Information without info-dumps in Craig A Hart’s short story ‘Loose Ends’

I’ve read enough free books that I always go into them with low expectations. That way I’m not so disappointed by poor storytelling and writing, and anything half-decent is a bonus. So it’s a pleasant surprise when a freebie makes me sit up and take notice.

This happened recently, with the short story Loose Ends by Craig A. Hart. Not so much for the story itself (which was an enjoyable way to spend half an hour), but for the quality of the writing. One of the things that stood out was how Hart feeds the reader information.

cover image of Loose Ends by Craig A Hart

The story is a noir thriller, with a typical wisecracking protagonist. This is set up perfectly in the opening line:

Nothing ruins the benefit of a good night’s sleep like being awakened by the muzzle of a pistol being jammed into one’s ear.

There’s no panic in this phrase, even though such a situation would be terrifying for most people. So the narrator‌—‌the man with the gun to his head‌—‌is either used to being in scrapes like this or he’s calm under pressure. Or both.

Already, we’re intrigued, and want to read on.

The narrator has been woken up, and it’s only natural that he’s a little disorientated. His thoughts start to wander‌—‌specifically to his ‘lady friend’, who he imagines being

thrust into the role of a modern day Sisera, playing the part of Jael by hammering a nail through my temple.

I’ve no idea who Sisera and Jael are, but I assume they’re characters from old stories, possibly biblical or mythological. And this tells me something about the man in the bed‌—‌he’s well-read. And, again, the way he’s not focusing on the gun at his head says he’s still calm.

But he’s a detective, so he has an analytical nature. Hart reinforces that in a quick summary.

I was lying in my own bed, in my own hotel room on Key West, and a gun was pressed to my ear.

It’s blunt, a stark reminder of the situation. It also drops clues about the setting‌—‌we’re in the man’s hotel room in Key West. His hotel room, so this isn’t a ‘wake up in a stranger’s bed after a wild night’ situation. He hasn’t mentioned anyone else, so we can assume he’s alone‌—‌apart from the person holding the gun.

We’re still missing a lot of information, though. Who is this man? We need to know more, and we get that in the next few lines.

“Not a move, Wolfe,” a deep voice growled.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” I said, quite truthfully.
“You expecting visitors?”
“Yeah. King Jabin’s army. You’d better get out while you have the chance.”
“What the hell you talking about?”
“I take it you’re not a scholar of ancient texts.”

So, we have a name now. We also know that this isn’t a random hit‌—‌the gun-man is targeting Wolfe specifically.

We also get another reminder of Wolfe’s intelligence, with the reference to King Jabin’s army (again, not something I’m familiar with). But we also see more of his character. It’s a stressful situation, but he’s calm enough that he’s wise-cracking. This might be a trope of noir thrillers, but it’s a fun one, and it’s something we expect in a story like this.

Hart’s given us so much information here, without forcing it down our throats, and we’re not even off the first page. He’s also set up an intriguing situation. We’re hooked.

A good thriller won’t give us everything straight away, of course‌—‌there has to be mystery and intrigue. But we’re still missing information that will help ground us. For instance, when is this story set? We might assume it’s mid-twentieth-century simply because that’s the golden age of noir, but we can’t be sure. That is, until Hart again drops a beautifully placed clue in dialogue.

“I’m just joshing you,” I said. “Trying to lighten the mood.”
“Keep your day job,” the little man growled in his paradoxically deep voice. “You’re no Jack Benny.”

The only thing I know off the top of my head about Jack Benny is that he was an entertainer or comedian around the mid-twentieth-century. It’s unlikely that the gun-man would reference someone who wasn’t contemporary to the story’s settings, so our original assumption of time seems to be correct.

But there’s more in this little exchange. The gun-man’s reference of another person mirrors Wolfe’s mention of King Jabin, but also highlights their differences‌—‌one contemporary and popular, the other older and more esoteric. It also hints at cracks in the gun-man’s confidence‌—‌he’s trying to beat Wolfe’s wise-cracks, but it doesn’t quite work. Even though he’s the one with the gun, it already feels like Wolfe is in control of the situation.

It’s a wonderful demonstration of how the craft of writing is as important as story itself. It’s a fantastic lesson in how to give information without resorting to info-dumps. It shows how phrases can do double-duty (providing information and giving insight into character while moving the story forward.)

