Reading Fast and Slow

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


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

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

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

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

Length of chapter/paragraph/sentence

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

Single-sentence paragraphs work well, too.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Story Time and Jump Cuts

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

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

It depends on how that passage of time is described.


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

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

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

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

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


New short story – ‘Pushing The Limits’

Pushing The Limits is based on one of the characters from the Shadows series (but this story doesn’t rely on knowing what happens in those books). It’s a bit of light sci-fi action (a change from my normal darker tales). You can read it here.

I’d love to know what people think of this, and any of my other stories (the full list can be found here). And later this month I’ll be bringing out the second e-book collection, for those of you (like me) who aren’t too keen on reading fiction on web-pages.

If I don’t like a book that others love, am I wrong?

bad-review-2813741_640This happens quite often: I start reading a book, and within a few pages I find myself thrown out of the story. Maybe there are too many grammatical errors, or the story doesn’t make sense, or possibly the writing is bland and uninspiring. I’ve read too many books in need of an edit, and sympathise with those who moan at the amateur nature of independently-published books.

But I don’t like to give up on books, so I plough through to the end, inwardly moaning about the hours of my time I’m wasting.

feedback-2800867_640Then I’ll pop on to Amazon or Goodreads, interested to read what others thought of the book. And I’ll be confronted with pages of five-star reviews. They’ll praise the exciting story (that I considered tedious and predictable), or the wonderful characters (that I found to be cardboard cut-out cliches). These reviews talk of the enjoyment they got from the story, and how much they’re looking forward to that author’s next book.

This happens often enough that I wonder if I missed something, or if my judgement on books is awry.

But it isn’t. What I think of a particular book is what I think of it. It’s my personal opinion.

There is no right or wrong here. Everyone is different. What I look for in a good book will not necessarily correspond with others’ idea of an enjoyable read.

Other people will have different opinions.

Some readers can’t get past more than a handful of grammar issues, but others don’t even notice the mistakes. Some readers are turned off by bland descriptions, while others are enraptured with the dialogue in the very same book. Some people enjoy the richness of the language, while to others the words are nothing more than a way of getting the story across.

Everyone is different, in both their preferences and what they expect from a book. An author like Dan Brown is often frowned upon by those who prefer more intellectual books (whatever they are), but he has far more readers than any of the year’s Booker nominees. James Joyce’s works are considered classics by some, and undreadable nonsense by others. Some people relate to Twilight‘s Bella, and others find her a nonentity.

This doesn’t only happen in books, of course. A new art-house film might receive outstanding reviews from film critics, but it will never come close to making as much money as the latest big-budget effects-driven spectacular. The latest pop music sensation will easily outsell a band that is pushing the boundaries of music. Sometimes, a musician might straddle both ‘popular’ and ‘experimental’ music, but they are rare indeed. Bjork continues to produce challenging music, but she is no longer the ‘popular’ artist she was when she had hits with tracks such as ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ or ‘Human Behaviour’.

So if her older music was more popular, is it better than her latest stuff?

That’s not a sensible question. It’s different. Each album is what it is. Just as each book by each author is what it is. As every author is individual, so is every reader. Every reader is seeking something different from a book.

pair-707505_640So no, I’m not in the wrong if I don’t enjoy a book that others view as a classic. I might not have the same opinion as the majority of others, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. Just different.

And that is why reviews can only ever be guidelines. For all the importance placed on them, especially in the independent-publishing field, they are not fact. A load of good reviews might mean that the book is popular, but they are still only the opinions of individuals.

Of course, reviews have their uses. If a review favourably compares a book to one of your favourites, of it that reviewer has given positive reviews to other books you like, then you might want to check the book out. If the reviews talk about plot twists, or evocative language, or snappy, sarcastic dialogue, and you enjoy these things, then it’s more likely that you will agree with their opinion of the book.

Negative reviews can be ‘positive’ in guiding a reader to a book too. If you enjoy violence and lots of swearing in your books, and a negative review decries the coarse language and gore-filled descriptions, this might be the book for you. If the reviewer moans that the sappy relationship gets in the way of the mystery, but you like romance stories, that could be a good sign.

So is there a lesson in this? If there is, it is probably to take reviews with a pinch of salt. Read them, yes. Take note of the thoughts of others. But don’t take their word as anything other than their personal opinions. Understand that when you read the book, you are doing so for yourself, not for them. Remember that you can think for yourself, and you can reach your own conclusions.

