Keeping a Writer’s Journal

There are a some folk out there who will tell you that if you don’t keep a journal, you are doomed to never, ever be a writer of any kind. In fact, you will probably fail miserably at everything you ever set your hand to, both in business and at home. Others just get very snooty about the ‘right’ way to keep a journal (as if writing something simple like ‘I ate chips for my tea. That’s all I can think of to write’ means you have failed at journaling, and therefore, failed at life).

Obviously, that’s a load of poppycock.

However, even if you’re not the sort of person who normally bothers to keep a journal, you might find it useful as a writer to at least keep a writer’s journal— especially if you’re working on a large writing project such as a novel.

‘Oh nooo!’ I hear you cry. ‘That sounds too hard/time-consuming/pointless’ (delete as appropriate).

It needn’t be. You don’t need to fill it with epiphanies written in flawless iambic pentameter, you don’t need to handcraft your own leather bound volume to write in and you don’t need to write ten thousand words a day (having already written ten thousand words in your actual story). In fact (just between you and me), you don’t need to keep a journal at all if you don’t find it helpful, though I would recommend giving it a bash for a week or two to be sure that it’s not for you.

All that matters is that you do what helps you to write, and in my experience, journaling can be profoundly helpful. How you do it, however, is entirely up to you! You can write in it as often as suits you; it can be long or short; handwritten or digital; illustrated or not; written in all, some or none of the colours of the rainbow and best of all, it can be as messy as you like. No one’s going to mark it. No editor will ever read/watch/listen to it. No publisher will ever publish it. All that matters is that it helps you to write.

For me, I like to keep a written note of how many words I write each day. It’s encouraging to have evidence of daily progress when you feel like you’ve been writing forever and getting nowhere. More than that, however, I find it helpful to express all my thoughts, feelings, ideas and problems relating to my story in some way. Externalising all that stuff once a week, or thereabouts, usually suffices and it helps me to think through it all in a way that sitting staring at my manuscript does not.  If I don’t write it down, I tend to end up boring my wife to tears by talking at length to her about my characters, my setting, my story arc, my word count or whatever else it might be.

If you’ve got a thick skin and are not too worried about who gets to read your journal, you might even find it useful to start a blog (or Twitter account, if you agree the brevity is the soul of wit). While it isn’t why I started Penstricken, my regular readers (God bless you patient and forbearing people) will be able to testify that I frequently do use my blog as a place to rant and rave about things I’ve learned and the problems I’ve encountered and solved while writing. Often the posts I categorise as ‘writing tips’ are aimed at myself as much as they are at anyone else. Another big perk to this kind of public journaling is that you get a little bit of feedback (hopefully from people who care about you, your story or creative writing in general) and it will hopefully serve to motivate you to journal regularly if you have regular readers who will be expecting you to post something every day/week/month/decade.

If you’ve never tried it before, why not start now? To make sure you get the most out of it, take a little time to ask yourself a few questions such as:

What should I write in my journal? Are you wanting to keep a detailed log of your progress (i.e., daily word counts, problems encountered, feedback received and so forth) or would you prefer to use it to express the enjoyment/fear/doubt/despair you experience while writing? Perhaps you might even find it a helpful place to scribble down plot bunnies for future reference.

How often can I commit to keeping a journal? It needn’t be excessively frequent. However in my experience, it is far easier and more enjoyable to keep a journal if you do it on a regular basis. Daily, weekly or even monthly- whatever you can stick to.

What format should my journal take? It’s your journal, for expressing and exploring what’s going on in your own writer-brain. Will it be kept private or will it be online for the great unwashed to view? Will it be in written, audio or video form? Try to use a format that allows you to express yourself as freely as possible – and most importantly, which compliments your writing.

What do I hope to get out of this? There are many possible benefits to journaling: catharsis; developing your skills; tracking your progress; etc. What you are hoping to get out of journaling will probably impact on how you do it. For instance, if you’re using it mainly as an outlet for your self-doubt and frustration with your novel, you probably won’t want to publish it online. It’s not likely to improve your sales figures if ever you do publish your novel.

Do you keep a writer’s journal? Do you find it helps you to write or do you just find it a big old slog keeping it up to date? Share your insights with the rest of us in the comments section below and we can all benefit from each other’s wisdom!

Until next time!

8 Super Snappy Speed Reviews

Spoiler Alert

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not read: The Count of Monte Cristo by A. Dumas, The Afrika Reich by G. Saville, The Final Act of Mr. Shakespeare by R. Winder, The House of Silk by A. Horowitz, The Gospel of Loki by J.M. Harris, I, Robot by I. Asimov, Deception by R. Dahl or Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Well this might be a great idea or it might not be, but I thought it might be fun to knock together a couple of two or three sentence book reviews based on a selection from my bookshelf. Who knows, if it’s a hit, I’ll maybe do it again… maybe with movies or TV shows. But for today, it’s books.

I selected the books for review entirely at random. They are not necessarily of the same genre, nor are they necessarily books I particularly liked or disliked, nor are they sorted into any particular order.

What I have written about them are my entirely own impressions and opinions, compressed, squeezed and crammed into a few short sentences. So, without further ado…

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Justifiably a classic of the genre; a good wholesome historical adventure story and love story rolled into one. It helps to know a thing or two about the period of the Bourbon Restoration to fully appreciate everything that’s going on but don’t let it put you off if you don’t have any knowledge of that period. Oh, and make sure you read the unabridged version translated by Robin Buss. It is the best.

My rating: 5 stars

The Afrika Reich by Guy Saville

If alternative histories and non-stop heart-pounding thrill-rides are your thing, you’ll probably enjoy this. Personally, I can’t help feeling the protagonist should have died from his injuries- or at least been slowed down enough to be caught and executed by the Nazis but I suppose that’s what we have suspension of disbelief for.

