Why readers are so important (5-star review for Shadowfall)

Writing is something that, for me, has grown from an activity I’d do a couple of evenings a week to something that happens every day. I’m working harder and harder at all aspects of the process‌—‌planning stories, writing first drafts, and running through different rounds of edits‌—‌as well as spending more time on marketing and other ‘business’ activities.

So why is writing important to me? There’s no single reason. A large part of it is pure enjoyment, from the excitement of developing a cool story idea through the fun of writing itself and onto the rewarding work in moulding those initial words into something I can feel proud of. Then there’s the possibility of earning money from these stories‌—‌we all need money to live, and there’s nothing wrong in seeking some kind of financial recompense for all the time, effort and money I’ve put into producing these books.

Then there’s the opportunity to entertain, to take readers on a journey, to help them escape from their daily lives for a few hours. This is more nebulous than the other reasons, but is no less important. Maybe it’s the most important reason for writing. After all, story-telling is communication, and each story only truly comes to life when it reaches across to another person.

It’s harder to quantify this reason, though. I can judge my own enjoyment in the process, and I can look at my bank balance to judge the financial rewards (or otherwise). But the effect my stories have on others‌—‌how do I judge that?

This comes down to communication. I’ve received a few e-mails and comments from readers, as well as a few reviews. I received one review for Shadowfall recently that I thought I’d share here.

Wow. That is all I can say about this book. It kept me on my toes waiting to find out what came next. I was left wanting more and I am very eager to read anything written by this writer. This book had everything I like in the fantasy genre. It was well-written with a lot of character and world building. I would definitely recommend this book.

Every time I read that review, I feel warm inside. It’s so positive, and it tells me that (for this reader, at least) I succeeded in many things I set out to achieve in Shadowfall. This review tells me it’s a page-turner, and that my work in creating a believable world, populated by relatable characters, succeeded.

Yes, the review came through BookSprout (a service that aims to match readers with books in order to provide reviews), but there was no pressure on the reader to leave a positive review. As I’ve said many times before, I’d far rather receive an honest critical review than an insincerely positive one.

2019-1719 TW Iain b01 animationShadowfall‘s slowly getting more reviews and ratings, and many of them are positive. I know the book isn’t for everyone, so I’ll receive negative comments at some point. And that’s fine‌—‌I know there will always be areas of development in my writing and story-telling. I know, too, that every reader is different, and one reader’s drudgery is another’s page-turner.

But I hope I never stop feeling so good when I receive a review like the one above. I never want to become complacent. I want to always remember that the stories I write are not only for myself (and hopefully for my bank balance). I need to remember that stories are never complete until they are consumed by a reader. Only then can they truly live.

I feel honoured and grateful that what I create can give others enjoyment. And I thank any reader who takes the time and effort to leave a review. Without readers, there is no need for writers. Without readers, stories never emerge from the depths.

Without readers, there are no books.

[As a quick post-script, what do you think of the animated cover above? Many thanks to Deranged Doctor Designs for this‌—‌one of the best cover design companies around.]

Dialogue is more than talking

I often find that dialogue can make or break a book. It might be snappy and sarcastic, or rich and evocative‌—‌and I’ll feel I’m in the scene with the characters. If the dialogue feels realistic, and drives the story on, I’m willing to forgive plot holes and clunky prose.

I also find long passages of prose rarely work (unless very well written). Even internal dialogue can help propel a scene forward.

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But writing dialogue is hard. For starters, it needs to feel realistic, but it can’t be too realistic.

I recall an Kevin Smith interview, where someone commented on the natural way the characters in his films talked. He responded by saying that there was nothing natural about their dialogue. His characters go off onto rambling monologues while others listen‌—‌something that very rarely happens in real life. They’re not constantly being cut off, or using strings of filler words and sounds (‘um’, ‘er’, ‘like’ and so on), they don’t repeat themselves too often (‘So I said…‌and he says…‌then I say’). But his dialogue still feels natural, and that’s the important thing. He uses character-appropriate words and phrases to bring the spoken lines alive.

