About a decade ago I worked as a teacher. Back then, there were politicians pushing for ‘every student to be above-average’, and there was talk of rearranging lesson observation gradings so that ‘satisfactory’ was no longer good enough.
It was like dictionaries no longer mattered.
Ignoring the linguistic butchery, I understood the intentions. They wanted improvement. On the surface, I’ve got no argument with this. Education should be about improving oneself, in both formal settings (schools, colleges, and so on) and in other areas. Education never stops—life is a constant process of learning and (hopefully) improving.
I can see this in my own life. When I played guitar regularly, I’d practice in order to improve my technique, to play harder music, to get faster. When I use the bouldering wall, I work on different problems, improving my finger strength, body position, attitude and so on. And when I write, I aim to make every new story better than the one before. I read not only for enjoyment but also to inform my own writing. I listen to and read material on writing craft and story structure.
Learning can be hard, though. It’s not linear—there are times when things fall into place, and we make great leaps forward, but there are other times when we can’t wrap our heads around ideas. We struggle over something that feels inconsequential. Sometimes we need to revisit older ‘learning’, embedding it deeper or reminding ourselves about first principles. Sometimes we need to take it steady, or even take a break altogether.
And even with all this learning, perfection can only be an aspiration, never a destination. There’s always room for further improvement.
Which is why there’s no shame in being ‘good enough’. Sometimes (arguably most of the time), satisfactory is…well, satisfactory.
Let’s bring this back to reading and writing. I’ve read many satisfactory books. I can’t recall them now, but I enjoyed them at the time—because they did their job. They entertained me.
I was reminded of this recently as I read Scott Bartlett’s Mech Wars series. The books aren’t literary masterpieces—there were times when the writer side of me would pull me from the story, re-reading passages that were more tell than show, trying to work out ‘better’ alternatives.
But I read all four books. I wanted to know how the story ended, and what would happen to the characters. The series did its job in entertaining me. It was a perfectly satisfactory read.
I should note that this is my personal view. As I often do when finishing a book, I checked on-line reviews. Bartlett has a decent number, for both the series and the individual books, and the vast majority are positive. Readers enjoy the series. It’s military sci-fi—Bartlett doesn’t present it as literary. He’s telling an action-filled adventure, and that’s exactly what readers get.
The books don’t have the feel of first drafts, so Bartlett edited. I’m sure he made them the best he could, back when he wrote them (over five years ago). And then he reached a point where he felt they were good enough to put into the world.
Which reminds me of an interview I read with the band Massive Attack (after the release of their Mezzanine album). They talked about how they’d be constantly tinkering with the songs, passing files back and forth as they edited, but they eventually had to stop and release the album—but if they had time, they’d continue tinkering.
Works of art aren’t so much completed as abandoned. There’s always room for improvement. But there has to be a moment when the artist (musician, producer, writer, whatever) puts a stop to editing and decides it’s ‘good enough’, that it’s ‘satisfactory’—that is, it satisfies their own editorial standards, and (hopefully) will satisfy its audience.
And then it’s time to move on to the next project.
But why not continue to polish that first project? If each editing pass improves it, why not keep going?
Because where would it end? Some writers spend years on their first book in an attempt to make it ‘perfect’. But progressive edits yield diminishing returns, while taking up a great deal of time. If the writer wants to improve, they need to practice—and that means writing more. That means working on new stories and new projects.
A few years ago I re-read my first book, Dark Glass, in preparation for writing more books in the Dominions series. I wasn’t happy with the quality of that book, so I re-worked it—tightened up the story, added scenes, took away even more, and improved the writing itself. Dark Glass might’ve been the best book I could write back in 2016, but I’d moved on from there—and with the re-write, I was happy with it once more.
But the next couple of books were originally written at the same time (2016), and while I’d learnt from Dark Glass, they’re still not representative of my current writing. A part of me was tempted to rework both Dead Flesh and Deep Water, but I realised this could be a never-ending process—by the time I reached the end of the series I could very easily return to the start, making more improvements. And that would leave no time for writing anything new—no time to put in the practice and actively improve.
Stories need to be shared. If Bartlett had continued editing Mech Wars, he might not be finished yet—and that would have deprived thousands of readers of the enjoyment they derived from those books. If he’d waited until the series was ‘perfect’, he wouldn’t have had the time to write his other books, books that his readers continue to devour.
There are times we want ‘literature’, times we want to wallow in expertly-crafted prose and marvel at poetic word-play. But, for the majority of readers, and for most of the time, we want entertainment. As long as the writing is good enough to carry the story, we needn’t ask for anything more.
TheDominions Box Set (the first three novels and the short story prologue) is free on Amazon until 5th April. And if you’re a Kindle Unlimited user, you can read the whole series for free (that’s nine novels, three short stories and two novellas).
