Are reading and writing really solitary activities?

sunset-3089285_1280Both writing and reading are solitary activities‌—‌the writer hidden away in a dark room, tapping away at a keyboard as their imagined worlds pour out; and the reader in a secluded space, diving into those created worlds. Both are ‘introvert’ activities, forgoing any need for social interaction.

At least, that’s the obvious impression. But I don’t think this is the complete picture. I think that there’s a social angle to both writing and reading.

These thoughts coalesced after I received an e-mail from someone who had read my free book, Dark Glass, and was writing to tell me how much she’d enjoyed it. It had a great impact on me. I was incredibly pleased that someone had connected with something I’d written, of course, but I was also very thankful that she’d not only downloaded the book (from the plethora of free books that exist), but that she’d also read it, enjoyed it, and taken the time to contact me.

And it made me think about why I write.

I’ve often told myself that I write for pleasure, and that I’d carry on even if nobody read anything I write. There’s something wonderfully escapist in all the planning, there’s the exciting rush of first-drafting as those plans come to life, and the slow, steady moulding that is editing is possibly the most rewarding part of the whole process, where those initial ideas finally become a fully-rounded story.

While all this is true, it’s not the whole truth. This might describe the process of writing a story, but a story is not the same as a book.

Once I’ve taken the story as far as I can, I’ll pass it on to an editor, and make further adjustments based on their comments. I’ll spend time formatting files so that the e-books look good. I’ll hire a cover designer. And then there’s the whole area of marketing and promoting, which I’m constantly learning more about. I look for ways to get this book in front of potential readers. I have a mailing list with free, exclusive books. I post a short story on this website every two weeks, and link to it via social media. I do what I can to reach possible readers, and I’m excited each time one of my books is downloaded, be it free or paid for.

When I say I’m not too bothered about others reading my books, I’m deluding myself. All this extra work proves it. The cover is there to attract potential readers. Editing and formatting help make the reading experience as good as it can be. And of course I want my stuff to be read‌—‌why else would I be looking for ways to reach more potential readers?

Some of this is for validation‌—‌no matter how good I feel a story is, only when others read it (and comment on it) will I know if it ‘works’. But there is also the need to share. I’ve enjoyed creating this story, I believe it’s the best I can make it (with, of course, help from others), and I want others to enjoy it as well.

After all, stories that are kept private are only dreams, but to live stories need to be shared.

fantasy-2760153_1280There is also the desire to improve as a writer. I am determined to make the books I write in the future better than the ones I have already written. I want to be embarrassed by my writing from a few years ago. For that to come about, I have to develop, and one important way of developing is to receive feedback. This could be positive, so that I can replicate what’s working well, or it could be constructive criticism, so that I am made aware of weak areas.

So as a writer I want to share my stories with others. But what of those readers? Where does social contact intersect with solitary reading?

The most obvious way is in reviews. Not very many readers leave reviews, and the ones that do can range from a couple of words to in-depth reports. Some are positive, some are negative, some are critical, and some are simply indications of likes/dislikes. But they are all communication, passing on the readers’ thoughts to other potential readers, either encouraging them to get a particular book or warning them to stay away.

And some of these reviews themselves spark comments. Have a look at any of the reviews of popular books, and you will see discussions where others have either agreed or disagreed with a particular review. Sometimes these can become bitter, but at other times they can bring about genuine change of opinion. And, of course, for a potential reader, they can provide more information about the book.

This is merely an electronic version of something that has been happening for years and years, quite possibly since the invention of the printing press. If we have an opinion on something, we are likely to share that with our friends. So if we have read a book that kept us up all night because we couldn’t bear to put it down, we’ll tell friends about it. If books come up in conversation, we’ll drop the names of current reads, or authors we’ve enjoyed. If a friend starts moaning about a particular book, and we have read it, we can add our own thoughts, either in support of or against their arguments.

In short, we share.

system-927147_1280Sometimes, books can open up conversations with others‌—‌similar reading tastes gives common ground, helping us (especially those of us on the introverted end of the spectrum) overcome any hesitancy in social communication. We can also use quotes‌—‌If I were to quote a line from Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett, and someone else were to come back with another quote, we instantly have a connection. Sometimes, that can be like being in a secret club, especially if our comments back and forth bring bemused looks from others.

And this leads on to another social aspect of reading‌—‌the book club. A few people meet regularly, all having read the same book, and they discuss, sharing their viewpoints and so on. The book club has adapted to the digital world, too, with sites like Goodreads. If you’re serious about reading, it’s worth checking out. There are reviews, of course, but also discussions in forums on many different aspects of reading and books, as well as quizzes and reading challenges.

Reading might be a solitary activity, but having read opens up social interaction. And this is obvious, when you consider that the written word is a means of communication, and that story-telling has always been one of the greatest forms of social contact. So I will keep on reading in solitude, but I will share that experience through talking and through reviews. And I will continue to write in my own little space, but I will present those stories in the best way I can, and I will share them with others.

Stories need to live, and that means they need to be shared. As Terry Pratchett said;

‘People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way round.’

Explaining The Everyday

I recently visited Beamish, a ‘living museum’ in the north of England. Set in rural land, it has different areas depicting life at certain times in history‌—‌a 1940s wartime farm, an 1900s town and pit village, and so on). Many of the buildings are genuine period properties, transported to Beamish and rebuilt brick by brick. Staff all wear period costumes, and play the parts of everyday people in these different areas‌—‌in the bakery, they make the bread and cakes using 1900s methods (and then sell them to visitors), and the guard at the wartime farm asked our children for their ID cards (and happened to have a couple they could take). Transport between the different areas is either by walking, or on restored buses and trams, complete with uniformed staff playing their parts.