And this shows another aspect of good dialogue‌—‌it has to serve a purpose. In Smith’s case, much of the actual stories the characters tell one another seem only partially relevant to the story, but they reveal character, both in the words themselves and the way they are delivered. The same can be done in books‌—‌what a character says can reveal so much about who they are, in a far more natural way than simply being told.

For instance, a male character who peppers their conversation with words like ‘love’ and ‘dear’, especially when talking to younger women, comes across as condescending and sexist, even if the reader doesn’t consciously pick up on this. Likewise, a character who says ‘maybe’ and ‘I think’ a lot will often appear indecisive‌—‌so when they step up and make that all-important decision in a moment of crisis, we understand that they’re finally overcoming their inner demons.

Dialogue is also important for moving the story forward. Unfortunately, I’ve read far too many books where this is done poorly. Characters will say things like “Hey, you remember that time Bob broke into that old factory, and had to face all those vampires?” or “As you know, the master is due to return from his sojourn in the tropics any day now, but his mother still refuses to have the east wing redecorated, meaning she’s still in the suite next to his‌—‌and this is bound to cause a great deal of friction.”

Yes, these examples tell the reader possibly important information. But do they sound natural? Not at all. The characters are mentioning things other characters already know, merely to give us, the reader, information.

Another problem I’ve noticed with poorly written dialogue is the use of grammar.

Most people don’t talk with correct grammar. They use slang, and part-sentences. They’ll misuse words, or string words together in bizarre ways. It might be grammatically correct to say “We will leave as soon as we can,” but it sounds far more natural as “We’ll leave as soon as.”

Of course, some characters will speak ‘properly’‌—‌but even then, each character will have their own vocal idiosyncrasies. This is something I know I need to improve in my own writing. Some characters will speak in long, complicated sentences, others will use simpler constructions. Some will use dialect words, or enjoy showing off an extended vocabulary.

Dialogue can also indicate things about how each character experiences the world. One who focuses on visuals might say “I see”, whereas a character who’s more auditory might say “I hear you.”

With well-written dialogue, it should be clear who is talking from the spoken words themselves, and tags (“Bill said”, “Sheila asked”, and so on) are only needed as occasional reminders.

Writing dialogue that works well is hard‌—‌and it stands to reason that authors who can pull this off, who can use natural-sounding dialogue to develop characters and drive story, are also skilled at other areas of writing. After all, books are simply a means of telling stories. When we read a novel or a short story, we’re allowing the author to speak to us. Even when no characters in the story are talking, we’re still listening to the voice of the narrator.

How Neil Peart is pushing my reading into new areas

 

The musicians I grew up listening to are getting older, and many are no longer around. Of course, it happens to everyone eventually, and in large part I’m pretty philosophical about this. Yes, it’s sad that they’re gone, but they’ve left behind a great legacy in their music, and in that a part of them will live on.

But when I heard of Neil Peart’s passing, earlier this year, I felt sadder than I expected. Maybe it was because I’d been listening to Rush for so many years. Or maybe it was because they’d had the same line-up for so long that there was something permanent about them. Even though there was unlikely to be any new music from the trio anyway, it felt somehow wrong that he’d died.

Rush in concert at MGM Grand, Las Vegas, America - 25 Jul 2015

In case you’re unfamiliar with the name, Neil Peart was the drummer and lyricist with Canadian band Rush. Their music didn’t bother the charts much, but they could sell out arena and stadium tours around the world, and had an incredibly loyal fan-base.

I saw Rush on tour back in the eighties, at a time when just about every band would thrown in solo spots for different musicians, mainly guitarists and drummers. These solos bored me. If there were seats at the venue, I’d have a rest while the guitarist tapped away, or while the drummer hit everything within range as fast as possible.

But Peart’s solo was different. It felt like a structured piece of music, with peaks and troughs, passing through different ways of playing, drawing on different emotions. Rather than a way of showing off, the solo was an exploration into what a drum kit was capable of. And even though the band played rock, it was clear that Peart drew from many different styles.

