What Neal Asher’s ‘Jack Four’ taught me about my reading preferences

Enjoyment of books is a very personal thing. It’s also difficult to define. Am I appreciating the mental exercise of reading? Is my entertainment dependent on the story, or the characters, or the writing style? How much does my enjoyment of a particular book rely on external matters that have nothing to do with the story or the writing?

I think it’s a combination of all these factors and more.

I was pondering this recently while reading Neal Asher’s Jack Four. This is only the second of Asher’s books I’ve read. The first was Gridlinked, and that book impressed me. But I struggled with Jack Four. It started strong, and the first chapter was full of promise, but as I continued I found it hard to focus. As much as I wanted to enjoy the book, there were times when I’d reach the end of a page (screen) and have no recollection of what I’d just read.

Why? I started to analyse.

The first thing I noticed was the ebook formatting. I like my ebooks to look like print books, with justified text (straight lines to either side), but Jack Four had been formatted left-justified (left side straight, right side ragged), and playing with my Kindle settings didn’t change that. For some reason, ragged-right doesn’t feel like a ‘proper’ book.

But I’ve read and enjoyed other left-justified texts. If the writing grabs me, I can ignore formatting. So there had to be something else going on with Jack Four.

It wasn’t pace. Jack Four is filled with action‌—‌almost too much. As soon as the main character (the titular Jack Four) has overcome one obstacle he’s faced with another. There’s also mystery tied up in the story, with Jack Four trying to figure out what’s happening. If anything, a let-up in the pace would’ve been appreciated.

For much of the time, Jack Four is on his own, and for the first half of the book, there’s very little dialogue. Is the constant prose an issue?

Possibly. But I’ve enjoyed other books with a character on their own. The first that springs to mind is Andy Weir’s The Martian, and I can’t recall struggling through that book. Far from it‌—‌Weir’s book was a fast read, and constantly kept me engaged.

But in Weir’s book, his main character (Mark Watney) is relating his struggles in a very personable way, as if he’s talking directly to the reader. It could be argued that the whole book is dialogue (or maybe monologue). And Watney’s a fun character. Even the technical problems are described in a conversational tone, with humour never far from the surface.

Jack Four’s style is different. Action is described with precise language, in long paragraphs. There isn’t much character in the writing.

This fits the main character. Jack Four is a clone, only just ‘born’. He might have knowledge he shouldn’t have, but he has no direct memories, and is very much a blank slate. He’s not emotional. As Asher is writing in first-person, from Jack Four’s point of view, of course, the descriptions are going to be analytical and unemotional.

And this, I believe, is where my issues with the book rest.

The more I read (and the more I write), the more I’m drawn into the characters of a story. I can appreciate well-written action, but there has to be an impact on the characters for the story to engage me. I want to be with them on their journey, even if their internal growth is only implied by the words on the page. And I enjoy reading dialogue, especially fast back-and-forth.

This carries into the prose, too. The books I enjoy are ones where the writing is in the character’s voice, where I feel as if I’m experiencing the world through them rather than watching events unfold from on high.

So when I read a book like Jack Four, told through a blank-slate character, it’s no wonder I struggle.

Does this make Jack Four a poor book? Of course not. It simply didn’t resonate with me as a reader. And it did pick up for me in the last half, as Jack Four interacts with others.

Will I read more books by Neal Asher? If Jack Four was the first of his books I’d read, I might be reticent about trying another. But I enjoyed Gridlinked, and that’s enough to show me that he’s a decent writer. I might steer clear of the next Jack Four book for a while, but I’ve already got another one on my (always growing) TRB list.

It’ll be interesting to see how I engage with that one.

Subtleties that say so much in Ted Lewis’ ‘Get Carter’

When a film is a success, it’s sometimes easy to forget about the source material.

Mention Forrest Gump, and most people think of Tom Hanks, not the novel. Think of The Birds, and the Hitchcock classic is well-known, the Daphne DuMaurier short story less so.

Another example is Get Carter. It’s a classic Michael Caine film (and a not-too-successful Sylvester Stallone remake). But it’s also a novel by Ted Lewis, originally published in 1970 as Jack’s Return Home.

It’s well worth a read, and it stands up very well alongside the film version.

The story’s told in first person, and Carter’s no-nonsense, hard character makes the book wonderfully bleak and brutal. From the start, we’re drawn into the character as much as the mystery surrounding Carter’s brother’s death. A casual reader will get the impression that there’s a dark side to Carter, that he’s involved in a murky underworld in London, that there’s more to him than he shows.

But he’s hard and cold. He doesn’t do a great deal of introspection, and there’s very little internal dialogue in the book. Instead, we learn what Carter’s really like through his actions and external dialogue.

When Carter first arrives at his childhood town, he takes a taxi, and his exchanges with the driver are cordial, almost friendly. There’s no indication of judgement from the driver, and Carter appears relaxed. When the taxi stops, and the driver jumps out to open the door for Carter, we get this exchange.

“How much is that?” I said.
“Five bob,” he said.
“Here you are,” I said. I gave him seven and six.

It doesn’t seem like much‌—‌Carter’s paid his fare, and included a tip. But later, in The George Hotel, there’s another exchange concerning money.

