A return to the fun of reading

At the start of the year, I said I’d change my reading habits (you can read that post here). Through 2018, I was taking part in the Goodreads Reading Challenge, and although I easily reached my target of 50 books, I found myself veering toward shorter, easier reads for much of the time. This year, I wanted to read books I actually wanted to read.

However, things haven’t worked out like that, especially over the last month or so. As preparation/background work for my own writing, I’ve been re-reading many of my own books. This has been useful, but it’s felt like‌…‌not work, exactly, but more like something I felt I should do rather than something I wanted to do.

And even before that, I hadn’t read anything that had really grabbed me. I found myself becoming easily distracted, almost looking for excuses to lay my Kindle aside and do something else.

Maybe this was connected with the problems I was having writing, too. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago (in this post), I’ve been struggling with my next Dominions novel.

But now, I feel like I’m back on track with this — the current draft (I’m about half-way through at the time of writing this) feels far more coherent, and I’m finding far more pleasure in the writing. And, coincidentally, I’m enjoying reading more now.

Starplex_RobertJSawyerThis came home to me a couple of weeks ago when I started reading Robert J Sawyer’s Starplex, a book and author I’d not previously heard about. While the book has its problems (I’m not keen on the amount of exposition, even though the ideas are interesting), I wanted to keep on reading. I realised that I was enjoying it far more than I had any other book in a long, long time. I wasn’t reading to hit a target, or as research, or even because reading’s ‘something I do’. No, I was reading simply for the enjoyment of it.

I’ve recently started listening to Caroline Donohoe’s Secret Library podcast, where she interviews different authors as she works on her own novel. It’s fascinating to get an insight into so many different creative processes, but the podcast’s currently on hiatus until 2020, and in the most recent episode (number 157), she talks about her decisions for this.

She explains how she needs to complete her current draft, and therefore needs to prioritise her time. But she also talks about a particular strain in preparing for the podcast, week after week. To interview these authors, she reads their latest book, and even though she enjoys these books, reading them has become something she has to do.
In episode 157, she explains how, after reaching the decision to pause the podcast, she dove into a few page-turner books that she wanted to read, and the love of reading‌—‌the sheer pleasure of it‌—‌opened back up to her.

So I’m not alone in this. But I should have known this anyway. Years ago, an old friend told me how studying English at school ruined reading for him for years. Whenever he picked up a book, he found himself analysing it. He almost had to abandon reading altogether for a few years before he could return to the enjoyment of it once again.

Maybe this is natural. Things run in cycles, so maybe there will always be times when reading simply isn’t as much pleasure as it once was. Maybe the kind of books I read will ebb and flow, just as my taste in music has shifted over the years. Maybe there will be times when I’d be better off putting books down for a while, and enjoying stories in other forms‌—‌TV, films, music, and so on.

TheVampireMaurice_JohnnyTruantBut, for now, I seem to have my enjoyment of reading back‌—‌and I’m going to capitalise on this. Since finishing Starplex, I’ve enjoyed The Vampire Maurice by Johnny Truant (you know a book like this is going to be fun when it starts with a vampire being interviewed by a character called Dr Annabel Rice), and the final book in Chris Fox’s Magitech Chronicles, Godswar. Again, these books might not be perfect, and I doubt the authors would hold up their work as great literary feats‌—‌but that doesn’t matter. Truant and Fox are story-tellers. They know that their job is to entertain others.

And I’m being entertained. I’ve returned to the fun of reading.

 

New short story ‘Just Doing My Job’

Like There’s Always A Choice, the short story I put out a few weeks ago, this new story began life as part of a novel. In this case, I wanted to see if I could write a kind-of sequel to my Shadows series, and while the book didn’t really work out as another Shadows book (it was too different in tone), the story has potential. But, as with many first drafts, there were unrequired scenes.

This new story (Just Doing My Job) came from one such scene. It shows Deva (who previously appeared in Stowaway) once more showing how she copes when others look down on her‌—‌and that was the problem. We already know this, and so there was no need to spend time in the novel reiterating her tough spirit. But as a short story, I think it works.

You can read Just Doing My Job here, and, as always, I’d love to know what you think.

Mid-year round-up, and the benefits of struggling with writing

It’s July. That means half of 2019 is gone, and I thought I’d take a look at how the year’s going for my writing.

