Why Ideas Are Not (That) Important

I’ve got an idea for a story. It’s great. It’s got this wonderful twist, one that turns everything on it’s head. See, what happens is….

But I don’t want to tell you. Not yet. See, you might take it and use it yourself. Then it wouldn’t be anything special when I write it. I don’t want to let this idea go. It’s that good.

Okay. I’m excited. I’ll tell you. See, it’s set in our world, but there’s an alien race living amongst us. They have been for years.

What do you mean, it’s been done before? I haven’t got to the good bit yet. See, this hero character stumbles upon the truth, and it looks like this alien race are trying to take us over. They do stuff like rig elections, and make sure there are all these dodgy additives in food.

Okay, okay, so that’s been done before. But you still haven’t let me get to the proper bit yet. There’s this twist.

You going to shut up and let me finish?

Thank you.

So this hero’s being guided by some secret organisation, and they’re trying to fight these aliens. They don’t want to be taken over. But our hero, he stumbles upon something. And it changes everything.

See, these aliens know that humans are dying out. They’ve known for years. And they came down, not to take us over, but to help us. Instead of wanting to destroy us, they are trying to save us.

Neat twist, right?

light-bulbs-1125016_1280Maybe. But the idea doesn’t make the story. It could be turned into something amazing, or end up run-of-the-mill, or even terrible. It could be a success, but it could just as easily be a failure.

Why? Because ideas are not important.

Okay, that’s an over-generalisation. Obviously, it is important to have an idea before writing, or before creating anything. You need to know, or at least have an inkling, where the story is going. You need to have a starting point, be that an interesting character, some event, or simply a concept (what if we used scent as our main means of communication? Oh, The Simpsons got there first – ‘Smell ya later!’).

But the idea in itself is nowhere near as important as the execution.

Don’t believe me? Think of any story you like — book, film, TV show, doesn’t matter. Now boil the story down to a single sentence, the idea around which everything else hangs.

Here’s one. Young person forced to leave home and fight, eventually triumphing over evil.

Sound familiar? It’s Star Wars, right? Or maybe (if you take ‘person’ to mean ‘person-like being’) it’s Lord Of The Rings. Or countless other stories.

Now think of a concept for a story. Try this one. The world is an illusion.

Cool-sounding concept. It’s The Matrix.

Or is it The Wizard Of Oz, where everything turns out to be a dream? Maybe it’s The Truman Show.

Three very different stories, but they could have come from the same initial idea.

The initial idea isn’t that important. It’s what you do with it that matters.

light-2674160_1280But even that only goes so far. Imagine two writers have the same initial idea, and map out identical story outlines. They have the same characters and settings. But the finished stories would be different. One might be heavy on poetic descriptions, where the other is filled with fast-paced dialogue. One might have a gritty edge, and the other might go for a softer, more family-friendly approach. One might stress the outer struggle of the characters while the other focused on their internal dilemmas.

Same ideas, different outcomes.

There is something else to consider when thinking about ideas. And that is the sheer abundance of them.

Don’t believe me? Coming up with ideas is easy. Look around yourself, or think about the things around you. Pick two different objects. Now combine them.

I’m going to pick a train set and an exercise bike for this example, as they are both things that are (sometimes) in our conservatory. My first thought on combining these is this; the power from the exercise bike is fed to the train set. While I pedal, the train runs. When I stop, the train stops.

Not a great idea, but let’s run with it. Imagine this train set is somehow a real railway system. When I pedal, I enable real trains to run. Obviously, that would take more than one person using an exercise bike. So there’s a whole bank of us, all pedalling furiously, so that the trains run on time. Our hard work enables all those business bods to get to work.

We can’t afford to stop, because then the transport network grinds to a halt. It’s not only about commuters. There are goods to transport as well. And, in this imaginary world, rail is the major transportation system. So those of us pedalling like mad are truly keeping the world running.

It’s a sweatshop.

This idea has legs (like the ones pedalling round and round). It raised so many questions. Are we pedalling through choice, or because we are forced to? Who is overseeing the pedal stations? What happens when the cyclists revolt? What happens when someone realises that pedal power could be used for other purposes?

Another example, again from our conservatory. There’s a plant in a pot on a table, and another in a pot on the floor. Which one is superior? The one on the table possibly has a ‘higher’ starting position, but the one on the floor is larger, and takes up more overall space. They are at different sides of the room. Is this because they can’t stand to be near each other?