BeamishRather than giving loads of information, it goes for an immersive experience. This approach allows visitors to experience these times and places, giving a more ‘real’ understanding of day-to-day life as it once was.

But, as we explored the place, one thought kept on coming back to me‌—‌it could never be totally realistic, because I was seeing all this through modern-day sensibilities. I couldn’t forget the ‘real world’, with all its tech and modern societal issues and so on. No matter how accurate the costumes and the settings and the acting, it was not my own reality.

And that got me thinking about fiction, especially any story that is not based in the here and now. It reminded me of the difficulties involved in making a story-world realistic in a genuine way.

vintage-1060202_1280Take historical fiction. The characters in the story should be used to the time period they are in, but as readers we might not be familiar with, for example, some of the social ‘rules’. So when, for example, a character removes their hat, this might mean nothing to us, but to the characters in the story it could be a sign of disrespect, and will colour their actions toward this character.

Then there is science fiction. We might take mobile phone technology for granted, and think nothing of texting or Tweeting or updating a profile, but these simple actions would be alien to someone from a hundred years ago. Now imagine how things might change in another century’s time‌—‌what will people then do that is normal to them, but unheard of to us?

So what’s the problem? Why not give us a bit of background info in the story so that we understand?

But that’s where the problem lies. How does a writer do this, without it coming across as a clunky explanation? How does a writer get this information across without shooting off on a tangent, or interrupting the flow of the story?

Surely, if the story concerns the characters, we need to remain with them as much as possible. We need to see both the story events and the story-world through their eyes, and experience it through their senses.

There are a few ways to solve this issue.

One that is possibly the easiest to pull off (and, unsurprisingly, one that is used a great deal, especially in fantasy stories) is to make the main character an outsider, someone who doesn’t initially know about the world.

The Harry Potter books are a great example of this. Yes, Harry is a wizard, but at the start of the series he doesn’t know this. He discovers this whole other reality, and has to learn how it works‌—‌and that allows us to learn through his story. It’s even pointed out in the books, most often by a frustrated Hermionie bemoaning Harry’s lack of knowledge.

LordOfTheRings_JRRTolkienThe Lord Of The Rings does something similar, through having hobbits as the central viewpoint characters. Although they are different to us, their world is similar to a kind of rural idyll we can relate to. This allows Tolkien to teach us, the reader, about the world beyond the Shire as the hobbits experience it.

Another example is Umberto Eco’s The Name Of The Rose. By having one of the main characters as an apprentice, Eco is able to have the master giving information in a natural way, helping us, the reader, make sense of what is happening. Similarly, in Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Holmes has to explain himself to the less quick Watson, allowing us (the even slower readers?) to keep up too.

But what if there are no characters close to ‘us’? What if there is no in-story novice who requires explanation?

There’s a thing called ‘maid and butler’, from stage-plays. Two servants appear, cleaning or whatever, and they talk about the current situation of the main characters‌—‌but often, it comes over extremely false. “As you know, Ethel, the master is due to return from his recent sojourn to the south of France, where he has been wooing young Miss Forester.” Yes, it gives us information, but it sounds unnatural‌—‌both characters know these facts, so why are they talking in this manner?

So, how do authors avoid this?

One way is simply through good writing craft.

ConsiderPhlebas_IainMBanksAn example of this is in Iain M Banks’ Culture books. The main characters are not human, and so they have alien (to us) ways of doing things. There are many references to characters glanding various compounds, but I don’t believe this is ever overtly explained, but context makes it clear that Culture residents can artificially introduce various drugs into their bodies by manipulating internal reservoirs. In a short phrase like ‘she glanded Bliss’, Banks leads us to understand that this character is giving herself some kind of euphoric ‘high’ as a way of coping with her situation.

Sometimes, an author will throw the reader in at the deep end, and force the reader to think. Michael John Grist does this in his Ruins War trilogy (beginning with Mr Ruin). Right from the start, we’re diving minds, and fighting the Lag in sublavic ships. There’s very little to explain these terms, but as a reader it is clear that these things all mean something, so we go along with it, trusting that things will become clear eventually.

Books like this aren’t necessarily light reads, but good ones (like Mr Ruin) are worth the effort, because our perseverance is rewarded. Also, we are in the characters’ world from the start, totally immersed.

But sometimes there is need for explanation. There are books where a little up-front understanding will help the reader appreciate the story far more. And there are a few ways an author can do this.

Isaac Asimov uses one common method in his Foundation books. He starts each chapter with an excerpt from a fictional encyclopeida, giving some background information while still leaving questions, and all without disrupting the flow of the story. Other authors include extracts from ‘historical’ documents.

DreamingVoid_PeterFHamiltonSome authors delve into the details, but turn a possible distraction into an effective part of their writing. I’ve recently read The Dreaming Void by Peter F Hamilton, and there are long passages of explanation, far more than the story actually needs. But it adds to the whole world, and in a genre like hard sci-fi, many readers actively want these details. Similarly, Neal Stephenson, in Seveneves, provides so much technical information that at times it reads like a manual‌—‌but that is one aspect of his writing that his readers like. In the wide realm of science-fiction, some readers are drawn to the ‘fiction’ side, while others thrive on the ‘science’.

Of course, JRR Tolkien did this too, but on a far larger scale. The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings are the ‘stories’, but the details of the world he created fill up not only a lengthy appendix, but also many more books. And this is another way of doing things‌—‌write the stories so that the average reader can appreciate the story, even if they don’t quite get all the references, but provide additional writings for those who want to dive deeper.

