What do you see when you read a book?

I read China Mieville’s The City And The City recently (I’m slowly chipping away at my ‘to-read’ list). I enjoy his writing style, and I think his world-building is fantastic (in many meanings of that word). But something strange happened as I read the book.

It’s written in first person, and I automatically pictured the narrator as female. I’ve no idea why, but even when it became clear that the character was male, I still saw him as female. I don’t think there was anything specific Mieville wrote that would make me picture his protagonist as anything but male, so I can only think this is down to how I approached the book.

And this got me thinking. When I read, I picture things in a certain way, but this isn’t necessarily how others picture the book, or even how the writer saw the story in his or her own head. Every reader is different, and we each bring our own unique perspectives to anything we read.

octopus-1235006_1280Stories (in books) pass from writers to readers through the medium of words, but there is always going to be interpretation involved in this. Writers aim to give as much action/emotion/description in as few words as possible. If everything was described in enough detail to convey every single aspect of the story, the action would move at a glacial pace, and all sense of forward momentum would be lost. Stories that describe too much are (for most readers) tiring to read‌—‌hence the search for conciseness. Gustave Flaubert talked about finding ‘le mot juste’, the right word.

But even that causes problems. Words mean different things to different people. I’ve heard the word ‘solid’ used to mean both good (as in ‘rock-solid’, firm and unmoving‌—‌a solid fellow) and difficult (as in ‘hard’‌—‌“that game’s well solid!”).

Think of that classic story opening; ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’ That might conjure up thoughts of uncertainty, maybe even fear. But to some, storms can be exciting. Or maybe darkness helps others escape from their day-to-day troubles, and the addition of poor weather brings up thoughts of being beside a fire, enclosed in the safety and warmth of their very own home.

There is no perfect word. There is no ideal way to describe something.

Is this a problem? Not necessarily. One often-repeated piece of writing advice is to picture your ideal reader, and write to them. I believe Stephen King’s ‘ideal reader’ is his wife, and others might use real people too, but many create their own ideal reader (maybe a female forty-something divorced librarian living in Pittsburg, or a heavy metal fan working an office job but dreaming of becoming a professional musician). This might seem strange, but it is impossible to write a book that pleases everyone, and trying to make a story too universal usually means creating something bland, something that many find ‘okay’ but that nobody gets excited about. Anything designed to appeal to a wide range of people will fell watered-down.

Attitudes to books will naturally differ. Even if two readers enjoy the same book, it could well be for different reasons‌—‌some King fans might get a kick from the build-up of tension, and others might love the way he pulls them into the minds of his characters. Some people read Iain Banks’ sci-fi books for the vast ideas, others enjoy his way of telling a story.

There’s no right or wrong here. Every book is written by an individual (or a few individual in the case of co-written works), and the words are formed through the filter of their own lives. These books then get consumed by individual readers, who digest these words through the filter of their own experiences and ideas.

And this means that books are never static.

There’s this idea that, when something is created, it’s completed. In some ways, this is true‌—‌when a writer puts a book out, it stays the same unless they bring out a revised version. It’s the same with any art form‌—‌music, paintings, sculpture, films. But this ‘completed’ work can be digested by different people at different times. It can bring forth different emotions or lead to different thoughts. Every person who reads a book experiences something unique. And even re-reading a book can be a new experience.

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As we grow, we develop, learning and understanding more, and our appreciation for things changes. The books we read ten, fifteen, thirty years ago might contain the same words in the same order that they did when we first picked them up, but if we re-read these words today we experience something totally different. Our interpretation is not only tinged with nostalgia, but also with our different perspective on life, our different personality. It’s part of the reason why books we loved as children can sometimes seem flat when we read them as adults, and why books we struggled to get into a few years ago can later become favourite reads full of meaning and excitement.

We never simply read words. We absorb them, run them through our experiences, our own unique thoughts. We take those marks on page or screen, and we breathe life into them.

The writer takes a story, moulds it, and lays its foundations on the page. But the reader brings it to life.

Is science fiction a genre?

I read genre books. Yes, I read literary fiction too (whatever that actually means), but because I enjoy science fiction, fantasy, horror, the occasional thriller and so on, I’m predominantly a genre reader.