So now my mind’s going off in all kinds of directions. Plants are intelligent. Maybe they have the ability to move themselves. Maybe the plants have been planning a takeover, rebelling against their treatment at the hands of humans. Eventually, they will start selective breeding programs, producing humans with more pleasing features, or ones that grow quicker. Maybe they will find a way of breeding humans through budding. Then some mad plant scientist will create a hybrid, part plant and part human. Fauna sapiens or something.

Sounds like it might end up as a comedy, but again that depends on the execution. Compare Day of the Triffids to Little Shop of Horrors.

See? I came up with a cool idea, and others have already beaten me to it. But that doesn’t matter, because the idea is only the starting point.

It’s what I do with it that is important. And that’s when the real work starts.

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.

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!

‘That book looks terrible … I think I’ll read it.’

The more books I read, the more books I want to read. I’m always on the lookout for something new. I’ll check out authors I like, I’ll look at recommendations from others, and I’ll browse stores in genres I enjoy. But occasionally I’ll pick something different. Every now and then I’ll purposely choose to read a book that doesn’t appeal to me.

Before I carry on, I should explain something. I occasionally post book reviews, but I make it a rule to only review books I can be positive about. If I don’t enjoy a book, I’ll simply head on to the next one. I won’t spend my time writing about it. It’s the whole ‘if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all’ thing. But in this post, I’m going to mention a few books that I didn’t enjoy. Apologies in advance if this upsets anyone. But please remember that this is simply the opinion of one person. I like certain books, and dislike others. I listen to strange music that I know others can’t stand. I like Marmite. My tastes are not necessarily going to correspond with yours. If I don’t like a book, that simply means I don’t like it. It doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. Your opinions may differ.

We all like different stuff. If everyone was the same, life would be so much less interesting.

Getting back to books, the ones I’m going to talk about here are Twilight and Fifty Shades. In both cases, the books have sold fantastically well, and have legions of fans. The interest in these books has led to films, and the authors are (as far as I understand) doing very well for themselves. If I say something negative about them, it’s not going to harm the success of either series, and I doubt the authors are that bothered by what someone like me thinks of them anyway.

I’ve read all the Twilight books and the first two Fifty Shades titles. I’m not a fan of paranormal romance (or whatever genre Twilight is in at the moment), and I’m not big on erotic romance (if that is where Fifty Shades sits‌—‌I’ve heard differing opinions). I know I’m not the target audience for either series. I can’t say I enjoyed reading them, but I did finish them.

Why? Why spend time on something I didn’t enjoy? And why, after reading the first book in each series, did I carry on?

There are a couple of reasons.

ignorance-1993615_1280Ignorance

The first I will illustrate with something that happened a few times when I was teaching. I’d get into conversations about music, and my tastes were usually very different to those of the students. Sometimes, when I mentioned an artist or band I liked, I’d get negative comment‌—‌“That’s rubbish!” (although usually with a few more swear-words thrown in). I’d counter by asking what songs by that particular band the young person had heard, and in practically all cases they hadn’t heard anything. It was simply a name they weren’t familiar with, and so they dismissed it straight away.

Chances are they wouldn’t have enjoyed the music anyway, but they weren’t even prepared to give it a chance.

And that’s so easy to do. As someone who enjoys vampire stories like Dracula and Salem’s Lot, Twilight isn’t a ‘proper’ vampire book, and it would have been easy for me to complain about Meyer’s series. But I would have been making unfounded statements, or simply repeating what others had said. If I wanted to moan about Twilight, I had to know what I was talking about. I couldn’t say it was badly written unless I was prepared to back this statement up with examples I’d come across.

So I choose to read certain books because I want to know what I think of them. I don’t want to regurgitate the thoughts of others.

international-conference-1597529_1280Audience

The second reason is connected with target audience. As I said before, I know that neither Twilight or Fifty Shades are aimed at someone like me‌—‌middle aged bloke who leans towards inquisitive fiction with a dark edge. Of course there was a good chance I wouldn’t enjoy them.

So why should I even bother reading them?