Ultimately, though, the method used is not as important as the end results‌—‌to allow the reader to experience as fully as possible the characters’ world. Maybe, as with the Beamish museum, total immersion is not possible, but that doesn’t mean we stop trying. It’s one of the joys of reading fiction set in different places and different times, filled with characters who are different to us‌—‌it gives us an experience we cannot get in our normal lives. It helps us see a world, be it real or imaginary, in a new way.

I don’t know who said it, but this quote is perfect:

I read books not because I don’t have a life, but because I choose to have many.

Reading Fast and Slow

Some books, I shoot through. Others seem to last ages. And it’s not simply because I’m not interested in reading them. It feels like the length of the book is not the only factor in how fast it takes me to read it.


A couple of books highlighted this to me recently. I read Mark Dawson’s first Isabella Rose thriller, The Angel over a couple of days (which is about what time I’d expect to take for one of his books), but before that I read Stephen Baxter’s Time, and this took ten days.

Time clocks in at about 550 pages, and The Angel at 350, so I’d expect to read the latter quicker. But the maths doesn’t add up‌—‌350 pages in two days works out at 175 pages a day, so Time should have only taken about four days. Not over twice that time. And there was no difference in the amount of reading time I had available for each book, either.

But The Angel flew by, and Time took its time.

Why? Why do some books take ages while others feel like they’re over almost as soon as I’ve started?

Length of chapter/paragraph/sentence

It’s common writing advice that short, sharp sentences make for a fast pace. This works really well in thrillers. The ones with punchy sentences. A couple of words. It keeps the tension high. It keeps you reading.

Single-sentence paragraphs work well, too.

Then there’s the opposite‌—‌the languid, drawn out prose that linger on the scenery, like a slow-panning camera, allowing you to savour the setting. Then there are the sentences that dive deep into a character’s thoughts, often leaping about from idea to idea (because that is how thoughts work), so by the end of the sentence you can hardly recall the beginning, and you feel like you have been on a journey between those full stops, and you need a moment to recover before you drift into the next sentence. These sentences are written to draw the reader in, or to offer the reader the opportunity to dwell on the poetry of the language.

It doesn’t always work that way, but generally something written with a short, snappy style tends to flow faster.

It also results in more white space on the page, and this is another factor in reading speed, for a couple of reasons. First, a page of solid text can appear daunting, and we almost need to build up the will to start attacking it, whereas a page with lots of white space is more appealing and we dive straight in. And secondly, it is easier for readers to lose their place in dense passages, so they proceed with more care, taking more time to ensure they don’t miss out lines.

With the books I mentioned above, The Angel has lots of short sentences and paragraphs, with loads of white space on the page. Time has its short, sharp moments, but overall the sentences are longer, and there are long passages with a couple of paragraphs taking up single pages.


Stories are there to provide entertainment, but in many stories there is a need to impart some information as well. Baxter’s Time has a strong hard sci-fi element, with lengthy scenes where the characters discuss in-depth science. At times it veers close to becoming a lecture, and it requires effort for someone unacquainted with that type of science (like myself) to follow the arguments. This concentration naturally slows down the reading speed. As much as I enjoyed these passages in Time, they took longer to get through than more action-based scenes.

Compare that to Dawson’s book. Yes, there is technical information in this book‌—‌such as details of weapons and other pieces of kit. It’s what you would expect in this type of well-researched thriller, and it makes the book more believable, more grounded in reality. But Dawson keeps these passages short, a paragraph or two at the most, often only a brief sentence. He doesn’t allow the information to detract from the story.

And this highlights a difference between the books. In Time, Baxter is exploring scientific possibilities, and so the information is an integral part of the story itself. Hi work is as much about the ideas as it is about the story. But in The Angel, the story is the most important aspect, and technical information is there as colour.


This is similar to information, but is also connected with giving the reader different depths to each image. There are some wonderful passages in Time where the characters are watching space, and naturally Baxter uses many words to do this in order to give us the huge scope of what they are seeing (and feeling). He builds up a dense picture for us, taking his time (and many words) to get things just right.


But this doesn’t work for a fast-paced action sequence (of which there are many in The Angel). Here, we want action, not description. A car might be red, or a particular make, but we don’t need to know about the rust on the wheel-arches, or the dent in the rear. Likewise, when a thug attacks the hero, we’re not interested in his shirt, or exactly how tall he is, or if he’s shaved that morning. We want to know what he’s going to do, and how the hero’s going to respond.

Obviously, some colour is good. A fight scene that is nothing more than a blow-by-blow account of the action gets boring. We need some emotion, and we need some details so that we can ground the fight in reality. But we don’t need too much that is overly descriptive. We don’t want to slow down for unnecessary detail.

So a terse style, more suited to thrillers like those written by Dawson, pulls us through the book, increasing the speed at which we read.


Most people, even if they know a great many words, use a limited vocabulary in their day-to-day lives. Maybe this is down to the need (or desire) to be readily understood‌—‌using possibly obscure words will make others pause, and could lead to misunderstandings. And this is as true with text as it is with the spoken word.

Some books (or passages within books) benefit from using a wider vocabulary, but they are usually more literary works, where the particular choice and usage of words are a main part of the pleasure of the book. These are books that are designed to be savoured, designed to be devoured slowly. They are books where we are invited to acknowledge the poetic and aesthetic word-crafting of the author.

