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.

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.

Always have variety in scenes? Agatha Christie and repetition.

Repetition leads to boredom. Even high-adrenaline action can become draining if we don’t have time to slow down occasionally.

One common piece of writing advice is to mix up scene types. If one scene has two characters talking in an office, the next scene should have more action. If one scene concentrates on a single character, the next should focus on a group. Scenes should move between different, varying locations.

Then there is ‘scene and sequel’‌—‌after a burst of action, the next scene should involve the characters processing what they’ve just been through. There should be a mixture of movement and dialogue, of open reflection and private musing.

In short, readers appreciate variety.

So how come Agatha Christie, in Murder On The Orient Express, has over half the book consisting of Poirot asking characters questions in the dining car of a train?

Cover of Agatha Christie's Murder On The Orient Express

After the set-up and crime, we’re presented with a whole series of chapters all titled ‘The Evidence Of…’, followed by a character’s name or title. In these, Poirot asks each character similar questions to ones he’s asked others. Even when the action moves to various other carriages and rooms in the second half of the book, it soon returns to Poirot’s interviews in the dining car.

Despite this repetition‌—‌of setting and of action‌—‌the story keeps moving forward. As I read the book, I never felt bored. In fact, I was eager to hear how the next character would respond to Poirot, and how they’d answer his repeated questions.

How does Christie pull this off?

There are a couple of considerations here. The first is genre. Murder On The Orient Express is a mystery, and mysteries are puzzles. The enjoyment in these books comes from trying to solve the case before the detective does‌—‌and when we fail to do this, there’s the enjoyment of finally seeing how all the pieces fit together anyway. In order to solve the puzzle, we as readers need information. We need to learn as much about the case as we can. So as Poirot asks similar questions to each character, we’re looking at their responses, trying to decipher their unsaid meanings, trying to see what others have missed. We live these scenes through the detective, wanting to beat them at their own game.

The second consideration is this‌—‌mysteries like this are about people, not fast-paced action. We don’t read a Poirot story to experience a high-speed chase, or to have the sedate Belgian detective fight for his life. Yes, there’s action in Murder On The Orient Express, but it’s ‘soft’ action, very downplayed. The train grinds to a halt because of snow. There’s a murder, but it happens off-page‌—‌we only see the aftermath. There might be conflict between the characters, but rather than show fights Christie will give hints‌—‌subtle clues that Poirot (and the observant reader) will pick up on.

The ‘action’ is small stuff‌—‌a stumble when answering a question, a glance to one side before answering another. And by keeping so much of each scene the same (or similar), Christie allows readers to focus (if they can) on these tiny clues, just as Poirot does. The repetition highlights differences. And it is these differences that keep the reader engaged.

Christie knows exactly what she’s doing. The mystery is a ‘closed-room’ one, so the limited settings pull us tighter into the real story‌—‌who the characters are, their motives and their actions. The variety here isn’t in action or setting. It’s more intimate than that. Too much variety in setting and action would drown out the important stuff.

And Christie pulls it off like the master she was. As with all skilled storytellers, she knows the rules of writing and‌—‌more importantly‌—‌knows exactly how and when to apply them.

Why we shouldn’t shy away from reading the past

Socially acceptable attitudes and actions change over time. The changes build under the surface, and every so often there’s what seems to be a large shift (there’s one happening now with Black Lives Matter, and there was the whole MeToo thing a few years ago). When these large shifts in culture happen, it’s natural to reassess not only what is around at the moment, but also what happened in the past.

Many of the books read today were written many years ago, by writers who lived at different times. So how should we react when their sensibilities differ from our own?

photo-album-631084_640

First, I think it’s important to separate the book from the writer. Most stories are written primarily to entertain, so does it matter what the writer was like as a person? Should we discard works created by those we disagree with, or those whose views sit uncomfortably against our modern sensibilities?

I think this is a personal decision. If your feelings about the writer are so strong that it’s impossible for you to dissociate their work from their personality, then why put yourself through the discomfort? But if you can separate the story from the person behind it, is there any problem with still reading it?

But what if the content of the story is problematic? What if there is racism or sexism or any other prejudice in the words?

One thing to note here is that attitudes expressed (or shown) through characters’ words and actions are not necessarily those shared by the writer. Any story needs its protagonist, so there are always going to be characters we don’t like, those we want the hero to overcome. And then there are those books that actively explore prejudice, that display a variety of attitudes in order to encourage the reader to think about their own beliefs. There’s racism in To Kill A Mockingbird, but that doesn’t make the book itself racist.

So the words should be read in context.

This still leaves problems. Some (especially older) books have their heroes displaying attitudes we no longer find acceptable. There are books with throwaway lines that are, by today’s standard, deemed offensive.

I’ve heard some people suggest editing older books to suit modern audiences‌—‌but I don’t agree with this. There’s a line by philosopher George Santayana (often wrongly attributed to Churchill):

‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’

There’s a danger of erasing or amending the past‌—‌it gives us a false view of history. We risk losing context for where we are now.

And there’s that word again‌—‌context. This, I believe, is key to the whole issue.