He wasn’t content to sit still as a musician. He took his playing very seriously. He’d practice for an hour before each concert. And he continually sought to improve‌—‌listening to other styles of music, seeking other techniques, taking lessons from drummers who might not have been technically as proficient as him, but who still had something he could learn from, something new he could incorporate into his own playing.

It’s an important attitude for anyone creative, be that in music or sculpture or stories or hanging baskets. There’s always more to learn. To quote one of Peart’s own lyrics (from Mission),

‘the point of the journey is not to arrive’.

It’s impossible to reach the end of knowing, to become perfect. There’s always more to learn, and it’s important to absorb new influences and techniques, to develop, so that the next song, the next model, the next book, the next basket surpasses the previous one.

When I worked in education, I used to tell myself that the moment I felt I knew everything about teaching was the moment I should stop‌—‌not because I would know everything, but because that moment would signal the end of the desire to improve.

In my writing, I feel like I’m only just starting out, and there is so much to learn. One very important way I can widen my knowledge is through reading‌—‌not only in genres I’m naturally drawn to, but also in pushing myself to explore new genres. It’s why I’ll read the occasional romance book, or historical book. It’s why I’ll read books by new and old authors, independently-published and those who work through traditional publishers.

There’s always more to learn, even from books I don’t like. I read the Twilight series and the first couple of Fifty Shades books (haven’t been able to face the third yet) in part because I wanted to understand what made them so popular. And it’s why I very rarely give up on a book. Even books I don’t enjoy, or stories I don’t feel are particularly well told, have things to teach me.

I know some people take a different approach. Some writers dive deep into a particular sub-genre, writing and reading only that one thing, focusing their attention on becoming an expert in it. And that’s fine‌—‌but for me, I’d feel like I was missing so much. When I read books with a strong romantic element, I can garner more insight in evoking believable relationships. When I read literary fiction, I can absorb ideas on how language is used. When I read mysteries and thrillers, I can better understand how to keep the reader guessing. When I read books that evoke different times and locations, I can attempt to unpick how words can be used to give a sense of period and setting without being too on-the-nose.

There’s so much to learn out there, so many lessons that I can use to improve my own writing. But that’s only going to happen if I concentrate.

This, I feel, is something Peart understood. It’s not enough to simply consume. Learning is active. It involves both study and practice. It’s a never-ending cycle that is the only way to improve.

Or, in the words of Peart himself,

What is a master but a master student? And if that’s true, then there’s a responsibility on you to keep getting better and to explore avenues of your profession.

Books in a changing media landscape

Amongst all the rides, attractions and eateries in Disneyland Paris, there are many, many stores. They sell all kinds of merchandising‌—‌toys, clothing, bags, jewelry, and so on. But one thing struck me by its absence.

Media.

There were no Disney DVDs for sale, no CDs of film soundtracks, and no books. In short, there was nothing for sale that actually told any kind of story‌—‌and this seemed strange for a company that had built itself up on story, from simple five-minute Mickey Mouse cartoons through retellings of classic fairy tales to their own original stories.

It’s not as if there were no opportunities to incorporate books into the park. In Beauty And The Beast, Belle loves reading, so why not have a Belle-themed bookshop, with library ladders and dusty hidden corners?

Admittedly, Disneyland Paris have to cope with visitors from a wide range of countries, and although French and English seem to be the predominant languages utilised in the park, each title would need to be stocked in different languages, with different covers and so on. And why stock music and film anyway, when the trend is now for streaming?

This (like so much in the park) got me thinking.

children-403582_640There are always stories about the death of reading, and how nobody reads anymore. Why read, when it’s easier to turn on the TV or switch on Netflix or pop onto YouTube? There are figures suggesting that cinema is struggling, as home viewing utilises ever-growing size of screens, in increasing resolution, with high-quality sound-systems. Why bother leaving the house, queueing, paying for over-priced snacks and drinks, and having to cope with other people, when high-quality entertainment can be enjoyed in comfort at home?

And how can books‌—‌simple text on a flat, unmoving surface‌—‌compete with such incredibly immersive effects on the big screen (be that in a cinema or at home), or with the snappy dialogue and surrounding sound design?