But stories are different. Stories need to be told using language that doesn’t get in the way. We want to know what happens next, and we don’t want to be distracted by flowery prose. Maybe a sharp one-liner or two in dialogue, and possibly the odd enriching description, but for the most part we are interested in the story. We want to know how the characters are going to get out of a particular situation.

Thinking of those two books I read, The Angel is definitely plot-driven. Although Dawson does use a wider vocabulary than other authors in his genre (and that is one of the things I like about his writing), he doesn’t let it get in the way of the story. Baxter is different‌—‌there are times when he wants us to take our time, to savour the images he is presenting, and so a more expansive vocabulary is required.

Story Time and Jump Cuts

The scope of Time is large. There are passages that describe short periods of time, but the story takes place over years. Months can pass in a couple of paragraphs. In contrast, the events in The Angel take place over very short time periods, and an action sequence of only a minute or so might take two or more pages to describe.

At first, it might appear that this would make Time read quicker than The Angel‌—‌slowing down to describe in detail what is happening, for instance, in a fight scene should make those intense few minutes last far longer, right? And maybe, sometimes, it does work this way. But I think the reverse can happen, too. If we know that things are moving fast in the story, we naturally read faster. Similarly, if events in the story are unfolding over many weeks or months, we feel that we can take our time.

It depends on how that passage of time is described.


One technique Dawson uses to keep the tension high and to keep us reading is that of cutting between points of view. We might start off a sequence with one character, but then (usually at the moment when they are in greatest danger), we cut to another character, and learn what they have been doing. We chop and change quickly, which is like the fast cutting of a movie action sequence. It keeps us wanting to return to each character, eager to find out what happens to them.

In Time, although there are a number of point-of-view characters, we are generally with each one for more pages, and for more time. This is like the kind of movie shots that follow the character or action with one camera, giving us a long, unbroken sequence that allows us to dive deep into the scene. There is no urge to rush, so we read at a more leisurely pace.

Of course, there are many more things that can affect reading speed. There are all those external factors, like interruptions (a sudden storm hammering rain against the window, the kids playing, noises on the street outside) and our current state of mind (feeling tired, having other things on our minds). Sometimes we have our own time constraints (something else to do, a new book we want to read), and we naturally speed up, maybe skim-reading some passages. A thick book might feel daunting, so we start with more trepidation. Or maybe we don’t want a thin book to finish, and we actively slow down (which is something that happened to me when I first read Douglas Adams’ Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy).

But that is one of the pleasures of books. Unlike films and TV programmes, or music, books are not constrained by time. We can fly through a hundred pages, or we can linger over a single sentence. We can enjoy a thrilling roller-coaster ride of a story, or we can savour the richness of the language. We can set aside an evening for the adrenaline rush of racing through a whole book, or we can read a little each night, drawing out the immersive pleasure of the book.

But however we do it, reading is always time well spent.


The Problem With Accents

I listened to a free audiobook of Dracula a while back. The narrators were all volunteers, and each took a separate chapter. Of course, the quality varied‌—‌some went for a drawn-out reading to heighten the dread, others went with a more conversational tone. There were some interesting mispronunciations, too, which might be down to a 19th century book by an English novelist being read by American narrators‌—‌language changes over time and place, after all.

Then there were the accents. Most of the narrators read in a single voice, but some used accents for occasional characters. This was most usually Van Helsing, and I believe his lines are written with a hint of his Eastern-European pronunciation.

The main characters in the book are ‘educated’, and all speak with proper diction (with the exception of Van Helsing), but they occasional encounter ‘locals’, who would naturally speak in dialect (mainly in the sections set around Whitby, so we’re talking Yorkshire accents here). For one of these, Stoker writes the dialogue as the character would speak.

nosferatu-1-615x349The narrator for this chapter did his best, and I don’t mean to mock him. I know I could do no better with, say, a Texas accent. I don’t even know if the narrator had ever heard a Yorkshire accent before attempting to read Stoker’s text. But the accent he narrated in didn’t work. You know Dick Van Dyke’s ‘cockney’ accent in Mary Poppins? Imagine that combined with the occasional Scottish twang, and you’ll have a rough idea what this Yorkshire character sounded like.

Again, I want to stress that this was a free audiobook, narrated by volunteers. They all did a far better job than I could do.

But it got me thinking about accents in books.

The standard advice for writing is to be careful with accents. If you have to ‘write accents’, don’t overdo it. The aim is to convey a flavour of the voice, but the text always has to be understandable. Add too much authenticity, and things go wrong.

This might sound counter-intuitive, but spoken and written language are two different things. Just listen to how people normally talk, and then imagine this written down. How many times do people ‘umm’ and ‘ahh’? How many sentences are left unfinished? How much is repeated? Even when people are telling a story of what happened to them, their words will not translate perfectly to text.

“So, like, I says to him, um, ‘you want this or not?’, right, and he’s all like ‘I don’t know’, and so, um, I say ‘but it’s your favourite’, and he’s still, like, unsure, um, so, like, I don’t know, is he winding me up or I don’t know, why doesn’t he want it, I don’t know.”

You get the idea.

So the advice with accents is to be sparing.

“Aye, they came up from the South, like they allus do.”
“You talkin’ to me, son?”

The odd word, the occasional missed letter. It helps give a flavour of the accent while still being readable.

Too much can be hard to read, and I think this is down to how we are taught to read, and the way our brain decodes the written word. Initially, we learn letters, and use these letters to make up words and parts of words. We learn that ‘ough’ is sounded ‘oooh’ in words like ‘through, and ‘ohh’ in words like ‘though’. Gradually, out brain starts to decipher these combinations automatically, and we no longer have to sound out individual letters and sort them into groups. Instead, we glance at a word and instantly understand it. This is when we really start reading.