 My rating: 3 stars

The Final Act of Mr. Shakespeare by Robert  Winder

Historical fiction featuring William Shakespeare as the protagonist. This novel is set shortly after the Gunpowder Plot and tells the fictional story of the last play Shakespeare (never actually) wrote: Henry VII. In some respects, the story is quite exciting; filled with personal danger for Shakespeare and his troupe. While the narrative does drag at some points, it is beautifully written in a way which brings many of the real historical characters to life and is kept afloat by its interesting premise and a goodly dash of humour. It also includes the full script for the fictional play this novel focuses on.

My rating: 4 stars

The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

Many have tried to capture the magic of Sherlock Holmes in books and films throughout the years. Few have done it as well as Anthony Horowitz does it in The House of Silk, balancing fidelity to the original creation of Arthur Conan Doyle with a fresh and exciting new plot for modern readers. It has everything in it you ever wanted from a Sherlock Holmes story; mystery, excitement, a dark secret to uncover and a quality of narrative which draws you right into the heart of Holmes’ London. Parental advisory: the ending is a lot darker and more disturbing than anything A.C.D. might have written.

My rating: 5 stars

The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris

This novel is an imaginative reexamination of Norse mythology, given from the unique perspective of one of its central villains: Loki, the god of mischief. This novel is full of sharp and occasionally dark humour and a very compelling antihero. Downsides? The first few chapters felt more like a list of cosmic anecdotes forming a backstory, which made it a slow read at first but it does pick up. I also found the narrative voice of Loki a little irksome, but then again, the Loki character is probably supposed to be irksome so I suppose that’s a good thing.

My rating: 3 stars

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

What can I say about I, Robot that hasn’t already been said? Almost every robot character that has ever appeared in sci-fi since owes something to this collection of short stories which are set at different points in the lifetime of robopsychologist, Dr. Calvin (though she is not a character in every story, the stories are largely told from her perspective). Each story is generally centred around the Three Laws of Robotics (Google it) and the problems caused by human and robot interpretations of these laws. I found the pacing a bit slow occasionally, but all in all it’s a good read and an essential addition to any sci-fi buff’s bookshelf. This book sets the standard for everything modern sci-fi readers expect from a robot story.

My rating: 4.5 stars

Deception by Roald Dahl

As a child, I loved almost everything Roald Dahl ever wrote. Deception is certainly not for children but it is an excellent collection of short stories all dealing with theme of lies and deceit. Some of the stories are quite dark (for instance, ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ deals with a woman who murders her husband with a frozen leg of lamb then feeds it to the police) while others are a little more lighthearted. I loved it. I think you will, too.

My rating: 4 stars

Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

Lewis is probably more famous for the The Chronicles of Narnia and his assorted theological texts but this book (the first in ‘The Cosmic Trilogy’) is well worth a look anyway. Hard sci-fi fans, don’t waste your time. This is a story about a man who travels to Mars, but Lewis’ idea of space is clearly grounded in his interest in mythology rather than modern cosmology. Treat it as a fairy-tale rather than a sci-fi, though, and it’s a darn good read.

My rating: 4 stars


Phew! Well, that was different!

Until next time!

The Malice Restored My Faith In Sci-Fi/Fantasy Trilogies

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been taken to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not read The Malice or The Vagrant by Peter Newman is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I was rather reluctant to write a post reviewing Peter Newman’s The Malice (the second book in Newman’s The Vagrant trilogy) for the simple reason that I seem to be constantly bigging up Peter Newman on this site, as well as on Twitter. Frankly, if I keep this up, there’s a very real danger of Penstricken turning into The Peter Newman Appreciation Society (I may have raved about The Vagrant once, twice, or thrice before).

However, a few days ago someone very kindly (but not entirely accurately) referred to Penstricken as a ‘writing tips blog’ when really I intended this site to be for both story writers and their audiences. So, I decided it was time to write a post for those of you who have put up with me rambling about writing week in and week out when all you really want is a book recommendation. And since I have recently finished The Malice, it seemed a logical choice to review it on this week’s post.

Naturally I will try to give a fair, balanced and critical review but you know…

The Vagrant trilogy is arguably the best sci-fi/fantasy series I’ve come across in a long time!* It has made me believe in sci-fi/fantasy trilogies again! I wish the third book would just hurry up and COME OUT already!

… and relax.

Okay, now that I’ve got that out of my system, let’s get down to business.

The Malice is the second book in the Vagrant trilogy, based several years after the events of The Vagrant. When I read the first book a year or so ago, I did so believing that it was a stand-alone novel. You see, over the years, I have grown cautious about reading novel series (especially sci-fi/fantasy) from authors I don’t know because I have often found myself getting bored with them by the second or third book. As we know, some series just go on and on and on and on and on forever. Therefore, since there’s nothing worse than abandoning a story halfway through, I tend to think long and hard before picking up a new series. As much as I loved the originality, the poetic language and the vivid world-building I found in The Vagrant, when I learned that it was part of a trilogy I was a little anxious that it might go the way of so many other series I’ve started but never finished.

I was wrong. I devoured The Malice with as much proverbial** relish as I did The Vagrant. I think the reason it works so well as a sequel is because Newman has managed to strike that difficult balance between continuity with the first book and not rehashing the same story all over again. For example, there is a definite continuity in the style of story-telling. Newman’s distinctive voice has carried on into the sequel and draws us easily back into the same vivid and original world he has created. However, the characters are, as always, where Newman really works his magic.

As with the previous book, we have the protagonist who leads the adventure; the protagonist’s companion who supports and defends her and a capra aegagrus hircus (in this case, a kid), who serves in a comedy relief kind of capacity. However, Newman hasn’t relied on reusing the same (or virtually identical) group of heroes as before. The protagonist, Vesper, for example, is a young girl; chatty, a little unsure of herself, optimistic to the point of naivety and with an iron core of purity and unhindered free-thinking that suits her age and background. This is quite the opposite of her father and protagonist from the previous book: the strong and silent Vagrant who pushed his way relentlessly through whatever adversity he encountered.

