What Neal Asher’s ‘Jack Four’ taught me about my reading preferences

Enjoyment of books is a very personal thing. It’s also difficult to define. Am I appreciating the mental exercise of reading? Is my entertainment dependent on the story, or the characters, or the writing style? How much does my enjoyment of a particular book rely on external matters that have nothing to do with the story or the writing?

I think it’s a combination of all these factors and more.

I was pondering this recently while reading Neal Asher’s Jack Four. This is only the second of Asher’s books I’ve read. The first was Gridlinked, and that book impressed me. But I struggled with Jack Four. It started strong, and the first chapter was full of promise, but as I continued I found it hard to focus. As much as I wanted to enjoy the book, there were times when I’d reach the end of a page (screen) and have no recollection of what I’d just read.

Why? I started to analyse.

The first thing I noticed was the ebook formatting. I like my ebooks to look like print books, with justified text (straight lines to either side), but Jack Four had been formatted left-justified (left side straight, right side ragged), and playing with my Kindle settings didn’t change that. For some reason, ragged-right doesn’t feel like a ‘proper’ book.

But I’ve read and enjoyed other left-justified texts. If the writing grabs me, I can ignore formatting. So there had to be something else going on with Jack Four.

It wasn’t pace. Jack Four is filled with action‌—‌almost too much. As soon as the main character (the titular Jack Four) has overcome one obstacle he’s faced with another. There’s also mystery tied up in the story, with Jack Four trying to figure out what’s happening. If anything, a let-up in the pace would’ve been appreciated.

For much of the time, Jack Four is on his own, and for the first half of the book, there’s very little dialogue. Is the constant prose an issue?

Possibly. But I’ve enjoyed other books with a character on their own. The first that springs to mind is Andy Weir’s The Martian, and I can’t recall struggling through that book. Far from it‌—‌Weir’s book was a fast read, and constantly kept me engaged.

But in Weir’s book, his main character (Mark Watney) is relating his struggles in a very personable way, as if he’s talking directly to the reader. It could be argued that the whole book is dialogue (or maybe monologue). And Watney’s a fun character. Even the technical problems are described in a conversational tone, with humour never far from the surface.

Jack Four’s style is different. Action is described with precise language, in long paragraphs. There isn’t much character in the writing.

This fits the main character. Jack Four is a clone, only just ‘born’. He might have knowledge he shouldn’t have, but he has no direct memories, and is very much a blank slate. He’s not emotional. As Asher is writing in first-person, from Jack Four’s point of view, of course, the descriptions are going to be analytical and unemotional.

And this, I believe, is where my issues with the book rest.

The more I read (and the more I write), the more I’m drawn into the characters of a story. I can appreciate well-written action, but there has to be an impact on the characters for the story to engage me. I want to be with them on their journey, even if their internal growth is only implied by the words on the page. And I enjoy reading dialogue, especially fast back-and-forth.

This carries into the prose, too. The books I enjoy are ones where the writing is in the character’s voice, where I feel as if I’m experiencing the world through them rather than watching events unfold from on high.

So when I read a book like Jack Four, told through a blank-slate character, it’s no wonder I struggle.

Does this make Jack Four a poor book? Of course not. It simply didn’t resonate with me as a reader. And it did pick up for me in the last half, as Jack Four interacts with others.

Will I read more books by Neal Asher? If Jack Four was the first of his books I’d read, I might be reticent about trying another. But I enjoyed Gridlinked, and that’s enough to show me that he’s a decent writer. I might steer clear of the next Jack Four book for a while, but I’ve already got another one on my (always growing) TRB list.

It’ll be interesting to see how I engage with that one.

Dune, Chris Fox, Star Wars – ways to extend a series

If a story is popular, readers want more. Sometimes pressure from fans forces a writer to produce a sequel, but often a book is written with a series in mind. Some series are finite (they tell an overarching story that concludes at some point), while others are more open-ended.

But both types of series can be extended. Even if the main series story-arc is completed, there can be loose threads that lead to more complications. Isaac Asimov extended his Foundation trilogy, as did Frank Herbert with Dune (initially planned as a trilogy, then extended into six books, and I believe Herbert had plans for a seventh).

