What do you read?

What do you read?

I’ve never been a fan of that question, and my standard response is to say ‘I read books.’ Yes, this answer is glib, and it’s also inaccurate, or at least incomplete. Ignoring the whole issue of what a book is (is it a physical thing, or are we ready to accept mobi and epub files as books?), I read other things. There are posts and articles online, and magazines. When I get a new CD I’ll read through the accompanying booklet. And I’m one of those strange people who actually reads instructions when they get something new.

But when people ask what you read, that isn’t what they want to hear. Usually, they mean to ask ‘what kind of fiction do you like to read?’

I find this really hard to answer.

Loads of books!

I could say I enjoy speculative fiction, but many are unfamiliar with that term. This means I have to explain that it is fiction that stretches the imagination, often in alternative settings. It encompasses fantasy and science fiction, as well as horror. But this includes a plethora of sub-genres, and there are many books in this wide-open field that I have not enjoyed. To be honest, some high fantasy bores me, and hard military sci-fi often veers towards a gung-ho attitude I struggle with. And while I am drawn towards darker fiction, I appreciate the occasional blast of humour, and a light-weight ‘fun’ read can be an excellent mental palate-cleanser.

But I enjoy other types of fiction too. I picked up one of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe books a few months ago, and greatly enjoyed it. James Clavell’s Shogun is another recent read that impressed me, especially in the way the romance is handled. Then there are all the fantastic classics. Wuthering Heights is a favourite, and I enjoy Thomas Hardy’s novels. And there are the ‘literary’ authors on my list of favourites; Iain Banks, Cormac McCarthy, Douglas Coupland, Chuck Palahniuk.

Then there are newer authors, ones I have come across because of the e-book revolution. Chris Ward, Barry Hutchinson, Sean Platt & Johnny B Truant, Mark Dawson, Rick Gualtieri. These are authors whose writing I enjoy, and who tell good stories. What particular flavour or story, what genre, isn’t important to me, because I trust them to entertain me. Maybe they’ll make me laugh, or maybe they’ll make me think. They might take me on an exhilarating thrill ride, or they might make me shiver with dread.

I think I’m drawn to characters more than plot, but I’ve read Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse books a few times, and it is the mystery in each that draws me in. I might say story is important, but American Psycho is wonderful because of the way Bret Easton Ellis uses language, and the way he writes such a compelling but nasty character with only the barest of linear structures. The story is secondary (at best) to the character, and the ideas behind the writing are more important than the narrative drive.

I enjoyed Umberto Eco’s The Name Of The Rose, but I’m not sure if this was because of the mystery, or the amount of information it contained, or the challenge of reading something that made me think. Or maybe it was because the book is one of those ‘must read’ books, and I wanted to know what I thought of it.

So you see my problem with the question ‘what do you read’. I read different books for different things. I am drawn in by exciting stories just as much as well-crafted sentences or wonderfully-drawn characters. Sometimes I want a roller-coaster read, other times I want to drift into a new world. Sometimes I want to be challenged, other times I want popcorn. I can forgive clumsy prose if the story pulls me along, but I also appreciate artistic use of language.

Every book is unique. Every book that appeals to me does so for its own reason, and each book I read gives me something new.

So maybe saying ‘I read books’ isn’t such a flippant answer after all.

When Novelisations Work

A few weeks ago I wrote about the problems of film novelisations, using Star Wars as an example (and you can read that post here). It’s time to redress the balance, and write about a book-of-the-film that works.

ET_WilliamKotzwinkleI first read William Kotzwinkle’s novelisation of ET: The Extra-Terrestrial when it came out, back in 1982. I remember enjoying it, and I can also recall thinking that it felt like a ‘grown-up book’. It had some rude words in it, and for a young boy this was a definite plus-point.

As far as I can tell, it is no longer in print, and my copy disappeared long ago. However, I came across an audiobook version on Youtube a few weeks ago, and gave it a listen. And I really enjoyed it.

I think the ‘rude words’ I remember occurred in a scene where Elliot and his brother are arguing, and one of them uses the phrase ‘penis-breath’ as an insult. Nowadays, that’s not too shocking, but this was the eighties, and I wasn’t yet a teenager. It was one of those phrases that contained the proper biological term, so it was almost okay, but it still pushed the boundaries. It’s a phrase I can imagine children using. They might not understand why it could be insulting, or what it implied, but it was definitely not something you wanted to be called. It wasn’t a phrase many parents would allow their children to use.