But with words written in accent, we have to go back a step. The words look wrong, and our brains have to resort to mentally sounding a letter at a time. The odd dropped letter (walkin’, ‘ope), especially when signalled with an apostrophe, isn’t too bad. Bu’ a rendrin ah th’slurrd word a slip aht in t’heat o’normal torkin is allus a buggr t’unnerstan’. Even with apostrophes.

That’s why too much ‘accent’ in writing is a problem.

But there are authors who use this to great effect.Trainspotting_IrvineWelsh

One obvious example is Irvine Welsh, especially in Trainspotting. The story is set in Scotland, and is told through a series of incidents from different characters’ points of view. At first, it is hard to read. Welsh doesn’t only render the dialogue in accents, but also the prose. At first glance, a page can look like it is written in a different language entirely.

But with a little perseverance, it becomes easier to understand. And the language fits the story. We’re in the heads of these characters, and Welsh uses the accented language to see the world through their perspective. It makes the book far more immersive than it would have been if he’d ‘written properly.’

FeersumEndjinn_IainMBanksAnother book comes to mind here, and although it’s not written ‘in accent’, it is still relevant. That book is Iain M Banks’ Feersum Enjin. Take a little time over that title, and you’ll get an idea where I’m going with this.

(I haven’t read this book for a good few years, so apologies for being a little hazy here.)

The story is split between a number of viewpoint characters. One of these is written almost phonetically (and this is shown in the title‌—‌Fearsome Engine, while being ‘correct’, just doesn’t work as well.) Banks also uses ‘text-speak’, using numbers and symbols to replace letters (so ‘into’ becomes ‘in2’, and ‘at’ becomes ‘@’).

Here’s the first line from this character’s sections, to give you a taste of it:

Woak up. Got dresd. Had brekfast. Spoke wif Ergate thi ant who sed itz juss been wurk wurk wurk 4 u lately master Bascule, Y doant u 1/2 a holiday? & I agreed & that woz how we decided we otter go 2 c Mr Zoliparia in this I-ball ov thi gargoyle Rosbirth.

(Incidentally, that was a pain to copy out. I’m used to typing, so deliberately mis-spelling things slowly me down.)

Why does Banks use this style of writing? Again, it is down to character. This character is young, with a naive outlook on life. The language reflects this, unhindered by convention and free to view things in an intuitive and original manner. Language is used to provide insight into the character.

And, as with the Scottish dialogue Welsh uses, it does become easier to read as you go along.

There are those who say that all writing should be like this. Every so often there are rumblings about written language being too tied up with rules that, on the face of it, make no sense, and that words should be spelt out as they are sounded.

I’m not going to get into a major discussion on this, but I will point out one of the major problems with this approach to spelling, and it comes back to accents. A word like ‘out’ might be spelt ‘auwt’, or maybe ‘owt’. But ‘owt’, in some parts of the country, is a word that means ‘anything’ (as in ‘you doing owt today?’). So if we came across a word spelt ‘owt’, what is the meaning of it? We’d need to decipher the surrounding words, using context to gain meaning. But if we see the word ‘out’, we know what it is because we have been taught that this combination of letters reflects a certain concept.

And this is the problem with phonetic spelling. Spoken language varies from country to country and from region to region, even when the language is ostensibly the same. The English language is spoken in many flavours across the world. If written English reflected that, its universality would be greatly reduced.

This is the thing to remember with writing accents‌—‌we write to be understood. If the accent gives an insight into the character or the setting, or brings a scene to life, then it has its place, if used carefully, like a dash of seasoning. But overuse creates a barrier, like heavy seasoning can mask other flavours. And then, the reader is pulled out of the story, just as I was listening to that strange accent in Dracula.

AllusionistLogoNote: I listen to a lot of podcasts. One of them, The Allusionist, is all about words and language, and it just so happens that the latest episode is all about accents. You can give it a listen here.


Does Writing Spoil Reading?

knowledge-1052010_1280I had a good friend who studied English at A-level. I was a little envious of that, until he told me that it pretty much put him off reading for pleasure. Whenever he read, he’d start analysing the sentences, and searching the subtext. He’d find himself comparing that book to others. Reading became an exercise, one that he no longer wanted to do. He said it took him years before he could pick up a book and simply enjoy it.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with analysing and studying literature. But reading, at least reading fiction, is primarily a leisure activity. It should be fun, even while being scary or confusing or thought-provoking. It should be a pleasurable experience. Reading fiction should not be a chore.

I understood what my friend meant, at least in theory. But now, I’m starting to appreciate what he meant on a different level.

I’ve been writing seriously for a while now, and I’m constantly working to improve my craft. Obviously, that involves lots of writing, but reading is important too. There are all the ‘how to’ books, but becoming a critical reader of fiction is also extremely helpful.

I don’t use ‘critical’ in a negative way here, although there are increasingly times when I spot ‘mistakes’ in books I read, and find myself thinking of ways to improve the writing. Learning from the ‘mistakes’ of others is always useful, but learning how to do things ‘right’ is equally important. I’ll read a passage, then re-read it in an attempt to figure out how the author was using language.

TomorrowGene_PlattTruantI’ll give you an example from something I’ve read recently‌‌—‌The Tomorrow Gene by Sean Platt and Johnny B Truant. It’s another of their ‘big idea speculative thriller’ books. They always push the envelope with their books, and it’s been interesting to watch their development as writers.