The Dune example is more interesting, though. Since his death, others have taken over writing in the Dune universe, taking Herbert’s ideas and expanding in all kinds of directions.

I read one of those ‘new’ books recently‌—‌Brian Herbert & Kevin J Anderson’s The Winds Of Dune. It doesn’t add to the end of the series but fills in (some of) the events between the first and second books.

It’s another way of extending a series‌—‌take events alluded to in the main series, and expand them into their own stories. I think of these series-extensions as ‘side-stories’‌—‌not vital for those wanting to follow the main series story-arc, but fascinating for fans of the series.

And it’s a technique used more and more often. Writers can produce short stories or novellas as ‘bonuses’, either for publication on their own or in anthologies. Stephenie Meyer did this with The Short Second Life Of Bree Tanner, a novella following one of the minor characters from her Twilight series. Stephen Donaldson resurrected a discarded chapter from The Illearth War (his second Thomas Covenant novel) as the (long) short story Gilden Fire. In the Star Wars universe we have Rogue One and Solo, along with the ever-increasing TV shows.

Fans of a series always want more. They want to explore the lives of their favourite characters. They’re intrigued by back-story. They want to know what happens next, and also what happened before.

I’m currently reading Chris Fox’s Void Wraith Origins series. It’s a self-contained trilogy, but it’s also a prequel to his six-book Void Wraith series. He’s done something similar with his Magitech books, writing a six-book Magitech Legacy series to complement the original.

He’s also extended his Deathless series (originally a trilogy), and has tied that to the Magitech world.

Multiple series, all based in the same world, all connected.

The idea is to have a ‘flagship series’, one that is the focus and the most popular, and then build more series around that. Star Wars is a prime example, with the multitude of book series, the animated series such as Clone Wars, and the newer additions like The Mandalorian and the upcoming Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Star Trek has spawned a number of ‘spin-offs’ (Voyager, The Next Generation and so on), as has NCIS (with NCIS: Los Angeles, NCIS: New Orleans, and more reportedly in production). The Harry Potter series has spawned Fantastic Beasts.

In books, romance writers have long exploited this idea (because romance writers are always ahead of the curve). They might have one series following three brothers, then have another series focused on a group of friends, but both series will take place in the same small town. Friends of the love interests in one book or series will spin off into their own stories and series.

It’s great for readers‌—‌they get that holy grail of something fresh (in a new story) with something familiar (a world they know). And it’s a great way to write, because it takes away the need to world-build afresh with each book or series.

It’s something I’m doing at the moment. I wrote a trilogy a few years ago called Shadows, a sci-fi with horror leanings, and even though I liked the way the three books work together (they feel complete), there were still open loops, and more I wanted to explore. So I’m now working on a new-but-connected series, ShadowTech, following on from the end of Shadows. I’ve pulled back on the horror elements, and this new series has more of a sci-fi adventure feel, with a larger scope, faster pace, more action. It’s different, but still connected.

Hopefully, what readers want — novelty alongside familiarity.

Subtleties that say so much in Ted Lewis’ ‘Get Carter’

When a film is a success, it’s sometimes easy to forget about the source material.

Mention Forrest Gump, and most people think of Tom Hanks, not the novel. Think of The Birds, and the Hitchcock classic is well-known, the Daphne DuMaurier short story less so.

Another example is Get Carter. It’s a classic Michael Caine film (and a not-too-successful Sylvester Stallone remake). But it’s also a novel by Ted Lewis, originally published in 1970 as Jack’s Return Home.

It’s well worth a read, and it stands up very well alongside the film version.

The story’s told in first person, and Carter’s no-nonsense, hard character makes the book wonderfully bleak and brutal. From the start, we’re drawn into the character as much as the mystery surrounding Carter’s brother’s death. A casual reader will get the impression that there’s a dark side to Carter, that he’s involved in a murky underworld in London, that there’s more to him than he shows.

But he’s hard and cold. He doesn’t do a great deal of introspection, and there’s very little internal dialogue in the book. Instead, we learn what Carter’s really like through his actions and external dialogue.

When Carter first arrives at his childhood town, he takes a taxi, and his exchanges with the driver are cordial, almost friendly. There’s no indication of judgement from the driver, and Carter appears relaxed. When the taxi stops, and the driver jumps out to open the door for Carter, we get this exchange.