Her companion, Duet, brings a similarly refreshing spin on the familiar role she plays. She is a Harmonised; an single entity made up of two joined individuals (as far as I could tell). Having been forced to kill her other self in the early chapters of the book, Duet grows increasingly bitter and cynical throughout the story as her health begins to fail her. Again, this contrasts sharply with the companion from the previous book, who served mainly as a very positive influence to encourage the Vagrant on his journey.

It was also good to get something more of the origins and inner-politics (if you can call it that) of the infernals who feature heavily in both books.

This book (both of them, in fact) also beautifully accomplishes something which very few other sci-fi novels do. It draws the reader into a dark and dangerous dystopian world while yet retaining a sense of optimism and even fun; exploring important themes of friendship, compassion (especially in the character of Vesper, who often resolves to help and heal others even at great risk to herself and her mission) and duty. For me, this sets it apart from many other sci-fi stories which are often either unremittingly depressing from the get-go or else are a little too fun to have any realism or tension about them (not that I’m knocking that. I like fun). This gives it a sense of believably, even though it is set in a world that is so completely different from our own.

If I must criticise something about this book (and I really would rather not), it would be that the pacing of the last few chapters could possibly have benefited from a little tightening up. I don’t want to give away what happens, but it did feel a little bit like having dramatically saved the day, Vesper then goes back home via the long and not-terribly-thrilling route which left me thinking ‘I hope something good happens to justify all this excess narrative that’s been stuck on the end’. Well, I don’t want to give away what it is but trust me: something good does happen. It is definitely worth reading on, especially if you’ve got any plans (as I do) to read the third instalment, The Seven, when it comes out in April.

All in all, The Malice was every bit as excellent a story as its predecessor; perhaps even better. While it remains firmly rooted in its predecessor, it carries the story forward in great strides, opening up the possibilities for the next instalment and leaving the reader feeling both fully satisfied and eager for the next one. Go get it!


*Having said that, I have just started The Mistborn series. It’s off to a promising start too.

**Don’t put literal relish on your book. It leaves a stain. LFMF.

Adversity: A Leaf Out Of Peter Newman’s Book

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid any spoilers, those of you who have not yet read Peter Newman’s novel, The Vagrant, are hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

If you’re the kind of person who wants to read a truly engaging and imaginative piece of post-apocalyptic sci-fi/fantasy, you could do a lot worse than reading The Vagrant by Peter Newman. This gripping tale of our hero’s journey to the Shining City is set in a world where all hell has quite literally broken loose and has almost completely taken over the world. The winged swords (current holder of the My Most Favouritest Fantasy Weapon Ever Award) are alive and singing, the dead have been reanimated by demons and – most mercifully of all – Newman’s fantasy world has been mapped out with beautiful clear writing instead of forcing me to refer to an actual map on the front page every five minutes. It was such a joy to read that even the constant flash-backs (a pet peeve of mine) couldn’t put me off reading it.

You may be thinking I’m about to give you a review of The Vagrant. In fact, that was my original plan but instead I’ve decided to write about something important that I think we authors can learn from The Vagrant, whatever style and genre we write. While there are plenty of things in this book that make it stand out among its peers, one thing in particular that got my attention was that the protagonist (the otherwise nameless ‘Vagrant’) is, in fact, mute. He cannot speak. In all my years of reading, I have never yet come across a protagonist who could not speak and the further into the book I went, the more tempting it was to believe that Newman would sooner or later have to give up and make his protagonist say something. After all, surely it’s unrealistic to have him constantly communicating with looks and gestures or having to rely on his friends speak for him, right? Surely you cannot create a fully fledged character without him having some dialogue… right?

Wrong on both counts.

In writing The Vagrant, Newman has demonstrated (whether deliberately or not, I cannot say; I do not know the man) a keen appreciation for an important fact that we can easily forget: in real life, there are some obstacles which cannot simply be removed; they just have to be coped with. Think about it. In the real world, today as you read this humble blog, there are men, women and children out there who cannot speak, just as there are those who cannot hear or see or walk. These people have no choice but to live with their disability. They speak in sign language, they get a guide dog or they move around in a wheelchair – for necessity truly is the mother of invention. Therefore, why not have a mute protagonist, or a blind protagonist or a deaf protagonist? Real life is not always convenient; neither should your fictional world be. Even if you decide not to give your character a physical disability, it is worthwhile adding a little something to them to make their quest all the more difficult: an addiction, a phobia, O.C.D., anything. Very rarely in life are people naturally gifted with everything they need to accomplish all their goals easily and showing the reader how your character deals with (or avoids dealing with?) their own limitations will tell us a lot more about the kind of person your character is than anything they  can say. After all, we know the good guy’s probably going to win; what matters is how they get there.

Another closely related thing to consider are the complications other characters can present to your character. By that I mean all other people, not just your antagonist (it goes without saying that your bad guy should be making your protagonist’s life as difficult as possible). For example, have you ever read a spy thriller in which the protagonist’s mother or father is suffering from severe dementia?

Neither have I. After all, it’s not convenient for secret agents to have to visit their parents numerous times in the day to make sure they’re eating properly while still holding down their job as an international man or woman of mystery. Or what about children? I’m yet to watch the Bond flick in which 007 has to be home early enough to pick his son up from school because his son’s mother (probably a Russian double-agent) is dead and Bond is now the boy’s sole guardian. But in real life, people do have responsibilities to other people and that’s why thrillers seldom amount to more than mindless escapism, no matter how much we might enjoy them.