As I both read and write more, I’m becoming increasingly conscious of tropes in different genres. These are those scenes or events that are expected, those parts of the story that almost define it as a certain genre. Thrillers have the ‘hero at the mercy of the villain’ scene, the ‘speech in praise of the villain’. There’s often a false ending, too‌—‌and this crops up in horror as well. In romance there’s the first kiss, the misunderstanding that appears to ruin everything, but there’s always a happily-ever-after (miss this and endure the wrath of countless romance fans). Then there are all the internal genres, those that follow a characters development (either positive or negative)‌—‌the moment when they have to make a choice from which there is no going back. In a maturation story, there is that moment when it becomes clear to the main character that the world they believed to be true is based on a lie of some kind.

So different genres have different tropes. But what about science-fiction stories? What defines a sci-fi story?

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It has to be set in the future‌—‌unless it’s set in the past (like Star Wars), or an alternative present.

There has to be some kind of cool technology‌—‌unless there isn’t (think Planet Of The Apes.) And the technology doesn’t have to play a major role in the story either‌—‌it can be simply setting.

What about action? Well, there’s action in a lot of sci-fi‌—‌but not all. There might be battles in space, or there might be duelling in dialogue between two characters. Some sci-fi is fast-paced, but other stories in this area are slower and more reflective.

And are there any set scenes in sci-fi? Erm‌…no.

The more I think about this, the more I realise that science fiction is not a genre, at least in the same way that horror or thriller or crime or romance are genres. Science fiction refers more to the setting than the type of story being told.

Maybe a few examples will help:

TheMartian_AndyWeirThe Martian is definitely sci-fi, but it is also a survival story; one man against the elements. It’s just like Robinson Crusoe, or any other survival story. It just happens to be set on Mars.

DoAndroidsDreamOfElectricSheep - PhilipKDickBladeRunner (Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep) is a philosophical detective story, with musings on what it means to be human, and also has many noir tropes‌—‌downtrodden detective, questions over who are in fact the good guys. Oh, and there’s a love story underneath all this. But it has replicants, and it’s set on an Earth that many people have abandoned to travel to the stars.

EndersGame_OrsonScottCarfEnder’s Game is almost a sports story, with Ender starting off in the little leagues and working his way up to the big time. Ender takes his team and uses their weaknesses as strengths, overcoming all the obstacles in his path. It could almost be viewed as a coming-of-age story, too. The fact that the games involve space battles is secondary.

HitchHikersSeries_DouglasAdamsHitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is comedy, full of bizarre happenings and loads of satire. The plot is secondary to the humour, and the science fiction setting simply gives Adams more scope for letting his ideas run riot, and allows him to satirise many things in our current world/time.

Foundation_IsaacAsimovAsimov’s Foundation books (at least in the original trilogy) tell the story of a civilization over time, with much of the action involving political shenanigans and business dealings. The technology is used in trade, rather than in space battles, and the most important science is social science. And then, in the third book, there is the Mule, the lone individual who throws a spanner in the works, and proves that even the greatest minds are not infallible. Science-fiction is simply the setting in which Asimov tells his generation-spanning saga.

Dune_FrankHerbertDune is another saga, with all the political and familial intrigue of a historical novel. Like the best sagas, it draws the reader into a rich world populated by diverse characters, each with their own motives and desires. It just happens to be set on a desert planet.

Six science-fiction books, and all so different. Many sci-fi readers will enjoy them all, but there will be those who love getting embedded in the world of Dune but can’t stand the apparent frivolity of Hitch-Hikers. Those who become engrossed in Watney’s constant struggles in The Martian might be turned off by the socio-political dialogue in the Foundation books. These books area all undoubtedly science fiction, but they are very different story-types.

Have a look at the science-fiction sub-genres on Amazon‌—‌alternative history, first contact, metaphysical & visionary, military, time travel, space exploration to name a few. There is a science-fiction subgenre in romance, another in action & adventure. There’s science-fiction erotica, and there are technothrillers (where science-fiction and thriller meet). And that’s just the official categories. The film Alien uses the sci-fi setting to tell a classic horror story. Another film, Gattaca, is basically a society story (different classes of citizens and so on), but told in a future world.