In the book after that insult is thrown out, Kotwzinkle gives us a glimpse into the mother’s thoughts. She wonders where her children could have picked up such a phrase, and worries about what else they might be exposed to. And underlying this (and much of the mother’s musings) is a feeling that she’s losing control. She’s a single mother of three children, holding down a job and trying her best, but maybe that’s not good enough.

This moment highlights why Kotwzinkle’s ET is more than just a reminder of the film. He gives us rich insights into the characters’ thoughts and emotions. He doesn’t simply describe what happens on screen, but translates those subtle facial expressions into an interior dialogue that breathes life into the pages.

Kotzwinkle does this for the character of ET as well. In the film, the alien comes across as child-like — he’s smaller than the children, and he shows a bemused wonder at much of the world around him. At times (such as when he samples beer and becomes drunk), he’s there to provide comic moments. But in the book he is an ancient scientist, specialising in Earth’s plant-life. He is intelligent, and he cares greatly for plants and all other life. When he becomes drunk, he is confused, and we feel for him.

He also feels drawn to Mary, the mother. This might be hinted at in the film (it’s a long time since I’ve seen it), but in the book he becomes infatuated with ‘the willowy one’. When he is dressed up (a ‘comedy moment’ in the film), Kotzwinkle has him wondering if Mary will accept him if he looks more like a human. This interior dialogue turns a light-hearted break in the action into an internal struggle, and draws us closer to ET.

The film, like many of Spielberg’s others, is a ‘children’s film for all ages’, and I can’t help but think that Kotwzinkle was aiming this book at an older audience. Where the film saw things through the eyes of the children, especially Elliot, the book focuses more on ET and Mary. It’s a subtle shift, but one that helps make the book more rounded. Children can still read the book, and enjoy the story of ET and Elliot. But older readers are able to understand Mary’s worries, and are presented with a far richer story.

Kotzwinkle has written many children’s books, so he must have known what he was doing. And I would imagine he was given the freedom to go where his writer’s instinct led him. Whoever commissioned this novelisation must have known they were hiring someone with literary credentials, and they let him do what he had to do.

Yet he doesn’t stray the events in the film. Like the Star Wars novel, it’s almost a scene-by-scene rendition. But it takes the visuals and the dialogue as a starting point. It delves into the characters, using the palate of words rather than visuals and sound. It uses the strengths of writing to turn Melissa Mathison’s screenplay into a proper novel.

Maybe the Star Wars novelisation is an anomaly. I haven’t read enough books like this to draw any firm conclusions, but I did listen to the Dark Star audiobook recently. This was written by Alan Dean Foster (who also wrote the Star Wars novelisation), and much of this book is concerned with the characters’ internal struggles. It manages to turn a surreal film with a minimal plot into something intriguing and engrossing. In the film, characters stare off into the depths of space. In the book, we delve into their thoughts, their desires and their fears. It still retains the humour of the film, but adds a rich underbelly, much as Kotzwinkle’s ET adds another layer to Spielberg’s film.

Both books show that movie novelisations can stand up as novels, and can even, in many ways, surpass their source material.

Oh, the audiobook version of ET I found is on the ‘Audiobooks for the Damned’ channel on Youtube. If you have any interest in 80s films (from blockbusters like Back To The Future and Terminator to cult classics like Scanners and the aforementioned Dark Star), and a few hours listening time spare, check it out.

The Freedom Of Pen-Names

fake-30346_640TW Iain is not my real name.

For any of you who have read my ‘about the author’ page, this should come as no surprise. I use a pen-name.

I’m not alone in this. Throughout the history of the written word, people have worked under pseudonyms. Some writers use multiple pen-names.

So why pretend to be someone else? Surely, if I’m proud of my books, I shouldn’t have a problem with them coming out with my real name on the cover. And if I’m embarrassed about them, or I’m worried that they’re not good enough, what am I doing throwing them out into the world?

It’s not that simple. There are many reasons for using a pen-name.

Writing in multiple genres

A lot of writers stick to one genre, occasionally flirting with others but always returning to their core. JRR Tolkien wrote some children’s stories, but they were still set in fantasy worlds, or had elements of the myths that influenced the rest of his work. Robert A Heinlein was prolific, but stayed within the bounds of science fiction. Terry Pratchett wrote comedy, predominantly within a fantasy setting.