The barman at the hotel isn’t interested in Carter, only reluctantly serving him. Once he’s poured the pint, Carter asks how much it’ll cost.

“One and ten,” said the barman.
I gave him one and ten and went and sat down…

Notice there’s no tip, no ‘keep the change’. Carter pays what he owes, then turns his back on the man.

The contrast in these two examples is telling. Carter isn’t the type of person to willingly make a scene, but he’s affected by others. And he treats them according to how they treat him. He might be involved with some very dodgy people‌—‌nothing’s been explicitly said about his life in London, but the clues are there‌—‌but he has a certain moral code. Don’t upset Carter, and he won’t upset you.

Later, he’s looking for a room to let for the weekend. He finds a suitable house and makes enquiries.

There’s something strange about this conversation, though. Carter hesitates. He seems almost embarrassed. In previous exchanges he’s come across as confident, but here he’s the opposite.

Once he’s finished talking to the woman who runs the house, he leaves. And we get this:

I smiled. It amused me, the picture she’d got of me, the way she thought she’d got me weighed up. It might turn out to be helpful.

So we now know more about Carter’s character‌—‌he’s acting. He manipulates conversations and interactions. While he seems to have treated the taxi-driver in a friendly manner (and turned his back on the brusque barman), his actions can’t be trusted.

We’re not even at the end of the first chapter, and already we know this is going to be a dark tale. We’re along for the ride with a manipulative narrator. He hasn’t lashed out, but already we get the sense that he’s no stranger to violence.

These moments are subtle. If we’re not paying attention, they slip past us‌—‌just as Jack Carter’s comments can slip by, seemingly innocent but with a deeper, unsettling meaning.

There’s nothing accidental about these moments. In this first chapter, Lewis is setting the scene. Through his titular character, he’s taken us up to a dreary north of England, where death hangs in the air. And he’s already telling us that this Jack Carter character is darker than he appears.

Michael Caine might have made the character his own, but Ted Lewis gave him everything he needed

Weaving a story – Neal Asher’s ‘Gridlinked’

Gridlinked is the first Neal Asher book I’ve read (even though I’ve been aware of his name for some time now, and have had the book sitting on my kindle for a couple of years). It’s a great read. Asher combines a detailed, realistic world with a plot that is in turns mystery, thriller and suspense. And it’s the development of this story that was, for me, the stand-out feature of this book.

At the start, this felt like a standard thriller-style book. We kick off with a disaster in space, and it’s fairly clear that this will be the root of the investigation to follow. We then move to the end of Cormac’s previous mission, where he’s forced to kill a terrorist. This shows us his strength, both physically and emotionally‌—‌he doesn’t flinch from violence‌—‌as well as hinting at personal problems that might play out later in the story. But the death has ramifications too‌—‌the dead terrorist’s brother wants revenge.

Asher gives us point-of-view scenes of the brother, Pelter, as he plans the murder of Cormac. And this is where the book becomes more of a suspense story. The pace slows, but the tension increases. As Cormac continues his investigation, we (the reader) are aware of the coming danger from Pelter, can see Cormac walking into possible traps. Yes, there are still action set-pieces, but it isn’t a full-on adrenaline rush now (although the pace does increase when Cormac’s and Pelter’s paths converge).

Asher has more twists lined up as more side-characters take on larger roles. There’s Stanton, one of Pelter’s close companions. Through Stanton’s point-of-view scenes we learn that he’s growing uncertain about Pelter, and wants to escape by killing the terrorist and taking his money. There’s Jarvellis, smuggler and love interest to Stanton, a character who initially appears fairly inconsequential, but who (through her relationship with Stanton) becomes a farm more major player as events unfold.

Then there’s Dragon, an alien creature/biological machine. Dragon has influence over both main strands of the story (Cormac’s investigation and Pelter’s vengeance mission), but we get no point-of-view scenes from Dragon. The creatures is manipulative, and can’t be trusted. Now, along with the known dangers to Cormac (mainly in the form of Pelter), we have an unknown quantity. It adds another layer of tension, another mystery to confound things. It means that we can no longer accurately anticipate what’s going to happen.

If this is sounding complicated, it isn’t. At least, not the way Asher weaves these strands together.

I don’t know anything about Asher’s writing process, whether he plans first or writes what comes to mind and then pieces the story together, but there’s clearly been a lot of work gone into the editing of this story. There are diversions that initially feel unnecessary (yet are still interesting), but their importance becomes clear later on. Asher keeps facts hidden until just the right moment, when they will have the greatest impact.

It’s a reminder that convoluted stories are painstaking works, that the puzzles need to be worked out in detail, that the order of events is of vital importance. Creating a story like this can’t be a case of starting at point A and writing through to the end. Even if Asher did plan the story out before writing his first draft, I’m sure he moved things around, added scenes, scrapped others.

Gridlinked, when looked at through the lens of story structure, is a reminder that actual writing is only a part of the creation of an effective story.

The art of subtle description in Scott Lynch’s ‘The Lies Of Locke Lamora’

I recently got round to reading Scott Lynch’s The Lies Of Locke Lamora, and thoroughly enjoyed it‌—‌wonderful world-building, exciting twisting plot, and great characters. One minute it’s full of fun and wit, the next it’s dark and hard-hitting. And the descriptions were masterful‌—‌not for the images his words painted, but how he managed to conjure these mental pictures in different ways.