Some people argue that they can’t. They point to the collapse of Borders and the struggles of Barnes & Noble. They talk of dwindling revenue for those who write‌—‌while big-name authors (King, Rowling, Patterson and so on) still earn fortunes, mid-list authors are forced to take on other work to supplement their writing careers.

Yet still, people read.

There’s a good chance that you’re one of those people who enjoy books, so you’ll instinctively know some of the reasons for this. You know the pleasure that comes from sinking into a story. You’ve experienced the transformation of words on a page into living images within your own imagination. You’ve felt the pull of a book, the yearning to get back to the story, and the way a tale lives on long after you’ve turned over the final page.

Maybe you value the solitude of reading, or how time can fly by when you’re deep in a great story. Maybe you love how reading can be done anywhere‌—‌on a chair, in bed, in the bath, on an exercise bike, on a bus, or how it can take over hours in an evening or be squeezed into a few minutes in a supermarket queue.

With technology, ways of reading are growing. Twenty years ago there were books. You either bought them or borrowed them from a library (or from friends). Sometimes it was hard to find the book you wanted‌—‌either it was too popular at the library, or too obscure for book stores to stock. You had to order the book, and wait weeks for it to be delivered to the book-store. But now, we have ebooks and print-on-demand. We might wait a couple of days for a physical book to arrive, but an ebook can be delivered within minutes.

And with ebooks, we’re no longer tied to a physical book. We have the ability to carry a whole library in an e-reader, or on a smart-phone. We need never be without a collection of books.

Technology increases the potential for inclusion, too. On-screen text size can be altered to suit individual needs and preferences, as can colour and brightness. Different interface systems‌—‌switches, voice control and even eye tracking‌—‌allow those with reduced physical ability to turn pages.

audiobook-3106985_640Then there are audiobooks. Yes, they’ve been around for years, first on cassettes and then on CDs‌—‌but with mp3, fast downloading and now streaming, audiobooks don’t require us to buy bulky physical copies. We’re not tied to large hi-fi equipment either. With our smart-phones, we can enjoy audiobooks wherever we are, whatever we are doing‌—‌driving, exercising, cleaning, gardening, resting. No longer are audiobooks only for those who struggle with physical reading, or those with long drives ahead of them. Now, they are open to anyone.

So is reading losing out to films and TV? I don’t think so. Film companies seem to rely on a small number of big-budget movies each year, so going to the cinema is becoming an occasional treat for many (and maybe it always was). And while TV shows increase in both number and (according to many) quality, with streaming this is becoming a more personal activity‌—‌we can watch on a big screen, or on a laptop or phone, with headphones plugged in.

If entertainment is becoming more personal, and more solitary, then why not reading? It is easier than ever to access book, and with the growth of independent publishing there are more books available than ever. And while the increase in ‘readers’ might not be huge, many of us who already read are doing so more often. I know that my reading has increased since getting an e-reader.

It’s worth considering the origins of film and TV stories, too. Many of these come from pre-existing stories in the form of books‌—‌and for the film and TV companies, this makes sense. If a story proves popular as a book, then it must ‘work’, and it’s arguably easier to adapt a pre-existing idea (that has shown itself to be popular) than to risk developing something new.

Think Harry Potter, or Twilight, or Lord Of The Rings/The Hobbit. Think Birdbox, or The Martian. So many good films come from books.

Also, consider franchises. Star Wars might have started with one film, but as the franchise grew, fans demanded more stories. Yes, there were more films, but they take a long time to develop. It’s quicker to produce books, and there are close to four hundred novels related to the Star Wars universe. And as more stories are developed, the fans become increasingly immersed in the whole franchise, and then demand even more stories.

Times change, and technology advances. People have more access to all kinds of media, and this is only going to increase. But there will always be readers, and there will always be books in one form or another.

Reading isn’t going away.

How did you get into reading?

I’ve been reading for as long as I can remember. As a child I loved books, and that’s carried on into my adult life.