“How much is that?” I said.
“Five bob,” he said.
“Here you are,” I said. I gave him seven and six.

It doesn’t seem like much‌—‌Carter’s paid his fare, and included a tip. But later, in The George Hotel, there’s another exchange concerning money.

The barman at the hotel isn’t interested in Carter, only reluctantly serving him. Once he’s poured the pint, Carter asks how much it’ll cost.

“One and ten,” said the barman.
I gave him one and ten and went and sat down…

Notice there’s no tip, no ‘keep the change’. Carter pays what he owes, then turns his back on the man.

The contrast in these two examples is telling. Carter isn’t the type of person to willingly make a scene, but he’s affected by others. And he treats them according to how they treat him. He might be involved with some very dodgy people‌—‌nothing’s been explicitly said about his life in London, but the clues are there‌—‌but he has a certain moral code. Don’t upset Carter, and he won’t upset you.

Later, he’s looking for a room to let for the weekend. He finds a suitable house and makes enquiries.

There’s something strange about this conversation, though. Carter hesitates. He seems almost embarrassed. In previous exchanges he’s come across as confident, but here he’s the opposite.

Once he’s finished talking to the woman who runs the house, he leaves. And we get this:

I smiled. It amused me, the picture she’d got of me, the way she thought she’d got me weighed up. It might turn out to be helpful.

So we now know more about Carter’s character‌—‌he’s acting. He manipulates conversations and interactions. While he seems to have treated the taxi-driver in a friendly manner (and turned his back on the brusque barman), his actions can’t be trusted.

We’re not even at the end of the first chapter, and already we know this is going to be a dark tale. We’re along for the ride with a manipulative narrator. He hasn’t lashed out, but already we get the sense that he’s no stranger to violence.

These moments are subtle. If we’re not paying attention, they slip past us‌—‌just as Jack Carter’s comments can slip by, seemingly innocent but with a deeper, unsettling meaning.

There’s nothing accidental about these moments. In this first chapter, Lewis is setting the scene. Through his titular character, he’s taken us up to a dreary north of England, where death hangs in the air. And he’s already telling us that this Jack Carter character is darker than he appears.

Michael Caine might have made the character his own, but Ted Lewis gave him everything he needed

Weaving a story – Neal Asher’s ‘Gridlinked’

Gridlinked is the first Neal Asher book I’ve read (even though I’ve been aware of his name for some time now, and have had the book sitting on my kindle for a couple of years). It’s a great read. Asher combines a detailed, realistic world with a plot that is in turns mystery, thriller and suspense. And it’s the development of this story that was, for me, the stand-out feature of this book.

At the start, this felt like a standard thriller-style book. We kick off with a disaster in space, and it’s fairly clear that this will be the root of the investigation to follow. We then move to the end of Cormac’s previous mission, where he’s forced to kill a terrorist. This shows us his strength, both physically and emotionally‌—‌he doesn’t flinch from violence‌—‌as well as hinting at personal problems that might play out later in the story. But the death has ramifications too‌—‌the dead terrorist’s brother wants revenge.

Asher gives us point-of-view scenes of the brother, Pelter, as he plans the murder of Cormac. And this is where the book becomes more of a suspense story. The pace slows, but the tension increases. As Cormac continues his investigation, we (the reader) are aware of the coming danger from Pelter, can see Cormac walking into possible traps. Yes, there are still action set-pieces, but it isn’t a full-on adrenaline rush now (although the pace does increase when Cormac’s and Pelter’s paths converge).

Asher has more twists lined up as more side-characters take on larger roles. There’s Stanton, one of Pelter’s close companions. Through Stanton’s point-of-view scenes we learn that he’s growing uncertain about Pelter, and wants to escape by killing the terrorist and taking his money. There’s Jarvellis, smuggler and love interest to Stanton, a character who initially appears fairly inconsequential, but who (through her relationship with Stanton) becomes a farm more major player as events unfold.

