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.

Play safe or take risks? John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series

There are, very roughly, two types of series. First, there’s the on-going arc, where the end of one story feeds into the start of the next and it’s necessary to experience the individual books in order. Examples of this would be The Hunger Games or The Wheel Of Time. Then there’s the ‘adventure of the week’ series, where a character (or cast of characters) take part in a new adventure in each story. Lots of mystery and detective series have this format‌—‌think Inspector Morse, Miss Marple, Jack Reacher. Series like these don’t need to be experienced in order, because each story is a stand-alone.

Of course, there are variations. An ‘adventure of the week’ series might include character arcs and story arcs that slowly develop over several stories (an example might be The X-FIles). An on-going arc series might include side-stories that exist as their own thing (think of the relationship between Rogue One and Solo, and the rest of the Star Wars films).

But in any series, there is usually some kind of continuity, in character, story and style.

Style? Yes. It’s important. Expectations set in one book shouldn’t be cast aside in the next.

Let’s take Star Wars as an example. The first film is full of action. If the sequel had focused on political machinations within the rebellion, with action played out predominantly off-screen, fans of the first would feel betrayed. Another example‌—‌imagine how readers would feel if a new Jack Reacher book turned out to be a slapstick farce, or had Reacher battling aliens. Or what if a new Hercule Poirot story portrayed him as an action hero fighting terrorists?

For a series to satisfy fans, it can’t afford to stray too far from the promises and expectations set in the opening.

Of course, there are always story-tellers who take risks. Think of the Alien franchise‌—‌the original film was a claustrophobic horror, whereas the second was a military action film. But there were enough similarities‌—‌enough continuity‌—‌for fans of the first to accept and enjoy the second.

I was reminded of this when reading John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series. If I understand things correctly, this started off as a stand-alone book (Old Man’s War), became a trilogy, and then grew into a six-book series. What I find fascinating is how Scalzi makes each book different yet still managed to tell an over-riding story.

The first book is a military adventure, following the 75-year-old John Perry as he is given a new body and becomes a soldier for the Colonial Defense Force. But the second book, The Ghost Brigades, is a mystery story, and only mentions Perry a couple of times. It still follows on from events in the first book, and is still written in a similar style, but there are many differences between the two books.

Scalzi took a big risk here. If readers of the first book wanted more of Perry, they’d be disappointed. A fan of the military aspects of Old Man’s War could feel let down by the change of focus in The Ghost Brigades.

And in the third book, The Last Colony, Scalzi changes things up again. Perry returns as the main character, but now he’s leading a new colony, and the story focuses on the politics involved in his new role. Again, same story universe, different type of story.

But it works. There’s an over-riding arc to this trilogy, a through-story that binds them together.

Scalzi, from his notes at the end of the third book, intended to stop the series at this point. But he received questions about certain aspects of The Last Colony, and he wrote a fourth book. This is Zoe’s Tale. Again, he took a fresh approach. Zoe’s Tale is a retelling of The Last Colony, but from the point of view of Perry’s adopted daughter.

While I admire Scalzi for pushing himself here, I have to admit that this book didn’t work for me. Reading it straight after The Last Colony, the repetition of events bored me. Yes, there are a couple of new sequences, both important to the overall story, but that only covers about fifty pages. I also wasn’t convinced by his portrayal of the teenage girl.

This is only my personal opinion. Reviews suggest that others love Zoe’s Tale. But it was with trepidation that I started on the next book, The Human Division.

And I think this might be my favourite of the series.

Once again, Scalzi takes a different approach. By now, the overarching story has grown from that initial old man’s tale, and it now encompasses many planets and hundreds of alien species. The story is epic. But rather than write an ‘epic’, Scalzi focuses in on tiny details.

He does this by using short stories. Yes, the fifth book in the series is a collection of shorts. But they’re all tightly connected. They’re chronological, and they fit together like a jigsaw.

Scalzi could have combined all these stories into a single multi-faceted narrative, but I don’t think it would have worked. Some of the slighter arcs would have become lost. And the sheer fun in some of these tales would have been lost if they’d been mixed in with all the serious stuff.