Do I need to say that 2021 was another strange year?
My first thought, on looking back, is ‘where did the last twelve months go?’ My second is, ‘what did I do with the year?’ It’s felt very unproductive, and writing has been a struggle.
But I did get things done. I released the final three novels in my Dominions series, a short story, and a novella (which is currently only available to newsletter subscribers). True, most of the writing and editing happened in 2020, but putting five books out in 2021 isn’t too bad. And it’s an achievement to reach the end of the nine-novel arc.
I worked on a new series, too.
This had a number of false starts—ideas that didn’t feel right, even after completing first drafts of novels. But I eventually settled on a follow-on to my Shadows trilogy, and I currently have the first two books of this series nearing completion.
So this year (2022), I intend to release both those books. I also want to have the third book in that series (the working title is ShadowTech) written and in editing by the end of the year.
I also have ideas for another series (I’m not ready to give any details yet, but it’s a bit of a departure), and aim to have at least two books in this nearly finished. I’m not looking to publish this second series yet, though—that will be for 2023.
So I have quite a bit of writing (including planning and editing) scheduled for this year. I also need to work on marketing and business.
This is a constant struggle. Last year I explored Amazon ads (again), and while I did get an increase in sales, the profits didn’t justify the ad expense (although it came close for the Shadows trilogy). I did learn from it, and when I try again I’ll have a few different things in place. I also want to revisit some of the books and courses I have on marketing and advertising.
I also want to get back into writing short stories—not necessarily for publication, but as a way of developing my writing. Yes, spending an hour or so each week on short stories takes time away from novels and marketing, but it’s training. It’s important to constantly improve.
Short stories are fun. They provide an opportunity to play with different ideas, to try new things. As it takes less time to edit and polish a short story, there’s more satisfaction in having something ‘finished’. And, if the story’s any good, I can look for ways to get it into the world (website, anthologies, podcasts and so on).
Related to self-development, I intend to continue writing a post every two weeks, detailing something I’ve learnt through reading. Apart from adding fresh content to my website, this also forces me to think about what I’m reading, and encourages me to read a wider range of books.
So, a quick summary of my plans for 2022:
Writing: I’ll have the first two books of the new ShadowTech series out, with a third close to completion. I’ll also have two books in another new series close to completion.
Marketing/business: By the end of the year I’ll have a constant stream of money coming in from my books. I’ll have a better understanding of advertising.
Training: I’ll write more short stories (ideally at least one a month) as a way of improving my writing. I’ll also continue to write a post every two weeks on what I’ve learnt through reading.
It’s not a particularly detailed plan, but one thing that’s been clear over the last couple of years is that plans can (and will) be disrupted. At least these few points give me something to aim for.
Back at the start of 2015 I got serious about writing, publishing the first three book in my Dominions series in mid-2016. And now (May 2021) the series is complete—nine novels, and a few short stories and novellas.
It hasn’t always been easy, and I’ve learnt a great deal in these six years—about writing, editing, story, marketing and so much more. There have been a few sudden moments of realisation, but many of the lessons have been gradual.
I thought I’d take a moment to go through some of these.
Improving as a writer has a down-side
After putting out well over a million words, my writing’s improved, on both macro and micro levels (story-wise and sentence-by-sentence). This is clearly a good thing, but it does have a draw-back when writing a series—later books are better than earlier ones.
I want people to read and enjoy this series, and the natural place for them to start is at the beginning. This means they’re starting with the weakest books. If that first book doesn’t grab the reader, why would they bother continuing?
This hit me a couple of years ago. In preparation for a new book, I re-read the series so far, and wasn’t happy with the first book (Dark Glass). I pretty much re-wrote the whole thing, producing a second edition that was far stronger in both story and writing than the original.
This meant I had a stronger starting point for the series. But the next couple of books still had issues. And the ones after them—well, they’re not bad, but in retrospect there are things I could improve. And even though I’ve recently finished the ninth book, I’m certain that, if I re-read it again later this year, I’ll cringe at some of the amateur writing.
That’s the nature of improving—older stories will be inferior to current ones, which in turn will be weaker than future writing.
But I can’t continually improve already-published books. I need to work on new stories. In retrospect, working on a nine-book series as my first serious writing project was a mistake. I should have gone for a trilogy, or even a stand-alone. But I can’t change that now. I have to accept the situation, and move on.
Things won’t go to plan
When I grew serious about writing, I realised that I couldn’t make up a story as I went along. I tried, and that book was a mess—too many character viewpoints, too many pointless diversions, too sprawling. So I planned. I worked out the story, the characters and the settings before I started writing.
Planning was the key to finishing Dark Glass, and I’ve planned every book since.
But nothing ever goes to plan. The final version of a book is always different to that original plan.