I’ll take a couple of examples, to show what I mean.

Cover of 'The Lies Of Locke Lamora' by Scott Lynch

Early on in the book, we’re introduced to the Thiefmaker, a Fagin-like character who takes in unwanted children and moulds them, as his name suggests, into his army of thieves. There’s no clear physical description, but there is a line that says he is ‘a miserable curiosity‌—‌a pickpocket with nine broken fingers.’

Broken fingers, on a pickpocket? It implies that the man himself is broken, no longer able to personally ply his trade. And that’s the only reference to nine fingers, until he has his wards together and is giving them a speech. The sequence starts with these lines:

The Thiefmaker held up three crooked fingers, as though on cue.
“Business,” he cried. “Three items of business.”

He progresses through his first three points, and it is left to the reader’s imagination to see him counting these off on those twisted digits. Then, once he’s gone through his trio of points, he sums up like this:

‘The rules are simple! You’ll learn them all in good time. For now, let’s keep it like this. Anyone who eats, works. Anyone who works, eats. Which brings us to work, my fourth‌—‌Oh, dear. Children, children. Do an absent-minded old man the favour of imagining that he held up four fingers. This is my fourth important point.”

There’s no description of action, but it’s easy to picture his hand twitching, then his eyes turning to the place where the digit used to be. If we missed the mention of nine fingers before, or wondered if the tenth was, in fact, unbroken, we now know for certain that it is missing.

Lynch painted this image without breaking dialogue. He implies action so well that we can’t fail to ‘see’ what’s happening.

In another example. Lynch managed to paint a whole scene while physically describing next to nothing:

The Broken Tower is a landmark of Camorr, jutting ninety feet skyward at the very northern tip of the Snare, that low and crowded district where sailors from a hundred ports of call are passed from bar to alehouse to gaming den and back again on a nightly basis. They are shaken through a sieve of tavern keepers, whores, muggers, dicers, cobble-cogs and other low tricksters until their pockets are as empty as their heads are heavy, and they can be dumped on ship to nurse their new hangovers and diseases. They come in like the tide and go out like the tide, leaving nothing but a residue of copper and silver (and occasionally blood) to mark their passing.

Lynch starts with the kind of description that wouldn’t be out of place in a guidebook — ‘jutting ninety feet skyward at the very northern tip’. He then tells us the district is ‘low and crowded’. A lesser writer would proceed to describe this place. But Lynch takes a different approach.

He follows sailors.

He doesn’t give us any description of the buildings, or the streets, or the docks. There’s nothing about the flapping of sails, the slapping of water, the cries of sea-birds, the shouting and swearing mingling with the clangs and crashes of the area. There’s nothing about the different aromas‌—‌the sea, alcohol, food, sweat, exotic spices in cargo. Instead, Lynch focuses on the sailors‌—‌not what they look like, but what happens to them. Yet still, as we read, we can picture the dark taverns, the whores flashing their thighs to tempt new customers. We can imagine the grimy streets, rubbish and vomit at the edges.

And more than that, we can feel the place. Through focusing on those sailors, Lynch brings the place alive, gives us not a physical description but an emotional one. Even though every reader will see a different image from this passage, every reader can picture the scene, knows exactly what the dockland area is like. And, because this ‘description’ deals with emotions and actions rather than plain images, the reader is far more engaged. As the story’s protagonists enter the area, we’re already anticipating trouble for them. The setting has become alive, another character the (anti) heroes of the story must encounter and overcome.

There are loads more lessons to learn from this book, but I’ll leave it at these two examples (for now). They serve as reminders that descriptions in fiction are far more than a way of showing what is physically there. A good description will imply more than it tells. It will not only give a mental image, but will also evoke an emotional response.

The Importance Of A First Line

MIckey Spillane is quoted as saying ‘the first chapter sells the book; the last chapter sells the next book.’ Well, something like that‌—‌I’ve seen variations in different places (first/last line, first/last sentence, and so on). But the details aren’t important‌—‌it’s the idea that counts. The ending of a book should leave us satisfied but eager for more. And the start of the book should pull us in so we can’t not continue.

I’ve read a couple of stories recently where the openings did just that, and I thought I’d share them with you.

The first is from Brandon Sanderson’s novella Snapshot. It had been sitting on my Kindle for a while, so when I dove into it I had no idea what it was about. And I read this:

Anthony Davis‌—‌one of only two real people in a city of twenty million‌—‌caught the burrito his partner tossed to him. “Which end is the mustard on?” he asked.

I was hooked.

But I also wanted to understand why this worked so well. After all, there’s not a lot going on here‌—‌at least, not on the surface. A character called Davis is eating a burrito with his partner. It’s not riveting stuff. It’s ordinary.

But it’s that phrase in the middle‌—‌‘one of only two real people in a city of twenty million’‌—‌that throws things out of kilter. It gives rise to so many questions‌—‌if the other twenty million aren’t real, what are they? Is this some kind of virtual reality thing? If that’s the case, how come Davis and his partner are simply eating burritos? What’s with the mustard? Is this important? And how can Davis be so blase about being one of only two real people?