And it’s definitely encouraged me to read more of Hart’s work.

It’s worth reading these freebies. Every so often, you come across a gem.

Always have variety in scenes? Agatha Christie and repetition.

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

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

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

In short, readers appreciate variety.

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

Cover of Agatha Christie's Murder On The Orient Express

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

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

How does Christie pull this off?

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

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

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

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

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

What I learnt from writing a nine-book series

Back at the start of 2015 I got serious about writing, publishing the first three book in my Dominions series in mid-2016. And now (May 2021) the series is complete‌—‌nine novels, and a few short stories and novellas.

It hasn’t always been easy, and I’ve learnt a great deal in these six years‌—‌about writing, editing, story, marketing and so much more. There have been a few sudden moments of realisation, but many of the lessons have been gradual.

I thought I’d take a moment to go through some of these.

Improving as a writer has a down-side

After putting out well over a million words, my writing’s improved, on both macro and micro levels (story-wise and sentence-by-sentence). This is clearly a good thing, but it does have a draw-back when writing a series‌—‌later books are better than earlier ones.

I want people to read and enjoy this series, and the natural place for them to start is at the beginning. This means they’re starting with the weakest books. If that first book doesn’t grab the reader, why would they bother continuing?

This hit me a couple of years ago. In preparation for a new book, I re-read the series so far, and wasn’t happy with the first book (Dark Glass). I pretty much re-wrote the whole thing, producing a second edition that was far stronger in both story and writing than the original.

This meant I had a stronger starting point for the series. But the next couple of books still had issues. And the ones after them‌—‌well, they’re not bad, but in retrospect there are things I could improve. And even though I’ve recently finished the ninth book, I’m certain that, if I re-read it again later this year, I’ll cringe at some of the amateur writing.

That’s the nature of improving‌—‌older stories will be inferior to current ones, which in turn will be weaker than future writing.

But I can’t continually improve already-published books. I need to work on new stories. In retrospect, working on a nine-book series as my first serious writing project was a mistake. I should have gone for a trilogy, or even a stand-alone. But I can’t change that now. I have to accept the situation, and move on.


Things won’t go to plan

When I grew serious about writing, I realised that I couldn’t make up a story as I went along. I tried, and that book was a mess‌—‌too many character viewpoints, too many pointless diversions, too sprawling. So I planned. I worked out the story, the characters and the settings before I started writing.

Planning was the key to finishing Dark Glass, and I’ve planned every book since.

But nothing ever goes to plan. The final version of a book is always different to that original plan.

Take Dead Flesh, the second book in the series. The original idea had Rodin saving Genna at the end. But for Rodin to do this, he needed to change. I planned a few early scenes where he was forced to confront his own beliefs, but it was only when I started first-drafting that I realised such a radical change couldn’t be glossed over so quickly.

The first half of the book grew and grew as I followed my new ideas. If I’d continued, Dead Flesh would have come in at around six hundred pages‌—‌twice the length of Dark Glass.

I stopped, and returned to my planning. I focused on Rodin’s change, and set Genna’s part of the story to one side. The new version, solely Rodin’s story, was far stronger. And, even at the end, Rodin wasn’t quite ready. So the third book continued his character arc. At the end of Deep Water, he’s finally ready.

And the discarded story-line concerning Genna? That was merely put aside, and used as the basis for book four, Riled Dogs.

Plans are useful tools, but they’re never set in stone. Writing is a constant process of change.


Inconsequential details can be important

When I came to write Rogue Wolf (the fifth Dominions book), I introduced a new character, Vanya. She was tough, and would become an important ally for Rodin. As I developed her, I recalled a character in Dead Flesh (the second book). I hadn’t named this earlier character, and she only appeared in two scenes, but she was important to the story.

I realised these two characters, the unnamed one and Vanya, were the same. Rather than invent a completely new character, I could develop a supporting character from earlier.

I’d like to say I planned this all along, but it was a happy accident.

When I came to write the final three books, I re-read all the older ones, looking for characters and settings I could re-use‌—‌not to be lazy, but because it would tie the books together. Incidental characters in earlier books became major players, and events and locations from earlier rose again. Because of this, the series became rounded, rather than being a string of actions.