My first thoughts on this aren’t good. I’ve found writing increasingly difficult, and don’t feel I’ve been very productive. But to be more objective about this, I’ll recap the 2019 goals I set back in January (for more details, that original post can be found here). These were:

  • To release a new edition of Dark Glass, the first book in my Dominions series
  • To release another two Dominions books
  • To take my Shadows series out of Kindle Unlimited and go wide
  • To release paperbacks of at least some of my books
  • To start a new project or series

So, how am I doing?

Dom1CoverSmallI published the rewritten version of Dark Glass in January, and followed it with a box-set of the first three novels. I’m far happier with this new version of the series starter, and a couple of recent (negative) reviews on the following books bring this back to me‌—‌Dark Glass is now a far stronger book, and so more likely to encourage readers to download other books in the series.

I’ll be getting new covers for the Shadows books from next month (the designers I’m using, Deranged Doctor Design, are usually booked up about six months in advance, which is why I didn’t use them for the original Shadows covers‌—‌a mistake on my part, I admit), so I’m waiting for these before re-releasing the series and putting it wide (Kobo, iBook and so on). I’m also getting paperback covers done, and I’ve already formatted the interiors, so this should be another goal ticked off by the end of the year.

So, one goal achieved, two on target. Now we come onto the ones that aren’t going so well.

I started Dominions V back in January, working from a rough outline I’ve been kicking around for some time (well over a year). But I wasn’t pleased with the first draft, and did some intensive planning before starting another draft. This one ended up far too long, and again I wasn’t happy with the story. There were moments I thought worked well, but overall it felt strained, and there were too many sections that plodded. The whole resolution felt forced, and it wasn’t a satisfying read.

It was now the middle of May, and I knew I needed a break. So I put this novel to one side and started something else.

Shadows was always intended as a trilogy, but I left some loops open (I’ve never been a fan of stories that close everything off too neatly). I’d been intrigued by a possible follow-on series, and so I planned and wrote a novel that could be start of this series, and managed to complete the first draft by the middle of June.

This was an improvement on the Dominions V drafts, in that the story worked. But it didn’t sit well with the rest of the Shadows books. The original trilogy was sci-fi infused with horror, whereas this new one was more action/adventure. It felt like a story being crammed into an already-existing universe.

So, six months and drafts of two novels that didn’t work. I started to wonder if I’d wasted half the year, as well as trying to figure out why writing had suddenly become so much harder. And as I thought on this, I realised two things:

Progress means aiming higher

In retrospect, writing isn’t getting any harder. What has got trickier is writing scenes and stories that satisfy my inner critic. As I’ve learnt more about the craft of writing and storytelling, I’m constantly resetting the bar for myself higher and higher.

If I wanted proof of this, I only had to look at Dark Glass. When I released the original version, I was really pleased with it. I believed the story worked, and that the writing was good‌—‌not exceptional, but better than I expected. But a few years later I was able to see so many issues with that book that I decided to re-write it.

No writing is ever wasted

There’s a famous quote from Thomas Edison, when he was asked about his failure to produce (I believe) a working lightbulb‌—‌‘I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.’ This can apply to anything, including writing.

To get better at something requires two things‌—‌knowing what to do, and practising. With writing, I can read books on craft, listen to podcasts, learn in so many different ways‌—‌but this will have no effect if I don’t put this learning into practice by actually writing.

So I can look back on these ‘failed’ drafts as practice. I can see passages that work, and I can also learn from what didn’t. Through writing, I’ve improved, and that means my next draft should be better, maybe even something I can use.

But there’s another way of using this writing. Stories are made of scenes, and each scene should work on its own. From these drafts, I’ve managed to extract scenes and mould them into short stories (you can read one of these, There’s Always A Choice, here). Additionally, the draft of the post-Shadows book might be usable. I could re-mould it into the start of a brand new series, unconnected to Shadows.


Where does this leave me for the remainder of 2019? I’ve started another draft of the next Dominions novel, after a more in-depth planning process, and I feel it works far better than the previous ones. I’m confident I’ll have this book out by the end of the year, but I doubt the one after will be ready‌—‌especially as I want to spend some time concentrating on the re-release of the Shadows series.

So I won’t achieve all of my goals for this year. But that doesn’t matter‌—‌I’ve kept on working towards them, and I’ve learnt along the way.

As long as I keep on writing, I’m doing well.

New short story – ‘Do You See?’

PowerOfWordsCoverJust under a year ago, I had a (fairly long) story, Ghost Stream, included in The Power Of Words anthology (along with other great stories by MLS Weech, Heidi Angell and Richard Drake). To tie in with the release of this, I wrote a couple of short stories. One was Rumours, and you can still read this here. The other, however, I decided not to publish. Although I liked the story, I felt the ending was too similar to parts of Ghost Story itself.