Again, I’ll bring this back to music. There are loads of different styles of music, although most people tend to listen to only a few types. But the musicians who are producing interesting work are often the ones who push boundaries, and who draw on a wide range of influences. I’ll illustrate what I mean with a story I heard about Randy Rhoads, guitarist with Ozzy Osbourne back in the eighties. When they were touring, Randy would book a local guitar teacher for a lesson wherever they happened to be. He’d invite the teacher up to his hotel room, and spend an hour learning. It didn’t matter what style they taught, because it was all music, and he knew whatever they had to offer would help his own playing. Rock, jazz, classical, folk‌—‌as far as he was concerned, anything could be a positive influence.

I feel a similar way about books. There are so many stories out there, and so many different ways of writing. If I stick to a few genres, or even a few authors, I’m limiting myself. I need to read outside my comfort zone. I need to know what else is happening. Even stories I don’t like can be educational. It’s why I have a collection of cowboy stories on my Kindle, and why I’ve downloaded a few romance titles. It’s why I’ll read popular books that don’t appeal to me.

Even if I am not particularly enamoured with the story or the writing, I can still learn from it. I can see why others might enjoy these books, and that can help me think of how others might perceive my own writing.

binoculars-1209011_1280Discovery

Now that I think of it, there is another reason for reading outside my preferred genres. There are so many books waiting to be read, and amongst all the ‘rubbish’ there will be uncovered gems. If I only stick to what I know, I could be missing out. So I need to risk something different every now and then. Yes, there is a good chance I won’t enjoy it, and it might be a chore to complete it (because I don’t like leaving a book unfinished). But, occasionally, I’ll come across something I love.

I’ll give a couple of examples of this. I first heard of Louis de Bernieres when Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was released and started getting more attention. It didn’t particularly appeal, but I read it anyway. I though it was okay‌—‌well written, even though the story didn’t grab me. I read a few reviews, and a lot of them suggested that his earlier books, his Latin American trilogy, were better. I gave them a go, and I have to agree with these reviewers. I think this trilogy are fantastic. I haven’t picked up Corelli again, but I have re-read all three of his earlier books.

Other examples involve classics, those old books that ‘everyone should read’ (why?). I remember reading both Wuthering Heights and War And Peace because they came in this category, and in both cases I expected to struggle through them. But at least I could say I’d read them.

Yet I loved the books. I’ve re-read both a few times since, and have gone on to read more Tolstoy (although I still think War And Peace is his best). And I’ve read more classics and ‘books everyone should read’‌—‌some I’ve enjoyed, some have been a struggle, but I feel better for reading them, because now I know what I think about them.

problemSo did I waste my time reading Twilight and Fifty Shades? If I read slowly, and took a few months to get through them, I would say yes. If I continually read books I didn’t think I’d enjoy, again I’d say yes. But if I read widely, and step outside my comfort zone every now and them, reading ‘unenjoyable’ books is not a waste of time. Just so long as I know why I am doing it.

I read for enjoyment. I read to get wrapped up in a story. I read to be thrilled and entertained, or maybe to laugh.

But I also read to expand my mind. I want to have my own opinion, rather than simply aping others. I want to understand how different books can appeal to different audiences. I want the opportunity to find those hidden gems.

And even if I find a book that is poorly written, and that I find little to hold my interest, I can still learn what mistakes I need to avoid in my own writing.

If I read with all that in mind, no reading time is truly wasted.

The Books That Don’t Fit

light-bulbs-1125016_1280There are two types of fiction books‌—‌literary and genre. At least, that is what perceived wisdom seems to say. There are the ‘deep’ novels that win awards, and then there are the exciting, throwaway stories that are pure entertainment. And within the genre field, there are many subcategories, each with its own rules and guidelines, its own expectations and fan-bases.

To make it as a successful author, independent or traditionally published, many say it is best to stick to these rules and expectations. They say you should give the audience what they want. The phrase ‘write to market’ is bandied about. Some use it as a guide to success (if such a thing exists), and others decry it as an affront to artistic integrity. Most people sit somewhere between these two extremes.

But it does seem that more formulaic books find more success. I’ll mention again the Sterling and Stone team (Johnny B Truant, Sean Platt and David Wright). Their most successful project is the seven-book Invasion series, written specifically to appeal to alien invasion fans. Likewise, when Chris Fox very openly wrote his Void Wraith series to fit the space opera market, he enjoyed far more success than he had done with his earlier books.

I don’t write this in any negative way. This kind of success does not mean the book were poorly written. I’ve read both Invasion and Void Wraith, and enjoyed them both.