The final book, The End Of All Things, uses a similar idea, but this time the book consists of four connected novellas. And it works very well‌—‌the novellas are long enough to sink into, and when taken together they give a fitting conclusion to the larger story.

Could Scalzi have written Old Man’s War as a straight-forward narrative? Possibly. Would it have been better or worse that way? I don’t know. Even in his serious moments, there’s a playfulness about Scalzi’s writing, and the changes in story style throughout this series are another aspect of that playfulness. He’s one of those authors whose willingness to try new things is a part of the appeal. Fans pick up a new book unsure what to expect. If it’s too similar to something he’s done before, they’re likely to be disappointed.

Which means this approach to writing a series wouldn’t work for every author. But it works for Scalzi. And it serves as an example that writers don’t have to stick to what is expected. Yes, experimentation doesn’t always work‌—‌but when it does, it gives something far more memorable than anything ‘safe’.

Fading Control (Dominions VII) is out now

The start of the end is here! Fading Control is now available to purchase, through all the usual places. Grab it now for 99c (or your local equivalent), but be quick – the price goes up in a few days.

They might have won the battle, but the war is only just starting.


Rodin heads west, into a fractured district, on the verge of collapse unless he can pull disparate forces together, once more putting his life on the line.


Cat, to the north, walks a tightrope deep within Authority, where those above him surely know of his betrayal, where he can trust nobody and nothing, where any wrong move may be his last.

And behind it all Authority moves, bringing pieces into play, dividing their enemies and preparing for victory.

Impact is out now

Cover of Impact (A Dominions Story)

Rodin has the contract under control, drawing the target in, ready for the removal. Not a simple job, but nothing too complicated.
But nothing happens in isolation, and Rodin has no idea how this contract will impact others‌—‌or himself.

Impact is a new release in the Dominions series, a set of four connected stories. It’s available from all the usual ebook stores, and is currently free*.

*If you come across a store charging for this book, please let me know (twiain@yahoo.com) and I’ll sort out a free copy for you.

Series starters for only 99c

One of the great things about publishing independently is having control over pricing. I’ve run promotions for books before, and have experimented with free (all my short stories and novellas in my Dominions series are still free‌—‌click here to check them out). And now, until the end of the year, I’m trying something else.

I’m offering the first novel in each of my two series for only 99c (or your local equivalent). Both books are available from all the usual ebook retailers (if you can’t find it on your favourite, contact me and I’ll see what I can sort out). So if you want to start a new series for a bargain price, take a look at these two.

Dark Glass (Dominions I)

Dark Glass (Dominions I)

The start of a dark Dystopian thriller series.

A professional killer forced to take a contract in a perfect society‌—‌and becomes his own worst enemy.

Shadowfall (Shadows Book One)

The start of a sci-fi/horror trilogy.

The company trained Brice for many things. But nothing can prepare him for what he must face when the shadows fall.

Shadows: The Complete Trilogy is now available

…and for a couple of days you can get it for only 99c (or your local equivalent).

ShadTrilogy3D_smallShadows: The Complete Trilogy

What hides in the shadows?

It started with a routine mission, but when faulty tech and a worsening storm force Brice and the rest of the crew to abandon their craft, they have no idea they’ll become the prey for a group of blood-hungry beasts.

And this is only the start of their problems. These creatures have a terrible secret, one the company will do anything to keep in the dark‌—‌even if it means the deaths of Brice and his colleagues.

This set contains the complete trilogy of Shadowfall, Shadowsiege and Shadowstrike, horror-infused science fiction where the stakes grow as the nightmare deepens.

Changing my approach to writing a series

I’ve recently finished reading Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, and one of the things that impressed me was how, over three separate books, the story changes. The second and third books don’t only move the story on, but also peel back multiple layers from what is already known, leading the reader to continually reassess what they already know. On finishing Acceptance (book 2), I had a strong urge to start the series again, to see how much of the ‘truth’ was already there.

The writer part of me can’t help wondering how VanderMeer wrote these books. Did he have the whole trilogy mapped out, or did the layers of the story reveal themselves as he worked on each book? Did he start Annihilation (book 1) with the idea of writing a single book and maybe seeing how things went after that, or was it a complete trilogy in his mind from the outset?