Perseverance is the key

Writing is easy‌—‌put one word after another. Writing a book‌—‌a complete, coherent story‌—‌is another matter entirely. The first draft is only the start. Most ‘writing’ is editing and re-writing. Moulding those initial words takes longer than putting them down in the first place.

Once the first book is complete, there’s an expectation that the second will be easier. In some ways it is‌—‌you’ve done this once, so there’s no reason you can’t do it again. But there’s a drive to improve, to make the next book better than the previous one. And if that first book doesn’t reach readers, or doesn’t get rave reviews from the start, doubts can start to rise.

There are always doubts. There are always problems.

But the only way to overcome these doubts and problems is to keep working. To have a finished book, or a finished series, it is necessary to write. One word, then the next.

While writing Dominions I’ve also produced other stories. Six years on one project is intensive, and I needed diversions every now and then. I wrote short stories, and a sci-fi/horror trilogy. Once the sixth Dominions novel was out, I intended to take a break and work on something else.

I tried. I wrote the first draft of one story, and started another. But I couldn’t focus. Dominions lurked at the back of my mind. Eventually, I realised that I needed to complete that project before moving on.

I had to persevere. And I did, throwing myself into the final trilogy of Dominions. It was tough, but I think those final three books are the strongest of the series.

I succeeded. And this proved that I can persevere. Next time I’m struggling, I can remember this, and keep pushing through.


Finishing Dominions is bitter-sweet. For all it’s faults, I’m proud of the series. I’ve played in this world for the last six years, and a part of me doesn’t want to leave.

But it’s time to move on. I’m not ruling out a return to Dominions (I can see how I could expand the series quite easily), but for now I need a fresh challenge. I need to dive into a new world, to explore some different characters. I need to take the lessons I’ve learnt and apply them to my next series. And when the work is hard (as I know it will be at times), I can look back at Dominions and remind myself that I can do this. I can keep learning, and keep writing.

Changing my approach to writing a series

I’ve recently finished reading Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, and one of the things that impressed me was how, over three separate books, the story changes. The second and third books don’t only move the story on, but also peel back multiple layers from what is already known, leading the reader to continually reassess what they already know. On finishing Acceptance (book 2), I had a strong urge to start the series again, to see how much of the ‘truth’ was already there.

The writer part of me can’t help wondering how VanderMeer wrote these books. Did he have the whole trilogy mapped out, or did the layers of the story reveal themselves as he worked on each book? Did he start Annihilation (book 1) with the idea of writing a single book and maybe seeing how things went after that, or was it a complete trilogy in his mind from the outset?

I’m thinking a lot about series at the moment as I’m currently working on the final three books in a nine-book series.

Normally, I work on books sequentially, only starting a book when the previous one is (almost) complete. I’ll have ideas for the whole series, and as I write one book I’ll be noting more detailed ideas for subsequent ones, but plans don’t always pan out‌—‌problems will become apparent as I write, or characters will do and say things that take the story in unexpected ways. While it’s possible to change a book in the process of writing it, changing previous books to fit in with these new developments is far more awkward.

I’m trying something different with this trilogy. The books need to work as stories on their own, but also be a satisfying close to the whole series story. I need to close all (or most) of the loops already opened, answering hanging question. But I also need to ensure that everything that happens in the concluding scenes has been adequately set up.

So I’m working on these new books simultaneously. I planned then all, and I’ve just had a very intense few months writing the first drafts for all three (385k words, well over 1000 pages). And already, I’ve stumbled on issues that I can now correct.

An example‌—‌I found a solution to a particular problem in the final act of the last book, but it relied on a character using a specific skill. This was something that fitted the character, but not something I’d mentioned in other books. If I used this skill with no set-up, it would feel like a deus-ex-machina, a ‘get out of jail free’ card. But now, I can seed this skill earlier, so its use at the end doesn’t come out of the blue.

Another example‌—‌there was a whole sequence of scenes I wrote in the third book that, on reflection, added too much confusion in that book, and were far more suited to being included in the book before. Not a problem‌—‌drag those scenes into the second book’s file, and insert them wherever appropriate.

Of course, there are problems with this way of working. If I’d concentrated on the first book, it would probably be getting close to completion by now, ready for release by the end of the year. But I won’t be able to release any of these books until well into 2021.