The main character in this book is called Ephraim. It’s not a name I’m familiar with, and I’d imagine there are many others who are unsure how to pronounce it. The authors must have been aware of this potential difficulty, and so they include these lines of dialogue in an early scene:

“How do you prefer to be addressed? As Mr. Todd? Or as‌…” She peeked again at the tablet. “Eff-ryum?”
“It’s pronounced EEE-frum.” Then, unnecessarily, “It’s biblical.”

I read that, and had to stop. It impressed me. It’s a great way of telling the reader how to pronounce the name. It’s providing information through dialogue, in a way that feel natural and unforced. Even the added ‘it’s biblical’ comment isn’t random‌‌‌—‌‌it tells us that Ephraim has been asked about his strange name so often that explaining it becomes automatic. We gain insight into the character while being told, subtly, how to pronounce a tricky word.

If I wasn’t interested in writing, I doubt I would have dwelt on this. I might have realised what was happening, but it would have been a passing moment. I doubt the lines would have impressed me in quite the same way, and I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have pulled me out of the story.

Johnny and Sean intended their craft to be invisible, and for the reader to remain in the story, but I had totally the opposite reaction.

I was analysing rather than simply enjoying, and I now understood, on a different level, how my friend had problems simply enjoying reading.

nightmare_on_elm_street_3_poster_02This isn’t the first time I’ve experienced something like this. I can recall, years ago, watching the third Nightmare On Elm Street film in a cinema. There is one scene where one character has tendons pulled from their hands and feet, turning them into a puppet. When this came on screen, there were definite sounds of discomfort around me, but I can clearly remember thinking ‘how did they do that and make it look so good?’

I used to watch a lot of DVDs (remember them?), and if I had the choice, I’d always go for the ‘special edition’ with all the behind-the-scenes footage and ‘making of’ features. I’d re-watch the film, maybe with the director’s commentary, and I’d find so many little things I hadn’t noticed first time round. Knowing how a particular sequence was created, and the camera tricks it used, added another layer to my enjoyment of the film.

Maybe there’s always been a part of me that is interested in what is happening behind the camera, or beneath the page. Maybe that’s why I found Stephen King’s Danse Macabre so interesting, and can still recall his explanation of how he slows the pace just before a scary moment in his books. And maybe that’s why being an avid reader has not been enough, and I have to write.

As I learn more about the craft of writing, I spot more and more examples (both good and bad) in books. In some ways, this means that I have lost a certain innocence in reading‌‌—‌I can’t experience the thrill of the story in quite the same way as someone who is able to read purely for pleasure. But it does not meant that reading is no longer enjoyable for me. I simply come to the story from a different angle, and see different things in the writing. Not better or worse, but simply different.

EdenExperiment_PlattTruantBut back to The Tomorrow Gene. The authors run an occasional podcast, called Backstory, where they go behind the writing of one of their books (and they refer to these are their ‘DVD extras’, so it’s no surprise that they interest me). They posted one recently that talked about the whole Tomorrow Gene trilogy, even though they’d only released the first book. I believe they did this by accident, because a few days later they’d taken this podcast down‌—‌but I’d already downloaded it, so I gave it a listen.

Maybe I shouldn’t have done so, because they discuss certain plot twists that occur in the second and third books. But I’ve listened to it now, and I can’t un-listen (although the books deal with mind and memory manipulation, so maybe one day…)

I’ve since read The Eden Project, the second book, and I found it better than the first. Yes, I felt like I knew more than I should have done, but it was still a great read, and I’m looking forward to the release of the third book. Knowing what’s coming hasn’t spoilt the books for me. If anything, I’m looking forward to finding out how the authors build up to, and then reveal, their big surprises.

So does writing spoil reading?

No. It adds another layer of understanding, and another angle of approach. It opens up more levels of appreciation.

As someone who is writing more and more, reading is now both a learning experience and a leisure activity. Depending on the book, I now have more scope for immersing myself in the writing.

And if reading is making me a better writer, then writing is also making me a better reader.

Why Ideas Are Not (That) Important

I’ve got an idea for a story. It’s great. It’s got this wonderful twist, one that turns everything on it’s head. See, what happens is….

But I don’t want to tell you. Not yet. See, you might take it and use it yourself. Then it wouldn’t be anything special when I write it. I don’t want to let this idea go. It’s that good.

Okay. I’m excited. I’ll tell you. See, it’s set in our world, but there’s an alien race living amongst us. They have been for years.

What do you mean, it’s been done before? I haven’t got to the good bit yet. See, this hero character stumbles upon the truth, and it looks like this alien race are trying to take us over. They do stuff like rig elections, and make sure there are all these dodgy additives in food.

Okay, okay, so that’s been done before. But you still haven’t let me get to the proper bit yet. There’s this twist.

You going to shut up and let me finish?

Thank you.

So this hero’s being guided by some secret organisation, and they’re trying to fight these aliens. They don’t want to be taken over. But our hero, he stumbles upon something. And it changes everything.

See, these aliens know that humans are dying out. They’ve known for years. And they came down, not to take us over, but to help us. Instead of wanting to destroy us, they are trying to save us.

Neat twist, right?

light-bulbs-1125016_1280Maybe. But the idea doesn’t make the story. It could be turned into something amazing, or end up run-of-the-mill, or even terrible. It could be a success, but it could just as easily be a failure.

Why? Because ideas are not important.

Okay, that’s an over-generalisation. Obviously, it is important to have an idea before writing, or before creating anything. You need to know, or at least have an inkling, where the story is going. You need to have a starting point, be that an interesting character, some event, or simply a concept (what if we used scent as our main means of communication? Oh, The Simpsons got there first – ‘Smell ya later!’).