Peter Newman’s The Vagrant is a different story altogether. In this, our hero must juggle his mission to reach the Shining City by way of a demon infested land (a perfectly good story in itself) along with his responsibility to protect and sustain the orphaned baby he adopted before the story began. The very fact that the Vagrant is willing to take on this extra inconvenience adds substance to the character, because it shows us exactly what kind of man the Vagrant is without him having to utter a single word. I can’t help but wonder how Bond would handle life as a single parent. Would he take his son on his missions with him? Would he quit MI6 and get a quiet office job so he could support his son? Would he give the boy up for adoption? Whatever decision he makes will automatically define him as a character in the mind of the reader. There’s nothing really wrong with giving your protagonists no other people who depend on them or care about them, but unless it’s mindless escapism you’re writing (there is plenty of room in this life for mindless escapism), you might want to think twice about that (unless, of course, the protagonist’s isolated lifestyle is the very obstacle he or she needs to overcome, but that’s just a suggestion).

The bottom line is this: in real life, things are rarely handed out to us just as we need them to be and life is seldom easy. In the same way, make sure your fictional world does not revolve around your protagonist. Take a leaf out of Newman’s book and force your character to adapt. That’s what will turn your character made of words into a person with substance – dare I say, a soul. Albert Einstein said “adversity introduces a man to himself”; but in fiction, adversity is what introduces the reader to the man.

To Catch a Killer (A Little Too Easily)

SPOILER ALERT

Although every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not seen the ITV television-movie Maigret or read the Georges Simenon novel Maigret Sets a Trap is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I’m normally quite fussy about reading the original of any story before I watch the film/TV adaptation. It’s not that I favour one over the other; I just like to get a feel for the original author’s unique angle on his/her story before sampling other people’s homages to it. That being said, when I heard that Rowan Atkinson was going to be starring as the main character in ITV’s television adaptation of Georges Simenon’s detective novel Maigret Sets a Trap, my curiosity got the better of me.

There are a couple of reasons I was so keen to see it but what really piqued my curiosity and what caused me to break with my usual tradition of reading the book first was the fact that the main character (a fairly sour-faced French detective called Jules Maigret), was being portrayed by Rowan Atkinson; a British actor best known for playing fairly silly comedy roles such as Mr Bean, Johnny English and Edmund Blackadder.

I will admit that it took a couple of minutes to get used to Atkinson’s face being so serious. His features are very striking and he has made a career out of comical facial expressions, not least of all in Mr Bean, where he has made an art of telling jokes without uttering a word. My disorientation only lasted a minute however. Atkinson’s acting and the general mood of the film were more than adequate to create the serious and mysterious ambiance needed for a good, solid detective story.

I do love a good detective story. I think secretly we all do. Mystery is very compelling. It’s what makes a detective story so captivating; something puzzling has happened and we simply can’t go to bed until we’ve had all our questions answered! That means, of course, that it is important that the reader/viewer of a detective story never knows for certain who committed the crime until the last moment (that was always my biggest objection to Columbo!). Those unanswered questions are what keep us on the edge of our seat. Without them, there’s no mystery and no story worth telling. Those detailed conversations you have with your family during the ad-breaks about who you think the killer might be and why are half the fun of watching a detective drama in my book.

And that, dear reader, is the main thing that ruined this first episode of Maigret for me.

The episode opens midway through an investigation conducted by Jules Maigret into four similarly styled murders. The victims have nothing in common except the colour of their hair and Maigret is, frankly, utterly failing to catch the perpetrator. And so he sets a trap, using female police officers as bait. At first, this seems to have all the makings of a good TV detective story; a compelling hard-nosed detective; pressure being applied to remove the detective from the case because of his failure to solve it; a series of mysterious murders that cause my wife and I to exchange numerous increasingly wild theories about ‘who dunnit’; the looming threat of more deaths; a dangerous plan to force the killer to reveal himself…

But then the plan goes ahead fairly early in the story, nobody gets killed as a result of Maigret’s risky move and someone is arrested against whom a truck-load of evidence is immediately forthcoming.

‘It can’t be him.’ I say to my wife. ‘It definitely, definitely, definitely can’t be him. It’s too obvious. It’s never the first guy they arrest, especially not when they find so much evidence against him so easily.’

So we carry on watching it for another half hour or so, quietly confident in our individual theories about who the real killer is while Maigret continues to hold and interrogate someone who we assume is an innocent man…

Only it turns out it was him after all and the person who I thought maybe was the killer is actually never actually seen again. Oh sure, they try to throw us off the scent by having another murder committed while the killer is in jail but by that point it’s painfully obvious that it was the killer’s wife who committed this last murder just to protect her husband and so we are not fooled and neither is Maigret.

I was prepared for the possibility that I wouldn’t be able to take Rowan Atkinson seriously as a serious detective and was pleasantly surprised to find that I thoroughly enjoyed his performance. If I was giving out prizes for acting or creating the right ambiance, I would have nothing but praise for Maigret but when it comes to that all important story, I must admit to feeling like I had been robbed of a good mystery and I am not nearly as enthusiastic about the second episode (due to be aired later in the UK later this year) as I was about the first.

My most sincere congratulations to Rowan Atkinson (and indeed, all the cast!) on a very good and very non-comical performance. Hopefully the plot for the next episode, Maigret’s Dead Man, will do greater justice to the acting and ambiance of the first episode.

To Judge a Book (Not By its Cover)

I was tidying up my desk yesterday (a roughly biennial event, so it’s sort of a big deal) when I struck gold: two vouchers for a well-established chain of bookshops. One was worth a whopping £30 and the other, £27. That’s almost £60 worth of book voucher just waiting to be spent.

Naturally I fired up the website of this well-established chain of bookshops as soon as I had completed the excavation of my desk and immediately hit a snag. I didn’t actually know what I wanted. I just wanted new books. Exciting stories, riveting stories, poetically crafted and well researched works of fiction. Unfortunately, that’s a little too vague for the average search engine to reliably cope with. I know what I like when I read it but… how do I know I like it until I read it? I’ve always had this problem with choosing new books, films or other forms of fiction.