We want answers. We have to read on.


The next comes from the Mark Leslie short story This Time Around: A Canadian Werewolf Story.

This time I woke to find myself sprawled naked in the grass, my shoulder nestled in a shrub and the coppery aftertaste of blood in my mouth. It was a cool morning, but humid, the unmistakable scent of the Hudson River hanging in the air.

This one didn’t grab me as hard as the opening to Snapshot, but it’s worth spending a moment examining these two sentences.

We know, from the book’s subtitle, that we’re dealing with werewolves here (or at least one werewolf). When I read these sentences I immediately recalled the scene in An American Werewolf In London where the main character wakes up naked in the wolf enclosure in London Zoo, after his first transformation. So it seems likely that the narrator in This Time Around is in a similar predicament.

There’s also the aftertaste of blood in his mouth‌—‌he’s fed. But on what? Or who?

Yet there’s something almost comforting in this opening, at odds with the apparent violence beneath the surface. The description of the surroundings is relaxing. Notice the use of the word ‘scent’‌—‌not an unpleasant stink, but a neutral smell. And it’s not cold, but cool.

The feel of the opening sets the tone for the rest of the story. This isn’t a jump-scare horror, or a gore-fest. It’s the story of one man dealing with his affliction. It poses an initial problem, and hints at what we can expect as we read on.


I’ll turn to another first paragraph, this one from Amanda Carlson’s Danger’s Halo, which does a very good job of setting up the main character and the world.

“Nobody survives that jump, kid.” Judging by the boy’s ragged clothing, he’d been living on the streets for a while. He couldn’t have been more than about ten. “It’s a lie. They tell you that so they can steal from you once they discover your dead, mangled body on the rocks below.”

It’s intriguing. It throws us directly into the story, yet it still gives us a great deal‌—‌not in details, but in impressions. This is a dangerous world‌—‌if ‘they’ have no qualms about luring a child to his death, then nobody is safe.

The tone of the passage‌—‌and especially the dialogue‌—‌says a lot about the main character. She’s tough, not someone who’s likely to show her emotions. She doesn’t plead with the child not to jump, but tells him he won’t survive if he does. Even though he’s young, she leaves the decision to him.

She calls him ‘kid’. That could be dismissive, or simply the way she talks. But the fact that she’s even bothering to talk to him indicates that she cares what happens.

Already, there are depths to this character. She’s clearly got an attitude, but possibly a caring side. And she seems to know the streets, has probably gone through a lot in her life. She’s a survivor.

And we want to learn more. We want to continue reading.


Three very different openings, setting up three very different stories. But in each case the first few sentences did their job admirably‌—‌they draw the reader in, settle them into the story, leave them wanting more.

How Samuel Delany increases tension in a scene with little action.

I recently read Samuel R Delany’s Nova, the first of his stories I’ve experienced. He’s not one of the big names in classic sci-fi, but he’s a fantastic writer. Maybe his more literary style put off many genre readers‌—‌which is a shame, because there’s so much in Nova that impresses.

Cover of Samuel R. Delany's 'Nova' (SF Masterworks edition)

For example, there’s a scene about halfway through that develops into a Tarot reading. On the face of it, not much is happening, but there’s an incredible build in tension. In some ways, it’s a pivotal scene, the moment when the characters realise how their fates are entwined in one another and their captain’s mission. Yet there’s no action, besides the turning of cards.

I was intrigued‌—‌how does Delany build tension in such a seemingly passive scene?

The scene starts relaxed. Tyy (the character doing the reading) is initially using the cards for her own enjoyment. When Lorq (the captain) talks to her about the cards, it feels like a simple, friendly conversation. Katin joins in, spouting information about the cards as if he’s some kind of expert. Another character, Sebastian, sits quietly on the fringes.

And then there’s the Mouse. Despite coming from a social class that uses and believes in the Tarot (as Katin is quick to point out), the Mouse is sceptical.

This is important. Tyy seems to believe in the cards through something like faith, Lorq could be going along with it simply to keep his crew on-side. Katin approaches the whole area with logic and study. And the Mouse doesn’t believe.

Straight away, Delany’s set up uncertainty here. As readers, we’re unsure if there is anything believable or even important in the Tarot reading Tyy gives the captain. Should he trust her impressions, or disregard it? The cards are open to interpretation, which increases the uncertainty. As the reading progresses, Katin tries to show off his knowledge, but is often put in his place by Tyy, who offers alternative meanings. Who is right?

The cards are initially drawn slowly, with much talking (arguing?) between each one. But the pace increases‌—‌and this builds the tension. Any talking is in fragmented sentences now. Even Katin isn’t as verbose as we’re used to. He’s cut off with a look from the others:

“The Tower reversed!” Katin whispered. “Uh-oh. I know what—” and stopped because Tyy and Sebastian looked.

With earlier cards, Delaney gave a description of the images they showed. But as the pace increases, the description disappears. The prose itself becomes sparse.

“Again choose.”
Lorq chose.
“The King of Swords. Here it place.”
The King went to the left of the cross.
“And once more.”
Lorq drew his ninth card.
“The Three of Wands reversed.”
Which went below the King.