Then there’s Dragon, an alien creature/biological machine. Dragon has influence over both main strands of the story (Cormac’s investigation and Pelter’s vengeance mission), but we get no point-of-view scenes from Dragon. The creatures is manipulative, and can’t be trusted. Now, along with the known dangers to Cormac (mainly in the form of Pelter), we have an unknown quantity. It adds another layer of tension, another mystery to confound things. It means that we can no longer accurately anticipate what’s going to happen.

If this is sounding complicated, it isn’t. At least, not the way Asher weaves these strands together.

I don’t know anything about Asher’s writing process, whether he plans first or writes what comes to mind and then pieces the story together, but there’s clearly been a lot of work gone into the editing of this story. There are diversions that initially feel unnecessary (yet are still interesting), but their importance becomes clear later on. Asher keeps facts hidden until just the right moment, when they will have the greatest impact.

It’s a reminder that convoluted stories are painstaking works, that the puzzles need to be worked out in detail, that the order of events is of vital importance. Creating a story like this can’t be a case of starting at point A and writing through to the end. Even if Asher did plan the story out before writing his first draft, I’m sure he moved things around, added scenes, scrapped others.

Gridlinked, when looked at through the lens of story structure, is a reminder that actual writing is only a part of the creation of an effective story.

The art of subtle description in Scott Lynch’s ‘The Lies Of Locke Lamora’

I recently got round to reading Scott Lynch’s The Lies Of Locke Lamora, and thoroughly enjoyed it‌—‌wonderful world-building, exciting twisting plot, and great characters. One minute it’s full of fun and wit, the next it’s dark and hard-hitting. And the descriptions were masterful‌—‌not for the images his words painted, but how he managed to conjure these mental pictures in different ways.

I’ll take a couple of examples, to show what I mean.

Cover of 'The Lies Of Locke Lamora' by Scott Lynch

Early on in the book, we’re introduced to the Thiefmaker, a Fagin-like character who takes in unwanted children and moulds them, as his name suggests, into his army of thieves. There’s no clear physical description, but there is a line that says he is ‘a miserable curiosity‌—‌a pickpocket with nine broken fingers.’

Broken fingers, on a pickpocket? It implies that the man himself is broken, no longer able to personally ply his trade. And that’s the only reference to nine fingers, until he has his wards together and is giving them a speech. The sequence starts with these lines:

The Thiefmaker held up three crooked fingers, as though on cue.
“Business,” he cried. “Three items of business.”

He progresses through his first three points, and it is left to the reader’s imagination to see him counting these off on those twisted digits. Then, once he’s gone through his trio of points, he sums up like this:

‘The rules are simple! You’ll learn them all in good time. For now, let’s keep it like this. Anyone who eats, works. Anyone who works, eats. Which brings us to work, my fourth‌—‌Oh, dear. Children, children. Do an absent-minded old man the favour of imagining that he held up four fingers. This is my fourth important point.”

There’s no description of action, but it’s easy to picture his hand twitching, then his eyes turning to the place where the digit used to be. If we missed the mention of nine fingers before, or wondered if the tenth was, in fact, unbroken, we now know for certain that it is missing.

Lynch painted this image without breaking dialogue. He implies action so well that we can’t fail to ‘see’ what’s happening.

In another example. Lynch managed to paint a whole scene while physically describing next to nothing:

The Broken Tower is a landmark of Camorr, jutting ninety feet skyward at the very northern tip of the Snare, that low and crowded district where sailors from a hundred ports of call are passed from bar to alehouse to gaming den and back again on a nightly basis. They are shaken through a sieve of tavern keepers, whores, muggers, dicers, cobble-cogs and other low tricksters until their pockets are as empty as their heads are heavy, and they can be dumped on ship to nurse their new hangovers and diseases. They come in like the tide and go out like the tide, leaving nothing but a residue of copper and silver (and occasionally blood) to mark their passing.

Lynch starts with the kind of description that wouldn’t be out of place in a guidebook — ‘jutting ninety feet skyward at the very northern tip’. He then tells us the district is ‘low and crowded’. A lesser writer would proceed to describe this place. But Lynch takes a different approach.

He follows sailors.

