When is it right to give up on a book?

There are many reasons to put aside a book, either for the time being or permanently. Maybe the style is grating, or there are too many typos and grammatical errors. Possibly you no longer care what happens to the characters, either because they feel artificial or you have no empathy with them. Maybe the story is filled with cliches, or the plot is too complicated to follow, or things are moving too slowly. Maybe the writing is either too simplistic or too dense.

Some people give a book a couple of pages to prove itself, and others carry on to the end regardless. Most people are probably somewhere in between these two, but for myself I tend to persevere, although I have stopped reading books on occasions.

FifthDoll_CharlieNHolmbergI was tempted to put aside a book recently. That book was The Fifth Doll, by Charlie N Holmberg, and I struggled through the first few chapters. There was nothing wrong with the writing, but the story didn’t feel like anything was happening. There were hints that something might be bubbling under the surface, but nothing seemed to develop, and I found myself losing interest fast.

I told myself that the book wasn’t that long (about 250 pages), and wouldn’t take too much time to get through, so I continued.

And, slowly, things started to happen‌—‌those bubbles of possibilities rose to the surface and started to pop. The story became more intriguing, and by the time I was half-way through the book, I was eager to continue reading, to discover how these creepy events played out.

By the time I’d finished the book (I didn’t feel the ending worked too well, but I very much enjoyed the middle build), I realised that it would have been difficult to start this book in a more immediate manner. We needed to become immersed in the normal world so that we understood how the subtle disruptions disturbed the main character so much. This wasn’t a jump-scare horror, but one that needed the slow build. If we’d been introduced to something unsettling too early, the intensity of the developing story would have been diluted.

Did this require perseverance to get through those first few chapters? Yes‌—‌but it then rewarded that perseverance. In a sea of ‘instant attention’ media, where the aim is to hook the reader/viewer as soon as possible, this book stood out in how it didn’t pander to ‘instant gratification’, but instead gave the story the time it needed.

This isn’t always the case, of course‌—‌some books fail to grab me all the way through, or even grow worse as they progress‌—‌but the times when I’m pleasantly surprised make up for the time wasted on stories that I don’t enjoy.


This applies to writing, too. Stories rarely work perfectly in the first draft, and it’s easy to become despondent during this stage of writing, and to believe that a particular story is ‘wrong’ or that time would be better spent working on something ‘better’. It’s easier to see all the glaring faults and miss the potential for something that works.

pen-3301338_640It’s natural to compare that first draft to great books we’ve read, but it’ll always fall short. We need to remember that all those wonderful books started off as messy first drafts, and sometimes the writer struggled for years to craft their story. Often, these great books were written by people with years of experience under their belt, too, with plenty of abandoned projects sitting in desk drawers or on hard drives.

I’ve been working on a story since the start of the year (although I’ve been planning it on and off since the middle of 2018), witht he intention of publishing around June, but that hasn’t happened. The whole process had been a struggle. I’ve written a number of drafts that simply didn’t work, and there have been times I’ve considered abandoning it entirely. At one point I took a break, wrote the first draft of something else entirely, then returned to this awkward project with a fresh mind.

But perseverance has paid off. At the time of writing this, I’m deep in the process of editing a working first draft, and can see how the book will turn out. The story’s better now because I’ve spent so much time on it, and because I’ve been able to try different ideas. Those ‘failed’ first drafts have all built toward the final book, which should be out by the end of the year.


My time might have been better spent abandoning that project (or putting it on long-term hold) and going with something new and exciting, just as giving up on reading a book might give hours more reading time for a great book. But perseverance is important‌—‌it’s something that’s too easy to ignore when so much entertainment is instant, when we’re tempted to become passive consumers rather than active participants in a book or a story. We unrealistically expect writing to be easy, forgetting that the only way to improve in something is to spend time and effort.

Of course, blindly continuing on the wrong path is just as bad as changing path too early. So when is it right to give up on a book?

Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to that‌—‌but as with so much in life, experience counts for a great deal. The more we read (and write), and the more we develop our perseverance, the better able we are to judge how to best spend our limited time.

Can the combination of magic and science work in fiction?

I read many different genres, but often gravitate towards science fiction and fantasy. But recently, I’ve read a few books that combine them both, most noticeably in Chris Fox’s Magitech Chronicles, as well as the book I’m currently reading, Alex White’s A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Universe.

At first, I wasn’t sure what I thought of this combination of technology and magic. Science fiction is based on plausible technologies, but magic is in the realm of fantasy, where the physical laws of the universe as we understand them are easily brushed aside.