Notice how matter-of-fact this is. Also notice how (almost) every sentence is its own paragraph. Gone are the flowing sentences and long paragraphs. This is sharp and punchy, urging us on.
Then we get this exchange:

“Do you see Prince in there?” Lorq asked. “Do you seem me, and the sun I’m after?”
“You I see; and Prince. A woman also, somehow related to Prince, a dark woman—”
“Black hair, but blue eyes?” Lorq said. “Prince’s eyes are blue.”

Notice how Lorq is putting words into Tyy’s mouth. Lorq wants (needs?) this reading to be true. There’s a desperation about his questions that feels out of character, hinting at an urgency beneath his calm exterior.

And then there’s the Mouse’s reactions. Initially, it feels like he’s trying to ignore the whole thing, seeing it as superstitious nonsense. But that changes. Take this exchange, for example [the first speaker is Tyy]:

“The cards mostly swords and pentacles are. Much money I see. Also much struggle about and around it there is.”
“With seven tons of Illyrion?” the Mouse mumbled. “You don’t have to read cards to see—”
“Shhh…” from Katin.

The Mouse is being drawn in. And notice how Katin cuts him off. Interrupted sentences help give a sense of urgency and pace. The Mouse might not place any importance in the cards, but others do‌—‌and Delany uses that to pull the reader along. And near the end of the scene, he gives us this:

“That with material increase you are concerned, this card reveals. But the Page of Swords you crosses.”
“That’s Prince?” [this is Lorq talking.]
Tyy shook her head. “A younger person it is. Someone already close to you now it is. Someone you know. A dark, very young man perhaps—”
Katin was first to look at the Mouse.
“—who somehow between you and your flaming sun will come.”
Now Lorq looked up over his shoulder.
“Hey, now. Look…” The Mouse frowned at the others. “What are you going to do? Fire me at the first stopover because of some stupid cards? You think I want to cross you up?”
“Even if he you fired,” Tyy said, glancing up, “it would nothing change.”
The captain slapped the Mouse’s hip. “Don’t mind it, Mouse.”
“If you don’t believe in them, Captain, why waste your time listening to…?” and stopped because Tyy had replaced the cards.

If the reading meant nothing, the Mouse would’ve dismissed Katin’s accusation offhand. But it gets to him. He struggles to put his indignation into words. Then he turns to his captain for support. Does he get that support, or is Lorq only pacifying him? It’s hard to say.

But there’s tension within the crew now. Even for the sceptic, this Tarot reading has changed things. Notice that the Mouse stops talking when Tyy returns to the cards. The Mouse can’t ignore them now. Even though he doesn’t believe it of himself, could he betray the captain?

The scene has gone from friendly banter to something far more threatening. Delany brought this about through subtle changes in his characters, and backs this up with the way he moulds his words. He shortens sentences, and cuts description.

It’s definitely made me want to check out more of Delany’s writing.

Show, don’t tell … unless it’s better to tell

Show don’t tell. It’s a classic piece of writing advice. As Chekov (allegedly) put it:

‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.’

But what does ‘show don’t tell’ really mean?

At the most basic level, it means the words shouldn’t be expository. They shouldn’t tell the reader what’s happening, but should describe the effects of what’s happening. Instead of telling us a character is sad, the words should show us the pain etched on their face, their struggle in putting words together, their reluctance to take part in a conversation. Instead of telling us a character is fearful, the words should show their frantic movements and their raised heartbeat.

One of the big show don’t tell ‘errors’ is in exposition. This is ‘stuff the reader needs to know in order to understand what’s happening’. It’s background or backstory, or maybe technical details. It could be details about the world (especially in ‘other-world’ genres like fantasy and science fiction).

There’s a danger of this becoming an info-dump‌—‌a passage that only exists in order to explain stuff to the reader. It can slow down pacing, and can drag us out of the moment.

A way around this is through dialogue, especially if one character is unfamiliar with the world or the situation. Then, a different character, one who is immersed in the world or situation, can explain things to the ‘new’ character. But this still has its problems. Readers aren’t stupid‌—‌they’ll see through this ploy unless it’s done well. Why is that character explaining all about the wizards from the north while the characters are running from the goblins? Why is that mysterious shady character suddenly talking like a textbook while telling the protagonist about that super-computer the bad guys have been working on? Why are those two servants telling each other what’s going on in the stately home when they both know all this stuff anyway?

(This last example is often referred to as ‘maid-and-butler’ dialogue‌—‌‘As you know, my dear, the master is due back from his recent convalescence at the coast,’ and so on.)

Descriptions (of characters, setting or objects) can cause issues too. Rich, vivid, poetic descriptions have their place, but for many books (especially genre fiction), the story is more important than the writing. Purple prose (fancy writing) can seem out of place. So a talented writer will embed the description in the action. For instance, rather than describe a character as tall, we’ll have the character reach for an object on a high shelf. Rather than being told that a character is loud, we’ll have them dominating a conversation. Rather than painting a picture of a desert with words, we’ll have a character suffering from the dry heat.

So what are we to make of passages like this, from James Patterson?

