When is it right to give up on a book?

There are many reasons to put aside a book, either for the time being or permanently. Maybe the style is grating, or there are too many typos and grammatical errors. Possibly you no longer care what happens to the characters, either because they feel artificial or you have no empathy with them. Maybe the story is filled with cliches, or the plot is too complicated to follow, or things are moving too slowly. Maybe the writing is either too simplistic or too dense.

Some people give a book a couple of pages to prove itself, and others carry on to the end regardless. Most people are probably somewhere in between these two, but for myself I tend to persevere, although I have stopped reading books on occasions.

FifthDoll_CharlieNHolmbergI was tempted to put aside a book recently. That book was The Fifth Doll, by Charlie N Holmberg, and I struggled through the first few chapters. There was nothing wrong with the writing, but the story didn’t feel like anything was happening. There were hints that something might be bubbling under the surface, but nothing seemed to develop, and I found myself losing interest fast.

I told myself that the book wasn’t that long (about 250 pages), and wouldn’t take too much time to get through, so I continued.

And, slowly, things started to happen‌—‌those bubbles of possibilities rose to the surface and started to pop. The story became more intriguing, and by the time I was half-way through the book, I was eager to continue reading, to discover how these creepy events played out.

By the time I’d finished the book (I didn’t feel the ending worked too well, but I very much enjoyed the middle build), I realised that it would have been difficult to start this book in a more immediate manner. We needed to become immersed in the normal world so that we understood how the subtle disruptions disturbed the main character so much. This wasn’t a jump-scare horror, but one that needed the slow build. If we’d been introduced to something unsettling too early, the intensity of the developing story would have been diluted.

Did this require perseverance to get through those first few chapters? Yes‌—‌but it then rewarded that perseverance. In a sea of ‘instant attention’ media, where the aim is to hook the reader/viewer as soon as possible, this book stood out in how it didn’t pander to ‘instant gratification’, but instead gave the story the time it needed.

This isn’t always the case, of course‌—‌some books fail to grab me all the way through, or even grow worse as they progress‌—‌but the times when I’m pleasantly surprised make up for the time wasted on stories that I don’t enjoy.


This applies to writing, too. Stories rarely work perfectly in the first draft, and it’s easy to become despondent during this stage of writing, and to believe that a particular story is ‘wrong’ or that time would be better spent working on something ‘better’. It’s easier to see all the glaring faults and miss the potential for something that works.

pen-3301338_640It’s natural to compare that first draft to great books we’ve read, but it’ll always fall short. We need to remember that all those wonderful books started off as messy first drafts, and sometimes the writer struggled for years to craft their story. Often, these great books were written by people with years of experience under their belt, too, with plenty of abandoned projects sitting in desk drawers or on hard drives.

I’ve been working on a story since the start of the year (although I’ve been planning it on and off since the middle of 2018), witht he intention of publishing around June, but that hasn’t happened. The whole process had been a struggle. I’ve written a number of drafts that simply didn’t work, and there have been times I’ve considered abandoning it entirely. At one point I took a break, wrote the first draft of something else entirely, then returned to this awkward project with a fresh mind.

But perseverance has paid off. At the time of writing this, I’m deep in the process of editing a working first draft, and can see how the book will turn out. The story’s better now because I’ve spent so much time on it, and because I’ve been able to try different ideas. Those ‘failed’ first drafts have all built toward the final book, which should be out by the end of the year.


My time might have been better spent abandoning that project (or putting it on long-term hold) and going with something new and exciting, just as giving up on reading a book might give hours more reading time for a great book. But perseverance is important‌—‌it’s something that’s too easy to ignore when so much entertainment is instant, when we’re tempted to become passive consumers rather than active participants in a book or a story. We unrealistically expect writing to be easy, forgetting that the only way to improve in something is to spend time and effort.

Of course, blindly continuing on the wrong path is just as bad as changing path too early. So when is it right to give up on a book?

Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to that‌—‌but as with so much in life, experience counts for a great deal. The more we read (and write), and the more we develop our perseverance, the better able we are to judge how to best spend our limited time.

Can the combination of magic and science work in fiction?

I read many different genres, but often gravitate towards science fiction and fantasy. But recently, I’ve read a few books that combine them both, most noticeably in Chris Fox’s Magitech Chronicles, as well as the book I’m currently reading, Alex White’s A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Universe.

