A reminder of free books

No new short story this week (sorry), but I do have a few things I’d like to mention.

The short stories and novellas in my Dominions series are free on all platforms (click here to see details). They’ve garnered more interest than I expected, so I’ll keep them free for a while longer.

DominionsStoriesNon-Exclusive

I’m also thinking of changing things with the rest of the series. Ebook sales and downloads are constantly changing‌—‌what garnered decent sales a year ago won’t necessarily be as effective today. There’s no ‘set it and forget it’ method of ebook sales, and I have to consider different strategies and tactics. I have to be willing to change, and to experiment with new ideas.

I don’t want to set all my books to free (it would be nice to at least recoup costs!), but free is powerful. I’m reminded of that at the moment through the pleasing number of downloads of the two titles I have in the Fantasy & Sci-Fi Giveaway on BookFunnel. And this giveaway is still on, with over 150 titles. For a complete list of the books, click here.

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And now, I need to get back to the first draft I’m in. I’ve almost finished‌—‌and then I’ll have time to work on a couple of short stories (before planning the next book, and editing the new one, and everything else that needs doing!)

I think I might have to download some of those free books and escape into someone else’s story for a while.

 

Story or writing?

There are two parts to any written story‌—‌the story itself (plot, characters, and so on) and the writing (word choice, sentence construction, and so on). In an ideal book, both would work equally well. Exquisite (but not distractingly ‘showy’) writing would bring to life a well-constructed story, with realistic characters and vivid settings.

But there’s no such thing as a perfect book. It’s one of the reasons writers keep on writing‌—‌each book presents an opportunity to close the gap on perfection, to elevate the writing and storytelling from mediocre to good, from good to great.

I was thinking on this recently, after a couple of interesting reads.

[Note: there might be spoilers ahead!]


TheWall_JLanchesterThe first of these books was The Wall by John Lanchester. I’ve enjoyed other books by Lanchester (such as Mr Phillips and Fragrant Harbour), although I can’t recall much about them now. He’s definitely a writer in the ‘literary’ camp. But this new book of his was also billed as a Dystopian story, and I was intrigued to read his take on that genre.

The Wall follows a new Defender on the Wall, a defensive structure that encases the country. His job is to watch out for Others who might attempt to gain access. Any Other breaking into the country means a Defender being sent out to sea‌—‌one in, one out.

The style of writing is fairly simple, perfectly suiting the protagonist’s character as he enters this strange new world. It also suits the monotony of his job‌—‌standing in the cold, staring into the darkness, with nothing happening. But there are interludes‌—‌a trip home, where he realises how he’s changed, and a holiday with his new friends from the Wall. And, of course, there’s an attack. Despite fighting hard (and even shooting a traitor), the main character is sent to sea, with a couple of others from the Wall (three in, three out).

He has some adventures out at sea. And‌…‌that’s it.

The story is little more than things that happen, one after the other. For most of these events, the main character is little more than an observer, or a passive participant. The story ends in what seems to be an arbitrary place. There’s no real resolution, no clear story arc.

And yet, I still enjoyed the book. I enjoyed seeing these scenes through the eyes of this character.

In short, I liked the writing in The Wall, but the story left me cold.


TheTrusted_MMedhatThe second book was The Trusted by Michelle Medhat. I heard her talk about this book (and the whole series) on a podcast, and it sounded intriguing enough for me to buy straight away. A fast-paced thriller, political intrigue, near-future tech, and a smattering of aliens‌—‌sounded perfect.

It started well, but I found myself becoming distracted by the writing itself. Nothing major, just little things‌—‌clunky exposition in dialogue, apparent shifts in point of view within scenes, too much tell. It felt more like a description of a movie than a book.

But I still finished the book. Despite my disappointment in the writing, I wanted to find out what happened next‌—‌to the point that I’m considering buying the next book in the series.


Two books I enjoyed, despite both leaving me in part underwhelmed. One engaged me through the writing, the other through the story.

But which do I prefer‌—‌writing or story?

I think it depends on a few factors.

Average writing won’t bother me if the story’s good, but if the writing is too amateur I can be turned off even if the plot is ingenious. Well crafted prose can be a joy in itself, but without a resemblance of a story to hang the language on I can soon become fatigued.