But things aren’t quite that simple.

matrix-724496_640

There’s a quote from Arthur C Clarke‌—‌‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ He also said ‘Magic’s just science we don’t understand yet’. If we could pull someone from a hundred years ago to the present day and show them the internet, they’d consider it magic. Tell them about automatic doors, or self-driving cars, or artificial intelligence, and they’d either be in awe of these god-like manifestations, or they’d cower in the face of such demonic forces.

As I pondered this, I came to see that science-fiction and fantasy merge more than I realised, and there are many similarities between the two genres.

The prime example is Star Wars, with the Force. It’s a mystical force that allows users to control matter with their minds (among other things)‌—‌which sounds suspiciously like magic. But what of all the technologies used in science-fiction‌—‌faster-than-light travel, teleportation, and so on? Sometimes there is an attempt to explain things, but often they simply exist in the story universe, and the reader is left to accept their reality in the story‌—‌much like magic in the world of Harry Potter.

It goes back to that first Arthur C Clarke quote.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

FinalEmpireMistborn1_BrandonSandersonYou could argue that each technology serves a distinct role in science fiction, whereas magic can be used as a ‘get out of jail free’ card‌—‌but in my experience, some of the best fantasy books treat magic in a very similar way to science. Brandon Sanderson is a great exponent of using magical systems, where there are rules over what it can and can’t do. For instance, the magic in his Mistborn series is based around metals, and each type of metal gives different abilities. Then there is the training and study that must go into using these magics‌—‌just as characters in science-fiction often need to train in the use of technologies. So Luke trains to use the Force, and Harry Potter studies at Hogwarts so that he can use more magic. Neither technology or magic can be freely used by the uninitiated.

This appears to be the case in the books I’ve read that combine both tech and magic‌—‌neither are devices for instant solutions to problems. It’s interesting that one of the characters in White’s book has no magical ability (it doesn’t seem to hold her back much, although I’m only half-way through the book as I write this). In Fox’s series, he pushes magic into the realm of religion and belief, but still there are rules‌—‌a god’s power can only be used in proportion to the amount of belief their worshippers can give. This gives possibilities for a more social angle, with characters working to encourage that worship to assist their particular gods.

Books that blend science fiction and fantasy are nothing new, though. In Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, the mainly fantasy feel is occasionally layered with a sprinkling of sci-fi. Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books have a strong fantasy trope (dragons), and the settings often feel like fantasy worlds, but they’re also science fiction books. And sometimes, older science fiction can read like fantasy because the science, speculative at the time, has now been disproven‌—‌think of Jules Verne’s Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, or Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.

Of course, the combination of technology and magic isn’t for everyone. Ultimately, it’s down to personal preference. At the moment, I’m enjoying this blend of magic and science, and am interested to see where other writers will take this growing trend.

A return to the fun of reading

At the start of the year, I said I’d change my reading habits (you can read that post here). Through 2018, I was taking part in the Goodreads Reading Challenge, and although I easily reached my target of 50 books, I found myself veering toward shorter, easier reads for much of the time. This year, I wanted to read books I actually wanted to read.

However, things haven’t worked out like that, especially over the last month or so. As preparation/background work for my own writing, I’ve been re-reading many of my own books. This has been useful, but it’s felt like‌…‌not work, exactly, but more like something I felt I should do rather than something I wanted to do.

And even before that, I hadn’t read anything that had really grabbed me. I found myself becoming easily distracted, almost looking for excuses to lay my Kindle aside and do something else.

Maybe this was connected with the problems I was having writing, too. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago (in this post), I’ve been struggling with my next Dominions novel.

But now, I feel like I’m back on track with this — the current draft (I’m about half-way through at the time of writing this) feels far more coherent, and I’m finding far more pleasure in the writing. And, coincidentally, I’m enjoying reading more now.

Starplex_RobertJSawyerThis came home to me a couple of weeks ago when I started reading Robert J Sawyer’s Starplex, a book and author I’d not previously heard about. While the book has its problems (I’m not keen on the amount of exposition, even though the ideas are interesting), I wanted to keep on reading. I realised that I was enjoying it far more than I had any other book in a long, long time. I wasn’t reading to hit a target, or as research, or even because reading’s ‘something I do’. No, I was reading simply for the enjoyment of it.

I’ve recently started listening to Caroline Donohoe’s Secret Library podcast, where she interviews different authors as she works on her own novel. It’s fascinating to get an insight into so many different creative processes, but the podcast’s currently on hiatus until 2020, and in the most recent episode (number 157), she talks about her decisions for this.

She explains how she needs to complete her current draft, and therefore needs to prioritise her time. But she also talks about a particular strain in preparing for the podcast, week after week. To interview these authors, she reads their latest book, and even though she enjoys these books, reading them has become something she has to do.
In episode 157, she explains how, after reaching the decision to pause the podcast, she dove into a few page-turner books that she wanted to read, and the love of reading‌—‌the sheer pleasure of it‌—‌opened back up to her.