‘Justine Smith was an elegant, serious-minded, academically brilliant brunette in her midthirties. She was a shrink by trade, a forensic profiler, and Jack Morgan’s number two at Private. Clients trusted her almost as much as they trusted Jack. They also adored her; everyone did.’
(Private, Chapter 4)

This is straight description. Patterson’s not showing us who Justine Smith is, he’s telling us.

Is this ‘wrong’? Does this make Patterson less of a writer?

Some will argue that he’s a ‘popular’ writer, not a ‘good’ writer, but he’s one of the most commercially successful writers around. That doesn’t make him a hack‌—‌it means he’s a writer who delivers what his readers want, and does so with such skill that they keep coming back for more. And, as I mentioned before, readers aren’t stupid. The average reader might not know why a book doesn’t work, but they’ll know when they’re bored, or when the story just doesn’t work.

There’s more going on here than meets the eye, clearly.

Let’s take a step back.

‘Show don’t tell’ is a classic piece of writing advice. But it’s not a rule. In writing, there are no rules, only guidelines. Even grammar and spellings are fluid. While writing guidelines can help turn a messy first draft into a finely-crafted book, they aren’t set in stone. There are times when it is ‘better’ to disregard a particular guideline.

Patterson writes fast-paced thrillers. His readers want the buzz of the journey, cutting from scene to scene, racing through the story. They want‌—‌and he delivers‌—‌stories that start fast and don’t let up.

If Patterson rigidly followed ‘show don’t tell’, he’d have to slow things down when introducing a new character such as Justine Smith. He might write a conversation between her and a colleague or friend, or include a scene showing her at work. He’d have to take his time to paint a picture of her, to show us how her clients trusted her, so show us her brilliant mind at work. He might have others comment on the elegant way she wears her clothes, have someone moaning that they could never pull those combinations off. He’d throw in comments about her brunette hair and her age. He’d have to show how everyone adores her, with at least one example of why this is the case. He’d need to show her character over a conversation, a scene, maybe more.

And instead of a short paragraph, we’d have pages or chapters introducing Justine Smith to the reader. Those readers who want a fast-paced thriller would have closed the book before the story continued.

‘Show don’t tell’ is advice, not a hard rule. It’s a tool. A writer of Patterson’s standing, with so many satisfied readers, isn’t after fancy, award-winning prose. He’s telling stories. To do this successfully, he uses the tools in his writer’s armoury as and when they’re needed.

Terry Pratchett and the art of concealment

I read Terry Pratchett’s Dragon At Crumbling Castle collection recently. It contains his very early writings, and compared to his later Discworld books they aren’t much to speak of. But there are hints of what would come. While the humour feels drawn out and immature a lot of the time, it’s possible to see seeds of his later, more successful writing style.

The example that struck me the hardest is how he doesn’t describe everything. He’ll build up to some kind of action and then, at the last minute, he’ll cut away. Instead of describing what happens, he’ll allow the aftermath to subtly show us, allowing our minds to fill in the blanks.

He pulls this trick time and again in his books. It not only keeps his writing cracking on at a decent pace, but it also adds both tension and comedy.

Take the first scene in The Amazing Maurice And His Educated Rodents. He starts with a conversation, in a coach, between a kid and a talking cat, and also introduces the smart mice. Then he has a highwayman hold up the coach. But things don’t go well for the highwayman‌—‌as he’s talking to whoever is in the coach (he can’t see inside clearly) he feels the mice climbing his legs, inside his trousers. After agreeing to Maurice’s deal, the mice leave. The highwayman is safe, and believes he can still win.

Then Pratchett gives us these lines:

He waited for his moment, then spun around, and ran forward.
Slightly forward, in any case. He wouldn’t have hit the ground so hard if someone hadn’t tied his bootlaces together.

Pratchett doesn’t describe‌—‌or even mention‌—‌the mice tying the man’s laces together. He doesn’t describe the highwayman falling. He doesn’t give any reaction from Maurice, the kid or the mice.

And the scene ends all the more powerfully because of that.

What isn’t included is as important as what is.

This doesn’t only work in writing. There are many examples in film. Think of the ending of Seven, where Brad Pitt’s character is confronted with a plain cardboard box. We’re never shown its contents, or even explicitly told what it contains, but through dialogue, and his reaction when he finally opens it, we know.

If David Fincher had decided to show us the contents of the box, through a model or CGI, the effect would have been diminished.

There’s another classic example in The Hitcher, in the scene where Rutger Hauer’s character has a woman tied between a lorry cab and trailer. He sits behind the wheel, foot on the clutch, with the story’s hero in the passenger seat. The hero could shoot Hauer, but then his foot would leap from the clutch and the cab would lurch forward, tearing the victim in half. There’s no way the hero can win this round, and his cry when the cab lurches is almost enough to drown out the roar of the engine.

We never see exactly what happens to the woman, but we know. And, again, our imaginations are far more effective than any special effects could be.

Imagination is powerful. Given enough clues, we can fill in the blanks. Someone with Pratchett’s level of mastery knows exactly how much to give and how much to conceal, knows just how far to trust the audience.

Amateur writers tell the reader what’s happening. Good writers show. But masters imply.