At first, I wasn’t sure what I thought of this combination of technology and magic. Science fiction is based on plausible technologies, but magic is in the realm of fantasy, where the physical laws of the universe as we understand them are easily brushed aside.

But things aren’t quite that simple.

matrix-724496_640

There’s a quote from Arthur C Clarke‌—‌‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ He also said ‘Magic’s just science we don’t understand yet’. If we could pull someone from a hundred years ago to the present day and show them the internet, they’d consider it magic. Tell them about automatic doors, or self-driving cars, or artificial intelligence, and they’d either be in awe of these god-like manifestations, or they’d cower in the face of such demonic forces.

As I pondered this, I came to see that science-fiction and fantasy merge more than I realised, and there are many similarities between the two genres.

The prime example is Star Wars, with the Force. It’s a mystical force that allows users to control matter with their minds (among other things)‌—‌which sounds suspiciously like magic. But what of all the technologies used in science-fiction‌—‌faster-than-light travel, teleportation, and so on? Sometimes there is an attempt to explain things, but often they simply exist in the story universe, and the reader is left to accept their reality in the story‌—‌much like magic in the world of Harry Potter.

It goes back to that first Arthur C Clarke quote.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

FinalEmpireMistborn1_BrandonSandersonYou could argue that each technology serves a distinct role in science fiction, whereas magic can be used as a ‘get out of jail free’ card‌—‌but in my experience, some of the best fantasy books treat magic in a very similar way to science. Brandon Sanderson is a great exponent of using magical systems, where there are rules over what it can and can’t do. For instance, the magic in his Mistborn series is based around metals, and each type of metal gives different abilities. Then there is the training and study that must go into using these magics‌—‌just as characters in science-fiction often need to train in the use of technologies. So Luke trains to use the Force, and Harry Potter studies at Hogwarts so that he can use more magic. Neither technology or magic can be freely used by the uninitiated.

This appears to be the case in the books I’ve read that combine both tech and magic‌—‌neither are devices for instant solutions to problems. It’s interesting that one of the characters in White’s book has no magical ability (it doesn’t seem to hold her back much, although I’m only half-way through the book as I write this). In Fox’s series, he pushes magic into the realm of religion and belief, but still there are rules‌—‌a god’s power can only be used in proportion to the amount of belief their worshippers can give. This gives possibilities for a more social angle, with characters working to encourage that worship to assist their particular gods.

Books that blend science fiction and fantasy are nothing new, though. In Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, the mainly fantasy feel is occasionally layered with a sprinkling of sci-fi. Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books have a strong fantasy trope (dragons), and the settings often feel like fantasy worlds, but they’re also science fiction books. And sometimes, older science fiction can read like fantasy because the science, speculative at the time, has now been disproven‌—‌think of Jules Verne’s Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, or Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.

Of course, the combination of technology and magic isn’t for everyone. Ultimately, it’s down to personal preference. At the moment, I’m enjoying this blend of magic and science, and am interested to see where other writers will take this growing trend.

How audiobooks are different to text books

Once squarely aimed at the visually impaired, audiobooks continue to rise in popularity with a whole range of readers who want to enjoy books without holding a physical object or using their eyes to constantly scan screen or page. Audiobooks can be used while doing a whole range of other activities‌—‌driving/commuting, cleaning and gardening, exercising and walking, sitting in a chair relaxing, and so on. This enables those with busy lifestyles to devour more books, and are used by people from all walks of life. For many, it is not the primary (or, indeed, only) method for consuming books.

In some ways, this is storytelling coming full circle. Storytelling has always been an important social activity, and before the written word, before ‘reading’ was a thing, stories were told and devoured orally. Story-telling was used by religious leaders as a way of explaining their ideas. Ancient philosophy was told via story. Even now, when reading and writing are so commonplace, verbally telling stories is important. Parents and teachers read to children. People share stories when they meet up, sharing tales from their lives or sharing those they’ve heard from others. And there’s a long tradition of reciting ghost stories around a campfire.

Stories are meant to be shared, and this can occur through reading or speaking/listening (and through other means, but I won’t go into that here). But there are differences in how stories are shared, differences between the page and the voice.

podcast-3939905_1280It’s often said that a good writer has a distinctive voice, but so do narrators. With audiobooks, a poor narrator can kill a story, and a great narrator can make a good book even better. Sometimes, the success of a book is due, in part, to the success of the narrator, such as The Martian. It gained a following as Andy Weir shared it over his website, and sold well when he first published it, but it’s popularity really soared with the narration by R C Bray, leading to more sales of the book, and then a film deal (which is a whole other way of telling a story).