But other writers spread themselves wider. Julian Barnes writes literary fiction, but he has also written mysteries, released under the name Dan Kavanagh. When JK Rowling writes her Cormoran Strike books, she does so under the name Robert Galbraith.

There are good reasons for this. If readers are accustomed to a particular type of book from an author, they are not going to be happy if that author releases something too different. Cormoran Strike and Harry Potter are written for very different audiences.

Many authors who write across different genres cultivate different brands, with a pen-name for each one. Even someone like Johnny B Truant, who writes and produces a wide range of books under that name (which is not his real name anyway), uses another pen-name, Aubrey Parker, for his romance titles. Many authors who write clean romance and erotica use different names‌—‌readers wanting a sweet love story are not going to be enamoured by graphic sexual content, and the erotica readers are going to be disappointed if there is nothing physical between the main characters.

So using different names for different genres can help readers identify the books they are more likely to enjoy. It can work to avoid confusion and frustration

Going against prejudices

The Cormoran Strike books highlight another reason for using a pen-name, one that was more common years ago but that still (unfortunately) exists. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are written for children (of all ages), but the Cormoran Strike books are thrillers. This is a genre where, generally speaking, readers are more likely to accept a book written by a male.

There have been cases of female authors using male pen-names in order to gain acceptance throughout the history of the written word. Mary Ann Evans became George Eliot, Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin became George Sands. Harper Lee, when she released To Kill A Mockingbird, dropped her first name (Nelle), using instead her more ambiguous middle name.

And such prejudices do still exist today, and I came across a book review recently that highlighted this. The book was by an author who used initials rather than a first name, and the reviewer was angry. He seems to have enjoyed the book, but also assumed the author was male. When he found out that this assumption was wrong, he changed his opinion of the book, and his review explained how he felt tricked, and would never have read the thing if he’d know the author was a woman.

I don’t know whether to laugh at the ridiculousness of it, or be concerned that some people think like this.

Of course, many writers use initials rather than a name. Nora Roberts writes detective fiction as JD Robb. Another example is Joanna Penn. She writes books about the indie-publishing business, and is well-known and well-respected as a podcaster and speaker, and a driving force in the whole indie scene. She also writes dark thrillers with supernatural elements, and puts these out as JF Penn. Yes, part of her reason for doing this is to separate her two brands, but I believe she went with initials partly because it makes her books more acceptable to a wider audience.

There are times when male authors lean towards a female pseudonym, especially in romance, as the previously mentioned example of Truant/Parker highlights. I have also heard of a husband-and-wife team who write erotica, but they use her name on the covers, because many erotica readers are more comfortable reading books written by a female.

As a final example of this, when Bloomsbury published the first Harry Potter book, they suggested Rowling use initials, on the basis that boys were less likely to pick up a book written by a woman.

Anonymity

This is, I think, a big reason for using a pen-name, and there are a number of facets to it that are worth considering.

Generally, the job people do comes to define who they are. When someone asks ‘what do you do?’ they mean ‘what job do you do that takes up the main part of your day and provides your main financial support.’ Anything else is considered a hobby, maybe interesting but often frivolous. The job is the important thing.

So some writers, especially those with ‘important jobs’, or those working in a role that brings them into contact with ‘the public’, can use a pen-name to shield the writing part of their life.

For others, there can be tension between their ‘job’ and their ‘writing’. I’m thinking here of those who work with, but also write stories of a more adult nature (such as erotica or hard horror). And some of you reading this will feel awkward at this point. Is it right that someone producing such adult material can also work as, for example, a teacher? Is that even safe?

There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be safe. A teacher might work with children, but they are still an adult. A teacher with children of their own has engaged in activities that are unsuitable for kids. As long as that part of their life does not have a negative effect on their job, there should be no problem. But a teacher writing for a mature audience needs to be careful, and using a pen-name can help greatly. It is not about hiding, but about keeping different parts of their life separate.

This doesn’t only apply to those working with the young or the vulnerable. For many people, it is healthy to have some separation between work and home life. Books, once they are released, are public. Family is private.

Eric Arthur Blair wrote a book describing his early life living in poverty, but he didn’t want this to embarrass his family, so he used the name George Orwell. Out Of Africa was originally credited to Isak Dinesen, although it is now available under the author’s real name of Karen Blixen. It is unclear why she used a pen-name, but one suggestion is that the Blixen family were well-known in Denmark, and she wanted to protect the family name. Or maybe she didn’t want to be seen as cashing in on her family’s credentials.