So I’m not alone in this. But I should have known this anyway. Years ago, an old friend told me how studying English at school ruined reading for him for years. Whenever he picked up a book, he found himself analysing it. He almost had to abandon reading altogether for a few years before he could return to the enjoyment of it once again.

Maybe this is natural. Things run in cycles, so maybe there will always be times when reading simply isn’t as much pleasure as it once was. Maybe the kind of books I read will ebb and flow, just as my taste in music has shifted over the years. Maybe there will be times when I’d be better off putting books down for a while, and enjoying stories in other forms‌—‌TV, films, music, and so on.

TheVampireMaurice_JohnnyTruantBut, for now, I seem to have my enjoyment of reading back‌—‌and I’m going to capitalise on this. Since finishing Starplex, I’ve enjoyed The Vampire Maurice by Johnny Truant (you know a book like this is going to be fun when it starts with a vampire being interviewed by a character called Dr Annabel Rice), and the final book in Chris Fox’s Magitech Chronicles, Godswar. Again, these books might not be perfect, and I doubt the authors would hold up their work as great literary feats‌—‌but that doesn’t matter. Truant and Fox are story-tellers. They know that their job is to entertain others.

And I’m being entertained. I’ve returned to the fun of reading.

 

The sentence that pulled me out of ‘Dune’

I suppose it’s inevitable that the way I read is changing as I learn more about storytelling and the craft of writing. Reading’s still one of my favourite things to do, but when something doesn’t feel right in a book or story, I’ll try to analyse the perceived problem. I’m also more likely to reflect on a book in a more analytical way. I’ll attempt to figure out how a writer has impressed me, and also imagine how I’d approach those little things that didn’t work for me.

I thought I’d share one of these moments. It happened when I re-read Dune recently.

Dune_FrankHerbertBefore I dive in, there’s a couple of things to bear in mind here. Dune was published over ten years after Frank Herbert’s first novel came out, and he’d had years of publishing short stories in magazines before that, so this is a book by an experienced writer. I’m still near the start of my writing life, so I’m in no way holding myself up to be ‘better’ than Herbert (or the numerous editors who would have been involved in the book’s journey).

Dune was written over fifty years ago, and fashions change in writing, just as in everything else. The thing that tripped me up might not have been considered an issue when Herbert was writing it.

But trip me up it did. One sentence pulled me right out of the story.

It happened in the fifth section (they’re not labelled as chapters, but they might as well be), where we finally get to meet Dr Yeuh. We already know that he will betray Duke Leto Atreides, under orders or instruction from the Barron Harkonnen. Such a thing should be impossible, as Dr Yeuh has undergone Imperial Conditioning, but Harkonnen in a previous scene hinted that there are ways around this. So our first scene with Dr Yeah himself is keenly anticipated.

The scene starts with Dr Yeuh entering the room of Paul, the Duke’s son, and we get to hear a number of Yeah’s internal thoughts (a technique Herbert uses often throughout the book.) But almost on the first page we get this thought from the man.

What I do is done to be certain my Wanna no longer can be hurt by the Harkonnen beast.

When I read this, I immediately saw it as an info-dump. The wording sounded clumsy in comparison to Dr Yeuh’s previous thoughts, and it felt that the information‌—‌that Harkonnen was breaking the man’s Imperial Conditioning by holding someone Dr Yeuh cared deeply about‌—‌had been shoe-horned in.

It does allow us to feel some sympathy for the man‌—‌yes, he will betray the Atreides family, but it is not through choice. Rather, he is being forced into this action by the real villain, Harkonnen. But the man comes across as fairly sympathetic over the rest of the scene anyway, in the way he talks to and acts around Paul. So couldn’t this nugget of information be saved until later? Would it not be better to let us, the reader, see the man before learning his secret?

Later in this scene, Dr Yeuh gifts Paul a book, and asks him to turn to a marked page. Paul feels two marks on the pages, and opens at the smaller‌—‌but when he starts to read, Dr Yeah yells for him to stop.

“I’m sorry,” Yeuh said. “That was … my … dead wife’s favourite passage.”

I couldn’t help thinking that this should have been the first mention of Wanna. The way Yeuh hesitated, then calls her ‘my‌…‌dead wife’ is quite dramatic, and should be enough to start connections in the reader’s mind‌—‌maybe this is something to do with his expected betrayal. And if we heard some thought from him here, it could confirm this impression.

So maybe that first info-dump thought should have just hinted at some hold Harkonnen had over the man. I do what I must to keep her safe, or something similar. It gives us enough to know that Yeuh is being forced to betray Duke Leto, and then more details arise naturally.