It is wise, of course, to begin by whittling the choice down to include only your favourite genres. Most bookshops are organised this way anyway, regardless of whether you are looking online or in a physical shop. Unfortunately, if you’re like me, there’s a good chance that you’ll want to peruse almost all of the genres, which doesn’t really help much. You could, of course, always fall back on that age-old game of literary roulette called ‘Judge a Book by its Cover’. Alternatively, you could do what I do and ignore the categories the shop gives you and make up your own categories instead. Here’s a couple I like to use:

Authors I’m Ashamed Never to Have Read

This category usually gets first priority when I’m trying to find something new to read. It includes all those authors that I, as a self-proclaimed bookworm, know I should have read but haven’t. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm believer that you can dislike anything you wish (even if everyone else loves it) but you just can’t know until you’ve tried… and some authors are just too popular to ignore completely.

For example, I claimed earlier in this post that I love the fantasy genre. Indeed, I do love the fantasy genre. I’ve read loads of fantasy and I nearly always enjoy it but in spite of this… I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read any Terry Pratchett. Naturally, therefore, when I had my surprise bookish windfall, I decided that I would address the lack of Pratchett on my bookshelf, instead of picking a fantasy novel at random. Since it is the first book in his ever-popular Discworld series, it wasn’t long before I had added The Colour of Magic to my basket.

Authors I Read Once Before and Liked

As well as fantasy, I am also a big fan of fantasy’s dour-faced brother, science-fiction. A couple of years ago, Isaac Asimov belonged in my ‘Authors I’m Ashamed Never to Have Read’ category until I finally read The End of Eternity, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Now that I’ve read one of his books, I have a golden opportunity to decide whether or not to write-off Asimov as overrated or to invite him back for a second audition. After all, the last book was maybe a fluke. Maybe Asimov is a one trick pony. Maybe I just won’t like anything else he has written. The first book I read filled me with optimism but caution is still advised in buying books from this category. There’s only one way to know for sure if you can ever truly become a fully-fledged fan of a particular author like Asimov: buy I, Robot and see if it’s half as good as The End of Eternity.

Authors I Can’t Get Enough Of

There are a few very special authors out there who can do no wrong. Every book they publish, I devour and enjoy. Part of it is undoubtedly down to the skill of the writer; a lot of it is perhaps also a matter of personal taste. For me, John Steinbeck is such an author. I first came across him at school when we read Of Mice and Men. I was hooked. Since then I’ve read The Grapes of Wrath, The Pearl, The Wayward Bus, East of Eden, Cup of Gold, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, Tortilla Flat and probably a whole bunch of others besides.

This is a great category if, like me, you’re in credit with book vouchers and want to be sure that at least some of the books you order will be ones you know you’ll love. Just search for the author’s name and pick any old one. Joy is guaranteed.

Incidentally, I settled on The Red Pony for those of you who are interested.

Variations on a Theme

Sometimes the idea behind a story is more important than who wrote it. A couple of years ago, I read The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, which is an alternate history in which the Allies lost the Second World War. It wasn’t the most exciting book I’d ever read, but I still enjoyed it and the idea behind it made for a stimulating (if horrifying) fictional universe. Perhaps a different author might be able to put a different (or even better) spin on the same idea…?

Fortunately, most online shops include ‘more books like this’ recommendations. It didn’t take more than a few clicks for me to find and purchase The Afrika Reich by Guy Saville.

Gamble!

Some books do just have very compelling covers, don’t they? You’ve never heard of the novel or the author but still, something about it catches your eye. If you’re feeling brave, why not roll the dice on a brand new author who you’ve never heard of?

Of course, just because you’re taking a gamble doesn’t mean you can’t stack the odds of finding an enjoyable read in your favour. Do your homework before you spend any money. I remember I once overheard some horse-racing enthusiasts discussing at considerable length how they intended to bet and why. You should have this kind of mindset when taking a chance on a new author. Don’t just impulsively buy one based on the pretty cover alone; do your research. The internet and the newspapers alike are bursting with reviews on all kinds of fiction. Websites like Goodreads are especially useful for getting an idea of what hundreds of different readers individually thought about particular books and they will usually provide an average star rating as well.

Ultimately, every purchase is a gamble. Sometimes your favourite genre will disappoint you; sometimes the best-selling authors are over-rated; sometimes you will find a gem from an author or genre you normally hate. But just because every purchase is a gamble doesn’t mean every purchase must be a guess. With a well trained gut and a little bit of research, there’s no reason why you can’t find something worth reading every single time.

‘Hills Like White Elephants’ – A Masterclass in Dialogue

There is an old and for the most part true adage among writers that a good writer will ‘show and not tell’. In other words, a good story ought not to be a technical report of events; rather, the reader should be made to mentally witness the events and understand for themselves what meaning there might be hidden behind them. In my opinion, there are very few authors who do this quite as well as Ernest Hemingway, and for the sake of this post I want to take a look at the way he accomplishes this using character dialogue in the short story, ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ (first published in Men Without Women 1927).

‘Hills Like White Elephants’ is set in a bar at a train station in the middle of nowhere and focuses on a very awkward conversation between an American man and a girl who have been apparently having an affair. The girl is pregnant and is travelling for an abortion. She is having second thoughts about it, or perhaps more accurately is having second thoughts about the affair she is having with this (perhaps older) man. He, on the other hand, is desperate for her to have the abortion so that their life can continue as it was before she got pregnant. What is so remarkable about this story is that absolutely none of this is explicitly stated. It is simply implied, not only through what the characters say but what the characters are also not saying. Indeed, there is very little narration in the story at all (only three or four short paragraphs); the vast majority of the story (which is just shy of 1500 words long) is made up of dialogue between these two (ex?)-lovers.