Maybe this is why Joe Hill writes under that name, and not under his given name of Joseph Hillstrom King. Being the son of Stephen King would definitely garner interest from the public, but it would also pile on the expectations. Using the name Joe Hill helps his books succeed or fail on their own merits.

And, interesting, this is a reason that King himself used a pen-name for some of his books. He wondered if his books were selling because they were good, or because his name was splashed across the cover, and so he produced a series of titles under the name Richard Bachman, with none of the marketing push his ‘King’ novels got. He never answered his own question, though, because after a few years he was ‘outed’ when people spotted how similar in style Bachman was to King (especially in Thinner, which contained a similar supernatural element to his ‘King’ books).

So using the anonymity of a pen-name can protect family, and it can provide a way of proving (or otherwise) an author’s writing. It can also provide a way of escaping expectations, either externally or internally imposed‌—‌important when a writer wants to go wherever the story leads without having to worry about possible repercussions in the ‘real world’.

It sounds better

This one might appear flippant, but the sound (and look) of a name is part of a writer’s brand, and plays a role in marketing and selling books. I’ll give a few examples.

Charles Lutwidge Dobson is a bit of a mouthful, but the name Lewis Carroll rolls of the tongue in the playful manner associated with Alice’s adventures. The name Joe Hill has a far stronger impact than Joseph Hillstrom, especially for a writer of horror and thrillers. Daniel Handler is a fairly forgettable name, but Lemony Skicket grabs the attention and promises something different.

The Harry Potter author has no middle name, but someone obviously thought J Rowling didn’t sound quite right. So she borrowed the first letter of her mother’s name, and became JK Rowling.

Sometimes, the better sounding pen-name can work against prejudices too, especially when readers might be wary of trying a ‘foreign’ author. So Jozef Korzeniowski becomes Joseph Conrad, and Alisa Zonov’yevna Rosenbaum becomes Ayn Rand.

And the look of the name? I recall hearing that ‘Stephen King’ is an ideal name for marketing because of how it looks on the book cover‌—‌longer first name in smaller letters, with the strong second name in larger letters.

 

Of course, there are many more reasons writers use pen-names, but this post is already too long. And besides, does it really matter? The name is a label, and it is useful for branding and marketing, but after that? When I’m reading a book I don’t think about who the writer is. I don’t look at the cover. I just want a well-told story.

The Problem With Novelisations

There are many ways to tell a story. Two of the most popular are books and films, and although the same story can be told in both formats, each has its own strengths and weaknesses, and it is rare that a single title will work well on both screen and page.

In my experience, if the movie is an adaptation of a novel (or short story), the movie will not work as well. Conversely, if the book is a movie novelisation, the original film will be superior. There are exceptions, where both book and movie stand up on their own (Fight Club, The Princess Bride, Lord Of The Rings, and Trainspotting spring to mind), but generally whichever came first is the stronger telling, and the adaption is a reflection.

StarWarsI read the original Star Wars novel when it came out (way back in 1977). I’m sure I enjoyed it, because I remember reading it a few times. But I re-read it recently, and I was unimpressed‌—‌and I think I know what the problem was.

It follows the film too closely.

One of the criticisms levelled at the Harry Potter books is that JK Rowling doesn’t write novels, but films in prose form. Maybe that’s overly harsh, but the books are very visual, and it is easy to play the films along mentally when reading them. But if Harry Potter is films in prose, Star Wars is little more than a straight description of what appears on the screen.

Yes there are some additional scenes, and occasionally we are in the heads of one of the characters, but generally, the book describes the film, scene by scene. It’s like a fleshed-out script. Yes, reading the book reminded me of the film, but it also made me regret wasting my time ploughing through the words when I could have got a better experience spending two hours with the DVD.

Films are visual, but books need to work harder to evoke similar images. An expression on a character’s face can convey emotion, but to convey the same emotion in words requires more (or different) work. It is not enough to simply describe the images.

Think of the space battles in Star Wars. On the screen, we cut between close-ups of the pilots and wide shots of X-Wing fighters screaming past. There are explosions all around. We hear voices, and laser fire. Everywhere is action and adrenaline-fuelled excitement, and the speed of movement only increases the tension.