One way narrators can impact a story so much is in the nuances of voice they bring to a project. Some use different accents to distinguish characters’ dialogue, but there is so much more to ‘telling a good story’. The words on the page are only a starting point.

Think of the classic ‘punctuation is important’ sentences, ‘Let’s eat Grandma’, and it’s less cannibalistic alternative with an added comma, ‘Let’s eat, Grandma.’ Say those two examples out loud, and listen to the way your voice changes. In the second version, you’ll probably find that you pause at the comma. But listen closer, and you’ll notice how your pitch varies too. It’s likely that, in the first version, your voice rises on the first syllable of ‘Grandma’, but you’ll speak the second with different patterns of pitch.

You can also use voice to give differing emotions to the same sentence. Try it for yourself‌—‌imagine the second version said by a child eager to tuck into a family meal, and then by a bored teenager who wants their elderly relative to stop their reminiscences so that they can enjoy their food. Stress the first word, and the sentence becomes a plea to finally have food. Stress the word ‘eat’, and eating becomes the chosen activity from an undisclosed list. Stress ‘Grandma’, and we have another alternative, one where the speaker is maybe questioning the reality of the relationship.

To bring out all these meanings, the writer would need to use further sentences, or structure surrounding material in a way that made the nuanced meanings clear in context. But the narrator can paint these emotional pictures with three simple words.

writer-1421099_1280So narration can give meaning in ways that text cannot (at least, not as succinctly). But there are things in text that a narrator cannot easily convey. Think of spacing in poetry, especially in shape poems such as Lewis Carroll’s ‘A Mouse’s Tail’ from Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland.

Then there’s the textual syntax of things like text-message conversations, or the way Iain M Banks’ ships communicate in his Culture books. In my Shadows series, I use italics and <> symbols to denote tech-aided mind-to-mind communication (as opposed to the usual speech marks enclosing vocal communication), and I have no idea how a narrator would make an audible distinction between these.

There are other ways the appearance of text can aid meaning. Newspaper reports can be displayed in ways that look like old paper. Some books use maps, and others use diagrams or symbols‌—‌in Terry Pratchett’s Nation, a couple of characters communicate through drawing, and the different interpretations of these drawings are important to the story. A narrator would have to describe these drawings, which would very probably become cumbersome, and these parts of the book would struggle to work.

So text-based storytelling and vocal storytelling have their own pros and cons. But at the moment, audiobooks are almost always a straight reading of the text. The emotional nuances a narrator adds are often also ‘written’ into the text, and so the audiobook listener gets the same information twice.

In some ways, this makes me think of the early days of film and television, when productions were basically filmed plays. But as cameras became easier to manipulate, and editing techniques developed, film-makers understood how they could use this technology to tell stories in different ways to static, dialogue-heavy stage performances.

african-3408112_1280Maybe audiobooks should develop into their own form of storytelling. Maybe writers should produce two version of their stories, one for reading from the page, and another for narration. But writing and narration are different skills, just as producing a stage play and a film are very different processes, so maybe audiobooks will become close collaborations between writer and narrator, either stripping down the original text or working up from a ‘bare bones’ version of the story. Then, the audiobook will become not a repetition of the text, but a complement to it, a way of telling the story the writer created but utilised to capitalise on the audio environment. If a narrator can impart meaning through their performance that would take a couple of sentences of text to impart, then the audiobook can become leaner and more focused, allowing the story to take advantages of all the medium can offer.

After all, if so many people are increasingly opting to devour stories through their ears, doesn’t it make sense to provide them with the best experiences possible?

 

New short story – ‘Do You See?’

PowerOfWordsCoverJust under a year ago, I had a (fairly long) story, Ghost Stream, included in The Power Of Words anthology (along with other great stories by MLS Weech, Heidi Angell and Richard Drake). To tie in with the release of this, I wrote a couple of short stories. One was Rumours, and you can still read this here. The other, however, I decided not to publish. Although I liked the story, I felt the ending was too similar to parts of Ghost Story itself.

But after almost a year, it’s time for this story to appear. It’s called Do You See?, and you can read it here. And if this piques your interest, Ghost Story is still available in The Power Of Words (as ebook, paperback and audiobook)‌—‌click here for more information.