It also depends on my mood. If I’m tired, or if there is too much else going on, I want escapism in my reading. This could be why The Trusted worked for me at the moment. But at other times I want stimulation, and I’ll better appreciate those books that require more effort in the reading, books where the pleasure is derived from sinking into the language itself.

This does mean that when I don’t particularly enjoy a book, it isn’t necessarily down to the book itself. It could simply be the wrong book for me at that time. There are books I loved in my late-teens that I now find tedious, and other books I struggled with when I was younger but that I now consider worthy classics.

Is writing more important than story? Is story more important than writing? I don’t think it matters. Everyone has their own preferences, and these can change at any time. The aim is to enjoy reading, in whatever form that enjoyment takes‌—‌carried along by the story, emotionally attached to the characters, awed by the dexterity of language, pleasingly immersed in each scene.

And if one book doesn’t quite hit everything we want, there’s only one thing to do‌—‌keep reading more books.

So there’s only one thing to do‌—‌keep reading.

In praise of the novella

Much as I enjoy reading novels, there are times when I want something else. Maybe I want to read a complete story in one sitting, or I’m just not in the right frame of mind to follow a novel over different sessions. Sometimes, when I finish a novel, I need something as a kind of mental palate-cleanser before diving into the next one.

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It’s times like these I’ll turn to short stories and novellas.

There are other lengths of story, of course. Flash fiction can sometimes be told in a single sentence. Vignettes are usually short, too, but are more a single scene than a complete story. Novelettes sit between short stories and novellas. But for most readers there are novels, novellas and short stories.

I like to think of the different story lengths in terms of TV shows and films. A novel is akin to watching a limited-run series, those shows that play out over a few episodes (and, by extension, a series of novels can be compared to a show that runs over more than one season). A short story is like a short film or a half-hour TV show, easy to consume while taking a quick break, sometimes pure entertainment, sometimes thought-provoking and deep.

Novellas are closer to films, taking a couple of hours to devour. They give a satisfying story, complex enough to keep us engaged but not so complicated that it feels rushed. Where a novel often has sub-plots or a number of side-quests for the protagonist, a novella often concentrates on a single story arc.

It’s no surprise that many films are based on novellas. Take Stephen King adaptations, for example‌—‌The Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me, Maximum Overdrive, The Lawnmower Man and The Running Man all started life as novellas. Then there are classics like A Christmas Carol, Of Mice And Men, Animal Farm, The Stepford Wives, The Time Machine, The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, I Am Legend, The War Of The Worlds, Minority Report, and so many more. Stories to be devoured in one sitting, an escape from our daily reality for a couple of hours. No need to break off to sleep or eat or work, no need to remember what’s already happened when you pick the book up again.

Novellas fell out of favour for a while, mainly for financial reasons‌—‌there’s very little cost difference between producing a novel and a novella, but people would feel cheated paying £10 or $15 for a little over 100 pages. The classics continued to be produced because there was already an audience for those stories, but newer authors had to do with anthologies. Again, Stephen King is a good example, with novellas collections such as Different Seasons, Four Past Midnight and Full Dark, No Stars.

But ebooks have changed this. Producing ebook files is very cheap, so novellas and short stories can be priced more realistically. The e-reader (or smartphone) doesn’t change size with what is being read, so a novella feels no different to an epic novel. And with free-flowing text, there are no fixed pages‌—‌the story continues for as long as it needs.

It’s also worth considering attention span. A potential reader might not have the concentration required for a novel, but with novellas they can still enjoy reading complete stories.

And novellas can work as great introductions to new writers‌—‌they show the writer’s individual style, and if they can pull off a successful story arc in a novella, there’s a good chance they can manage the same in a longer novel too.

Novellas also provide a great opportunity for expanding a series. With novels concentrating on the main story arc, novellas can tell side-stories or explore events from characters’ past.

Gilden-Fire_StephenDonaldsonI first became aware of this idea when I stumbled upon Gilden Fire by Stephen Donaldson. Having recently read his original Thomas Covenant trilogy, I was intrigued by this slim volume. In the introduction, Donaldson explained that Gilden Fire was originally going to be a chapter in The Illearth War. But while he was pleased with the writing, the story in the chapter didn’t involve the main character himself. Donaldson thought it would break the flow of the book, and so it was cut. It was only later that he revised it and released it as its own story.