In the book, we get paragraphs describing these quick cuts, and they soon become a list of what is happening rather than a narrative of the action. One moment, we’re with Luke, then suddenly we have someone firing a missile from another fighter. Then we’re back with Luke for a moment, before a paragraph describes fighters screaming through the trench on the Death Star. After that, we’re in another cockpit, with sparks surrounding the pilot as he cries out.

The cutaways work on film, but not in the book.

I’ll give another example. At one point in the film, the camera watches R2-D2 following a path on Tattoine, and we get the impression that he (it?) is being watched, and we feel nervous anticipation. In the book, we get a description of this scene, but it conveys next to no emotion.

Why? In the film, we are concerned about the little robot (or at least we are interested in seeing what happens next). We feel for R2. But with a straight description, everything is distant. We are too far removed from what is happening.

For that scene to work in text, I can’t help feeling it would have been better to be in R2’s head, or at least see his point of view. Maybe have a description of the rugged terrain, and the caves along the route, with R2’s sensors picking up life-forms. There’s movement, high up on a cliff, but when R2 turns his head, it’s already gone. But he has his mission, and he needs to carry on, even though he doesn’t like this inhospitable terrain. And there are all the stories he’s heard, and the information in his data banks, of the creatures that roam this desert planet.

See what I mean? In text, we need to be closer to the characters’ emotions. We need more than a description of what is happening. A cool scene in a film might grab us, and a brief glance at a character is often all that is needed to convey emotion, but in a book we often need something more internal.

The book is a ‘novelisation of the film’, and so maybe the author (credited as George Lucas, but I believe Alan Dean Foster did the actual writing) was limited to what he could do. Or maybe the book was rushed, being pushed through to release at the same time as the film. After all, Star Wars was the movie where merchandising really took off, and the ‘book of the film’ perhaps should be seen in light of that.

Back in the seventies, the only way to see the film was at a cinema, until it was released on video three years later, and on television a couple of years after that. Fans didn’t have the opportunity of on-demand viewing, but the merchandise surrounding a film kept it fresh. The action figures enabled fans to reenact their favourite scenes. And maybe the book’s main purpose was to be a reminder of the film, and the way the movie played out in my head as I read the book should be seen as a mark of its success.

I can’t help thinking it could have been a great novel, though. The story itself is a classic, taking the Hero’s Journey and placing it in an exciting new setting, with alien worlds to explore and a cast of interesting characters. And these characters have conflicting motives that change over time. The story has an incredible scope, from the bickering robots to the world-destroying space-station, from Luke being ripped from his quiet home life to Leia’s political machinations, from Solo’s ‘get what you can’ attitude to the battle of ideologies between Empire and Rebellion. Love and death, war and peace, survival and friendship‌—‌Star Wars touches on them all.

Surely this deserves more than a bulked-out movie script.

Fast, cheap and good – but only two at a time

There’s this thing called the Designer’s Holy Triangle. The three sides of the triangle are labelled fast, cheap and good‌—‌but it is only possible to use two at a time. According to this idea, you cannot have something that is high quality and at a reasonable price if you also want it quickly.

good-cheap-fast sign

The Problem

I read a collaborative book recently that made me relate this to writing. The authors worked very fast on this book, going from idea to finished project in something like a month. The writing itself took five days (or so I believe), and editing about another week.

It’s an enjoyable book. It’s fairly short, fast paced, and held my interest the whole way through. But something bothered me as I read it.

It could have been so much better. I’m no expert, but I spotted so many minor adjustments that would have made the writing stronger. Some of the phrasing felt clumsy. The characters’ actions didn’t always ring true. And too often it fell into ‘describing what was happening’ instead of giving me a well-written scene.

In my view, the book could have done with at least one more editing pass, possibly more. The problems weren’t major, but they were enough to drag it down to ‘meh’ when it could have been ‘wow!’

Supply And Demand

But fast, at least in indie publishing, is often seen as a necessity. According to some, if you don’t release a book each month you’ll be left behind. People talk of Amazon’s 30-day cliff, after which a book doesn’t get as much organic publicity, so you need a new book out to keep the interest up. Readers, hungry for more, contact authors to ask when the next in a series is out, and authors feel pressurised to keep their stories coming.