I think this is a great strength of science-fiction, and it is something that sci-fi writers have utilised for years. In the late 1930s, L Ron Hubbard, already a successful writer of adventure stories, was approached by Astounding Science Fiction magazine to write for them. He was initially reluctant, saying that he didn’t write about ‘machines and machinery’, but about people. The publishers of the magazine told him that this was precisely what they wanted. His first story for the magazine was a success, and led to more and more people-based sci-fi stories, by writers such as Isaac Asimov.

There are some sci-fi stories that are primarily concerned with the science aspects (hard sci-fi, such as Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves or Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama), but the majority use the setting to tell other stories, and may use this further to reflect on our present-day world. Science-fiction gives a writer great scope for asking ‘what if…?’ and then crafting a suitable story around wherever that question takes them. Or it gives them a vast canvas on which to tell a myriad of stories, drawing on whatever influences and preferences they have.

And this is one of the reasons I love reading science-fiction‌—‌the whole ‘genre’ gives me such a huge array of different stories. When I read sci-fi, I can explore types of stories I wouldn’t normally consider, but without stepping too far out of my comfort zone. I can escape to new worlds while still, for example, being presented with an intricate puzzle in the form of a crime/detective story. I can be entertained while being challenged, made both fearful and hopeful.

Much of this relates to fantasy, too‌—‌unsurprising, as the two ‘genres’ share many similarities. There are fantasy action stories, fantasy romances, fantasy thrillers, fantasy sagas‌—‌the list goes on.

Of course, in the end, the setting is only secondary to the story. A cool world is fun to visit, but without interesting characters being thrust into intriguing situations there’s little to hold us beyond a brief visit.

This is why, as a writer, it’s important that I understand tropes, and that I understand different kinds of stories. My own stuff fits in science-fiction, but to make the stories work, I first need to know what kinds of stories I’m telling.

Story is character

 

Douglas Adams has many great characters in Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, but one of my favourites only exists for about a page‌—‌the sperm whale that is suddenly called into existence a few miles above the planet of Magrathea. Of course, the ending is fairly predictable.

“Hey! What’s this thing suddenly coming towards me very fast? Very very fast. So big and flat and round, it needs a big wide sounding name like‌…‌ow‌…‌ound‌…‌round‌…‌ground! That’s it! That’s a good name‌—‌ground! I wonder if it will be friends with me?”

I remember reading interviews with Adams where he explained how this whale came about. In cop shows on TV at that time there would often be chase scenes with both heroes and villains firing guns. Naturally, the villains were never the best of shots, and innocent bystanders would end up dying. What annoyed Adams about this was how nobody on-screen appeared to care‌—‌there was nobody to cry over this loss of life, or even say ‘Hey! I was going to play tennis with that guy this afternoon!’ (apologies if I’ve got the quote wrong‌—‌I’m going from memory here). In short, these characters were only there for one purpose‌—‌to be killed.

So Adams decided to write a character whose only role was to die, and make sure the reader cared about them.

I think it’s safe to say he achieved this.

But this points to the importance of characters in stories. Often, stories are viewed as primarily plots (the stuff that happens), with characters simply being the ones this stuff happens to. But in a good story, the plot is driven by the characters‌—‌initially through their reactions to events (like the thoughts going through Adams’ whale’s head), and then through their actions (although the whale’s meeting with the ground prevents anything in this example). Story is not so much the events as the characters’ reactions and actions. In fact, I believe we can go a stage further‌—‌characters are story.

play-stone-1744790_1280To illustrate this, I want to compare a couple of books‌—‌Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama and Andy Weir’s The Martian. Both are hard sci-fi, and as such both dive into scientific details. Both give the reader a sense of place through their scientific world-building.

Rendezvous… is about a team of astronauts investigating a huge alien artifact that has entered the solar system. We follow this team as they uncover various mysteries, learning more and more. Occasionally, things go wrong, but the team are professionally competent, and they soon solve any issues.