I’m thinking a lot about series at the moment as I’m currently working on the final three books in a nine-book series.

Normally, I work on books sequentially, only starting a book when the previous one is (almost) complete. I’ll have ideas for the whole series, and as I write one book I’ll be noting more detailed ideas for subsequent ones, but plans don’t always pan out‌—‌problems will become apparent as I write, or characters will do and say things that take the story in unexpected ways. While it’s possible to change a book in the process of writing it, changing previous books to fit in with these new developments is far more awkward.

I’m trying something different with this trilogy. The books need to work as stories on their own, but also be a satisfying close to the whole series story. I need to close all (or most) of the loops already opened, answering hanging question. But I also need to ensure that everything that happens in the concluding scenes has been adequately set up.

So I’m working on these new books simultaneously. I planned then all, and I’ve just had a very intense few months writing the first drafts for all three (385k words, well over 1000 pages). And already, I’ve stumbled on issues that I can now correct.

An example‌—‌I found a solution to a particular problem in the final act of the last book, but it relied on a character using a specific skill. This was something that fitted the character, but not something I’d mentioned in other books. If I used this skill with no set-up, it would feel like a deus-ex-machina, a ‘get out of jail free’ card. But now, I can seed this skill earlier, so its use at the end doesn’t come out of the blue.

Another example‌—‌there was a whole sequence of scenes I wrote in the third book that, on reflection, added too much confusion in that book, and were far more suited to being included in the book before. Not a problem‌—‌drag those scenes into the second book’s file, and insert them wherever appropriate.

Of course, there are problems with this way of working. If I’d concentrated on the first book, it would probably be getting close to completion by now, ready for release by the end of the year. But I won’t be able to release any of these books until well into 2021.

There’s compromise in everything, though, and on balance this new method seems to be working better for me‌—‌I’m crafting better stories, both individually and as a series, which is my primary concern here. It’s allowing me to more fully immerse myself in the overall story too. In fact, I fully intend to work in this way with the next series I start.

Writing’s never static‌—‌there’s always more to learn, different strategies and tactics to explore‌—‌so I’m sure my process will change again.

New paperbacks available

It’s only taken a few years, but I finally have paperback versions of my Dominions books available from Amazon.

Dominions series paperbacks

Hitting ‘publish’ on an ebook and seeing it appear in various stores is a great feeling, but there’s something even more satisfying in actually holding a physical copy of that book. I’m really pleased with how these books turned out, and from now on I’ll aim to have both physical and digital versions of new books available at the same time.

And if you’re interested in the paperback Dominions books, the links to these books are as follows:

Dark Glass (Dominions I)

Dead Flesh (Dominions II)

Deep Water (Dominions III)

Riled Dogs (Dominions IV)

Rogue Wolf (Dominions V)

Rebel Rout (Dominions VI)

The future of publishing and book-selling, post-Covid

 

The world is constantly changing, and any business that doesn’t adapt is liable to fail. Change is often gradual, or is sudden in one particular area, so there’s a cushion of normalcy within which to plan.

The current pandemic has thrown that on its head. The changes brought about by lockdowns have been both sudden and far-reaching, and businesses are struggling. Many have already gone under. And even those businesses that are doing well are struggling to cope with increased workload or increased demand‌—‌supermarkets have run low on stock, and have had to employ more staff to cope with demand, for example.

One industry that has so far weathered current events well is independent publishing. These businesses are usually run by a single person (the writer of the books they publish), and make the majority of their sales on-line in digital format. In fact, many indie publishers have reported a rise in sales over the last few months.

But over publishing and bookselling overall, the picture is different. Production of physical books has been delayed by the slow-down in manufacturing, and there have not been high-street stores open to sell the books anyway. Even as bookstores open up in the UK, people are reticent about using them like they once did‌—‌how does someone browse books when there’s the risk of passing on infection through touching the books themselves?

mortality-401222_640

So what does the future look like for publishers and bookstores for the rest of the year? It’s impossible to say with any certainty, but for each company or business I see four possibilities.