There is a strong argument in favour of this workrate‌—‌supply and demand. It’s giving the readers what they want, or at least what they say they want. And there are writers who consistently produce a book a month. There are those who have turned writing into an industry. And this can apply to traditionally-published authors as well. Apparently, Lee Childs’ books are polished first drafts. James Patterson uses collaboration to create a constant stream of new product. And authors like Stephen King and Brandon Sanderson are capable of writing thick tomes in months rather than years.

But there are many who argue that a book should take at least a year to write, and moving any quicker makes you a hack. They argue that a book written too fast will automatically be rubbish. They say that real quality takes time.

There is some validity in this. Writing a decent book or story is far more involved than simply putting down the words, and a rush job is more likely to have rough edges. But I don’t think it necessarily holds that a book written fast is any worse than one written over a longer time period.

laptop-820274_640Everyone is different. Every writer works in their own way. Some are able to achieve a flow state, and the words fly from their fingers. Some use dictation to work at 5000 words per hour on their first drafts. There are those who plan meticulously before they start writing, and so there is not as much structural work required later (and I believe this is Lee Child’s method). And others are simply capable of putting in ten hours of work on their books every single day.

Then there are authors who agonise over every word they type, and who will spend a couple of hours honing each sentence. There are those who seek perfection in every phrase, and who will discard pages as they go.

A book a year might be a guideline, or an average, but how many people are average?

But, as I said before, there is pressure on the independently published author to churn the books out. And with this pressure, I believe there are too many writers who are skimping on editing.

I’m not talking about typos, or about hiring a developmental and a copy editor. Yes, these things can clearly help (especially having other, expert eyes looking at the book). But from what I have read, many writers could do with spending more time on self-editing.

I don’t class myself as an expert, and I know I have so much more to learn about writing, but I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve spotted an easy way to improve a book. I’ll notice repeated words, and come up with alternatives. I’ll think about how the story could be restructured to have a stronger impact on the reader. I’ll cringe at unwieldy dialogue, imagine how someone would actually say something similar, and wonder why the writer didn’t put that down instead.

Yet these books sell as they are. Reading the reviews, many people love them. So maybe I’m in a minority here. If these stories have an avid and eager audience, who loses out with these ‘could be better’ books?

Minimal Viable Product

Short-term, it looks like the only losers are those who spend longer on their books. Without the constant ‘here I am again’ factor of regular releases over the year, each new book needs more of a marketing boost, and slow writers can easily slip from even their fans’ minds.

But long-term, things aren’t as clear.

There’s a concept called ‘minimal viable product’. If you’re producing something for public consumption, be that an object (physical or electronic) or a service, you work out what the basic model is, release this, and then work on refining it as you build an audience or customer base. There’s a lot to be said for this, and with digital products it is easy to make minor adjustments over time. Think of all the software and apps that are released and then constantly updated as they are tweaked and improved. And these improvements are based on real-time customer feedback. The first release no longer needs to be a perfect product.

But does this work with books? How many of the fast writers go back and refine already published works? Generally, by the time feedback comes in on one book, they’re already onto the next, or the one after that. Returning to an old product would slow their momentum. And so, in the majority of cases, the ‘minimal viable product’ is also the final product.

Again, if people are happy with this, where’s the problem?

Expectations

I’d argue that the problem involves expectations of quality.

Imagine someone who is budget-conscious. They want to cut their food bill. One suggested way of doing this is to buy slightly less expensive products‌—‌not jumping straight to the budget range, but simply moving down a notch. The difference won’t be massive, and over time you’ll become accustomed to the less expensive brand. And then, you can down-grade again.

This saves money. And it also gets you accustomed to lower quality.

food-686922_1280But in books (in fact, in any art), this becomes problematic. Good art has a long-lasting appeal. Well-written books can be re-read countless times and still feel fresh. Classics last forever.

Popcorn is great for a few minutes, but it goes stale far too quickly.

If someone wants to write a book for the particular moment, that’s fine. But I think that most writers want their work to have some kind of a shelf-life. Even in indie-publishing circles, where fast is encouraged, part of the reason for this is to build up a library. Those older books become catalogue, and the aim is to continue selling them. An old book is always new to someone discovering it for the first time. But for a book to last, it has to be of a decent quality.