In indie-publishing circles it’s quite common for a series to have a prologue novella, often available for a low price or as an exclusive offer for joining a mailing list (something commonly referred to as a ‘reader magnet’). But writers (especially those publishing independently) have told stories over a series of novellas.

Hugh Howey did this with Beacon 32, eventually combining the five shorter works into a single novel. The Sterling & Stone team (Sean Platt, David W Wright and Johnny Truant) experimented with similar ideas in their serialised fiction, releasing novella-length episodes that built to form complete seasons. Their most popular is probably Tomorrow’s Gone, but I have to say I preferred their nine-novella series Unicorn Western and Truant’s Fat Vampire series.

So, novellas are incredibly versatile. They can provide a short, complete story experience. They can expand a series for avid readers. They can also create their own series. They might not have the same standing as novels, or the literary cache of short stories, but the humble novella has a lot to offer.

What to do about a 1-star review

It had to happen‌—‌after writing about a great 5-star review for Shadowfall (you can read that post here), I end up with a 1-star reviews for Dark Glass.

This isn’t the first 1-star I’ve had, and I know it won’t be the last. Every reader is different, and I’m never going to satisfy everyone.

samuel-3898008_640It’s still a little frustrating, though. I don’t have many reviews, so any new review can make a big difference to the average, either positively or negatively.

A lot of writers say it’s a bad idea to look at reviews, but at the moment I’m willing to take any comments, either praise or constructive criticism. I want to improve in my writing, so it is useful to know what readers don’t appreciate as much as what they enjoy.

But this review puzzled me. It doesn’t comment on the story, but does say that the book is ‘rife with grammatical errors’, making it ‘unreadable’. Yet I spent a long time editing this book, and it also went through a professional proof-read. No book is immune to a few errors slipping through, but I felt sure there were not so many problems that the book was ‘unreadable’.

So I checked my original files, running the first couple of chapters through Hemingway and Grammarly. I checked the Look Inside on Amazon too.

I probably used a few too many adverbs, and Grammarly pointed to a few ‘complicated’ sentences‌—‌but nothing grammatically wrong.

I wondered if the reviewer was posting this for a different book, clicking on Dark Glass by accident, but he mentions me in the review, so I don’t believe this is the case. I also wondered if the reviewer’s copy of the book was corrupted (and if they’re reading this, contact me and I’ll send you another copy), or if they simply didn’t like my style of writing.

What can I do about this review? I could respond, asking the reviewer to point out these errors so that I can correct them (and thanking them for their time), or I could contact Amazon and ask about having the review pulled if I believe it to be factually inaccurate.

But what would happen if I took either of these options? Amazon might take down the review, but there’s no guarantee of this, and I’d no doubt spend far too much time trying to convince them. And if I contact the reviewer, things could get messy. Comments can easily be taken the wrong way, upsetting people unduly.

It would be better to ask not ‘what can I do?’ but ‘what should I do?’ Reviews are readers’ personal thoughts on the book, and I have to respect that, even if I personally don’t agree with their thoughts. Also, reviews are not for the writer but for potential readers.

And here, I need to consider my own behaviours when choosing new books. If the cover draws me in and the description sounds interesting, I’ll check out the reviews. I’ll often scan negative reviews, but comments here don’t always put me off. A complaint about bad language won’t bother me, and I don’t mind violence and sex in the books I read.

If I thought a book looked interesting but then saw a review complaining about poor grammar or too many typos, I’d check out the Look Inside (or download a sample). Maybe the book is written in a different English than the reviewer expected (because there are so many different varieties‌—‌UK, US, Australian and so on). If there are some errors (or examples of clumsy writing), I might still be tempted by the book if the story looks good enough to enjoy despite this. Or possibly the book has a style of writing that is similar to the spoken word (and is therefore not perfectly grammatically correct), but this suits the way the story is being told.

And, as I mentioned above, this won’t be the last 1-star review I get.