Information without info-dumps in Craig A Hart’s short story ‘Loose Ends’

I’ve read enough free books that I always go into them with low expectations. That way I’m not so disappointed by poor storytelling and writing, and anything half-decent is a bonus. So it’s a pleasant surprise when a freebie makes me sit up and take notice.

This happened recently, with the short story Loose Ends by Craig A. Hart. Not so much for the story itself (which was an enjoyable way to spend half an hour), but for the quality of the writing. One of the things that stood out was how Hart feeds the reader information.

cover image of Loose Ends by Craig A Hart

The story is a noir thriller, with a typical wisecracking protagonist. This is set up perfectly in the opening line:

Nothing ruins the benefit of a good night’s sleep like being awakened by the muzzle of a pistol being jammed into one’s ear.

There’s no panic in this phrase, even though such a situation would be terrifying for most people. So the narrator‌—‌the man with the gun to his head‌—‌is either used to being in scrapes like this or he’s calm under pressure. Or both.

Already, we’re intrigued, and want to read on.

The narrator has been woken up, and it’s only natural that he’s a little disorientated. His thoughts start to wander‌—‌specifically to his ‘lady friend’, who he imagines being

thrust into the role of a modern day Sisera, playing the part of Jael by hammering a nail through my temple.

I’ve no idea who Sisera and Jael are, but I assume they’re characters from old stories, possibly biblical or mythological. And this tells me something about the man in the bed‌—‌he’s well-read. And, again, the way he’s not focusing on the gun at his head says he’s still calm.

But he’s a detective, so he has an analytical nature. Hart reinforces that in a quick summary.

I was lying in my own bed, in my own hotel room on Key West, and a gun was pressed to my ear.

It’s blunt, a stark reminder of the situation. It also drops clues about the setting‌—‌we’re in the man’s hotel room in Key West. His hotel room, so this isn’t a ‘wake up in a stranger’s bed after a wild night’ situation. He hasn’t mentioned anyone else, so we can assume he’s alone‌—‌apart from the person holding the gun.

We’re still missing a lot of information, though. Who is this man? We need to know more, and we get that in the next few lines.

“Not a move, Wolfe,” a deep voice growled.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” I said, quite truthfully.
“You expecting visitors?”
“Yeah. King Jabin’s army. You’d better get out while you have the chance.”
“What the hell you talking about?”
“I take it you’re not a scholar of ancient texts.”

So, we have a name now. We also know that this isn’t a random hit‌—‌the gun-man is targeting Wolfe specifically.

We also get another reminder of Wolfe’s intelligence, with the reference to King Jabin’s army (again, not something I’m familiar with). But we also see more of his character. It’s a stressful situation, but he’s calm enough that he’s wise-cracking. This might be a trope of noir thrillers, but it’s a fun one, and it’s something we expect in a story like this.

Hart’s given us so much information here, without forcing it down our throats, and we’re not even off the first page. He’s also set up an intriguing situation. We’re hooked.

A good thriller won’t give us everything straight away, of course‌—‌there has to be mystery and intrigue. But we’re still missing information that will help ground us. For instance, when is this story set? We might assume it’s mid-twentieth-century simply because that’s the golden age of noir, but we can’t be sure. That is, until Hart again drops a beautifully placed clue in dialogue.

“I’m just joshing you,” I said. “Trying to lighten the mood.”
“Keep your day job,” the little man growled in his paradoxically deep voice. “You’re no Jack Benny.”

The only thing I know off the top of my head about Jack Benny is that he was an entertainer or comedian around the mid-twentieth-century. It’s unlikely that the gun-man would reference someone who wasn’t contemporary to the story’s settings, so our original assumption of time seems to be correct.

But there’s more in this little exchange. The gun-man’s reference of another person mirrors Wolfe’s mention of King Jabin, but also highlights their differences‌—‌one contemporary and popular, the other older and more esoteric. It also hints at cracks in the gun-man’s confidence‌—‌he’s trying to beat Wolfe’s wise-cracks, but it doesn’t quite work. Even though he’s the one with the gun, it already feels like Wolfe is in control of the situation.

It’s a wonderful demonstration of how the craft of writing is as important as story itself. It’s a fantastic lesson in how to give information without resorting to info-dumps. It shows how phrases can do double-duty (providing information and giving insight into character while moving the story forward.)

And it’s definitely encouraged me to read more of Hart’s work.

It’s worth reading these freebies. Every so often, you come across a gem.

Ready Player Two and the problems with sequels

I’ve just finished reading Ernest Cline’s Ready Player Two. I enjoyed Ready Payer One‌—‌fun, action-packed story, with loads of eighties references that reminded me of my childhood. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to read the sequel. The first book felt complete. I wasn’t sure it needed a sequel.

Cover of Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline

See, I’ve read and seen too many sequels that failed to live up to the promise of the original. Too often, they feel driven by commercial considerations rather than a desire to tell a good story.

Before I go any further, I should stress that I’m not talking about stories in a series. I don’t see The Empire Strikes Back as a sequel, but as the continuation of the Star Wars series. Also, I’m not thinking about series like James Bond or Jack Reacher, where a recurring character goes through a number of separate adventures.

I’m thinking of those cases where a second story was created after the success (or non-success) of the original. Often, the original is a self-contained story, with no real need for any kind of follow up.