And yes, I have already argued that fast writing can produce quality books. But there is a difference between ‘good’ and ‘great’, and maybe this is where that extra work comes in.
I’m reminded here of the 80/20 rule (at least, one of the ways of understanding it). This states that 80% of the work comes from 20% of the effort‌—‌or, to put it another way, getting the final 20% of something done will take 80% of the time. People use this to argue that it is more time- and cost-effective to work to 80%, and that the returns for reaching closer to 100% are simply not worth it.

80% is pretty good. An 80% story will be enjoyable. It will be of good quality. I’m quite happy reading 80% books, although I’ll probably only read them once.

Perfection Is The Enemy Of Done (And Done Is The Enemy Of Perfection)

Another phrase I’ve heard‌—‌‘perfection is the enemy of done’. Spend too long refining a book, and you’ll never be finished. How many perfect books are there in the world? How many classics can any one writer produce?

I’m aiming for the middle ground. I know my own writing won’t be perfect, but I’, working on it being as good as I can make it. And, for me, that means more than writing a first draft and then doing some quick cosmetic editing. It means looking at the story structure. It means throwing away sections that don’t work. It means re-writing huge chunks.

I don’t want to go years between releases. But neither do I want to bring out books too quickly if they are not the best I can do.

And when I’m reading? If I read a good book, I’ll want more from that author. But I’d rather wait for ‘wow’ than settle for ‘meh’.

What I learned from reading ‘Tube Riders’

TubeRiders_series

I recently read the Tube Riders trilogy by Chris Ward, and I loved the books. It’s great when I come across an author who blows me away like this‌‌—‌it makes reading all those ‘so-so’ books (and worse) worth it all when you find a true gem.

I posted a short review on Goodreads (you can check it out here), but that looks at the trilogy from a reader’s perspective. However, while reading the books, there was so much I picked up on as a writer. As well as being enjoyable, entertaining reads, they were also instructive. Below are a few of the things that stood out.

Characters

I love the way the characters were written in these books. They are all three-dimensional, and they all change over time. When their is dialogue, they have distinctive voices. And they also all have their faults as well as their strengths.

An obvious example is the character of Stitch. He is one of the Tube Riders, which makes him one of the heroes, but he has a nasty side, and at times he comes across as very selfish. Or maybe he’s so used to having to look out for himself that others are secondary‌—‌after painting him as a slightly unsavoury character, we get a glimpse of the hardness of his life. It’s easy to understand why he’s wary of anyone new, and maybe we can understand why someone like Stitch would use violence to solve his problems.

Yet he is also loyal, and throughout the books you kind of know he will come through for the others in the end.

Then there are the baddies.

In the first book, one of the agents after the Tube Riders is Clayton. He wants to capture them, so he’s clearly a baddie. But he’s working for the government because he believes that is the right thing to do. And, as that first book progresses, he comes up against other government agents, and we see how not all ‘baddies’ are the same. Clayton is not mindlessly following orders‌—‌he genuinely wants to do what he believes to be right. And this brings him into conflict with other government agents, even though they are ‘on the same side’.

More interesting is the Governor. He’s the main villain of the trilogy, but the way he is written it is clear that he also believes in what he is doing. He is not afraid of making hard decisions, and is willing to make sacrifices (of others) for the greater good. And we get glimpses of his true motivations, which make us question our assumptions, at least for a while. Is he really evil, or just misguided? As the trilogy progresses, and he seems to become more unhinged, there was a part of me that wanted him to make the right decision, and to turn his back on his wrongdoing. Even up to the end, he has the potential for redemption.

I’m not going to say how he ends up‌—‌you’ll have to read the books to find out.

Nobody Is Safe

The protagonists in these books are young, but they are in a tough situation. Their world is nasty, and they take risks in part because of this. Death is in the air, even in their hobby of tube riding (jumping and ‘riding’ moving trains before leaping off to safety). In the first chapter, we hear of those who have died doing this.

But the heroes won’t die, right? They all need to survive to the end, don’t they?

In many books, that would be true. But Chris Ward does something near the start of Tube Riders that lets us know that nobody is safe.

I’m going to give a little of the story away, so if you want to read the books without spoilers, skip down to the next section. But this is something that happens near the start, so it’s not like I’m giving any of the main plot points away.

The Tube Riders have rivals, in the form of the Train Jumpers. Instead of leaping onto moving trains, they jump from platform to platform in front of trains, aiming to get as close as they can. The Train Jumpers hate the Tube Riders. And if that sound like petty, childish behaviour, remember that these characters are teens and young adults‌—‌acting childish is in their nature.