This is ‘showing, not telling’ at its very finest. There’s lots that can be said about this tiny little gem but the thing I really want to talk about is Hemingway’s extraordinary use of dialogue through-out this story.

The first five hundred words or so of the story feature the two characters having the most trivial of discussions: what they are drinking. They simply do not mention their relationship, their feelings about each other, the pregnancy, the abortion or anything else of significance before this point.

Five hundred words! That’s almost a third of the story done with already and they haven’t given any hint whatsoever that they are anything more than casual acquaintances. I should also mention that during this time, the characters knock back no less than three drinks each. This is a long, drawn out conversation about nothing punctuated by awkward silences. Hemingway doesn’t need to describe the awkward silences. They’re apparent to the reader through the fact that they get through so many drinks while saying so little. If we had any doubt that the silence was a tense one, we only need to look at how quickly their trivial conversation turns into conflict:

‘Yes,’ said the girl. ‘Everything tastes of liquorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.’
‘Oh, cut it out.’
‘You started it,’ the girl said. ‘I was being amused. I was having a fine time.’
‘Well, let’s try and have a fine time.’
‘All right. I was trying. I said the mountains looked like white elephants. Wasn’t that bright?’
‘That was bright.’
‘I wanted to try this new drink. That’s all we do, isn’t it – look at things and try new drinks?’
‘I guess so.’

~ E. Hemingway 1927

Maybe I’m just more laid back than most, but it strikes me that these two characters are having anything but a ‘fine time’. This is a tense and awkward discussion about anything other than the one thing that’s on both of their minds.

When the conversation finally does come around to ‘the operation’, the two characters continue to dance around the subject and each other. They never once talk about a baby or an abortion, or even the fact that they have had any kind of physical relationship. Instead, Hemingway nudges the reader towards an understanding of what is going on for these two characters through their vague and awkward dialogue. The best clue we have that the girl is going for an abortion (rather than some other kind of ‘operation’) is that they are both clearly very uncomfortable about it. They talk about it with euphemisms, like how it is a ‘simple operation’ to ‘let the air in’ and so forth. This euphemism itself also gives us a clue that the girl is having something removed from her body… something they’re both embarrassed to talk about but are both desperately concerned about.

Hemingway goes on to make it apparent, through the characters’ dialogue, that these two characters have very different feelings about their situation. The man consistently tries to goad the girl into going ahead with the abortion using reassuring phrases such as ‘It’s perfectly simple’ and ‘You don’t have to be afraid. I’ve known lots of people that have done it’.

There is one interesting point where the girl explicitly asks him, ‘And you really want to?’

Does he give a straight answer? No. Instead he tries again to persuade her:

‘I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to.’

Even in the middle of this conversation about the actual issue they are both facing, the two characters utterly fail to communicate. They’re playing verbal tennis with each other but it is clear that they are on different wavelengths entirely. The man continually tries to persuade her that everything will be all right and that their relationship will go back to how it was when the abortion is complete; the girl, on the other hand, increasingly realises that this is not the case. When she does, she drops the conversation. She’s no longer interested in hearing his persuasions; her mind is set. Again, this is not explicitly stated by any narrative; it is simply made clear by the dialogue:

‘I don’t want you to do anything that you don’t want to do -‘
‘Nor that isn’t good for me,’ she said. ‘I know. Could we have another beer?’
‘All right. But you’ve got to realize – ‘
‘I realize,’ the girl said. ‘Can’t we maybe stop talking?’

~ E. Hemingway 1927

Notice how the girl interrupts the man by finishing his sentence for him. She knows what he’s going to say. She’s heard him spin this line a million times before (he certainly spins it often enough during the story and goodness knows how many times before the story actually begins!). She isn’t interested in hearing it any more. In spite of his assertions that he cares about her needs, the man actually has no idea what the girl needs and is more occupied with his own fear that she might actually have this baby. The girl, on the other hand, seems to mature in wisdom almost immediately before our eyes.

This is all made clear to the reader with the narrator barely uttering a word through-out the entire story. Instead of simply being told the facts, the narrator leads us to this train station in the middle of no where and leaves us there to eavesdrop on a private conversation so that we can glean all the details for ourselves as we go.

Now that is what I call showing, not telling.

How Can Meyer Save Star Trek?

If, like me, the thought of a new Star Trek TV series fills you with a peculiar combination of hope and dread, you might be interested to learn that CBS has employed the services of the writer, Nicholas Meyer for the new (as yet, untitled) Star Trek reboot due to be aired in 2017.

Nicholas Meyer is no stranger to the Star Trek franchise, having written several of the original cast films. After the original Star Trek series was cancelled and Star Trek: The Motion Picture flopped, Meyer breathed new life into the dying franchise by writing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Since the success of that film, the Star Trek franchise exploded into the phenomenon it is today, with more TV spin-offs, films, computer games, conventions and merchandise than you can shake a bat’leth at. Indeed the Abrams film, Star Trek: Into Darkness, which is replete with references to The Wrath of Khan, serves only to underline the fondness fans have for that particular film. I doubt I’m the only fan waiting with bated breath to see what kind of story Meyer is going to cook up for us in 2017.

Fans have been, at best, mixed in their opinions about the most recent Star Trek offerings. Star Trek: Enterprise was, in my humble opinion, truly dreadful. I think I knew it was going to be dreadful from the moment I heard the words ‘It’s been a long road…’. I have a great deal more respect for the efforts of Abrams in creating Star Trek (2008) and Star Trek: Into Darkness but even these seem to lack the magic of the original series and The Next Generation. I doubt I’m alone in wondering if Meyer can again save Star Trek from dying a very slow and painful death or if it really is ‘time to put an end to your trek through the stars’ (Q in TNG ep., ‘All Good Things’).

Perhaps the reason the previous series have all been so successful (Enterprise notwithstanding) is that they were all very different from each other. Thus, even though they were all set in the same fictional universe, there was never a feeling that one was a poor imitation of the other; rather, they stand side by side to create the great tapestry that we now think of as the Star Trek universe.