Take Dead Flesh, the second book in the series. The original idea had Rodin saving Genna at the end. But for Rodin to do this, he needed to change. I planned a few early scenes where he was forced to confront his own beliefs, but it was only when I started first-drafting that I realised such a radical change couldn’t be glossed over so quickly.
The first half of the book grew and grew as I followed my new ideas. If I’d continued, Dead Flesh would have come in at around six hundred pages—twice the length of Dark Glass.
I stopped, and returned to my planning. I focused on Rodin’s change, and set Genna’s part of the story to one side. The new version, solely Rodin’s story, was far stronger. And, even at the end, Rodin wasn’t quite ready. So the third book continued his character arc. At the end of Deep Water, he’s finally ready.
And the discarded story-line concerning Genna? That was merely put aside, and used as the basis for book four, Riled Dogs.
Plans are useful tools, but they’re never set in stone. Writing is a constant process of change.
Inconsequential details can be important
When I came to write Rogue Wolf (the fifth Dominions book), I introduced a new character, Vanya. She was tough, and would become an important ally for Rodin. As I developed her, I recalled a character in Dead Flesh (the second book). I hadn’t named this earlier character, and she only appeared in two scenes, but she was important to the story.
I realised these two characters, the unnamed one and Vanya, were the same. Rather than invent a completely new character, I could develop a supporting character from earlier.
I’d like to say I planned this all along, but it was a happy accident.
When I came to write the final three books, I re-read all the older ones, looking for characters and settings I could re-use—not to be lazy, but because it would tie the books together. Incidental characters in earlier books became major players, and events and locations from earlier rose again. Because of this, the series became rounded, rather than being a string of actions.
Perseverance is the key
Writing is easy—put one word after another. Writing a book—a complete, coherent story—is another matter entirely. The first draft is only the start. Most ‘writing’ is editing and re-writing. Moulding those initial words takes longer than putting them down in the first place.
Once the first book is complete, there’s an expectation that the second will be easier. In some ways it is—you’ve done this once, so there’s no reason you can’t do it again. But there’s a drive to improve, to make the next book better than the previous one. And if that first book doesn’t reach readers, or doesn’t get rave reviews from the start, doubts can start to rise.
There are always doubts. There are always problems.
But the only way to overcome these doubts and problems is to keep working. To have a finished book, or a finished series, it is necessary to write. One word, then the next.
While writing Dominions I’ve also produced other stories. Six years on one project is intensive, and I needed diversions every now and then. I wrote short stories, and a sci-fi/horror trilogy. Once the sixth Dominions novel was out, I intended to take a break and work on something else.
I tried. I wrote the first draft of one story, and started another. But I couldn’t focus. Dominions lurked at the back of my mind. Eventually, I realised that I needed to complete that project before moving on.
I had to persevere. And I did, throwing myself into the final trilogy of Dominions. It was tough, but I think those final three books are the strongest of the series.
I succeeded. And this proved that I can persevere. Next time I’m struggling, I can remember this, and keep pushing through.
Finishing Dominions is bitter-sweet. For all it’s faults, I’m proud of the series. I’ve played in this world for the last six years, and a part of me doesn’t want to leave.
But it’s time to move on. I’m not ruling out a return to Dominions (I can see how I could expand the series quite easily), but for now I need a fresh challenge. I need to dive into a new world, to explore some different characters. I need to take the lessons I’ve learnt and apply them to my next series. And when the work is hard (as I know it will be at times), I can look back at Dominions and remind myself that I can do this. I can keep learning, and keep writing.
When I started work on the very first book (way back in 2015), I had a rough plan for the whole series, but the details have come over time. Characters have taken detours I didn’t expect, and even up to the end I wasn’t totally sure what would happen to everyone. But this is a definite close to the series, and I’m very pleased with how it turned out. I hope you enjoy it too.
You can get Final Target from all the usual ebook stores (99c for a couple of days), and the paperback from Amazon.
Everything has changed. The Dome is no longer the safe, perfect society its residents once knew. The districts are in the hands of the enemy. Authority continues to build its forced, ready for one last devastating assault. But the rebellion continues. While there’s life, there’s hope. Those who oppose Authority will fight to the death. The dark glass will shatter, and the final target will fall.
Rodin has the contract under control, drawing the target in, ready for the removal. Not a simple job, but nothing too complicated. But nothing happens in isolation, and Rodin has no idea how this contract will impact others—or himself.
Impact is a new release in the Dominions series, a set of four connected stories. It’s available from all the usual ebook stores, and is currently free*.
Until 4th January, the Dominions box-set is down to 99c (or your local equivalent) on all the usual ebook retailers. For such a low price, you get the first three books in the Dominions series (Dark Glass, Dead Flesh and Deep Water) along with the prologue short story Gatekeeper and a few bonuses at the end.