But after almost a year, it’s time for this story to appear. It’s called Do You See?, and you can read it here. And if this piques your interest, Ghost Story is still available in The Power Of Words (as ebook, paperback and audiobook)‌—‌click here for more information.

How Disney use story, even in their park entrances

Stories are everywhere. In fiction, obviously, but non-fiction uses story forms too. Stories are used in marketing and politics. If you keep your eyes open, you can see stories everywhere. Even in design.

We had a family holiday to Disneyland Paris recently, and the amount of story on display was immense. This isn’t too surprising‌—‌Disney made their name with films and animations‌—‌but look a little deeper, and there is more to their use of story than this. They understand that stories are journeys, and if you want a potential customer and fan to follow that journey to the end, you need to engage their emotions.

The place is split into different areas, each with their own theme (Fantasyland, Discoveryland and so on), with distinctive buildings and music. The queues are their own ministories, with twists and turns that reveal props connected to the rides, or animated characters, or screens giving instructions in a manner suited to each ride.

And the staff are a part of the stories, too. It’s no accident that Disney refer to them as ‘cast’ or ‘crew’. They wear costumes appropriate to each area of the park or specific ride, and many perform roles in the manner they interact with the visitors. Even those cleaning the streets are in costume, and wouldn’t look out of place dancing with the chimney sweeps in Mary Poppins.

So objects and personnel are part of the story, but the physical design of the place plays a big role, too. Nowhere is this most obvious than in the entrance to the main park.

Once through the security checks, visitors walk toward a large, impressive-looking building that houses the entrance to the park itself. But there is no straightforward route. Paths twist and turn around flower beds and water features, yet the journey eventually brings the visitor to the entrance.

disney1-e1561187814653.jpgThis is beneath the building, and on a bright day it is dark under there. It’s classic storytelling‌—‌the hero must first pass from the everyday world into the new, and that often means travelling somewhere uncomfortable, like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. In classic hero’s journey tales, there’s a threshold guardian to thwart the hero’s attempt to progress, and in Disnelyand that role is played by the greeters and ticket-checkers.

But we pass these guardians, and emerge from the dimness into the new world of the park itself. But the journey is still not complete. In story, the hero must work through many trials, and the goal is never discovered round the first corner.

Disney2Ahead, blocking the path, is another building, this one a train station. The track runs overhead, and to progress the brave adventurer must step though the dark arches underneath. Emerging from these, the space opens up, and the adventurer is met by buildings from some idealised perfect past‌—‌clearly fake, but this is a magical story, so we can expect nothing else.

Yet this isn’t the promised end of the journey. We’ve all seen the Disney castle (at the start of every one of their films and on so many logos), and we know this lies at the centre of the kingdom. As in so many fairy tales, the castle is the ultimate goal. And now, on the far side of the train station, we can see fleeting glimpses‌—‌a pink turret, a flag‌—‌but not the whole thing. A bandstand blocks out view.

So, one more obstacle. We walk around this, and only then does the view open up‌—‌Main Street, with music and sounds and lights and life, and just beyond the wide space at the end, framed perfectly by the buildings of the street, is the castle, just as it appears in all the pictures. Now that we have seen the castle, we know we’ve arrived in Disneyland.

It’s easy to be cynical about this. Disney understand how stories can be used to persuade, and how a captive audience can be parted from their money. By that shouldn’t detract from the attention to detail here, and to the way that story is used so effectively. It’s also worth remembering that one of the primary functions of story is to entertain. In a place like Disneyland, the rides and attractions are the main focus, but by adding entertainment to the walks and queues Disney aim to turn a day out into a journey of adventure. Love it or loathe it, they know how to use story effectively.

New short story

It’s often said that editing involves cutting at least ten percent of the words, and while this isn’t strictly true, may words written in a first draft never reach the final product. Sometimes, whole chapters get discarded.

That is how this new short story, There’s Always A Choice, came about. It was originally part of an early draft for Dominions V, but I decided to cut it fairly early on. I liked it too much to let it be ignored, though, so I reworked it. Maybe it’s a deleted scene from an as-yet unpublished book, or maybe it’s a short story in its own right.

You can read There’s Always A Choice here. And if you like this one, you might like to compare it to A Lesson In Death, a far earlier story focusing on Rodin. I think they mirror each other fairly well.

And, as always, I’d love to know what you think of the story.