The original series first aired in the mid-’60s and it shows, not only in the costumes, music and other stylistic points but also in the kinds of themes it explores. For example, through the depiction of a utopian future, issues of racial equality are dealt with again and again through-out the original series at the very same time that real-life people like Martin Luther King Jr. were actively involved in the American civil rights movement. Nevertheless, this ‘utopia’ still does not allow for female captains. In fact, the final episode of the original series specifically deals with a woman who wishes to captain a starship and, in an effort to do so, swaps bodies with Captain Kirk and is eventually busted because she was ‘hysterical’.

Jump ahead to The Next Generation and we see a Star Trek universe which has definite continuity with the original (no doubt due to the fact that it was created by Gene Roddenberry, who also created the original) but has also adapted to suit the period it was aired (late ’80s-early ’90s). Female captains are now seen on screen (although it is not until Star Trek: Voyager that we see a female captain in the regular cast) and we now also see that the Star Trek ‘utopia’ has expanded to include the disabled, such as Geordie LaForge; the blind chief engineer who is in no way disadvantaged or patronised on account of his blindness.

Since [being blind and wearing the VISOR] are both a part of me and I really like who I am, there’s no reason for me to resent either one (LaForge in TNG ep., ‘Loud as a Whisper’, parenthesis mine).

The themes dealt with in each series are by no means the only differences, especially when you begin to diverge into the Voyager and Deep Space Nine series. The creators of these two shows (both created after the death of Gene Roddenberry) very wisely shied away from imitating Roddenberry’s work by creating yet another series about humans exploring space on the starship Enterprise but instead created two completely different stories which complimented the series created by Roddenberry. Voyager, like the first two series, is also set on a starship, however instead of exploring the galaxy, the crew of the starship Voyager are lost on the other side of the galaxy and are trying to make the treacherous journey home. Deep Space Nine is also very different to the other series. This show is not set on a starship at all, but on a space station orbiting the planet Bajor. It includes a complex meta-narrative, far darker and more intricate than anything seen in previous incarnations of Star Trek.

When we compare this to Star Trek: Enterprise and the Abrams reboot, it is perhaps a little easier to see why both of these have proven to be so unpopular. In and of themselves, they are entertaining enough to watch but they both attempt, in their own ways, to recapture and update the magic of Gene Roddenberry’s original creation. In this, they fall sadly short.

We can really only speculate as to what the new series will be like, since CBS have been pretty tight-lipped about it so far. Enterprise and the Abrams reboot may give die-hard fans reason to believe that the new series will be a disappointment but I do not believe it is fair to write off the new series before we have even heard any details about it. Unofficial fan-made shows and movies such as Star Trek: Renegades and Star Trek Continues suggests to me that it is still possible for gifted writers who care about Star Trek to create a new Star Trek that is worth watching. I think what matters most is that Nicholas Meyer and any one else involved in writing for this new show remains as faithful as possible to the work of Gene Roddenberry while still feeling confident to go carefully, reverently and boldly where no one has gone before.

Different Seasons

SPOILER ALERT:

Although every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not read Different Seasons by Stephen King is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I’ve never been a fan of horror stories (but power to you if you like them) and for that reason, I’ve avoided the work of Stephen King for far longer than is healthy for someone who claims to love a good story. However, on my birthday at the end of last year, I unwrapped not one but two Stephen King books: Different Seasons and The Green Mile (I also unwrapped Cup of Gold by John Steinbeck and a 9 book collection of Poirot novels by Agatha Christie, but that’s not important just now). I haven’t got around to reading The Green Mile yet but if it’s half as good as Different Seasons then I might have just become a Stephen King fan. It’s a fantastic book.

I would offer one word of caution to anyone who, like me, does not usually like horror but is curious about Stephen King: Different Seasons may(!) not accurately reflect the kind of stories King normally writes. As I read through Different Seasons, I was surprised by how relatively mild the horror elements were until I got to the afterword, in which King (1982, p. 672) comments,

I write true to type … at least, most of the time. But is horror all I write? If you’ve read the foregoing stories, you know it’s not … but the elements of horror can be found in all of the tales, not just in The Breathing Method – that business with the slugs in The Body is pretty gruesome, as is much of the dream imagery in Apt Pupil. Sooner or later, my mind always seems to turn back in that direction.

It’s this little afterword which leaves me wondering exactly how King’s other novels compare to this collection. That being said, the four novellas contained in this collection (Rita Hayworth and Shawkshank Redemption; Apt Pupil; The Body; The Breathing Method) certainly have their own dark threads running through them.

I don’t really want to rabbit on about Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption too much since I’ve already raved about it in a previous post but it bears mentioning. It tells the story of a friendship which develops between two prisoners in the Shawshank Penitentiary and of the final dramatic exit of both men from that prison. It features pretty much nothing in the way of supernatural horror elements but neither is it shy about giving a gritty account of life in the Shawshank Penitentiary, where most of the story is set. There are, for example, a few brutal scenes of violence including rape, though these are not overdone in a way which would make the narrative needlessly crude. In fact, I found there to be something strangely heart-warming about the main plot and the way the story ends. What really made this story stand out for me, however, was King’s superb use of narrative voice, as mentioned previously.

Like ShawshankApt Pupil is a story that does not really contain any traditional horror elements. However, it is very dark; the darkest of the four in my opinion. It is set in the fictional Californian suburb of Santo Donato and focuses on a mutually destructive relationship between an elderly Nazi war criminal, Kurt Dussander (a.k.a Arthur Denker) and Todd Bowden, an ‘all American kid’ with an unhealthy fixation on the Holocaust. Unlike the other three, Apt Pupil is narrated in the third person.