He doesn’t give us any description of the buildings, or the streets, or the docks. There’s nothing about the flapping of sails, the slapping of water, the cries of sea-birds, the shouting and swearing mingling with the clangs and crashes of the area. There’s nothing about the different aromas‌—‌the sea, alcohol, food, sweat, exotic spices in cargo. Instead, Lynch focuses on the sailors‌—‌not what they look like, but what happens to them. Yet still, as we read, we can picture the dark taverns, the whores flashing their thighs to tempt new customers. We can imagine the grimy streets, rubbish and vomit at the edges.

And more than that, we can feel the place. Through focusing on those sailors, Lynch brings the place alive, gives us not a physical description but an emotional one. Even though every reader will see a different image from this passage, every reader can picture the scene, knows exactly what the dockland area is like. And, because this ‘description’ deals with emotions and actions rather than plain images, the reader is far more engaged. As the story’s protagonists enter the area, we’re already anticipating trouble for them. The setting has become alive, another character the (anti) heroes of the story must encounter and overcome.

There are loads more lessons to learn from this book, but I’ll leave it at these two examples (for now). They serve as reminders that descriptions in fiction are far more than a way of showing what is physically there. A good description will imply more than it tells. It will not only give a mental image, but will also evoke an emotional response.

A huge Dominions sale

In a few weeks, I’m putting the whole Dominions series into Kindle Unlimited, which means these books will only be available through Amazon. But until that happens, I’m knocking the price of the novels down to 99c (or your local equivalent), including the 3-book box-set. This means it’s possible to get the whole dark Dystopian series (about a million words) for under $7!

An unexpected problem with ‘show, don’t tell’

It’s one of the most common pieces of writing advice‌—‌show what’s going on (both physically and in characters’ minds), don’t tell the reader what’s happening.

It’s good advice. Readers want to experience the story, through the characters actions and emotions, rather than being told the story by a third party. It’s similar to the difference between hearing the plot of a film and watching the film yourself.

But there are times when telling is fine. I wrote about James Patterson’s use of simple descriptions a few months ago (you can read that post here). It’s something of a trope in thrillers, especially with hard, calculating protagonists‌—‌we get short, simple descriptions that mirror the protagonist’s clinical outlook.

I recently read Mark Dawson’s seventh John Milton book, Headhunters. I prefer his Beatrix Rose series, but the Milton stories are always enjoyable‌—‌fast-paced, lots of action, and great escapism. Dawson knows what he’s doing as a writer, and gives his readers what they want and expect.

Headhunters was no exception‌—‌it kept me reading, eager to find out what happened next. But there was one moment that tripped me up.

Fairly early in the book, we’re introduced to Matty. We get a brief description, through Milton’s eyes, and it includes a reference to her swearing like a trooper.

Swearing in fiction can be tricky. Some (many?) readers have no issue with swearing, but others will close a book at the first f-bomb. There are many one-star reviews where the reader praised the story, but complains about the language. Some readers will accept graphic violence, even graphic sexual content, before they accept ‘bad language’.

Yet people swear in real life. Even those normally careful with their language might let the occasional ‘bad word’ slip in times of stress. And characters in books, especially thrillers, are under stress. They fight for their lives, against powerful enemies. They race against time. In situations like this, to believe that nobody would swear seems incredibly unrealistic.

Dawson doesn’t shy away from using swearing in his books, but it’s rarely in the mouths of his ‘good’ characters. Some of the supporting characters use swearing as a colour, and there are occasional harsh words from the baddies. He doesn’t use cursing all over the place, though‌—‌like all words, especially strong ones, he uses them for effect, when they are most appropriate.

After reading the description of the female character, I anticipated some choice language from her. She’s in scenes where she’s joking with ‘the boys’ (tough sheep farmers in Australia, where I imagine swearing would usually be as common as punctuation.) She’s also, as the story progresses, in great danger.

Yet throughout the whole book, she only swore once. She fought for her life, and she got into arguments, both playful and deadly serious. We’d been told she swore a great deal. And yet, she only uttered one solitary curse-word over the whole book.

I’ll admit, this bothered me more than it should have done. It was the mismatch between expectations and reality that bugged me. As a reader, I’d been told one thing but shown something contradictory.

I’m sure the majority of readers would gloss over this, most likely not even notice. And I’ll repeat that I enjoyed the book. I have a great deal of respect for Dawson and his work.