There’s compromise in everything, though, and on balance this new method seems to be working better for me‌—‌I’m crafting better stories, both individually and as a series, which is my primary concern here. It’s allowing me to more fully immerse myself in the overall story too. In fact, I fully intend to work in this way with the next series I start.

Writing’s never static‌—‌there’s always more to learn, different strategies and tactics to explore‌—‌so I’m sure my process will change again.

Time for a change

Last week I put up my hundredth short story, and it feels like an ideal moment to pause and take stock.

I started this site/blog back in 2016, a few months before publishing my first book (Dark Glass). From what I understood at the time, regular content was vital. So I planned to add something each week, alternating between short stories and posts on various aspects of books and reading. At the same time, I continued working on novels and other stories, while also learning (constantly learning!) about various aspects of marketing and advertising.

With a family and a full-time job, it was a lot to take on. But I persevered. I’ve added new content every week while also completing nine novels (and a few other books).

It’s been getting harder, though. Over the first couple of years, I’d have a few posts and stories in hand, but recently I’ve found myself working on them at the last minute, sometimes only starting the post or story a few days before my self-imposed deadline. That might show some kind of work ethic, but it doesn’t always give time for sufficient editing. Nor is that kind of pressure sustainable.

So it’s decision time.

Writing books is far more than tapping away on a keyboard. There’s planning, then writing, followed by many rounds of editing. After this, there’s marketing‌—‌cover, product description and back cover copy, advertising and so on. To do this effectively requires both time and money. The whole publishing/writing industry is in constant flux, so I also need to keep up to date (I do this mainly through a number of podcasts.)

As I’m not a full-time writer, I need to find a way to make it self-sustaining without risking burn-out. To do this, I need to focus on two areas‌—‌producing stories and finding readers who will appreciate them.

The first of these areas‌—‌producing stories‌—‌is the ‘writing’ stuff (including planning and editing). I’m currently working on a trilogy of books, with the aim to publish them in the spring of 2021. Work’s going well, but I need to be focused, and use my time effectively. I can’t afford to be side-tracked (too often).

The second area‌—‌finding readers‌—‌involves some ‘book production’ (cover and product description) along with all the marketing stuff. This is huge, and I know I can’t do everything. But producing books isn’t free, and I need to cover these costs somehow‌—‌so I have to market. At the moment I’m spending a lot of time understanding Amazon Ads, and I don’t want to lose momentum in this.

While my website/blog could come under marketing, I don’t feel that the time spent is adequately compensated by the benefits (getting my name out there, finding new readers and so on). So it’s no longer a priority, and I’m scaling it back.

That doesn’t mean I’m not going to add anything new. I’ll still write short stories (they’re fun to work on, ideal as a break between longer projects, and a great way to improve my writing), but I won’t tie myself to one every fortnight. Nor will I limit myself to 1000 words. And I’ll still add posts, but only when I feel I have something to write about.

This might not be too infrequently, though. I’m constantly learning, and one of the best ways to consolidate learning is to summarise it‌—‌which, for me, means writing it down. If I have this stuff already written, then why not run it through a couple of editing passes and post it?

So I’m not going away, just shifting priorities.

Works well on screen, but not in print

It’s a classic shot in horror films‌—‌the main character walks away, and the camera pans over to the figure hiding in the shadows. Then there’s the mirror the next victim doesn’t look in, and so they miss the face in the glass. There’s a storm outside, but our heroes never see the hideous face at the window in the next flash of lightning. Or the monitor system that shows nothing untoward‌—‌until the main character looks away.

chamber-5264172_640

I’m sure you’ve seen other variations, in many films and TV shows. The observer unseen by the hero, the monster only we, the viewer, are aware of. It heightens the tension, gets us screaming at the screen, increases our pulse.

It’s a classic visual storytelling technique.

Note that I say visual technique. Like many film techniques, it doesn’t necessarily translate to the written word.

This has been brought to my attention in a couple of horror books I’ve read recently. One had a supposedly dead crew-member move in the image on a monitor‌—‌but only when two other characters had looked away. And the other had many scenes where characters were unable to see the ghosts following them, or even the ones standing right in front of them.