One of the Tube Riders feels dissatisfied with his gang, and he goes to the Train Jumpers, betraying his old gang. It’s a bit of a shock, so soon into the story. It makes us question the loyalty of all the Tube Riders‌—‌if one of them can defect, so could others.

Then something worse happens. The Jumpers seem to accept him, and as an initiation he has to join them in a jump. Yet this is a set-up. He is pushed as he is about to jump, and he falls under the train.

He’s only in the book for a few chapters, but he was one of the Tube Riders. He was one of the heroes. And now he’s dead. The stakes are raised for all the others‌—‌if one of the Tube Riders can die, none of them are safe.

This sets up more deaths as the books progress, and those deaths underline the overall uncertainty. It’s the same thing George RR Martin pulled in his Game Of Thrones books‌—‌kill off a main character, then nobody is safe.

The reader is no longer assured a happy ending.

A Trilogy Of Complete Stories

I was impressed with the structure of this trilogy. The story unfolds, with more and more intrigue and questions blossoming in the first book. Obviously, not all of these questions can be answered in a single book. You know, as a reader, that things will only be resolved at the end of the third book.

Yet there is no major cliffhanger between books. In each part of the trilogy, there is an arc, with its own satisfying conclusion.

This is so different to many other series I’ve read. Often, an ending seems in sight, but the author swerves at the very last moment, and leaves the main character in jeopardy. Sometimes, I’ll reach the end of a book, and it feels incomplete, like the author has simply chopped up a larger story.

This annoys me. Yes, leave questions unanswered. But I expect a book to end. I expect the author to craft a good story with a satisfying payoff at the end, even if I know there is more to come.

Chris Ward, as I have said above, manages to pull this off. If I read these books individually, over a year or so as they were released, I would not feel let down. I would close each one with a good feeling while still be anticipating the next one.

How does he manage this? By focusing on the main arc of that story. In the first book, the Tube Riders are trying to escape. Yes, we learn more about the Governor, and there are hints at what he is planning. There are characters who we just know have more of a part to play later on. But the escape is important, and when this arc is completed (spoiler alert‌—‌they escape), the book is finished.

As a trilogy, the conclusion works, although there is scope for more books (as you would expect with such an interesting world and a rich cast of characters). I understand that the author does not intend to write more sequels, but has not ruled out other stories set in the same world (in fact, there is a fourth book, filling in some of the time between the second and third in the trilogy. I’ll let you know what I think of this when I’ve read it).

The Writing Itself

I love the writing in these books.

We see events through different characters, and the prose in each character’s section has their voice, putting us in their heads wonderfully. As an example, when we are with Stitch, there is far more cursing in the descriptions, fitting his character. The Governor is colder, with less emotion in what he sees.

The dialogue feels so natural. I’ve already mentioned how characters have their own voices, but there was something else about the dialogue that impressed me. Often, rather than writing loads of history or backstory, authors will use dialogue to give the reader this information. However, this often feels unnatural and stilted. Not so in these books. The info-dumps are a natural part of the conversations, and we learn what the characters are learning.

There is a great deal of action in these books. This is promised from the very first scene, with the Tube Riders partaking of their potentially lethal hobby. Later there are chases, fights on the tops of moving trains,beatings, and loads of other exciting stuff.

I’ve read far too many books where the action reads like a description of a film‌—‌blow-by-blow fights, or sequences that simply have too much detail. And writing like that becomes tiresome very fast.

Chris Ward doesn’t fall into this trap. In every action scene, we stay with a main character, and experience it through their senses, filtered through their emotions. We might never see the bigger picture, but the chaos surrounding a scared individual fighting for their lives had far more impact, getting the adrenaline flowing and the heart pumping. And there is a reason for every action scene. We learn, through the fights, more about the characters, or about the world around them.

The action is not added simply to make the books more interesting. It is integral to the story, and the development of the characters.

TubeRiders_ChrisWardSo, there you have a few of the things I picked up on while reading the Tube Riders trilogy. As you can no doubt tell, I was impressed. I’m going to be following Chris Ward from now on, reading more of his books (and his newsletters — he asks some interesting questions). He’s my kind of author‌—‌exciting, entertaining, and instructive.

If this has piqued your interest, check out his books here. The first book in the Tube Riders trilogy is free, so you have no excuse!