place in a guidebook — ‘jutting ninety feet skyward at the very northern tip’. He then tells us the district is ‘low and crowded’. A lesser writer would proceed to describe this place. But Lynch takes a different approach.

He follows sailors.

He doesn’t give us any description of the buildings, or the streets, or the docks. There’s nothing about the flapping of sails, the slapping of water, the cries of sea-birds, the shouting and swearing mingling with the clangs and crashes of the area. There’s nothing about the different aromas‌—‌the sea, alcohol, food, sweat, exotic spices in cargo. Instead, Lynch focuses on the sailors‌—‌not what they look like, but what happens to them. Yet still, as we read, we can picture the dark taverns, the whores flashing their thighs to tempt new customers. We can imagine the grimy streets, rubbish and vomit at the edges.

And more than that, we can feel the place. Through focusing on those sailors, Lynch brings the place alive, gives us not a physical description but an emotional one. Even though every reader will see a different image from this passage, every reader can picture the scene, knows exactly what the dockland area is like. And, because this ‘description’ deals with emotions and actions rather than plain images, the reader is far more engaged. As the story’s protagonists enter the area, we’re already anticipating trouble for them. The setting has become alive, another character the (anti) heroes of the story must encounter and overcome.

There are loads more lessons to learn from this book, but I’ll leave it at these two examples (for now). They serve as reminders that descriptions in fiction are far more than a way of showing what is physically there. A good description will imply more than it tells. It will not only give a mental image, but will also evoke an emotional response.