If you disagree with a review, it’s not a case of right and wrong, just a difference of opinion.

‘Unspoken’ – new short story

I read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 recently (can’t believe I’ve only just got round to reading this book), and it got me thinking‌—‌how would book-burning work today, when so many books are digital? That knocked around in my head for a while, and this short story, Unspoken, was the result. You can read the story here.

This is the fortieth short story I’ve posted (you can reach all the others by clicking here). The first twenty are available in a free e-book download, Millenary (click here), and with Unspoken now out there, the next anthology (imaginatively titled Millenary 2) will be out in a few weeks‌—‌again, totally free.

The Last Jedi from a story perspective

star_wars_episode_8_the_last_jedi_logo_720.0I’m not a hardcore Star Wars fan. I saw (and enjoyed) the original films when they came out, and had the trilogy on both DVD (ask your parents) and video (ask your grandparents). I watched Phantom Menace when that came out, but haven’t watched any others.

Until now. Kids are a great excuse sometimes, and as they both wanted to watch the new film (at different times), I’ve been to see The Last Jedi twice. And I really wanted to enjoy it.

But I was underwhelmed. First time, it just felt like it didn’t deliver on its promises, so I paid closer attention when I saw it again, trying to work out why the film didn’t totally work for me.

Not being immersed in the whole Star Wars universe, I can’t comment on how it fits in with the other films, or the extended stories in books. I’m not qualified to comment on how it treated the mythology, or how it complemented or contradicted other stuff. Instead, I want to focus on the film as its own thing, especially the story (or stories) it contained.

I should state a couple of things before I go into details. First, these are my thoughts. You may disagree, and I’m fine with that‌—‌and my thoughts may well change over time (in fact, I found the film more enjoyable second time round, but maybe that was because I wasn’t approaching it with the same sense of expectation). And secondly, what I write below will contain spoilers. If you haven’t watched the film, and don’t want to know what happens, stop reading now (although please come back when you have watched it).
I’ll start with the largest story problem.

The story-line that doesn’t go anywhere

In well-structured, satisfying stories, everything has a place. Apparent digressions ultimately serve a purpose, either filling in details of the story or providing a better understanding of the characters and their particular arcs.

In The Last Jedi, I felt that there was a whole sub-plot that didn’t do either of these things. It was a diversion that went nowhere, and it took up a great deal of the middle of the film. The part I’m on about? Finn and Rose’s attempt to disable the First Order’s tracker.

This storyline starts off well. Rose and Finn figure out how the First Order is able to track the rebels through hyper-space, and they bring Poe in on their plan. They need to disable the power to the tracker by breaking in to a particular part of the First Order’s lead craft, and for that they need a master code breaker. Apparently, only one person is capable of such a feat.

Finn and Rose head down to Canto Bight, where they spot this person in a casino, but they are arrested and imprisoned before they can approach him. So far so good storywise‌—‌plans going awry adds tension, after all.


And they wind up in a cell with DJ, who might be another master code breaker. Bit of a handy coincidence, but I’ll let that go for the moment. (I’ll also ignore the fairly heavy-handed stuff about people profiting from war). Of course, Finn and Rose escape, with help from DJ (so he appears to be a good guy), and they get on board the First Order’s vessel.

They get to the power supply, but are stopped. Meanwhile, Poe has taken over command of the Rebel fleet, preparing to jump to light-speed when the tracker is disabled, when he is stopped by Leia.

The plan is in ruins. It’s a good middle-build crisis moment. How are the Rebels going to escape now?

Turns out, Leia and the others in charge of the Rebels already had a plan, which they were working on all along. They didn’t need to jump to light-speed again, because they were aiming for an old base where they could hide out. So there was no need for Finn and Rose to disappear off to the casino, and Poe’s mutiny was also pointless.

So they failed, but it had no impact on the story. The whole episode was of no consequence. It might have given the viewer some action scenes (Finn’s fight with Phasma‌—‌more on that later‌—‌and the faither stampede through the city), and introduced one of the more interesting characters in the film in DJ (or maybe I think that because I enjoy watching morally ambiguous characters), but as far as the story was concerned, it was nothing.

Yes, DJ saves himself by exposing the Rebels’ plan, but surely there could have been another way to weave this into the story (like, maybe, the First Order plot the possible path of the Rebel fleet and see that they are heading to an apparently abandoned planet). And yes, there were character moments, especially between Finn and Rose, but these could have been included elsewhere.