At least, that’s how I would have written this scene. But maybe I’m missing something, and there’s a reason Herbert did what I saw as an info-dump. Maybe this is my inexperience showing.

In some ways, this doesn’t really matter. It might have pulled me out of the story for a moment, but I still enjoyed the book overall (enough that I’ve made a start on the sequels). And in forcing me to think about ways of handling the imparting of information in a story, it should improve my own writing.

 

Are there too many books?

Are there too many books in the world?

If you look at the numbers, it might seem that way. A bit of Googling, and I came up with a figure of over a million new books being published every year in the US. Add to this the 13 million books from previous years that are still available, and that’s an awful lot of reading material. And that’s only in the US. Google reckons there are nearly 130 million books in the whole world, and that it would take about 60,000 years to read them all.

That’s going on a book a day, too. The average American reads roughly 4 books a year. In the UK, the average person reads for only 5 hours per week.

Yet more and more books are being produced each year. I found one statistic that said a new book is published on Amazon every five minutes (and that was back in 2014). Even if this is a very conservative estimate, that’s over 250 new books every single day.

Loads of books!Looking at this with cold logic, when it’s impossible for a single person to even read a fraction of what already exists, there seems no reason for putting more stories out into the world. Yet many of us continue writing, and continue adding to this immense pile of fiction available to readers.

But the numbers don’t tell us everything.

Every reader is different, with different reading habits and tastes. Similarly, every writer has a different style, their own take on things, their own unique way of telling a story. Readers can go through many books before finding an author who resonates with them.

This is why there is usually a wide range of reviews, even on popular, commercially successful books. What one reader can’t stand, another will love.

As readers, we want to find books resonate with us. That might be in their style of writing, or the stories themselves, or something else‌—‌the rounded characters, or the witty dialogue, or the evocative settings.

Of course, it’s hard to find these ideal books‌—‌but we keep on reading, keep on searching. The more books available to us, the better our chances of finding that book, of discovering that writer whose voice speaks to us. And, as a writer, I keep putting these books out with the confidence that, somewhere, there is a reader who has been waiting for this particular book, even if they don’t know it themselves.

octopus-1235006_1280Once a reader finds that one book, of course, they often seek out others by the same writer. I know this through experience‌—‌it’s why I have every Douglas Adams book, why I’ve still got just about every Terry Pratchett book in paperback, every Iain Banks book. It’s why I get pre-orders of every book Barry Hutchison puts out, be they in the Space Team series or something else. It’s why I’ll look out for new books by the Platt/Truant/Wright team. And, as a writer, I know that, if someone clicks with one of my books, they’re likely to want more‌—‌and so I’ll do what I can to provide for them.

There’s obviously a certain amount of financial incentive in this‌—‌the more readers who like my books, the more copies I sell, and the more money I make. But there are other reasons why I write and publish books.

There’s something incredibly satisfying with whole creation process‌—‌and in a society where we are encouraged so often to be passive consumers (of all kinds of media) it’s important that everyone has some kind of creative outlet. In the past this was music for me‌—‌hours spent playing guitar, recording and manipulating sounds, editing as best I could‌—‌but for you it’s probably something different. Maybe it’s gardening, or cooking, or painting, or sewing. For me, at this moment in time, it’s writing.

Of course, creating anything is never plain sailing. There’s planning, and moments when things don’t seem to be working. There are different stages of revision, correcting one issue but having that lead to more things that need altering. But this is all part of the challenge‌—‌if it was easy, why bother?

I could write stories purely for my own entertainment, but there’s a persuasive argument that anything we create doesn’t really exist until we let it out into the world. This can be both scary and liberating‌—‌what if readers hate it? What if they love it? What if it’s ignored? But until I publish, the story isn’t complete.

This drive to produce (and publish) more stories makes the original question‌—‌are there too many books?‌—‌almost redundant. Yes, there are more books in the world than any one person can read. But there is also more music out there than a single person could listen to in a lifetime, more TV and film, more paintings and sculptures, more great meals and beautifully tended gardens, more of everything than we can ever experience. Art and creativity are all around us, and it’s being added to all the time. And this is a good thing‌—‌the more there is, the more we can experience.

The more books that exist, the more books there are for each of us, with our individual tastes, to read and enjoy.

Why the hero must save the day

It’s always disappointing when a story that begins with so much promise falls in the final pages.

This happened recently in a trilogy I was reading. The first book was great‌—‌it worked well as a complete story, but with enough unanswered questions to encourage me to keep reading. The second book meandered a little, but I was able to let that pass‌—‌it was setting things up for what promised to be gut-wrenching finale. The hero had gone through so much inner turmoil, but now he was in an impossible situation‌—‌the only way to save the world would, without question, result in his own death. Could someone who had been acting from selfish motives for so much of the previous two books make the ultimate sacrifice?