The attitudes displayed in these books might be wrong by today’s standards, but they weren’t necessarily seen that way when the writer was working on the story. The attitudes and beliefs of a writer will creep into even the most escapist of fiction, even if unconsciously‌—‌in the use of certain words, or the portrayal of characters who are ‘different’ to the author (race, culture, gender, sexuality, age, whatever). Is this the ‘fault’ of the writer, or their society?

When we read books, especially ones written decades (or centuries) ago, we need to remember they come from a different place, a different time.

Doing this not only gives us permission to enjoy the book for its merits, but it also educates us. The taboo words bandied around without a care, the prejudice on display‌—‌these things show us how we’ve changed.

And that leads to something else‌—‌the realisation that things aren’t perfect today, that change is still happening. The past shouldn’t be airbrushed and forgotten, but should serve as encouragement to keep improving.

Last few days of this promo

MayGiveawayThis fantasy and science-fiction giveaway has over 150 free books, covering all kinds of science fiction and fantasy, in all kinds of lengths (short stories, novellas, samplers, full novels, even multi-book collections). But it’s only running until the 15th of this month, so you only have a couple more days to discover your next favourite writer.

(Oh, and I’ve got a couple of books in it too.)

Click here before Monday to see the full list of books, and download some free reading for the summer. We might not be able to physically travel that much at the moment, but with these books we can go to places we’ve never even imagined.

What are the best books to read in trying times?

Many publishers are struggling at the moment. With so many bookstores across the world closed, sales of paperbacks and hardbacks have fallen. But reports have shown that ebooks sales are stronger than ever, and many independently published authors (who tend to focus on ebooks over print versions) have reported strong profits over the last couple of months.

Many, but not all. I’ve sold far fewer books since March than I did over the first couple of months of the year. My sales aren’t exactly high at the best of times, and my current dip could be down to any number of reasons, but I did wonder if genre is a factor in this. While people are reportedly reading more than usual, there might be a bias toward certain genres. Maybe the particular niche my books fall in is simply not what many want to read at the moment.

To investigate this further, I took a look at the top Kindle ebook sellers in the UK, and a few types of book dominated the list‌—‌feel-good reading, crime and thrillers, and biographies and memoirs.

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Feel-good books make perfect sense‌—‌this is reading as an escape from the worries of real life. But crime and thrillers can be violent and disturbing‌—‌at first glance, not exactly an antidote to real-world troubles.

These connected genres are still selling well, I believe, for a couple of reasons. First, they are incredibly popular in ‘normal’ times, and so many crime and thriller fans will keep reading what they know and love. But secondly, these stories often end very positively. Yes there are dark crimes and twisted motives, and the characters (and, vicariously, the readers) are placed in increasingly tense situations. But at the climax, the crime is solved and the perpetrator(s) brought to justice. The hero defeats the evil antagonist. Everything turns out well.

When real life is messy and uncertain, we look for something reliable. We want to believe that good will always triumph, and that wrongs will be set right. So these genres give us that feel-good ending, and do work as an escape from our real-world troubles.

Then there are the biographies and memoirs. The appearance of non-fiction doesn’t surprise me‌—‌on top of the ‘usual’ non-fiction readers, there are many who struggle with fiction when times are tough. But we’re all drawn to story, and stories of people’s lives fulfil this.

Consider too the nature of biographies and memoir. Many of these stories involve the narrator facing and overcoming some obstacle. They fight against the odds, emerging stronger at the end, the pain and depression and hopelessness becoming the lessons and motivation to succeed.

What better antidote to all the doom and gloom than reminders that there is hope, and that it is possible to not only survive adversity but come through stronger than before?

So the bestsellers are filled with books that offer either escape or the promise of success.

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But what of the very obvious absences in this bestseller list? Where was the horror and science fiction? Where was the darker stuff? In short, where were the type of books I enjoy reading?

It’s clear to see why darker books aren’t too popular at the moment (although I contend that horror is generally a positive genre, with good triumphing over very powerful evil, and you can read my thoughts on this here). Readers who dabble in these kinds of books might be staying away from anything disturbing, wanting instead to use reading as a booster to their positivity. And those of us who find enjoyment from darker books even in hard times are not numerous enough to push these titles into bestseller lists.

Maybe this is why my own books aren’t selling too well at the moment. Maybe I need to work harder at finding suitable potential readers, those who would enjoy science-fiction horror or dark Dystopian thrillers.

There might be trends in reading, but every reader is different. There’s an audience for every kind of book. Asking what the best books to read in trying times is impossible to answer in any but the most general terms. One reader’s engrossing Dystopian tale is another’s bleak trudge through depression. One reader’s buoyant romance, where love shines through, is another’s saccharine overdose of tweeness. One reader is drawn to cosy mysteries where the amateur sleuth and friends solve the murder, while another is pulled toward gritty stories where the criminals and those chasing them are all riddled with flaws that threaten to destroy them from the inside.

So the best thing to read is whatever will make you feel better, whatever engages you, whatever gives you the enjoyment, escapism and mental stimulation you seek.

But, most importantly, keep reading. Reading always helps.

In praise of the novella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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