The sentence that pulled me out of ‘Dune’

I suppose it’s inevitable that the way I read is changing as I learn more about storytelling and the craft of writing. Reading’s still one of my favourite things to do, but when something doesn’t feel right in a book or story, I’ll try to analyse the perceived problem. I’m also more likely to reflect on a book in a more analytical way. I’ll attempt to figure out how a writer has impressed me, and also imagine how I’d approach those little things that didn’t work for me.

I thought I’d share one of these moments. It happened when I re-read Dune recently.

Dune_FrankHerbertBefore I dive in, there’s a couple of things to bear in mind here. Dune was published over ten years after Frank Herbert’s first novel came out, and he’d had years of publishing short stories in magazines before that, so this is a book by an experienced writer. I’m still near the start of my writing life, so I’m in no way holding myself up to be ‘better’ than Herbert (or the numerous editors who would have been involved in the book’s journey).

Dune was written over fifty years ago, and fashions change in writing, just as in everything else. The thing that tripped me up might not have been considered an issue when Herbert was writing it.

But trip me up it did. One sentence pulled me right out of the story.

It happened in the fifth section (they’re not labelled as chapters, but they might as well be), where we finally get to meet Dr Yeuh. We already know that he will betray Duke Leto Atreides, under orders or instruction from the Barron Harkonnen. Such a thing should be impossible, as Dr Yeuh has undergone Imperial Conditioning, but Harkonnen in a previous scene hinted that there are ways around this. So our first scene with Dr Yeah himself is keenly anticipated.

The scene starts with Dr Yeuh entering the room of Paul, the Duke’s son, and we get to hear a number of Yeah’s internal thoughts (a technique Herbert uses often throughout the book.) But almost on the first page we get this thought from the man.

What I do is done to be certain my Wanna no longer can be hurt by the Harkonnen beast.

When I read this, I immediately saw it as an info-dump. The wording sounded clumsy in comparison to Dr Yeuh’s previous thoughts, and it felt that the information‌—‌that Harkonnen was breaking the man’s Imperial Conditioning by holding someone Dr Yeuh cared deeply about‌—‌had been shoe-horned in.

It does allow us to feel some sympathy for the man‌—‌yes, he will betray the Atreides family, but it is not through choice. Rather, he is being forced into this action by the real villain, Harkonnen. But the man comes across as fairly sympathetic over the rest of the scene anyway, in the way he talks to and acts around Paul. So couldn’t this nugget of information be saved until later? Would it not be better to let us, the reader, see the man before learning his secret?

Later in this scene, Dr Yeuh gifts Paul a book, and asks him to turn to a marked page. Paul feels two marks on the pages, and opens at the smaller‌—‌but when he starts to read, Dr Yeah yells for him to stop.

“I’m sorry,” Yeuh said. “That was … my … dead wife’s favourite passage.”

I couldn’t help thinking that this should have been the first mention of Wanna. The way Yeuh hesitated, then calls her ‘my‌…‌dead wife’ is quite dramatic, and should be enough to start connections in the reader’s mind‌—‌maybe this is something to do with his expected betrayal. And if we heard some thought from him here, it could confirm this impression.

So maybe that first info-dump thought should have just hinted at some hold Harkonnen had over the man. I do what I must to keep her safe, or something similar. It gives us enough to know that Yeuh is being forced to betray Duke Leto, and then more details arise naturally.

At least, that’s how I would have written this scene. But maybe I’m missing something, and there’s a reason Herbert did what I saw as an info-dump. Maybe this is my inexperience showing.

In some ways, this doesn’t really matter. It might have pulled me out of the story for a moment, but I still enjoyed the book overall (enough that I’ve made a start on the sequels). And in forcing me to think about ways of handling the imparting of information in a story, it should improve my own writing.

 

Dominions Box Set is now live!

2017-1326 TW Iain 3D Box Set on white on transparentThe first Dominions Box-Set is now available from all the usual e-stores. It contains the first three novels (Dark GlassDead Flesh and Deep Water) along with the prologue story Gatekeeper and a number of bonus short stories.

And I’m keeping it at the ridiculously low price of 99p/99c, but only for this weekend‌—‌at some time on Monday it will rise to a higher price, so why not grab a copy now?

Click here for a list of stores where the Dominions Box-Set can be found.