The third book in the trilogy started strongly as the hero battled the fears in his mind as well as the physical dangers all around. Then, in the final few chapters, everything changed. One of the ‘bad’ characters was going through his own struggle of conscience, and when it came to the end moments, he stepped in. This reformed character took the place of the hero and died to save the world.

At first glance, this might seem to be a good ending‌—‌the world is saved, and the hero lives. It’s win-win, surely. But as I read those final chapters, I felt cheated. To be honest, it ruined my whole experience of these books.

handshake-4040911_1280One reason I felt cheated was down to a broken promise. In any book, the writer gives certain promises to the reader. These might not be made explicit, but most readers will pick up on them subconsciously. If a group of characters have been preparing for a big battle, then there is an inherent promise that there will be a battle. When the two main characters meet in a romance, even if they can’t stand each other initially, there is a promise hard-wired into the genre that they will end up in a happily-ever-after.

And in the trilogy I read, with so many words given over to the hero’s struggle with his situation, there was a clear promise‌—‌the hero would sacrifice himself to save the day.

But he didn’t. The promise was broken.

And, to add to my dissatisfaction, he ultimately did very little to help save anyone. It felt as if the preceding three books’ worth of internal and external trials were all for nothing. So much work, and at the defining moment the hero stepped aside and let another take his place.

That’s like an athlete training hard, spending hours running in the cold, struggling through injury and personal doubt, slowly realising that they can win the big race‌—‌then having someone else run in their place. Or a musician practising every hour of the day on a complicated piece of music, fighting to prepare in time for the deadline of a major concert‌—‌and then sitting in the audience as someone else plays the piece for them.

As readers, we expect the hero to be the one to save the day. We want that stand-up-and-cheer moment when they overcome the odds. So if we’re given a different ending, we don’t get the closure we want.

Imagine how watching Star Wars would’ve felt if, instead of Luke destroying the Death Star, one of the other pilots had done so. Or if Harry Potter, in his final battle, stood aside as one of the Hogwarts teachers defeated Voldemort. Or if the crew of the Nostromo in Alien had been saved by a passing military vessel.

In all these cases, good would have triumphed over evil, and the heroes would be alive to tell their tale. But the endings wouldn’t have satisfied. We would’ve felt cheated. Why follow these characters through all their highs and lows when none of that matters at the end?

Heroes might not save the day on their own (and if part of their character growth is in trusting others, it might be important for them to receive help), but they definitely should have that moment of glory. This is what Luke did when he trusted the force and destroyed the Death Star, what Harry Potter did in defeating Voldemortm what Ripley did when she overcame her terror and sent the alien out into space.

If the hero doesn’t save the day, then they are only a side-character in someone else’s story.

 

A new way of reading ebooks

Developments in technology offer new ways of working, new ways of doing things. But often, these developments take time to become mainstream. Think of electric cars‌—‌Clive Sinclair’s C5 was widely derided, and failed commercially, but it arguably paved the way for the electric and hybrid vehicles that are becoming increasingly common now.

reading-1249273_1280Digital books, too, didn’t become mainstream instantly. Back before smart phones and laptops, ebooks were pdf files, and many people simply didn’t want to read whole books on a bulky computer screen. But new formats were developed, chiefly epub and mobi, and new devices appeared. When Amazon released Kindle, e-reading really took off. Now, with so many people owning smart-phones, ebooks can be downloaded and read through apps, and reading large amounts of text on screens has become relatively normal. And with the rise in popularity of audiobooks, another shift is occurring in the way people read (consume) books.

With the changes in technology, and the altering marketplace for ebooks, now companies are constantly appearing. Some of them carve out their own space (either geographically, like Kobo in Canada and Tolino in Germany, or through niche markets, like Overdrive with libraries), while others are either bought out (like Createspace) or simply disappear (and there have long been predictions that this will be the fate of Nook/Barnes & Noble).

Bubblin_lightOne new name I’ve recently become aware of is Bubblin, and they’re aiming to provide a different reading experience. Describing themselves as both ‘an online cafe for books’ and ‘Bandcamp of books, comics and magazines’, Bubblin is entirely web-based. Instead of downloading books and using an app or dedicated e-reader, readers using Bubblin simply click on a book and it appears in their web browser.

Bubblin doesn’t use epub or mobi, but has its own formatting system‌‌—‌and this is fixed-layout. This means that, rather than allowing the reader to adjust the text (size, colour, font and so on), what appears on the screen is very much like a physical book, with the text and images fixed in place (in many ways this is similar to pdf files).