(I’m ignoring libraries in this because they are about so much more than books‌—‌maybe that’s a subject for another day)

Some will fall

This, sadly, is inevitable. Some stores and publishers will close their doors for good, and others will be bought out. This will, of course, impact staff, as well as contractors and clients.

Some will manage to carry on as if nothing has happened

Through extensive financial backing or incredibly loyal customers, a handful of stores and publishers might weather the storm relatively unscathed, and continue as they have done previously. But this will be a very small minority, and I don’t think any store or publisher should bank on this happening to them‌—‌they probably have more chance of winning the lottery.

Some will adapt

I hope this will be true of the majority of publishing-related businesses. Those who are relatively new won’t be set in their ways, and so will be more agile, more flexible in their approach to the difficulties Covid-19 has thrown up. Older companies will have been through other periods of change, and so have experience to work with. They may also have deeper pockets and more resources.

But how will they adapt?

Independent bookstores have been adapting for years‌—‌offering more personal services (like events, or providing social activities around the books they sell) and becoming specialists in particular niches. Interestingly, Waterstones did something similar when James Daunt took over‌—‌he gave each store greater independence, encouraging staff to order in the stock they believed those in their area would want. Instead of each store becoming carbon-copies of one another, they became more local, encouraging greater customer loyalty as the stores provided what their customers most wanted. And as consumers return to physical stores, many are going to want to help those stores they have an attachment to‌—‌local stores, or ones that offer exactly what the customer wants.

And then there’s the whole digital sphere. Daunt has recently taken over Barnes & Noble, and he’s spoken of reviving the Nook (the B&N e-reader and e-book store). I wouldn’t be surprised if other stores (and publishers?) entered deals with e-book stores, similar to the deal between Walmart and Kobo. Also, I’d expect them to focus more on their own on-line platforms for physical sales.

Amazon showed how this could work, in their physical stores. I’ve written before how their stores work not so much as somewhere to buy but somewhere to browse, with staff ready to help customers make online purchases, either physical copies shipped to their doors or digital copies they can read on their Kindles or mobiles. So it isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine other places doing something similar, even if it’s only through encouraging customers to order physical copies. They might even stress the benefits of this‌—‌a sealed copy that hasn’t been touched by countless other browsers, home-delivered.

Then there are audio-books. They’ve come a long way from bulky tapes or CDs, and mobile technology (and smart speakers) makes listening to audiobooks so easy. Audiobook sales have risen drastically over the last few years, and I’d imagine publishers pushing more of this content. If bookstores work in conjunction with on-line providers, they could move into this field too.

Some will introduce radically new ways of working.

Restrictions have always given the possibility of innovation. Many artists prefer restrictions to having an ‘anything goes’ approach. Similarly, tough times often result in huge leaps forward.

While many will seek ways to mould their old ways of working to fit the new normal, others will take this time as an opportunity to try wild new ideas. It’s likely that not many of these ideas will work out in the long term, but those that do could be game-changing.

I can’t give firm examples, of course, but I can throw out a few possibilities. As virtual reality technology improves, maybe we’ll soon be shopping in virtual stores, ‘walking’ around the shelves and ‘picking up’ those books that interest us. Subscription services for TV, film and music are expanding, so maybe we’ll see more book-based subscription services. Then there’s print-on-demand‌—‌the Espresso Book Machine already allows in-store printing, but what if this technology improved, with both cost and size coming down? Or how about the trend in high-quality print editions‌—‌will we see an increase in books as art-works of themselves, secondary to the words inside?

Who knows what will happen? But something will. It’s likely that a few radically new ideas will develop and eventually take hold. Just think of e-books. Their history stretches back to the 70s, and the first dedicated e-reader only came out at the end of the 90s, but their importance in publishing today is undeniable.

And, like e-books, these new ideas will inevitably disrupt the status quo. They will throw up huge challenges for publishing and book-selling.

But that’s fine. In fact, it’s good. Change is inevitable. It’s through change that industry, business and art grow and develop. Without change there is only stagnation.