I’m not alone in this, and I’m sure many of you reading this are the same. There are those who get the reading bug later in life, and there are many stories of reluctant readers becoming enamoured with the Harry Potter books, but for most of us, reading is a habit picked up early in life.

Of course, at such a young age our role models tend to be our close family, so it seem likely that most readers were first introduced to the love of books by parents.

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I have vivid memories of visiting our local library as a child. Sometimes our mum would take us, but at the weekend it was more likely to be our dad, and my recollection is that he’d often borrow books too.

He’s always been methodical, and I remember him having lists of books by authors he enjoyed (Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, Clive Cussler, Dick Francis), and as he read each book he’d cross it off. He’d also add other titles as the writers wrote more books.

And I copied him. Some of our lists were the same, but I added my own favourite authors‌—‌Stephen King, James Herbert, Isaac Asimov. I think I still used this list when I got into Terry Pratchett, too.

My dad (at least, in my memory) read on the train on his commute, and I’d read in the back-seat of our car on long journeys. On family holidays, he’d sit in the shade by the pool and read‌—‌and when I wasn’t playing in the water, I’d read while laying in the sun.
I’m pretty sure this wasn’t conscious, on either my part or his. But he was my dad, and therefore someone to copy.

I don’t remember my mum reading as much, except on holiday, but she always had a book by her beside. Draw your own conclusions from this, but my sister isn’t anywhere near as avid a reader as I am.

I think it took me a while to understand that other children didn’t read, but by the time I worked in education it was clear that many of those in my classes would do anything other than read for their entertainment.

Over the years there have been many schemes to encourage schoolchildren to read. There are adventure tales told in simplistic language that aimed to bring in teenage boys. There are simple non-fiction titles, little more than pamphlets, designed to engage those who aren’t interested in stories.

Studies show a correlation between books and exam results‌—‌students who come from households with a high number of books generally perform better in exams. From this were developed schemes to get more books into homes, on the assumption that this would boosting exam results and performance in school.

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These schemes didn’t work.

Correlation is not causality. If I wear shorts when it’s hot, that doesn’t mean the act of wearing shorts increases the temperature. If a cock crows every day at dawn, that isn’t sufficient evidence to argue that the crowing cock causes the sun to rise. Likewise, owning a large number of books does not automatically make someone more intelligent (although it might give that impression).

The real value in books lies not in their physical presence, but in the words within their pages. To be of benefit, books have to be read.

Another memory from my childhood might be apposite here.

In one of our weekly assemblies at school, we were given a talk by someone from Gideons, and afterwards this person presented every student in our year with a small New Testament. The aim was surely to encourage us to explore our faith in the hope that we’d become proper Christians (or something like that).

These New Testaments were small, about three inches by two, and the pages were very thin. They were bound in such a way that the pages were almost perforated, and could easily be torn out. One of my classmates said they would make great papers for roll-ups.

I doubt he used every page for this, but I’m sure he smoked a fair bit of that New Testament. Not what the man from Gideons envisaged.

So, if having books doesn’t directly lead to increased intelligence, better exam results and all the rest of it, why is there a clear correlation?

With a bit of thinking, it’s obvious.

Return to what I said earlier, about young children being strongly influenced by their close family. If a child’s parents have a decent book collection, it’s probably because they value and enjoy reading. These values are then passed on to their children. This might be through conscious effort (reading time before bed, buying books as presents, showing an interest in the books their children are reading, trips to the library, and so on). But it might also be unconscious, through things such as being seen reading a book, or showing an interest in books when shops.

Reading develops and builds many skills‌—‌concentration, analysis, empathy, self-direction and so on. And it is these skills that benefit a child in school and when taking exams. So there is a correlation, but the connection between books and better school performance is tied up in the act of reading those books.

Of course, it’s never too late to enjoy books (and with the rise of audiobooks, failing eyesight and difficulties in holding books are no longer issues). But, as with so many things, an early start is better.

I was fortunate in growing up in a house with books, and having parents who encouraged me to read, both consciously and unconsciously. Without books‌—‌without the worlds they contain, the things I’ve learnt from them and the skills reading has helped me develop‌—‌my life would be so much poorer.

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.

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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.