It got me thinking‌—‌what would I have done to avoid this apparent contradiction?

I came up with a few solutions.

She could have used swear-words throughout her dialogue. But I can understand how this would have the potential to alienate the book’s target audience, including long-time readers of the series. When swearing has only been used on occasions, changing things up can cause problems. It’s not a smart commercial move.

Another possibility‌—‌the line about swearing could have been removed from the original description. However, it gives us an insight into her character‌—‌she’s grown up in a ‘man’s world’, and she faces her male colleagues on equal terms, does what she can to be their equal. She has found her place in an ‘un-feminine’ culture. Those few words tell us a great deal more than simply how she speaks.

I needed a third possible solution. And, after some thought, I think I have one, with the addition of a few words to that original description.

If the line had read something like ‘When the mood took her, she could swear like a trooper’, we have a get-out. Yes, she can turn the air blue, most likely be so crude that she makes the men blush. But only when she chooses. This line implies that she can control her language, so we’re not unsurprised when she doesn’t swear too often. And when she does curse, in a moment of high stress (when such language can heighten the tension), we can’t complain that we haven’t been forewarned. As far as promises to the readers go, being told that she can swear a lot becomes a warning rather than an expectation.

As I said before, it’s only a small thing. I still enjoyed Headhunters, and would recommend Dawson’s books to anyone who liked thrillers. But I’m still (constantly) learning. I’m constantly on the look-out for lessons that can improve my own writing. And Headhunters has taught me that I need to be careful not to tell the reader one thing only to have the characters show something contradictory.

A look back at 2021, and plans for 2022

Do I need to say that 2021 was another strange year?

My first thought, on looking back, is ‘where did the last twelve months go?’ My second is, ‘what did I do with the year?’ It’s felt very unproductive, and writing has been a struggle.

But I did get things done. I released the final three novels in my Dominions series, a short story, and a novella (which is currently only available to newsletter subscribers). True, most of the writing and editing happened in 2020, but putting five books out in 2021 isn’t too bad. And it’s an achievement to reach the end of the nine-novel arc.

I worked on a new series, too.

This had a number of false starts‌—‌ideas that didn’t feel right, even after completing first drafts of novels. But I eventually settled on a follow-on to my Shadows trilogy, and I currently have the first two books of this series nearing completion.

So this year (2022), I intend to release both those books. I also want to have the third book in that series (the working title is ShadowTech) written and in editing by the end of the year.

I also have ideas for another series (I’m not ready to give any details yet, but it’s a bit of a departure), and aim to have at least two books in this nearly finished. I’m not looking to publish this second series yet, though‌—‌that will be for 2023.

So I have quite a bit of writing (including planning and editing) scheduled for this year. I also need to work on marketing and business.

This is a constant struggle. Last year I explored Amazon ads (again), and while I did get an increase in sales, the profits didn’t justify the ad expense (although it came close for the Shadows trilogy). I did learn from it, and when I try again I’ll have a few different things in place. I also want to revisit some of the books and courses I have on marketing and advertising.

I also want to get back into writing short stories‌—‌not necessarily for publication, but as a way of developing my writing. Yes, spending an hour or so each week on short stories takes time away from novels and marketing, but it’s training. It’s important to constantly improve.

Short stories are fun. They provide an opportunity to play with different ideas, to try new things. As it takes less time to edit and polish a short story, there’s more satisfaction in having something ‘finished’. And, if the story’s any good, I can look for ways to get it into the world (website, anthologies, podcasts and so on).

Related to self-development, I intend to continue writing a post every two weeks, detailing something I’ve learnt through reading. Apart from adding fresh content to my website, this also forces me to think about what I’m reading, and encourages me to read a wider range of books.

So, a quick summary of my plans for 2022:

  • Writing: I’ll have the first two books of the new ShadowTech series out, with a third close to completion. I’ll also have two books in another new series close to completion.
  • Marketing/business: By the end of the year I’ll have a constant stream of money coming in from my books. I’ll have a better understanding of advertising.
  • Training: I’ll write more short stories (ideally at least one a month) as a way of improving my writing. I’ll also continue to write a post every two weeks on what I’ve learnt through reading.