But I far prefer their other work. Platt and Truant’s Unicorn Western is a lighthearted fantasy/cowboy mashup (although it grows more serious as it goes along), and I love it. Fox’ earlier Deathless books (Vampires Don’t Sparkle, No Mere Zombie and No Such Thing As Werewolves) manage to combine horror creatures, Egyptian mythology and sci-fi in a way I found extremely inventive and entertaining.

Yet the sales figures would suggest that I am in a minority. The more straightforward books sell more, suggesting they have a broader appeal, but I prefer those that push at the boundaries. I like stuff that takes chances. If an author is told a book won’t work, but they write it anyway, I’ll want to read it.

One of my favourite authors is the late Iain Banks. He produced books under two brands — Iain Banks for his ‘literary’ books, and Iain M Banks for sci-fi. But two of his ‘literary’ books were strong on the sci-fi, most noticeably Transition, with characters jumping between alternative realities. And his sci-fi, while being big on ideas, worked so well because of his writing. I’d rate the M Banks books as some of his finest work.

Yet, as I start on my own author journey, I am constantly receiving advice to stick with a particular genre, or a particular style of writing. I should study what works in that field, and apply it to what I’m working on. I should follow the tropes, because otherwise I will upset readers.

There are loads of these tropes. In romance, the couple have to meet at the start of the book. There should be no infidelity, and there should definitely be a happy ending.

And yet, I like Wuthering Heights, a story that has no happy ending. And look at Romeo & Juliet, one of the greatest love stories ever‌—‌it ends with the couple killing themselves, each believing the other is dead. There is no happy-ever-after.

Of course, these are love stories, not romances, and I know that if I wanted to write a romance, I would need to have a happy ending. If the story worked better with a tragic close, I’d have to rebrand it.

If I write, and I want readers, popular reasoning says I have to stay within the confines of my chosen genre.

But what of the stuff that falls between the gaps? What of the books that don’t fit squarely in one particular genre?

I think these are the more important books. Yes, many of them will not be ‘popular’, and they will not sell as well as those that meet reader expectations. But, over time, these are the books that may well mean more.

Clownfellas_CarltonMellickIIIA couple of years ago I read a book called Clownfellas, by Carlton Mellick III, in which the mafia consisted of clowns, who were a different species (I think). The book was funny and violent, and definitely strange. It didn’t fit in any one category, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I recently read Mr Ruins by Michael John Grist. I thought I was going to be reading a sci-fi thriller, but the story delved into mysteries of the mind, and left me with more questions than it answered. And I loved it.

As another example, look at Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books. They seem to be fantasy, but there are none of the usual range of creatures, and there is no quest. They also seem to veer from deadly serious to comedic. And yet, they are incredible (I have my reservations about the third book, but I definitely recommend the first two).

Think of Robert Prisig’s Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance. Is it a story or a text-book? Is it fact or fiction? It’s both and neither, but it’s a fantastic book. I’ve read it a number of times, and on each re-reading it opens up a little more. It might not be a ‘story’, but it’s a wonderfully involving piece of writing.

Think of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. There is very little ‘story’ in this book, and the descriptions (and the language used) are as important as anything that ‘happens’, maybe more so. To some people it’s horrific, but to others it’s a comedy. Ellis seems to have something to say, but he doesn’t make this obvious, and again it is a book that repays repeated readings.

And I realise, as I’m writing this, that there will be people who look at that list of books and see only ones they don’t like. They will find Zen boring, and won’t see the point of American Psycho.

That’s fine. I don’t think these books were written for everyone. The authors had a particular story to tell, and a particular way they needed to write. I think they were simply writing what they wanted (or needed) to write, regardless of audience.

So, of course, these books struggle to find a place. Of course they won’t appeal to many, at least not initially. The fact that all these books are well-known is down to how well they are written (although savvy marketing no doubt played a part, and I’m sure the subject matter of American Psycho helped it achieve a certain notoriety).

They are different. They don’t give the reader exactly what might be expected. They don’t fit neatly into a particular box.

And that is why, for some of us, these books are so successful, and have become firm favourites. The very fact that they don’t fit is a part of their appeal. Because, for all this talk of writing to market and of giving the reader what he or she wants and expects, there are many of us who want the unexpected. There are many of us who don’t want a repeat of what we’ve read before. There are many of us who simply want a good read, regardless of genre or tropes or any other standards.

Many books can be entertaining. They can thrill us and excite us, or make us hold our breaths as the characters come up against all manner of difficulties. They can draw us in with their language. But the books that stick are the ones that go beyond. The books that last are the ones that are written because they have to be.