This is one problem I had with the book‌—‌there’s very little tension. Yes, there are the constant questions about Rama, but the whole ‘story’ is more like a narrative documentary than an adventure into the unknown. The characters (and I can’t remember their names, nor anything distinguishing about any of them) are simply tools through which Clarke can describe this fantastic world he has created.

Now compare this with The Martian. Mark Watney is stranded on Mars, and right from the start we’re with him as he struggles to survive. We ride with his ups and downs, feeling the tension of his struggles and the release as he solves problems. Yes, there’s science and maths in his solutions, and he’s competent and professional, but we relate to him as a person. What might have been a guide to survival on Mars becomes, through the character of Watney, a story of survival in a hostile environment.

Story comes to us through character, not through situations or environments.

Think of any successful book, and chances are you think of the characters driving the story.

The battle for Middle Earth is huge, too big for the average person to hold, and so Tolkien tells his story through the struggles of a few characters, primarily the hobbits. The fight between good and evil is made personal in Frodo’s struggle with the power of the Ring. Sam, his stout friend, gives us hope because he’s someone we can relate to‌—‌not particularly skilled, terrified much of the time, but with a firm belief in what is right, and a drive to do what he can to help Frodo. The story exists not in the vast sweeping history but in the struggles of these characters.

There are many other examples, of course. The conflict in JK Rowling’s wizarding world is brought to us initially through a young boy’s introduction to his own abilities as a wizard, and continues through his struggles both with his power and his develop into a young man, culminating in his confrontation with Voldemort. In the Hunger Games books, a whole world’s struggles are made real through the constant battling of Katniss Evergreen. Dune’s political intrigues are grounded in Paul Artreides, and his understanding of exactly who (what) he is. The battle against the Empire is shown through Luke Skywalker. The wonders of Douglas Adams’ bizarre universe are shown through the hapless character of Arthur Dent, confused and often wanting to simply have a lie down and a nice cup of tea. The fight against thieves in an office block is made personal through the character of John Mclane (and, to a certain extend, through Alan Rickman’s character‌—‌not a common thief but an exceptional one).

Without these characters, would these stories be the same? Would the stories really exist? Maybe they could be told in other ways, but they’d still need engaging characters. Maybe without Harry Potter, we’d have Neville Longbottom’s fight with Voldemort. Without Arthur Dent, maybe Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy would be Trillian’s story. We can’t know for sure. But we can say that, without characters, these stories would simply be stuff that happens.

Because characters don’t inhabit stories, they are stories.

How was 2018 for me?

 

Another year over, another opportunity to look back at what I’ve achieved (or otherwise). Like any year, things haven’t always gone to plan.

Shadows

My aim for 2018: to release the third book in the trilogy in the first quarter of the year.

Shadowstrike_smallShadows was originally supposed to be a short series of ‘easy’ books as a palate-cleanser between writing Dominions stories, but each book required far more work than I’d envisaged. The third book, Shadowstrike, was no exception, and the editing stages involved a great deal of cutting and rewriting to reduce the overblown 160,000 word first draft to something just under 100,000. This took a lot of time, especially as I then had to do another couple of editing passes to improve the language, and I only managed to release the finished book a few months ago.

But I don’t see this as a failure. The book is far stronger for all that work‌—‌in fact, I feel that the Shadows series contains some of my best writing to date. And readers seem to enjoy the books‌—‌I received a cery positive review for Shadowfall, and my Kindle Unlimited page reads suggest that readers who start Book One generally continue on to finish the whole trilogy.

I was going to leave this series as a trilogy, but I’m rethinking this now. I might have more to report on that at a later date.

Dominions

My aim for 2018: to release Dominions IV and V along with a couple of supporting stories, and to start work on Dominions VI.

Well, that never happened.

Riled Dogs (Dominions IV)I already had an almost-finished version of Riled Dogs (Dominions IV), although I wasn’t ready to complete it because I planed to release IV and V close together. But with Shadowstrike taking far longer than expected, I knew I wasn’t going to get round to Dominions V before the second half of the year. And Deep Water (Dominions III) came out at the end of 2016‌—‌could I really leave over 2 years between that and the rest of the series?