But the idea in itself is nowhere near as important as the execution.

Don’t believe me? Think of any story you like — book, film, TV show, doesn’t matter. Now boil the story down to a single sentence, the idea around which everything else hangs.

Here’s one. Young person forced to leave home and fight, eventually triumphing over evil.

Sound familiar? It’s Star Wars, right? Or maybe (if you take ‘person’ to mean ‘person-like being’) it’s Lord Of The Rings. Or countless other stories.

Now think of a concept for a story. Try this one. The world is an illusion.

Cool-sounding concept. It’s The Matrix.

Or is it The Wizard Of Oz, where everything turns out to be a dream? Maybe it’s The Truman Show.

Three very different stories, but they could have come from the same initial idea.

The initial idea isn’t that important. It’s what you do with it that matters.

light-2674160_1280But even that only goes so far. Imagine two writers have the same initial idea, and map out identical story outlines. They have the same characters and settings. But the finished stories would be different. One might be heavy on poetic descriptions, where the other is filled with fast-paced dialogue. One might have a gritty edge, and the other might go for a softer, more family-friendly approach. One might stress the outer struggle of the characters while the other focused on their internal dilemmas.

Same ideas, different outcomes.

There is something else to consider when thinking about ideas. And that is the sheer abundance of them.

Don’t believe me? Coming up with ideas is easy. Look around yourself, or think about the things around you. Pick two different objects. Now combine them.

I’m going to pick a train set and an exercise bike for this example, as they are both things that are (sometimes) in our conservatory. My first thought on combining these is this; the power from the exercise bike is fed to the train set. While I pedal, the train runs. When I stop, the train stops.

Not a great idea, but let’s run with it. Imagine this train set is somehow a real railway system. When I pedal, I enable real trains to run. Obviously, that would take more than one person using an exercise bike. So there’s a whole bank of us, all pedalling furiously, so that the trains run on time. Our hard work enables all those business bods to get to work.

We can’t afford to stop, because then the transport network grinds to a halt. It’s not only about commuters. There are goods to transport as well. And, in this imaginary world, rail is the major transportation system. So those of us pedalling like mad are truly keeping the world running.

It’s a sweatshop.

This idea has legs (like the ones pedalling round and round). It raised so many questions. Are we pedalling through choice, or because we are forced to? Who is overseeing the pedal stations? What happens when the cyclists revolt? What happens when someone realises that pedal power could be used for other purposes?

Another example, again from our conservatory. There’s a plant in a pot on a table, and another in a pot on the floor. Which one is superior? The one on the table possibly has a ‘higher’ starting position, but the one on the floor is larger, and takes up more overall space. They are at different sides of the room. Is this because they can’t stand to be near each other?

So now my mind’s going off in all kinds of directions. Plants are intelligent. Maybe they have the ability to move themselves. Maybe the plants have been planning a takeover, rebelling against their treatment at the hands of humans. Eventually, they will start selective breeding programs, producing humans with more pleasing features, or ones that grow quicker. Maybe they will find a way of breeding humans through budding. Then some mad plant scientist will create a hybrid, part plant and part human. Fauna sapiens or something.

Sounds like it might end up as a comedy, but again that depends on the execution. Compare Day of the Triffids to Little Shop of Horrors.

See? I came up with a cool idea, and others have already beaten me to it. But that doesn’t matter, because the idea is only the starting point.

It’s what I do with it that is important. And that’s when the real work starts.

The Freedom Of Pen-Names

fake-30346_640TW Iain is not my real name.

For any of you who have read my ‘about the author’ page, this should come as no surprise. I use a pen-name.

I’m not alone in this. Throughout the history of the written word, people have worked under pseudonyms. Some writers use multiple pen-names.

So why pretend to be someone else? Surely, if I’m proud of my books, I shouldn’t have a problem with them coming out with my real name on the cover. And if I’m embarrassed about them, or I’m worried that they’re not good enough, what am I doing throwing them out into the world?

It’s not that simple. There are many reasons for using a pen-name.

Writing in multiple genres

A lot of writers stick to one genre, occasionally flirting with others but always returning to their core. JRR Tolkien wrote some children’s stories, but they were still set in fantasy worlds, or had elements of the myths that influenced the rest of his work. Robert A Heinlein was prolific, but stayed within the bounds of science fiction. Terry Pratchett wrote comedy, predominantly within a fantasy setting.

But other writers spread themselves wider. Julian Barnes writes literary fiction, but he has also written mysteries, released under the name Dan Kavanagh. When JK Rowling writes her Cormoran Strike books, she does so under the name Robert Galbraith.

There are good reasons for this. If readers are accustomed to a particular type of book from an author, they are not going to be happy if that author releases something too different. Cormoran Strike and Harry Potter are written for very different audiences.

Many authors who write across different genres cultivate different brands, with a pen-name for each one. Even someone like Johnny B Truant, who writes and produces a wide range of books under that name (which is not his real name anyway), uses another pen-name, Aubrey Parker, for his romance titles. Many authors who write clean romance and erotica use different names‌—‌readers wanting a sweet love story are not going to be enamoured by graphic sexual content, and the erotica readers are going to be disappointed if there is nothing physical between the main characters.

So using different names for different genres can help readers identify the books they are more likely to enjoy. It can work to avoid confusion and frustration

Going against prejudices

The Cormoran Strike books highlight another reason for using a pen-name, one that was more common years ago but that still (unfortunately) exists. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are written for children (of all ages), but the Cormoran Strike books are thrillers. This is a genre where, generally speaking, readers are more likely to accept a book written by a male.