Of course, sequels aren’t necessarily inferior to their originals. The Godfather Part II is widely viewed as a better film than The Godfather, paying respect to the original while also expanding the story’s range. When James Cameron took the helm of Aliens, he built on the claustrophobic horror of Alien but took it in a new direction, producing a film that is both different and also a worthy sequel to the original. Sometimes a sequel can feel more like an improved reboot or retelling‌—‌think Evil Dead / Evil Dead II or El Mariachi / Desperado.

Toy Story is an interesting example. The second film was expected to be a straight-to-DVD release, but when it turned out better than expected it was given a full theatrical release. Many people consider it as good as, if not better than the original. The series has evolved over two more well-received sequels, proving that it is possible, even for a financially-motivated major film studio, to produce sequels that are artistic as well as commercial successes.

Unfortunately, there are many examples where this isn’t the case. Take Jaws. The original is widely regarded as a classic, with nuanced characters pushed to their limits as the tension increases. But the sequels fall short of that original standard, and by the time we reach Jaws: The Revenge we’re pretty much into (unintentional?) parody territory. Even those involved, such as Michael Caine, don’t think much of it. When asked about the film, he’s quoted as saying ‘I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.’

Sometimes, sequels can be lost in the glow of the original. There are probably more examples of this in books, such as Joseph Heller’s Closing Time, sequel to his famous Catch 22, or Dodie Smith’s sequels to 101 Dalmatians, The Starlight Barking. Many people know of Robert M Pirsig’s Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance (even if they haven’t read it), but fewer know he wrote a sequel, Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals.

The desire to produce a sequel is understandable. There’s the aforementioned commercial/financial draw (the sequel will already have an audience in those who enjoyed the original), but there might be more to the original story that the writer wants to explore. Heller’s Closing Time catches up with the characters of Catch 22 years later, and imagines how their earlier experiences have changed their lives (and it’s worth noting that these stories also pretty much book-mark Heller’s own writing career). After dealing with the question of ‘value’ in Zen…, Pirsig used his sequel to look at morals. Since writing Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh has returned to that novel’s characters a number of times to explore how they’ve changed. After completing his Foundation trilogy (yes, I know it’s a series, but it’s possible to view it as a single story, ending with the location reveal for the Second Foundation), Isaac Asimov decided there was more to tell in the universe he’d created, writing Foundation’s Edge and a number of other sequels and prequels.

So there are varied reasons for producing sequels. But sometimes it’s better to resist. So far, Andy Weir has not written a sequel to The Martian, although from listening to interviews I get the impression that he considered it. He didn’t follow through because the ideas he came up with were either increasingly unrealistic (’Oh, look, Mark Watney’s got himself stranded on a distant planet again’) or would involve him telling a far-too-similar story but with a different main character.

It’s worth taking a moment here to consider how sequels attempt to ‘improve’ on the original. In essence, they attempt to take what was successful in the original and increase that aspect. For instance, in Alien the crew of the Nostromo battle a single alien, but in Aliens there are far more, as well as a mother-alien. The stakes are usually higher in a sequel, too. Sticking with the Alien example, the first movie pits the alien against a small crew, but in the second the aliens have already destroyed a whole settlement, indicating that the single beast in the first film was not an anomaly, and that the aliens now represent a serious threat to humans.

Sometimes these attempts to make sequels ‘better’ backfire, or produce something totally different. In the first John Rambo film and book (First Blood) he doesn’t actively kill anyone (although his actions in self-defence do result in one death). But the sequels have higher and higher body-counts. In the Jaws sequels the shark attacks become larger (including a helicopter in Jaws 3 and a sea-plane in the fourth film), and also less realistic.

So how does Cline’s sequel to Ready Player One hold up? (Note: there will be spoilers ahead, for both books.)

He does increase the stakes. In …One, there is a real threat to the lives of the main characters, but in Two the fate of millions hang in the balance. The original focuses on the ownership of the Oasis, but in the sequel the whole world is at stake.

Cline also doubles down on the task/nostalgia elements from the original. The game-quests in Two are more specialised and more detailed. The quest is more personal, too‌—‌it’s made clear early on that Wade is the only one (apart from Og) who can actually complete these tasks. This does take away some of the fun of the original, where much of the excitement was in Wade struggling to complete each task before others.

The technology’s evolved, too. Rather than relying on gloves and goggles, players can now access the Oasis pretty much directly through their brains (it’s explained better in the book). And one thing I liked was how this new access method was also important to the plot.

So is the sequel a success?

That depends. On its release it received a poor reception, but looking at Amazon reviews suggests that a lot of people love the book (a 4.3 average, compared to the original’s 4.7).

For me, it doesn’t work. There’s a great deal of potential in the (over-long) set-up, but I don’t think the rest of the book delivered. I found myself skimming much of the action, especially in the quests. Where the original relied on a combination of obscure 80s trivia and Wade’s thoughts and actions, the sequel too often has Wade simply following another character around or being directed to complete the quest. I found Wade too passive to be an interesting main character.

There are sections that I could imagine looking great on-screen, though.

And it’s not a bad book. But, like many other sequels, it’s simply not as good as the original.