This was, for me, the biggest problem with the story, because it added too much wasted time to the film. But it wasn’t the only issue.

Kill the minions, then the big boss — not the other way round

In stories, battles and problems have to increase. The enemy has to grow harder to defeat in each conflict. It works the same in video games‌—‌kill the little guys and work your way up to the big boss. It keeps the tension high. And when the final bad guy is defeated, that’s a major resolution, maybe the ending payoff of the whole film or game (at least, until the next round).

But The Last Jedi kind of does away with this. We have the Supreme Leader, Snoke, who is this film’s equivalent of the Emperor in the original films. About half-way through the film, Kylo Ren takes the captured Rey to Snoke. Yes, we know that Ren is conflicted, with light and dark battling within, but this feels like a moment when dark wins.

snokeYet it doesn’t. He kills Snoke with a cheap trick (and for someone who seems to be inside both Ren and Rey’s heads, it’s surprising that Snoke doesn’t see this coming). The Supreme Leader is dead, killed by his protege. It should be a high-point of the film, a major resolution.

But then, Snoke’s guards attack, and we have the fight scene where the heroes battle through increasing odds. Only, the final battle is already behind them.

Yes, we get to see Rey and Ren battling side-by-side (although, personally, much of the fight choreography felt like it was trying too hard to please the audience, rather than showing us the characters’ true selves), and it sets the scene for their conflict afterwards, but it all feels a bit anticlimactic.

So, the big fight scene at the end wasn’t real?

And on the subject of big fight scenes, I have to comment on the one at the end, between Luke and Ren. This has been building throughout the film, seeded by the memories of what happened when Luke was training Ren as well as being the supposed Last Jedi’s final stand, and this film’s true battle between good and evil.

luke-skywalker-star-wars-last-jedi-hrYet there are major problems with this encounter. I could forgive the slowing down of the pace when Luke appears, as we have been waiting for him and Leia to have their moment together on screen‌—‌it doesn’t particularly work with the story’s flow, but it’s an audience-pleaser. And the shot where Luke heads out to face the First Order single-handed is visually arresting.

It’s after that things go awry. First, we have Luke being bombarded by everything the First Order has, and surviving.

But that’s cool, right? He’s stronger than ever. He’s what the Rebels have been waiting for. He’s going to save the day. How can this be a problem?

Heroes, to work effectively in a story, need to be flawed. The perfect character is ultimately boring, and we soon lose sympathy. If a hero has a flaw, an Achilles Heel, nothing is set in stone. Even though we know the hero will win the day (because, especially with films like Star Wars, that’s what we’ve come to see), we still need that slight uncertainty, because it keeps the tension high. If the hero is invincible, the big fight becomes little more than a formality.

By giving us an invincible Luke, The Last Jedi’s final scenes become routine.

And what of the fight between Luke and Ren itself? It’s been building, and we expect something jaw-dropping. We want a classic battle, with twists and turns as two masters go head-to-head. We want that moment when it looks like evil has triumphed, just before good rallies its strength and tears evil apart.

So what do we get in The Last Jedi? A bit of posturing, some verbal sparring, and a couple of parries.

Then Ren cuts through Luke with his light sabre.

This could have been fantastic. It has echoes of the fight between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original film, where Obi-Wan basically sacrifices himself because he knows this will strengthen Luke. This could have been a glorious death, where good triumphs even as evil seems to have won.

Instead, the impervious Luke survives. Even when Ren sticks the light sabre through his chest, Luke is unaffected.

Because he’s not there. It’s some kind of projection, or ghost-self. In reality, he’s back on his island.

That might have been a cool concept to play with, but it left me feeling cheated. Not only is Luke invincible, but he’s also not really there. The whole fight, at that moment, became a sham. It wasn’t the big battle the film had promised. If Luke was facing the First Order to distract them from the Rebels’ escape, it also served to cheapen the story.