It’s not a particularly detailed plan, but one thing that’s been clear over the last couple of years is that plans can (and will) be disrupted. At least these few points give me something to aim for.

The Importance Of A First Line

MIckey Spillane is quoted as saying ‘the first chapter sells the book; the last chapter sells the next book.’ Well, something like that‌—‌I’ve seen variations in different places (first/last line, first/last sentence, and so on). But the details aren’t important‌—‌it’s the idea that counts. The ending of a book should leave us satisfied but eager for more. And the start of the book should pull us in so we can’t not continue.

I’ve read a couple of stories recently where the openings did just that, and I thought I’d share them with you.

The first is from Brandon Sanderson’s novella Snapshot. It had been sitting on my Kindle for a while, so when I dove into it I had no idea what it was about. And I read this:

Anthony Davis‌—‌one of only two real people in a city of twenty million‌—‌caught the burrito his partner tossed to him. “Which end is the mustard on?” he asked.

I was hooked.

But I also wanted to understand why this worked so well. After all, there’s not a lot going on here‌—‌at least, not on the surface. A character called Davis is eating a burrito with his partner. It’s not riveting stuff. It’s ordinary.

But it’s that phrase in the middle‌—‌‘one of only two real people in a city of twenty million’‌—‌that throws things out of kilter. It gives rise to so many questions‌—‌if the other twenty million aren’t real, what are they? Is this some kind of virtual reality thing? If that’s the case, how come Davis and his partner are simply eating burritos? What’s with the mustard? Is this important? And how can Davis be so blase about being one of only two real people?

We want answers. We have to read on.


The next comes from the Mark Leslie short story This Time Around: A Canadian Werewolf Story.

This time I woke to find myself sprawled naked in the grass, my shoulder nestled in a shrub and the coppery aftertaste of blood in my mouth. It was a cool morning, but humid, the unmistakable scent of the Hudson River hanging in the air.

This one didn’t grab me as hard as the opening to Snapshot, but it’s worth spending a moment examining these two sentences.

We know, from the book’s subtitle, that we’re dealing with werewolves here (or at least one werewolf). When I read these sentences I immediately recalled the scene in An American Werewolf In London where the main character wakes up naked in the wolf enclosure in London Zoo, after his first transformation. So it seems likely that the narrator in This Time Around is in a similar predicament.

There’s also the aftertaste of blood in his mouth‌—‌he’s fed. But on what? Or who?

Yet there’s something almost comforting in this opening, at odds with the apparent violence beneath the surface. The description of the surroundings is relaxing. Notice the use of the word ‘scent’‌—‌not an unpleasant stink, but a neutral smell. And it’s not cold, but cool.

The feel of the opening sets the tone for the rest of the story. This isn’t a jump-scare horror, or a gore-fest. It’s the story of one man dealing with his affliction. It poses an initial problem, and hints at what we can expect as we read on.


I’ll turn to another first paragraph, this one from Amanda Carlson’s Danger’s Halo, which does a very good job of setting up the main character and the world.

“Nobody survives that jump, kid.” Judging by the boy’s ragged clothing, he’d been living on the streets for a while. He couldn’t have been more than about ten. “It’s a lie. They tell you that so they can steal from you once they discover your dead, mangled body on the rocks below.”

It’s intriguing. It throws us directly into the story, yet it still gives us a great deal‌—‌not in details, but in impressions. This is a dangerous world‌—‌if ‘they’ have no qualms about luring a child to his death, then nobody is safe.

The tone of the passage‌—‌and especially the dialogue‌—‌says a lot about the main character. She’s tough, not someone who’s likely to show her emotions. She doesn’t plead with the child not to jump, but tells him he won’t survive if he does. Even though he’s young, she leaves the decision to him.

She calls him ‘kid’. That could be dismissive, or simply the way she talks. But the fact that she’s even bothering to talk to him indicates that she cares what happens.

Already, there are depths to this character. She’s clearly got an attitude, but possibly a caring side. And she seems to know the streets, has probably gone through a lot in her life. She’s a survivor.

And we want to learn more. We want to continue reading.


Three very different openings, setting up three very different stories. But in each case the first few sentences did their job admirably‌—‌they draw the reader in, settle them into the story, leave them wanting more.