In praise of ‘satisfactory’

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.

A story that satisfies is good enough.

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.

An unexpected problem with ‘show, don’t tell’

It’s one of the most common pieces of writing advice‌—‌show what’s going on (both physically and in characters’ minds), don’t tell the reader what’s happening.

It’s good advice. Readers want to experience the story, through the characters actions and emotions, rather than being told the story by a third party. It’s similar to the difference between hearing the plot of a film and watching the film yourself.

But there are times when telling is fine. I wrote about James Patterson’s use of simple descriptions a few months ago (you can read that post here). It’s something of a trope in thrillers, especially with hard, calculating protagonists‌—‌we get short, simple descriptions that mirror the protagonist’s clinical outlook.

I recently read Mark Dawson’s seventh John Milton book, Headhunters. I prefer his Beatrix Rose series, but the Milton stories are always enjoyable‌—‌fast-paced, lots of action, and great escapism. Dawson knows what he’s doing as a writer, and gives his readers what they want and expect.

Headhunters was no exception‌—‌it kept me reading, eager to find out what happened next. But there was one moment that tripped me up.

Fairly early in the book, we’re introduced to Matty. We get a brief description, through Milton’s eyes, and it includes a reference to her swearing like a trooper.

Swearing in fiction can be tricky. Some (many?) readers have no issue with swearing, but others will close a book at the first f-bomb. There are many one-star reviews where the reader praised the story, but complains about the language. Some readers will accept graphic violence, even graphic sexual content, before they accept ‘bad language’.

Yet people swear in real life. Even those normally careful with their language might let the occasional ‘bad word’ slip in times of stress. And characters in books, especially thrillers, are under stress. They fight for their lives, against powerful enemies. They race against time. In situations like this, to believe that nobody would swear seems incredibly unrealistic.

Dawson doesn’t shy away from using swearing in his books, but it’s rarely in the mouths of his ‘good’ characters. Some of the supporting characters use swearing as a colour, and there are occasional harsh words from the baddies. He doesn’t use cursing all over the place, though‌—‌like all words, especially strong ones, he uses them for effect, when they are most appropriate.

After reading the description of the female character, I anticipated some choice language from her. She’s in scenes where she’s joking with ‘the boys’ (tough sheep farmers in Australia, where I imagine swearing would usually be as common as punctuation.) She’s also, as the story progresses, in great danger.

Yet throughout the whole book, she only swore once. She fought for her life, and she got into arguments, both playful and deadly serious. We’d been told she swore a great deal. And yet, she only uttered one solitary curse-word over the whole book.

I’ll admit, this bothered me more than it should have done. It was the mismatch between expectations and reality that bugged me. As a reader, I’d been told one thing but shown something contradictory.

I’m sure the majority of readers would gloss over this, most likely not even notice. And I’ll repeat that I enjoyed the book. I have a great deal of respect for Dawson and his work.

It got me thinking‌—‌what would I have done to avoid this apparent contradiction?

I came up with a few solutions.

She could have used swear-words throughout her dialogue. But I can understand how this would have the potential to alienate the book’s target audience, including long-time readers of the series. When swearing has only been used on occasions, changing things up can cause problems. It’s not a smart commercial move.

Another possibility‌—‌the line about swearing could have been removed from the original description. However, it gives us an insight into her character‌—‌she’s grown up in a ‘man’s world’, and she faces her male colleagues on equal terms, does what she can to be their equal. She has found her place in an ‘un-feminine’ culture. Those few words tell us a great deal more than simply how she speaks.

I needed a third possible solution. And, after some thought, I think I have one, with the addition of a few words to that original description.

If the line had read something like ‘When the mood took her, she could swear like a trooper’, we have a get-out. Yes, she can turn the air blue, most likely be so crude that she makes the men blush. But only when she chooses. This line implies that she can control her language, so we’re not unsurprised when she doesn’t swear too often. And when she does curse, in a moment of high stress (when such language can heighten the tension), we can’t complain that we haven’t been forewarned. As far as promises to the readers go, being told that she can swear a lot becomes a warning rather than an expectation.

As I said before, it’s only a small thing. I still enjoyed Headhunters, and would recommend Dawson’s books to anyone who liked thrillers. But I’m still (constantly) learning. I’m constantly on the look-out for lessons that can improve my own writing. And Headhunters has taught me that I need to be careful not to tell the reader one thing only to have the characters show something contradictory.

A look back at 2021, and plans for 2022

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.

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.

Why is dialogue and inter-character tension so important? A look at Andy Weir’s ‘Project Hail Mary’

[SPOLIER ALERT: The following might give spoilers to Project Hail Mary.]