Both these books had engaging stories, and I enjoyed them‌—‌except for these moments that pulled me out of the books. Rather than increasing the sensation of fear they were supposed to evoke, they had me rolling my eyes.

But why? If the technique can be effective in film, why doesn’t it translate well to the page?

I can think of two main reasons.


The first involves point-of-view.

Most books stick to a single point-of-view throughout. Some go with first person, where everything is described as if being narrated by the protagonist (I spun around as something screeched outside, but all I could see in the glass was my own startled reflection.) Others use third person (He spun around to stare at his reflection.)

It gets more involved, of course. There are different degrees of third person pov (point-of-view). There’s the ‘god-like’ style, where the narrator knows everything, and doesn’t shy away from telling the reader. (When he spun around, he saw only his reflection, not the creature on the other side of the glass, the same one that had already tasted blood and wanted more of it.) This takes particular skill to pull off, because it automatically distances the reader from the characters.

An alternative, somewhere between this wide-angle third person pov and the intimate first person pov, is close (or limited) third person, where the narrator/writer describes what is happening, but limits that to the experiences of a particular character. This is probably the most popular point-of-view in modern books. The example of third-person above would fit here, but could be extended to include the character’s thoughts and feelings (He spun around to stare at his reflection, and the hollow pit in his stomach grew. For a moment he didn’t recognise his own features.)

Those examples aren’t brilliant writing, but you get the idea.

So what does this have to do with the ‘unseen observer’ film technique?

If a book is written in close third, then the only things that can be described are what the point of view character experiences (sees, hears, and so on). If something happens that they’re not aware of, it can’t be described. So if they close a door as they leave a room, unaware of the dark creature lurking in the door’s shadow, then the reader can’t know about this either.

So in close third, the reader shouldn’t see the face in the shadows, or the ghosts that are invisible to the point-of-view character. And when these things are described, it breaks point-of-view.

Does this matter? Isn’t this just a technicality? Maybe. But even if readers don’t know about point-of-view, they may well feel that something’s not quite right. The book just doesn’t hit home for them, although there’s nothing they can put their finger on.

There’s certain implied contracts between writer and reader. This includes promises the writer makes at the start of a story, but it also includes the style of story-telling. Changing point-of-view, unless done with great skill, breaks this contract‌—‌and so breaks the ‘reality’ of the story.


I said there were two reasons these ‘unseen observer’ passages didn’t work for me, and the second is harder to explain. Please bear with me.

Many (maybe most) writers think visually. We’re used to seeing the world around us, and are so accustomed to visual storytelling (in films and TV) that this should come as no surprise. So when we create stories, we often see them as mini-movies playing out in our imaginations. Even the dialogue is accompanied by facial expressions and other movements (which is why a straight transcription of imagined dialogue often fails to live up to the ‘reality’ in our heads.)

I’m pretty sure the writers of those two books (the ones with the passages that pulled me from the story) imagined these reveals in visual terms‌—‌the camera slowly zooming in to the monitor once the characters turned away, or maybe a slow dissolve to reveal the ghosts the characters couldn’t see. And then, they put words down to describe this scene, as accurately as they could.

I’m sure, when they read their words, they felt the same excited dread that they’d experienced when imagining these scenes‌—‌but how much of that was because of the words they’d put down, and how much was a trigger of that initial sensation?

It’s tricky, writing well. A line of dialogue can sound wonderfully sarcastic in our minds, but without the drawling voice it can come across as merely bitter on the page. An intense fight scene can become a series of abrupt sentences that don’t quite gel. That wonderful jump scare from our imaginations can become over-laboured, or over too fast to have the right impact.

When I read these problematic passages, I could imagine the writer working at them‌—‌when I should have been feeling scared for the characters. And imagining how the books were written naturally pulled me out of the stories.


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I’m not saying either book was bad. I’m pretty sure I’ll read more by both writers‌—‌they can construct decent stories, and can write well. Both books have many great reviews, too.

But no writing is perfect. There are always things that could have been improved. And that’s why I wanted to spend time thinking about these moments of distraction‌—‌the more I discover and analyse problems in books, the better my own writing should be.