Initially, I thought this was a mistake. Isn’t one of the major benefits of e-books the ability to control the appearance of text to suit individual preferences and needs? Why would a company return to fixed-layout formatting?

Then I remembered the ‘Bandcamp of books, comics and magazines’ line, and I understood.

There are many examples of written material that requires pages to look a certain way. Think of the layout of magazine pages, or the way frames in comics can be of different sizes, often with images and text breaking out of the boxes. Then there are text books that rely on images and charts to convey information.

LewisCarroll_MouseTail

And even with standard text books, there are times when fixed-layout formatting is important. Having pages that look like fascimiles of newspapers can add to the reading experience (as in John Fowles’ The Magus). Irvine Welsh’s Filth has some of the text obliterating other parts as a way of conveying how the main character is being ‘taken over’ by something inside. Poetry, too, often conveys information in the placing of words on the page (such as Lewis Carroll’s The Mouse’s Tale from Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland.) While words convey a lot of information, text positioning can add another subtle layer, and this can easily be lost in the usual flexible ebook formatting.

The web-based nature of Bubblin gives another advantage‌—‌as their formatting system is based around CSS and Java (I think), it is possible to include other media within books. Images can be animated, and videos can play on pages. I believe the books can incorporate audio too‌—‌which immediately makes me consider the possibility of read-along audiobooks.

However, using a totally web-based system brought a question to my mind‌—‌are people willing to read full books in web browsers? Personally, I’m fine with my Kindle.

But over the last year I’ve started using e-reader apps on my mobile more often. And a decade or so ago I wouldn’t have imagined reading a whole novel on any kind of screen. Even when I first got an e-reader (an old Sony thing), I thought I’d use it only for freely downloadable classics while still reading physical copies of more recent books. But now, I’ve gone fully electric in my reading.

People’s preferences and habits change over time. TV shows and films are commonly streamed now, as is music, so why not books? As mobiles increasingly become the go-to devices for digital media, web-based reading starts to make a lot of sense sense.

And I’ve decided that when I finish the book I’m reading at the moment, I’m going to try a whole novel through Bubblin.

Gatekeeper_smallI’m also giving Bubblin a try as a writer. The process of formatting books for them is (for someone with limited coding knowledge) fairly complex, but there’s a good chance this will become easier over time. After all, formatting epubs continues to grow easier, with tools like Vellum and Draft-2-Digital’s conversion service.

I managed to format my Dominions prologue, Gatekeeper, though‌—‌and you can have a look at it by clicking here. Creating this book involved a fair amount of back-and-forth with Bubblin, and I have to say that they’re very receptive to feedback, and are constantly tweaking things to improve the whole user experience.

Will Bubblin prove popular enough with readers? I hope so, because any competition to the big players in the ebook market has to be good, and Bubblin are offering something different.

Bubblin_darkHave a look for yourself‌—‌pop over to bubblin.io and browse a few books (there’s no sign-up or registration, and at the moment the vast majority of books are free). If you want to take a look at my Gatekeeper, click here. And if you have any thoughts on Bubblin, I’m pretty sure they’d love to hear your feedback.

What do you see when you read a book?

I read China Mieville’s The City And The City recently (I’m slowly chipping away at my ‘to-read’ list). I enjoy his writing style, and I think his world-building is fantastic (in many meanings of that word). But something strange happened as I read the book.

It’s written in first person, and I automatically pictured the narrator as female. I’ve no idea why, but even when it became clear that the character was male, I still saw him as female. I don’t think there was anything specific Mieville wrote that would make me picture his protagonist as anything but male, so I can only think this is down to how I approached the book.

And this got me thinking. When I read, I picture things in a certain way, but this isn’t necessarily how others picture the book, or even how the writer saw the story in his or her own head. Every reader is different, and we each bring our own unique perspectives to anything we read.

octopus-1235006_1280Stories (in books) pass from writers to readers through the medium of words, but there is always going to be interpretation involved in this. Writers aim to give as much action/emotion/description in as few words as possible. If everything was described in enough detail to convey every single aspect of the story, the action would move at a glacial pace, and all sense of forward momentum would be lost. Stories that describe too much are (for most readers) tiring to read‌—‌hence the search for conciseness. Gustave Flaubert talked about finding ‘le mot juste’, the right word.

But even that causes problems. Words mean different things to different people. I’ve heard the word ‘solid’ used to mean both good (as in ‘rock-solid’, firm and unmoving‌—‌a solid fellow) and difficult (as in ‘hard’‌—‌“that game’s well solid!”).