Andy Weir made his name on the survival story The Martian. That book was impressive for a number of reasons, not least how Weir holds the reader’s attention when the majority of the time is spent with a single character.

Good stories need tension and conflict. They also need believable, interesting characters. Even in stories with external tension, much of the conflict will be inter-personal. Characters will argue. They’ll say one thing but mean another.

It’s tough to get this kind of tension with an inner monologue, so it’s no surprise that dialogue drives many stories. This is especially true with stories on the screen, despite film and TV being very visual media. A script will be predominantly dialogue.

So coming up with a riveting story when there is no dialogue is very hard. Weir pulled it off in The Martian. For his next book, Artemis, he had a cast of characters interacting, but in his latest book, Project Hail Mary, he’s returned to the lone character struggling to cope with a difficult situation.

So how does Weir keep our interest in this new book? How does he stop the challenges becoming introspective and dull?

First off is the premise. The character/narrator in Project Hail Mary is suffering from amnesia. He emerges from a coma to find himself aboard a spacecraft far from home, his two crewmates dead. He can’t remember their names. He can’t even remember his own name.

Then there’s the narrator’s voice. The action isn’t a simple description of what happens, but is filtered through the character’s personality. Through his struggles (and his internal monologue) we get to know him as he finds out who he is.

His memories return, and Weir gives us these as flashbacks. In these flashbacks we get other characters, and we also get some of that much-needed interaction. The flashbacks provide a welcome respite from the solo scenes.

[Incidentally, Weir’s use of tense is worth nothing here. The flashbacks are all written in past tense, while the space scenes are written in present tense. This could’ve been annoying, but the main character’s voice carries through, and the change of tense almost becomes invisible.]

Still, much of the time is spent alone with the main character (Ryland Grace). While the puzzles he’s forced to solve are interesting on an intellectual level, for me the book started to flag. Watching him solve problem after problem felt too distant. I started looking forward to the flashback scenes because I needed that interaction and dialogue.

And the [spoiler alert] Grace comes across an alien.

At this point, for me, the book really picked up. There’s another entity in the story now, clearly intelligent, and Grace starts to communicate with it. While the intellectual problems remain (and are compounded now, in figuring out how to communicate and then work with a very different being), there’s more interplay. Grace and Rocky (the alien) develop a means to communicate, and start to work together. They develop a rapport, start to anticipate one another. They bicker, and they work together. Now, instead of Grace talking through problems to himself, there’s a dialogue. They bounce ideas back and forth.

They’re both trying to save their respective home planets, but they’re also trying to save each other.

This is worth considering in a little more detail.

We enjoy stories with high stakes, and there’s little that tops saving the whole of humanity. But high stakes like this, while exciting, are so far outside our personal experiences that it’s hard to relate. And if we can’t relate to the problems the character(s) face, we’re outsiders, passive observers. We don’t feel connected.

To help readers connect, there has to be something more personal. This is why so many high-stakes stories also involve the hero saving a loved one. Bond has to save the day, but he also has to save the girl.

Grace, in Project Hail Mary, has little attachment emotionally to anyone back on earth. Yes, he goes on about his kids (the students he teaches), but that’s as much a justification for his existence as a personal attachment to any of them. This detachment might make him suited to the mission, but it doesn’t make him relatable.

But as he and Rocky grow closer, he finds that connection. This isn’t a romance/love story‌—‌it’s more a buddy thing‌—‌but it gives Grace (and the story) an emotional edge that we, the reader, can relate to.
And this development is shown in the interplay between characters‌—‌in the dialogue, both spoken and non-spoken.

This struck home for me when, toward the end, Grace and Rocky go their separate ways. We return to the internal stuff. I found myself alternately trudging through these pages and rushing through them, wanting‌—‌needing?‌—‌to reach a point where Grace was with others, either human or alien.

The ending highlighted this even more. Without spoiling too much, the book ends with Grace finding contentment in others. It’s a decent closing to the book. We might not be able to relate to Grace saving humanity, but we can relate to him coming through his ordeal a changed man.

This book showed me how important inter-personal conflict is in stories. It also highlighted how dialogue can help engage readers, and how tiring description and internal monologues can be, no matter how well-written the character voice.

And on a final note, I love how Weir constantly pushed himself with his books. He could have so easily written a different version of The Martian (same ideas, different planet or something.) But he didn’t. He followed it with a thriller (Artemis, which I enjoyed a lot). And although Project Hail Mary starts with a similar feel to The Martian, it is a very different book. I look forward to the next book Weir puts out. I don’t know what to expect, but I’m sure it will be well worth reading.

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.