There have been cases of female authors using male pen-names in order to gain acceptance throughout the history of the written word. Mary Ann Evans became George Eliot, Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin became George Sands. Harper Lee, when she released To Kill A Mockingbird, dropped her first name (Nelle), using instead her more ambiguous middle name.

And such prejudices do still exist today, and I came across a book review recently that highlighted this. The book was by an author who used initials rather than a first name, and the reviewer was angry. He seems to have enjoyed the book, but also assumed the author was male. When he found out that this assumption was wrong, he changed his opinion of the book, and his review explained how he felt tricked, and would never have read the thing if he’d know the author was a woman.

I don’t know whether to laugh at the ridiculousness of it, or be concerned that some people think like this.

Of course, many writers use initials rather than a name. Nora Roberts writes detective fiction as JD Robb. Another example is Joanna Penn. She writes books about the indie-publishing business, and is well-known and well-respected as a podcaster and speaker, and a driving force in the whole indie scene. She also writes dark thrillers with supernatural elements, and puts these out as JF Penn. Yes, part of her reason for doing this is to separate her two brands, but I believe she went with initials partly because it makes her books more acceptable to a wider audience.

There are times when male authors lean towards a female pseudonym, especially in romance, as the previously mentioned example of Truant/Parker highlights. I have also heard of a husband-and-wife team who write erotica, but they use her name on the covers, because many erotica readers are more comfortable reading books written by a female.

As a final example of this, when Bloomsbury published the first Harry Potter book, they suggested Rowling use initials, on the basis that boys were less likely to pick up a book written by a woman.


This is, I think, a big reason for using a pen-name, and there are a number of facets to it that are worth considering.

Generally, the job people do comes to define who they are. When someone asks ‘what do you do?’ they mean ‘what job do you do that takes up the main part of your day and provides your main financial support.’ Anything else is considered a hobby, maybe interesting but often frivolous. The job is the important thing.

So some writers, especially those with ‘important jobs’, or those working in a role that brings them into contact with ‘the public’, can use a pen-name to shield the writing part of their life.

For others, there can be tension between their ‘job’ and their ‘writing’. I’m thinking here of those who work with, but also write stories of a more adult nature (such as erotica or hard horror). And some of you reading this will feel awkward at this point. Is it right that someone producing such adult material can also work as, for example, a teacher? Is that even safe?

There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be safe. A teacher might work with children, but they are still an adult. A teacher with children of their own has engaged in activities that are unsuitable for kids. As long as that part of their life does not have a negative effect on their job, there should be no problem. But a teacher writing for a mature audience needs to be careful, and using a pen-name can help greatly. It is not about hiding, but about keeping different parts of their life separate.

This doesn’t only apply to those working with the young or the vulnerable. For many people, it is healthy to have some separation between work and home life. Books, once they are released, are public. Family is private.

Eric Arthur Blair wrote a book describing his early life living in poverty, but he didn’t want this to embarrass his family, so he used the name George Orwell. Out Of Africa was originally credited to Isak Dinesen, although it is now available under the author’s real name of Karen Blixen. It is unclear why she used a pen-name, but one suggestion is that the Blixen family were well-known in Denmark, and she wanted to protect the family name. Or maybe she didn’t want to be seen as cashing in on her family’s credentials.

Maybe this is why Joe Hill writes under that name, and not under his given name of Joseph Hillstrom King. Being the son of Stephen King would definitely garner interest from the public, but it would also pile on the expectations. Using the name Joe Hill helps his books succeed or fail on their own merits.

And, interesting, this is a reason that King himself used a pen-name for some of his books. He wondered if his books were selling because they were good, or because his name was splashed across the cover, and so he produced a series of titles under the name Richard Bachman, with none of the marketing push his ‘King’ novels got. He never answered his own question, though, because after a few years he was ‘outed’ when people spotted how similar in style Bachman was to King (especially in Thinner, which contained a similar supernatural element to his ‘King’ books).

So using the anonymity of a pen-name can protect family, and it can provide a way of proving (or otherwise) an author’s writing. It can also provide a way of escaping expectations, either externally or internally imposed‌—‌important when a writer wants to go wherever the story leads without having to worry about possible repercussions in the ‘real world’.

It sounds better

This one might appear flippant, but the sound (and look) of a name is part of a writer’s brand, and plays a role in marketing and selling books. I’ll give a few examples.

Charles Lutwidge Dobson is a bit of a mouthful, but the name Lewis Carroll rolls of the tongue in the playful manner associated with Alice’s adventures. The name Joe Hill has a far stronger impact than Joseph Hillstrom, especially for a writer of horror and thrillers. Daniel Handler is a fairly forgettable name, but Lemony Skicket grabs the attention and promises something different.

The Harry Potter author has no middle name, but someone obviously thought J Rowling didn’t sound quite right. So she borrowed the first letter of her mother’s name, and became JK Rowling.

Sometimes, the better sounding pen-name can work against prejudices too, especially when readers might be wary of trying a ‘foreign’ author. So Jozef Korzeniowski becomes Joseph Conrad, and Alisa Zonov’yevna Rosenbaum becomes Ayn Rand.

And the look of the name? I recall hearing that ‘Stephen King’ is an ideal name for marketing because of how it looks on the book cover‌—‌longer first name in smaller letters, with the strong second name in larger letters.


Of course, there are many more reasons writers use pen-names, but this post is already too long. And besides, does it really matter? The name is a label, and it is useful for branding and marketing, but after that? When I’m reading a book I don’t think about who the writer is. I don’t look at the cover. I just want a well-told story.