Think of that classic story opening; ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’ That might conjure up thoughts of uncertainty, maybe even fear. But to some, storms can be exciting. Or maybe darkness helps others escape from their day-to-day troubles, and the addition of poor weather brings up thoughts of being beside a fire, enclosed in the safety and warmth of their very own home.

There is no perfect word. There is no ideal way to describe something.

Is this a problem? Not necessarily. One often-repeated piece of writing advice is to picture your ideal reader, and write to them. I believe Stephen King’s ‘ideal reader’ is his wife, and others might use real people too, but many create their own ideal reader (maybe a female forty-something divorced librarian living in Pittsburg, or a heavy metal fan working an office job but dreaming of becoming a professional musician). This might seem strange, but it is impossible to write a book that pleases everyone, and trying to make a story too universal usually means creating something bland, something that many find ‘okay’ but that nobody gets excited about. Anything designed to appeal to a wide range of people will fell watered-down.

Attitudes to books will naturally differ. Even if two readers enjoy the same book, it could well be for different reasons‌—‌some King fans might get a kick from the build-up of tension, and others might love the way he pulls them into the minds of his characters. Some people read Iain Banks’ sci-fi books for the vast ideas, others enjoy his way of telling a story.

There’s no right or wrong here. Every book is written by an individual (or a few individual in the case of co-written works), and the words are formed through the filter of their own lives. These books then get consumed by individual readers, who digest these words through the filter of their own experiences and ideas.

And this means that books are never static.

There’s this idea that, when something is created, it’s completed. In some ways, this is true‌—‌when a writer puts a book out, it stays the same unless they bring out a revised version. It’s the same with any art form‌—‌music, paintings, sculpture, films. But this ‘completed’ work can be digested by different people at different times. It can bring forth different emotions or lead to different thoughts. Every person who reads a book experiences something unique. And even re-reading a book can be a new experience.

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As we grow, we develop, learning and understanding more, and our appreciation for things changes. The books we read ten, fifteen, thirty years ago might contain the same words in the same order that they did when we first picked them up, but if we re-read these words today we experience something totally different. Our interpretation is not only tinged with nostalgia, but also with our different perspective on life, our different personality. It’s part of the reason why books we loved as children can sometimes seem flat when we read them as adults, and why books we struggled to get into a few years ago can later become favourite reads full of meaning and excitement.

We never simply read words. We absorb them, run them through our experiences, our own unique thoughts. We take those marks on page or screen, and we breathe life into them.

The writer takes a story, moulds it, and lays its foundations on the page. But the reader brings it to life.

My reading challenge for 2019

Over 2018, I took part in the Goodreads reading challenge, setting myself a target of 50 books the year. As I generally get through one or two books a week, I knew this was easily achievable, and I ended up with 83 completed books by the end of December.

But what does that mean?

Loads of books!Looking back at the list, most of the titles are just names of books. I can’t recall what happened in many of the stories, and I only have a vague idea of my thoughts on them. Yes, some stick in my mind‌—‌I enjoyed Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, and I’m still impressed at how Barry Hutchison can produce such entertaining and well-written Space Team books at such a fast rate. Andy Weir’s Artemis was good (and, more importantly, was definitely different to The Martian, proving that his first book wasn’t a fluke), and I loved China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, both for the writing and the world-building. Way back at the start of the year I read Marcus Sakey’s Afterlife, and I recall being pleasantly surprised at the twists and turns in the story.

But the rest? Recollections of enjoying some, and maybe a few vague ideas regarding the actual stories, but generally not much else.

Of course, I don’t expect to remember everything I read, but I started thinking back to how I chose these books. Some were titles I specifically wanted to read (and this includes all the ones I’ve mentioned above), but for the others, I believe two factors were at the front of my mind, both influenced by this reading challenge. I chose many of the books over 2018 based on length and complexity. If I was vying between a few titles, I’d automatically lean toward shorter books as well as those that appeared easier.

checklist-1643784_640See, I chose books primarily because I wanted to complete the challenge, and it’s easier to read more books if they are shorter and not too taxing. I veered toward light reads that would only take a couple of days.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with these types of books‌—‌reading fiction is primarily about entertainment, and I use it as a way of relaxing, so short periods of escapism are fine.

But a diet of only popcorn isn’t good. In between the lighter reads I should have been diving into more demanding works (like Perdido Street Station). As a writer, I should have used some of my reading to stretch my understanding of story and writing. As someone who reads, I should have sunk into at least a few texts that forced me to concentrate to a higher degree.

A number of years ago I told myself that I would read all of Honore de Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine (not in the original French, I hasten to add). This is a collection of about ninety titles, ranging from short stories to 500-page novels, and one thing I’ve found from the ones I’ve read is that the writing is dense. Paragraphs can stretch over many pages, and descriptions can be very detailed. There is a huge cast of characters who reappear in different titles, so keeping track of everyone is a challenge. They’re not easy reading.

