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.

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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.]

Dialogue is more than talking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Neil Peart is pushing my reading into new areas

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or, in the words of Peart himself,

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

My aims for 2020

After looking back over 2019 (in this post), it’s now time to look ahead, and lay out what I hope to achieve over the next twelve months.

These aren’t resolutions, though. There’s too much pressure in that word, and it’s too easy to call myself a failure if I don’t keep to a specific resolution. Rather, these are aims. Some are specific, but others are more ambiguous. They’re realistic, though. And if I don’t achieve everything, then that simply means my aim was slightly off.


Writing

My first priority is to complete the sixth Dominions novel. I’m currently in the first round of edits, and things seem to be going well, so I’m aiming for an April release.

And then, I need a break from Dominions. I’ve already been throwing a few ideas around for a new series, and I’m going to aim to have a couple of books finished by the end of the year.

I’m continuing to write short stories, and 2020 should see the hundredth of these, along with the fifth Millenary anthology. In my mind, I always saw this as a good time to stop, but I don’t want to stop writing short fiction. It’s great fun, and also an excellent way of pushing my writing. So, once I have all hundred shorts out, I’ll change things up a bit. I might scrap my thousand-word limit, and possibly aim for one story a month rather than one every two weeks. I’m not sure yet.


Marketing

This is something I struggle with, but my mindset on marketing has been shifting over 2019. Rather than seeing it as an attempt to get punters to part with their money, I now see it as a quest to put my books in front of readers who are likely to enjoy them. Selling my books should be mutually beneficial‌—‌I receive some financial recompense for my time, effort and money in producing the books, and readers receive a few hours of entertainment.

Over 2020, I’ll make a concerted effort to improve in this whole area. I’ve recently started Mark Dawson’s Ads For Authors course, and will be attending the Self-Publishing Formula conference in London in March. And I’ll continue to read books, listen to podcasts and watch webinars to keep on learning.

But learning is useless without implementation, so I’m going to put time aside each week specifically for marketing activities. This could be setting up and analysing ads, or seeking promotional opportunities, or contacting other writers, or any of the other ways I could help my books reach potential readers.


So, a quick summary. Over 2020, I will:

  • complete and publish the sixth Dominions novel
  • start a new series, and have at least a couple of books ready by the end of the year
  • become far more focused on marketing, setting aside time each week to work on helping my books reach readers who will enjoy them