So between edits on Shadowstrike I worked on Riled Dogs. This didn’t require too much‌—‌a quick polish, an external edit, and then all the formatting and finalising stuff (I already had a cover, and I’d been throwing around ideas for the product description for some time). I published the finished version back in March.

I also had a short that I’d originally written when I started work on Riled Dogs. This took a few more edits to complete, but being a short story, this didn’t take as long, and I was able to release Animus (A Dominions Story) as another free gift to my mailing list (although this will probably go on general release fairly soon).

When I’d completed Shadowstrike, I set to work on Dominions V. But I’d been enveloped in the world of Shadows for too long, and I needed to reacquaint myself with Dominions. I decided to re-read all the older books, and started (where else?) with Dark Glass (Dominions I).

And I wasn’t impressed.

This book came out in the summer of 2016, but was finished back in 2015. Three years further on, any my writing’s improved‌—‌and the state of Dark Glass made this obvious. The main character was passively carried along by the plot for most of the time, the story moved slowly, and the writing was overblown. And this was the first book in what I intend to be a nine-book series. How did I expect readers to pick up the second book if the first wasn’t a good read?

I couldn’t let this stand. I needed to re-write Dark Glass.

This had been my project for the last few months of 2018, and I’m far happier with the new version. It’s almost finished, and should be out early next year.

Marketing

I’m constantly learning in this area, and had some success with KU free days and a Kobo promotion. But paid advertising is becoming more necessary, with Amazon especially leaning towards a ‘pay to play’ environment. Over early December I ran a few Amazon Ads for Shadowfall, but without success. I had quite a few impressions (meaning that the cover showed up when potential readers were searching for what I considered to be similar books), but hardly anyone clicked (under 1%). I believe this is down to the cover, and after a lot of consideration I’ve decided that all the Shadows covers need to change.

Other projects

PowerOfWordsCoverBack in 2017, MLS Weech sent out a call for stories inspired by the First Amendment, to be included in an anthology he was putting together. He accepted my story (Ghost Stream), and then started an intense editing process that stretched into 2018. It was a lot of work, but it’s definitely made the story stronger (and I learnt a great deal from the whole process).

The release of The Power Of Words was at the start of October, and we had a Facebook party‌—‌the first time I’ve been involved with one of them. We’ve garnered a few decent reviews, and I’m proud to be a part of this anthology. There’s also an audio version‌—‌and listening to someone else narrate my own story was an eye-opening (ear-opening?) experience. It was like discovering a new story, and it’s pushed me further down the road to getting audio versions of my other stuff.

It's Behind YouBack in March, I had a short story (The Reason We Run) included in Samie Sands’ horror collection It’s Behind You.

I’ve continued to post a new story under 1000 words on my website every couple of weeks. I did have a break in the summer (putting out posts connecting the stories by themes instead), but I finished the year with my 60th of these shorts, and have just compiled the last twenty into another collection (Millenary 3). I’ve also continued to post various thoughts/musings on reading and writing, keeping up my schedule of putting something new on the website every week.


So that’s been my year in writing/publishing. Two novels released, a couple of shorts (including a very long one) in anthologies, and more shorts and posts on the website. Not the year I’d envisaged, but I’ve learnt and I’ve developed. I’m a stronger writer now, and I’ve increased my understanding of marketing and the business side of independent publishing. Re-writing Dark Glass, while appearing to be a backward step, will put the series on firmer foundations. It’s also given me the courage to accept that the Shadows covers weren’t helping sales of those books.

And I have plans for 2019, some more formed than others (and some little more than sparks of ideas at the moment). But I’ll tell you about them next time.

Why the indie author community is so special

The indie author community feels very special‌—‌even to someone like me, who is only on the fringes of it. Writers who are publishing themselves are spread across the globe, and their numbers are growing all the time, but still the community feels‌…‌like a community.

It’s supportive, for one thing. As it’s now November, we’re in NANoWriMo‌—‌National Novel Writing Month. The challenge (to write 50,000 words over the month) is really there to help new writers grow a writing habit, but many seasoned authors still take part. And those who don’t still offer encouragement to those who might be struggling. There’s an overall sense that, even if you don’t reach that 50,000 word goal, any words you do get down take you closer to the end of that novel, and are to be celebrated. There are many writers who cite NaNoWriMo as formative in their writing careers, and much of that comes down to the support from the indie author community.