So the best thing I can do is ignore the review. I’ll continue using tools such as Hemingway and Grammarly to make my writing as polished as I can, and then I’ll use professional editors/proofreaders to remove even more errors. I’ll continue learning more about writing. None of my stories will ever be perfect, but as long as I keep learning and working hard, I can keep improving.

And that’s the positives I’m taking from this review‌—‌I can’t please everyone, but I can keep striving to get better.

Dominions VI is now out

Rebel Rout (Dominions VI) is now out, on all major ebook sites.

Dom6_smallRodin might have liberated the Factory, but it’s still a prison to him. So an order from Authority is the excuse he’s been seeking, an opportunity to escape the meetings and the drudgery, a chance to get outside once more.

But he’s heading into a war zone, on a mission of deception. Those he travels with might be friends at the moment, but Rodin knows how easily allegiances can change.

That’s a problem Genna must face, too. Forced underground, her district in the hands of another, she’s determined to fight back. But Garrick’s always one step ahead, and that can only mean one thing‌—‌she’s being betrayed by someone close, someone she needs to trust.

And behind everything lies the invisible, powerful Authority, working toward their own ends, playing enemies and allies off each other. How can Rodin and Genna possibly win against Authority?

In the sixth book of the Dominions series, loyalties are tested, hope is pushed to breaking point, and nothing can be the same again.

Click here to get Rebel Rout now for only 99c.

(And if you haven’t started the Dominion series yet, I still have the box-set of the first three novels on offer for 99c. Click here for all the places this collection is available.

A box-set for under $1

2017-1326 TW Iain 3D Box Set on white on transparentWith the next Dominions novel due for release soon, I’ve cut the price of the Dominions Box Set: Books I-III to 99c (or your local equivalent). Three novels, a short-story prologue, and a few extras, all for under $1. And this set is available on all major ebook retailers (and quite a few smaller ones).

Click here to dive into the dark Dystopian world of Dominions.

Rebel Rout (Dominions VI) now available for pre-order

The next Dominions novel, Rebel Rout, will be released on 6th April, but is now up for pre-order at the bargain price of 99c/99p (or your local equivalent).

Dom6_small

Rodin might have liberated the Factory, but it’s still a prison to him. So an order from Authority is the excuse he’s been seeking, an opportunity to escape the meetings and the drudgery, a chance to get outside once more.

But he’s heading into a war zone, on a mission of deception. Those he travels with might be friends at the moment, but Rodin knows how easily allegiances can change.

That’s a problem Genna must face, too. Forced underground, her district in the hands of another, she’s determined to fight back. But Garrick’s always one step ahead, and that can only mean one thing‌—‌she’s being betrayed by someone close, someone she needs to trust.

And behind everything lies the invisible, powerful Authority, working toward their own ends, playing enemies and allies off each other. How can Rodin and Genna possibly win against Authority?

In the sixth book of the Dominions series, loyalties are tested, hope is pushed to breaking point, and nothing can be the same again.

Click here to pre-order Rebel Rout (Dominions VI)

An offer for Kobo readers

I’ve got a lot of time for Kobo‌—‌not only are they a serious competitor to Amazon/Kindle in many places, but they are also incredibly focused on books and writers. They run a great deal of promotions, and their latest gives readers 40% off certain books.

I’m mentioning this because they’ve accepted two of my books for inclusion in this offer, Shadowfall and the Dominions Box Set. The offer runs until the 24th February, and to get the 40% discount simply use the promo code FEBSALE at checkout.

Shad1_lowShadowfall (Shadows Book One)

The company enhanced Brice. They promised him action and adventure. But he’s stuck on a malfunctioning craft, with a crew who treat him like a child. He’s miles from home, in the worst storm of the season, and night is falling.
And in the shadows the creatures wait, their hunger growing.
The company prepared Brice for many things, but nothing can prepare him for what he must face when the shadows fall.

2017-1326 TW Iain 3D Box Set on white on transparentDominions Box Set

When Rodin, professional assassin, is forced to take a contract in the perfect society of the Dome, he expects enemies. But he doesn’t expect to start questioning his own motivations, or the deadly threats from a past he no longer remembers.
Dive into the dark Dystopian world of Dominions with this collection of three novels and one novella, and begin to uncover the secrets buried beneath the glass.