Of course, I also need to figure out what works well in stories. This is harder, because excellent writing is invisible‌—‌I’m so engrossed in the story that I barely register that there’s words on the page. With the best writing, I’m there with the characters, in their heads, feeling what they feel. And when something scared them, it will scare me too.

New short story – ‘The Hangman’

Writing is a constant learning process.

I recently took part in J Thorn’s Supercharge Your Scene 5-day challenge. Along with the instruction from J, this challenge involved writing a scene (or short story). He presented us with a number of prompts and suggested we pick one in a genre we don’t normally write or read (because stepping outside comfort zones is a great way to learn).

The one that drew my attention was the Western prompt, and the end result is The Hangman. I’m not sure how well it ‘works’ (according to J’s teaching), with much of the ‘action’ left to the imagination, but overall I’m pleased with it. For something that could have become very dark, I think there’s a lot of hope in this story.

You can read The Hangman here.

And, in case you’re interested, this is the prompt, which I used word for word as the opening to the story:

The hangman took down the body from the gallows. It was the third execution Sheriff Sands had ordered this week‌—‌three more than all of last year.

Story or writing?

There are two parts to any written story‌—‌the story itself (plot, characters, and so on) and the writing (word choice, sentence construction, and so on). In an ideal book, both would work equally well. Exquisite (but not distractingly ‘showy’) writing would bring to life a well-constructed story, with realistic characters and vivid settings.

But there’s no such thing as a perfect book. It’s one of the reasons writers keep on writing‌—‌each book presents an opportunity to close the gap on perfection, to elevate the writing and storytelling from mediocre to good, from good to great.

I was thinking on this recently, after a couple of interesting reads.

[Note: there might be spoilers ahead!]


TheWall_JLanchesterThe first of these books was The Wall by John Lanchester. I’ve enjoyed other books by Lanchester (such as Mr Phillips and Fragrant Harbour), although I can’t recall much about them now. He’s definitely a writer in the ‘literary’ camp. But this new book of his was also billed as a Dystopian story, and I was intrigued to read his take on that genre.

The Wall follows a new Defender on the Wall, a defensive structure that encases the country. His job is to watch out for Others who might attempt to gain access. Any Other breaking into the country means a Defender being sent out to sea‌—‌one in, one out.

The style of writing is fairly simple, perfectly suiting the protagonist’s character as he enters this strange new world. It also suits the monotony of his job‌—‌standing in the cold, staring into the darkness, with nothing happening. But there are interludes‌—‌a trip home, where he realises how he’s changed, and a holiday with his new friends from the Wall. And, of course, there’s an attack. Despite fighting hard (and even shooting a traitor), the main character is sent to sea, with a couple of others from the Wall (three in, three out).

He has some adventures out at sea. And‌…‌that’s it.

The story is little more than things that happen, one after the other. For most of these events, the main character is little more than an observer, or a passive participant. The story ends in what seems to be an arbitrary place. There’s no real resolution, no clear story arc.

And yet, I still enjoyed the book. I enjoyed seeing these scenes through the eyes of this character.

In short, I liked the writing in The Wall, but the story left me cold.


TheTrusted_MMedhatThe second book was The Trusted by Michelle Medhat. I heard her talk about this book (and the whole series) on a podcast, and it sounded intriguing enough for me to buy straight away. A fast-paced thriller, political intrigue, near-future tech, and a smattering of aliens‌—‌sounded perfect.

It started well, but I found myself becoming distracted by the writing itself. Nothing major, just little things‌—‌clunky exposition in dialogue, apparent shifts in point of view within scenes, too much tell. It felt more like a description of a movie than a book.

But I still finished the book. Despite my disappointment in the writing, I wanted to find out what happened next‌—‌to the point that I’m considering buying the next book in the series.


Two books I enjoyed, despite both leaving me in part underwhelmed. One engaged me through the writing, the other through the story.

But which do I prefer‌—‌writing or story?

I think it depends on a few factors.

Average writing won’t bother me if the story’s good, but if the writing is too amateur I can be turned off even if the plot is ingenious. Well crafted prose can be a joy in itself, but without a resemblance of a story to hang the language on I can soon become fatigued.

It also depends on my mood. If I’m tired, or if there is too much else going on, I want escapism in my reading. This could be why The Trusted worked for me at the moment. But at other times I want stimulation, and I’ll better appreciate those books that require more effort in the reading, books where the pleasure is derived from sinking into the language itself.