The books that follow all the rules can be entertaining, and can be wonderful reads. But the ones that stick are the ones that go beyond expectations.

It doesn’t have to be true, but I have to believe it.

Can you trust what you read in fiction?

Of course, fiction is not real. Stories, be they in books or on screen, are fabrications. But to draw us in, they have to have some believability. They have to have some kind of truth.

I found myself thinking about this recently, after I’d finished reading Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code (for me, one of those ‘must read at some point, if only to decide what I think of it’ books.) It reminded me of a couple of other books. The first was something that I’m not going to identify here, as I have very little positive things to say about it. The second was the late Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, which I read years ago and keep on meaning to re-read.

acient-planet-1841699_640These three books are connected by the fact that they all deal with topics that could be considered religious conspiracy theories. They all use biblical passages and other quotes to back up some fairly far-out ideas.

I’m not well-read in this area, and I have not done any of my own research into any of the ideas in these books. Some of them sound vaguely plausible, and others sound far too extreme. But in reading (and thinking about) these books, I started to see a pattern in which theories I found more believable.

The book I had downloaded years ago was okay, but nothing special. There were plenty of sections that could have benefited from an edit, and I was often pulled out of the story by the writing‌—‌not necessarily bad, just not that good. And the theories came across as unresearched, as if the author had made up the ideas himself, then used a few quotes in an attempt to give them some validity.

The Dan Brown book was well-structured and, while I wasn’t drawn in to the writing or the characters, the story rattled along at a good pace. There were loads of details, not only on the wild theories but also on places and historical events. And the book came across as well researched. If the ideas were off-the-wall, it at least felt as if the author had run them past others with more knowledge. In short, I trusted the ‘facts’ in this book far more than in the first one.

And then there was the literary Foucault’s Pendulum. Eco is undoubtedly intelligent. Even though the book is tongue-in-cheek, and reads as if Eco is having fun with all his ideas, the ‘facts’ come across as far more believable, even the throwaway ones.

So what do we have here?

  • A poorly written and poorly edited book, and the ‘facts’ come across as highly questionable.
  • A book by a mainstream, popular author, clearly edited, and the arguments come across as well-researched.
  • A book by a literary and intellectual author, and I trust the research it contains almost without question, even if I don’t agree with the conclusions.

I’ll repeat again that I have very little knowledge of religious conspiracies and such like, and have no easy way of telling which theories are from reliable or semi-reliable sources and which are obvious fabrications. Yet even knowing this, I instinctively trust those ‘facts’ that come from someone with a more scholarly demeanour. I instinctively trust someone who appears as an authority.

I think this is part of our nature. If someone talks or writes well, then we are more likely to take their words at face value. If they appear educated, we automatically assume they have done their research. If they tell their tale with skill, we are more likely to be drawn in and accept it as a possible truth.

Conversely, we are less likely to trust a story told by someone who shows deficiencies in their use of language. If they do not understand how to use speech marks or commas, we are predisposed to dismiss their thoughts as poorly conceived. If their story does not flow well, we are more tempted to believe they are making it up as they go.

It’s why news reporters are generally well-spoken. It’s why so many ‘entertainment’ and ‘reality’ shows on TV still use teams of script-writers and editors. It’s why voice-overs on documentaries are done by those who enunciate clearly. If it were some geezer talkin’ common, like, we’d fink he were makin’ it all up, ‘cos he don’t understand nuffink, yeah?

alone-1869997_640Of course, once you realise this, it’s easy to question everyone‌—‌especially those who talk or write well. So maybe that poorly written book with the wild theories is closer to the truth, and Umberto Eco is simply having a clever laugh at the gullible masses. Maybe we should trust those who come across as less skilled or less intelligent, because they can’t lie as subtly or be as creative with their words.

Or maybe I should simply read these books as fictions, stop trying to analyse them, and enjoy the stories.

Yet stories, to draw us in, have to be believable. They have to be written or told in a way that makes us trust that they might be possible. If they fail to convince, they have failed as stories.

It’s the aim of all story-tellers, be they authors, after-dinner speakers, politicians or comedians, to have others believe that their tales could be true, no matter how ridiculous they are.

So, can you trust what you read in fiction?

Maybe that’s the wrong question to ask. After all, a good story does not have to be true. It only has to be believable.