It’s also incredibly generous. People are generally very willing to share both their successes and failures. There’s no sense of hard competition between writers, but rather a feeling that encouraging reading will help everyone (I’ve often heard this spoken of as ‘a rising tide floats all boats’). It’s why writers are willing to recommend books by others in their genres, and also why they provide so much help to newer writers. Yes, some of this costs (in the form of books and courses), but so much is put out there for free. There are blogs, webinars and podcasts. Personally, I’ve learnt so much through listening to the advice, interviews and discussions available from the likes of Joanna Penn, Kevin Tumlinson, Mark Dawson, Mark Leslie Lefebvre, and so many others.

Of course, no community is perfect, and there are those who are not so generous and helpful. There are those who try to cheat the system, or take short-cuts that make things harder for others. There was the whole ‘cockygate’ thing a few months ago (this post provides a pretty good summary for anyone who’s interested to read more). But generally, indie authors see fellow writers not as competition, but as travellers on the same journey‌—‌and, often, this grows into genuine friendship.

One incident recently brought home to me just how caring this community is.

You might have heard of Brandon Barr, but if that name is unfamiliar to you, he writes fantasy and science fiction. Like many writers, he juggles his writing with a day-job and family commitments, but he’s been building up a readership over the years, and has forged bonds with fellow writers. Slowly, he’s becoming ‘successful’, especially with his Song Of The Worlds series.

But his journey hasn’t been plain sailing. A couple of years ago, Brandon was diagnosed with leukaemia, and although the treatment he received appeared to have been successful, the leukaemia has recently returned. This time, doctors can’t offer a good prognosis.

There’s been a surge of support and help from other writers, and although those closer to Brandon have been at the forefront of this, many others have done what they can to help. They’ve set up a GoFundMe page to raise money to support his family. They’ve stepped in to help with the recent re-release of his series, and to take over the running of his newsletter when he’s unable to do this himself. And a couple of authors are currently working on Brandon on the remaining two books in his series.

BrandonBarr_RiseOfTheSeerBut the indie author community is a part of a far larger community‌—‌that of readers. Many writers who have not been in a position to directly help Brandon have done the best they can by asking readers to help. How? There’s also one very simple way for readers to support an author‌—‌buy books. The best place to start with Brandon is Rise of the Seer, the first book in his Songs of the World series. So if you would like to help support Brandon and his family, please consider either buying a book or donating (or both).

And if you want to learn a bit more about Brandon, his recent interview on Kevin Tumlinson’s Wordslinger podcast is a great place to start (click here).

The shadows are growing!

Bit of news about my Shadows series:

Shadowstrike_smallShadowstrike (Shadows Book Three) is now available, through Amazon. I had the pre-order up for 99p/99c, and I’m keeping the book at that price for a while longer. The book’s also in Kindle Unlimited, so if you subscribe to this you can borrow and read for free.

Shadowfall_smallAnd to celebrate the release of this book, I’ve put the first Shadows book, Shadowfall, to free for a few days (until the end of the month). So if you haven’t read any of these sci-fi/horror books, and want something a bit different for Hallowe’en, click here to get this book for free.

 

The Power Of Words is released, and here’s a free short story to celebrate

PowerOfWordsCoverWords have power. They can be used to cure, and to cut. They can be used to build up and to tear down.

The Power Of Words is an anthology that explored these ideas, taking the First Amendment as inspiration. Four tales by four authors‌—‌M.L.S. Weech, Heidi Angell, Richard T. Drake and me. And it’s out now, on e-book and paperback (with audiobook to follow soon).

This might sound like a sales pitch, but I’ve read all the stories, and highly recommend it. And at the bargain price of 99p/99c for a limited period, you can’t go wrong.

My story in The Power Of Words is called Ghost Stream, and to give you a taste of it, I’ve written a separate short, called Rumours, that you can read here. In this tale, you’ll meet the villain of Ghost Stream, and maybe start to see how manipulative he can be. He might not lie, but his words cannot be trusted!

So check out Rumours here, and The Power Of Words here.