This does mean that when I don’t particularly enjoy a book, it isn’t necessarily down to the book itself. It could simply be the wrong book for me at that time. There are books I loved in my late-teens that I now find tedious, and other books I struggled with when I was younger but that I now consider worthy classics.

Is writing more important than story? Is story more important than writing? I don’t think it matters. Everyone has their own preferences, and these can change at any time. The aim is to enjoy reading, in whatever form that enjoyment takes‌—‌carried along by the story, emotionally attached to the characters, awed by the dexterity of language, pleasingly immersed in each scene.

And if one book doesn’t quite hit everything we want, there’s only one thing to do‌—‌keep reading more books.

So there’s only one thing to do‌—‌keep reading.

What to do about a 1-star review

It had to happen‌—‌after writing about a great 5-star review for Shadowfall (you can read that post here), I end up with a 1-star reviews for Dark Glass.

This isn’t the first 1-star I’ve had, and I know it won’t be the last. Every reader is different, and I’m never going to satisfy everyone.

samuel-3898008_640It’s still a little frustrating, though. I don’t have many reviews, so any new review can make a big difference to the average, either positively or negatively.

A lot of writers say it’s a bad idea to look at reviews, but at the moment I’m willing to take any comments, either praise or constructive criticism. I want to improve in my writing, so it is useful to know what readers don’t appreciate as much as what they enjoy.

But this review puzzled me. It doesn’t comment on the story, but does say that the book is ‘rife with grammatical errors’, making it ‘unreadable’. Yet I spent a long time editing this book, and it also went through a professional proof-read. No book is immune to a few errors slipping through, but I felt sure there were not so many problems that the book was ‘unreadable’.

So I checked my original files, running the first couple of chapters through Hemingway and Grammarly. I checked the Look Inside on Amazon too.

I probably used a few too many adverbs, and Grammarly pointed to a few ‘complicated’ sentences‌—‌but nothing grammatically wrong.

I wondered if the reviewer was posting this for a different book, clicking on Dark Glass by accident, but he mentions me in the review, so I don’t believe this is the case. I also wondered if the reviewer’s copy of the book was corrupted (and if they’re reading this, contact me and I’ll send you another copy), or if they simply didn’t like my style of writing.

What can I do about this review? I could respond, asking the reviewer to point out these errors so that I can correct them (and thanking them for their time), or I could contact Amazon and ask about having the review pulled if I believe it to be factually inaccurate.

But what would happen if I took either of these options? Amazon might take down the review, but there’s no guarantee of this, and I’d no doubt spend far too much time trying to convince them. And if I contact the reviewer, things could get messy. Comments can easily be taken the wrong way, upsetting people unduly.

It would be better to ask not ‘what can I do?’ but ‘what should I do?’ Reviews are readers’ personal thoughts on the book, and I have to respect that, even if I personally don’t agree with their thoughts. Also, reviews are not for the writer but for potential readers.

And here, I need to consider my own behaviours when choosing new books. If the cover draws me in and the description sounds interesting, I’ll check out the reviews. I’ll often scan negative reviews, but comments here don’t always put me off. A complaint about bad language won’t bother me, and I don’t mind violence and sex in the books I read.

If I thought a book looked interesting but then saw a review complaining about poor grammar or too many typos, I’d check out the Look Inside (or download a sample). Maybe the book is written in a different English than the reviewer expected (because there are so many different varieties‌—‌UK, US, Australian and so on). If there are some errors (or examples of clumsy writing), I might still be tempted by the book if the story looks good enough to enjoy despite this. Or possibly the book has a style of writing that is similar to the spoken word (and is therefore not perfectly grammatically correct), but this suits the way the story is being told.

And, as I mentioned above, this won’t be the last 1-star review I get.

So the best thing I can do is ignore the review. I’ll continue using tools such as Hemingway and Grammarly to make my writing as polished as I can, and then I’ll use professional editors/proofreaders to remove even more errors. I’ll continue learning more about writing. None of my stories will ever be perfect, but as long as I keep learning and working hard, I can keep improving.

And that’s the positives I’m taking from this review‌—‌I can’t please everyone, but I can keep striving to get better.

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.]