And a few other things

There were other things that didn’t sit right with me from a story-telling standpoint:

  • In Finn’s fight with Phasma, we see Finn fall off an edge. But what we don’t see is the moving platform just beneath him, until he reappears and kills Phasma. This felt like a bit of a deus-ex-machina, with luck saving the hero rather than the hero saving himself. Yet this problem could have been rectified so easily. If we’d seen, for example, Finn and Rose being brought up on the platform as prisoners, we would have the foreshadowing that would have made Finn’s reappearance after falling a cool ‘of course!’ moment.
  • Holdo’s sacrifice, when she sets a light-speed path through the First Order craft. Yes, it’s a good moment (and the lack of sound works well), but we haven’t had enough time with Holdo to care about her. She starts off as an antagonist to Poe, getting in the way of him saving the Rebels, and her sacrifice is consistent with a redemption plot. But as a small part of the larger story, it isn’t enough. It feels like a handy way to get rid of an unsympathetic character. I can’t help feeling that having someone like Leia making this sacrifice would have made a far greater impact (and, if Luke had physically died in his battle with Ren, while the Rebels escaped, Leia’s sacrifice would have provided foreshadowing for this, as well as being a great passing-the-baton moment, from the old characters to the new).
  • Poe gets chewed out (and demoted) for going against orders and leading the attack that resulted in the destruction of a First Order destroyer along with all the Rebel bombers. But whose orders were the bombers following? If they all went against Leia, isn’t that poor leadership on her part? And if (as seems to be hinted at) the plan was to bomb the destroyer anyway (otherwise why would the fighters and bombers be ready), surely Poe was simply following pre-arranged instructions. Why did the Rebels plan the mission if they weren’t prepared to follow it through?

Things it got right

It’s easy to be critical, and to focus on the problems. But that’s never the whole story, and there were many things in The Last Jedi that worked on a story level. They kept the tension high with a ‘ticking time bomb’ (the First Order chasing the Rebels as their fuel depleted, and the understanding that destruction is only a matter of time). And as messy as the whole Rose and Finn storyline was, the mentor/trainer storyline with Luke and Rey was well done.

Having a reluctant mentor is a classic trope, and The Last Jedi uses this effectively, giving us enough to understand and sympathise with Luke’s bitter attitude. It also shows Rey’s persistence, although maybe some failure from her along the way might have helped (but it would also have added time to an already long film). And Rey saving the Jedi writings was a nice touch, including Yoda’s line about there being nothing in the tree that Rey did not already have access to‌—‌foreshadowing that only becomes apparent in hindsight.

I also enjoyed how the story worked in Kylo Ren’s conflicted inner being, and this brought back memories of Darth Vader, and his eventual turning against the Emperor (maybe hinted at by Snoke’s line about seeing a new Vader in Ren.) I know I said I would only comment on this film, but his conflict does set things up well for Episode IX. This is also mirrored in Rey’s apparent willingness to look into the dark side (although she’s a bit of a cipher for ultimate good, so I’m doubtful that this will be developed.)

There’s also potential in DJ, even if the storyline he surfaced in was a mess. He reminds me in many ways of Han Solo‌—‌out for himself, and willing to bend what morals he has to look after number one, but with the potential to be one of the good guys.

So, what do I think of the film overall? It has its problems, and I think there were many missed opportunities to make something far stronger, but it isn’t a bad film. And maybe it was never meant to be a clear story. The main Star Wars films work in trilogies, so maybe it is better to view The Last Jedi not as a complete film, but as the middle build of a larger story. Maybe the problems in the story will, in the larger scheme of things, turn out to be important building-blocks, foreshadowing events in Episode IX.

Although that doesn’t make The Last Jedi a better film as its own thing.

Feel free to disagree with me. As I said earlier, these are my own thoughts, nothing more. If you think I’m way off the mark with any of this, let me know‌—‌I’ll listen to other points of view, and I’m willing to change my mind if your arguments convince me.

And I suppose that’s one way in which The Last Jedi has worked well. It’s got people talking about Star Wars again (just like The Force Awakens did). It’s once more increased the visibility of the brand. And it’s built more anticipation for Episode IX, for those who want to see an improvement and for those who want more of the same.

I just hope they come up with a good story.

New short story – ‘Fire’

My first short story of 2018, and it almost ties in to the new year, with a theme of escaping from the past. The story’s called Fire, and you can read it here. Love to know what you think of it.

Don’t forget my other short stories, free to read here. There’s also Millenary, the e-book anthology of the first twenty, downloadable from here. Fire is my thirty-ninth story, which means that the next anthology (imaginatively titles Millenary 2) will be available soon.

The Power Of Words anthology

I’m excited to be part of an upcoming anthology called The Power Of Words, organised by M.L.S Weech. All the stories are either based on the First Amendment, or on the title of the anthology. There are a few more stories to come in, but four are so far confirmed, including one of mine, Ghost Stream.

You can read more about it in Matt’s latest update on his site here.