Don’t forget, use the promo code FEBSALE on Kobo to get 40% off‌—‌that’s almost half price.

And to check out more books in the sale, click on the following links for specific Kobo stores: UK, US, Canada, Australia, Ireland, Germany

How Neil Peart is pushing my reading into new areas

 

The musicians I grew up listening to are getting older, and many are no longer around. Of course, it happens to everyone eventually, and in large part I’m pretty philosophical about this. Yes, it’s sad that they’re gone, but they’ve left behind a great legacy in their music, and in that a part of them will live on.

But when I heard of Neil Peart’s passing, earlier this year, I felt sadder than I expected. Maybe it was because I’d been listening to Rush for so many years. Or maybe it was because they’d had the same line-up for so long that there was something permanent about them. Even though there was unlikely to be any new music from the trio anyway, it felt somehow wrong that he’d died.

Rush in concert at MGM Grand, Las Vegas, America - 25 Jul 2015

In case you’re unfamiliar with the name, Neil Peart was the drummer and lyricist with Canadian band Rush. Their music didn’t bother the charts much, but they could sell out arena and stadium tours around the world, and had an incredibly loyal fan-base.

I saw Rush on tour back in the eighties, at a time when just about every band would thrown in solo spots for different musicians, mainly guitarists and drummers. These solos bored me. If there were seats at the venue, I’d have a rest while the guitarist tapped away, or while the drummer hit everything within range as fast as possible.

But Peart’s solo was different. It felt like a structured piece of music, with peaks and troughs, passing through different ways of playing, drawing on different emotions. Rather than a way of showing off, the solo was an exploration into what a drum kit was capable of. And even though the band played rock, it was clear that Peart drew from many different styles.

He wasn’t content to sit still as a musician. He took his playing very seriously. He’d practice for an hour before each concert. And he continually sought to improve‌—‌listening to other styles of music, seeking other techniques, taking lessons from drummers who might not have been technically as proficient as him, but who still had something he could learn from, something new he could incorporate into his own playing.

It’s an important attitude for anyone creative, be that in music or sculpture or stories or hanging baskets. There’s always more to learn. To quote one of Peart’s own lyrics (from Mission),

‘the point of the journey is not to arrive’.

It’s impossible to reach the end of knowing, to become perfect. There’s always more to learn, and it’s important to absorb new influences and techniques, to develop, so that the next song, the next model, the next book, the next basket surpasses the previous one.

When I worked in education, I used to tell myself that the moment I felt I knew everything about teaching was the moment I should stop‌—‌not because I would know everything, but because that moment would signal the end of the desire to improve.

In my writing, I feel like I’m only just starting out, and there is so much to learn. One very important way I can widen my knowledge is through reading‌—‌not only in genres I’m naturally drawn to, but also in pushing myself to explore new genres. It’s why I’ll read the occasional romance book, or historical book. It’s why I’ll read books by new and old authors, independently-published and those who work through traditional publishers.

There’s always more to learn, even from books I don’t like. I read the Twilight series and the first couple of Fifty Shades books (haven’t been able to face the third yet) in part because I wanted to understand what made them so popular. And it’s why I very rarely give up on a book. Even books I don’t enjoy, or stories I don’t feel are particularly well told, have things to teach me.

I know some people take a different approach. Some writers dive deep into a particular sub-genre, writing and reading only that one thing, focusing their attention on becoming an expert in it. And that’s fine‌—‌but for me, I’d feel like I was missing so much. When I read books with a strong romantic element, I can garner more insight in evoking believable relationships. When I read literary fiction, I can absorb ideas on how language is used. When I read mysteries and thrillers, I can better understand how to keep the reader guessing. When I read books that evoke different times and locations, I can attempt to unpick how words can be used to give a sense of period and setting without being too on-the-nose.

There’s so much to learn out there, so many lessons that I can use to improve my own writing. But that’s only going to happen if I concentrate.

This, I feel, is something Peart understood. It’s not enough to simply consume. Learning is active. It involves both study and practice. It’s a never-ending cycle that is the only way to improve.

Or, in the words of Peart himself,

What is a master but a master student? And if that’s true, then there’s a responsibility on you to keep getting better and to explore avenues of your profession.