I’m about a quarter of the way through, and I’ve found something to enjoy in each story. But I haven’t read any Balzac for a couple of years now. Especially over 2018, I’ve been distracted by shorter, lighter books.

This needs to change.

I have a growing list of other books I want to read, and other authors who I want to explore. There’s Brandon Sanderson’s long books (I was very impressed with the first Mistborn book, and promised myself I’d read more), and more by Joe Abercrombie. I have a number of Peter F Hamilton books on my Kindle. A few years ago I downloaded tons of out-of-copyright classics, and there are many of these that I feel I should read, including Jane Austen (I tried once, but never got more than a few pages in.)

literature-3324024_1280So, for 2019, I have a new reading challenge. Yes, I’m still going to read light, fun stuff (I’ve started the year with Ben Aabronovitch and Mark Dawson‌—‌both fine writers who produce great escapism for the reader), but I’m also going to push myself. I’m not going to treat books as a tick-list to get through. I’m going to give myself the time each book deserves.

I’ve still set a Goodreads challenge, though (again for fifty books), but I’ve done this as a means of keeping track of what I’ve read. I could use a simple list or spreadsheet, but Goodreads displays the covers of books I’ve read, which makes looking back far easier.

I’m confident I’ll reach fifty books again, but this year it will include a wider range. This year, I’m going to read like I mean it.

 

A small change to my reading habits

Habits build up over time, often without conscious thought. I like to read before I go to sleep, but I also read at other times. Most recently, this has included a decent length of time when I get in from work (grab a bite to eat and a drink, and sit down with a book for a good half-hour or more), as well as ten minutes while eating breakfast. I sometimes get more time in during the day, but that depends on what else is happening, and the three times mentioned above (breakfast, after work, before sleep) are pretty regular.

kindle-2616647_1280A few weeks back, I started reading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series, but straight away I ran into a problem‌—‌the chapters were too long.

This needs an explanation.

I’ve never felt comfortable stopping reading just anywhere. I always aim to finish a chapter, or at least to reach a section break. Stopping mid-flow feels wrong. In a well-written book, the chapters and sections are part of the structure of the story‌—‌the writer chose to change scene, or to provide a break, for a particular reason. I can recall hearing Brandon Sanderson (I think it was on his Writing Excuses podcast) talking about wanting the reader to take a break at the end of each chapter‌—‌each chapter is it’s own mini-story, and needs to be assimilated before continuing to the next mini-story.

In the same way, I don’t enjoy watching films in sections either, or listening to only part of a piece of music. I need to experience the work as the creator intended.

So when I started The Blade Itself (The First Law Book One), I knew I’d want to give each chapter the time it deserved. This wasn’t a problem when reading before sleep‌—‌I had some flexibility in this. Likewise, after work, I could continue reading until I’d reached the end of a chapter.

But over breakfast, my time is limited‌—‌I have to be out of the house by a certain time in order to get to work. I wouldn’t have time to necessarily read complete chapters.

One of the things I love about my Kindle is how it tells me how many minutes reading is left in each chapter, and I could’ve used this. I could have made sure that when I stopped reading at night, I did so with a shorter chapter coming up, one that I could get through in ten minutes‌—‌but what if I was in the midst of some very long chapters? I could have pushed through the chapter in the morning, skim-reading‌—‌but I wanted to enjoy these books, and that included the writing itself. I could have simply read in the hope that a scene-break would appear at a sensible time‌—‌but what if it didn’t?

Then I found my solution.

I don’t only read fiction. Since starting writing, I’ve been reading more and more books about writing‌—‌the craft itself, marketing, mindset, and anything else related to publishing. These books often have some kind of narrative flow, but that’s secondary to the information. Also, non-fiction tends to be written in shorter, easily-digestible chunks‌—‌ideal for reading when you only have a few minutes spare.

You can probably see where this is going.

I now have two books on the go at any one time. I read fiction when I have longer stretches of time, enabling me to immerse myself in the story as the writer intended. But I also have a non-fiction book on the go at the same time. I use my phone for these books (either using the Kindle app or a pdf reader, as some of these books I only have in that format), which has another advantage‌—‌if I have a spare couple of minutes (for instance, if I’m waiting to pick one of the kids up from an activity) I can consume another short section of non-fiction.

It’s only a small alteration to how I read, but I can see the advantages already. I won’t be as ready to put longer-chapter books aside for ‘later’ (so I’ll finally get round to all those Brandon Sanderson books sitting on my to-be-read list), and I’ll also be getting a little bit of ‘learning’ in each day from the non-fiction.

Always good to find a win-win solution!