The story opens with the protagonist, Todd, appearing quite uninvited on Dussander’s doorstep, having already learned of Dussander’s previous life as a Nazi and his specific role in the Holocaust. Todd begins by blackmailing Dussander, threatening to expose him unless Dussander tells him gruesome and detailed stories about the Holocaust. The relationship brings out the worst qualities in both characters, eventually leading both to actual acts of murder while their mutual fear of each other forces them to continue their toxic relationship. While this is a little darker than the type of story I would normally go for, I must say that the two main characters are a master-class in constructing complex relationships between characters. Each character is unique, memorable and serves a vital function in the story (as all characters should), yet their relationships are a complex and intricately crafted web of obsession, hatred and interdependency the like of which very few other authors could hope to equal. Despite being darker than the type of thing I would normally read, it is so well written that I would have to say that, along with ShawshankApt Pupil is probably my joint-favourite story from Different Seasons.

The Body, on the other hand, was probably my least favourite of the four. It is written from the perspective of Gordon Lachance; an author, writing about an incident in his youth when he and a group of his friends, all of whom come from dysfunctional families, learned of a dead body which one of their brothers had discovered but not reported to the authorities. Lachance and his friends set out in secret to search for this body so they can ‘discover’ it and become famous. Personally, I found the narrative a little on the slow side compared to the other three novellas and while King’s use of narrative voice in this story was very good, it doesn’t come close to Red’s narration in Shawshank. The ending was also a bit of a let down. On the plus side (if you don’t like anything too dark), it is comparatively light on the physical and psychological violence found in the previous two stories.

The Breathing Method is a story within a story and is probably the closest thing to a supernatural horror to be found in the collection, though any supernatural or fantastic aspects to this story are only hinted at. The story opens with David, the protagonist of the frame narrative, being invited along to a mysterious men’s club by his boss where the members mostly read, tell stories and play pool. The rest of the novella takes the form of another character, Edward McCarron, telling David and everyone else at the club a story about an unmarried pregnant woman he once treated who was determined to have her baby despite the social and financial difficulties this would have caused her. He also tells them about an unconventional method of controlled breathing which he teaches her to use when she goes into labour, which allows him to save the baby’s life when the woman is involved in a fatal traffic accident.

All in all, Different Seasons is an excellent collection and is probably a great place for a first time reader of Stephen King to begin, especially if you’re not wild on horror. More importantly than that, the quality of the writing in all four of these stories testifies to the fact that – no matter how famous he might be for writing horror – Stephen King is no one-trick pony. Different Seasons may be a little on the dark side at points but I would still highly recommend it to even the most avid of horror-dodgers.

Accounting for Taste

I’ve got a confession to make.

I don’t like A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin. There, I’ve said it.

The strange thing is that I generally do like long and complex fantasy and there’s no denying that Martin is a very good writer… But as I slogged through the first two books of A Song of Ice And Fire, I became increasingly conscious that I was only persevering with it because I felt like I had to; partly because in my pride, I never like to leave a book half read and partly because everyone else seems to like it. But when you’re really not enjoying a story and there’s still another whole five books left to read after you finish the one you’re on, there’s only one course of action.

Even as I write this, I can feel my fellow book-lovers judging me for (temporarily!) giving up on it and my fellow fellow fantasy-readers judging me for not liking one of the most popular fantasy authors of his generation. But why waste your life reading books you’re not enjoying?

The truth is, there’s a lot of snobbishness surrounding fiction. People who read literary fiction often look down upon people who read genre fiction; people who read hard sci-fi often look down their noses at people who watch Star Trek or Doctor Who; people who read anything at all often judge those who prefer to get their fiction-fix from TV than the pages of a book; most bizarrely of all, there seems to be some dispute about whether or not e-books constitute ‘real’ books.

Am I alone in finding this a little strange? No matter how much I may love fiction (and I do!), it is, ultimately, just that. Fiction. Untruths. Entertaining lies. Why, then, does it matter which ones we enjoy and which ones we don’t? We often speak of our ‘guilty pleasures’; TV shows or books we like but know we shouldn’t but… hold the bus! Why shouldn’t we?

I earlier referred to my dissatisfaction with A Song of Ice And Fire. I should say that I am not for one second suggesting that Martin wrote a bad story. It’s a very clever story, a very well developed fantasy world and very well written but… it just wasn’t for me. Equally there are some things I do like but feel irrationally guilty about, usually because they are mindless escapism without any real substance to them. Normally I prefer to read something with a bit of meaning to it but why should that put me off enjoying the odd bit of drivel, too?

So, I think it’s time for a change. I think it’s time we all just read what we like to read, write what we like to write and ditch whatever doesn’t suit us. What you’re about to read is my completely unashamed, unabashed Confession of my Fiction Preferences (okay, so it has been slightly abridged but only because I like to keep my word count to under 1000 words per post).

My Unashamed, Unabashed, Heavily Abridged Confession of Fictional Preferences

  • I liked The Lord of the Rings books, but not the films.
  • I like fantasy in general, especially if it is based on myth.
  • I loved Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace and the subsequent 1959 Hollywood epic based on it.
  • I loved the unabridged version of The Count of Monte Christo by Alexandre Dumas, translated by Robin Buss. I’ve never seen the film.
  • I love Sherlock Holmes. I particularly enjoyed:
    • the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,
    • The House of Silk and Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz
    • Whitechapel: The Final Stand of Sherlock Holmes by Bernard Schaffer
    • the BBC drama Sherlock
    • Jeremy Brett’s unique portrayal of Holmes.
  • However I do hate everything about the CBS TV show, Elementary.
  • I am a full blown Trekkie. I love everything about Star Trek (including the Abrams reboots!) except for Enterprise.
  • In spite of being a Trekkie, I also love Star Wars (however I still have not seen The Force Awakens).
  • I love Doctor Who (BBC sci-fi drama TV series)My favourite Doctor of all time is Tom Baker although Peter Capaldi is in serious danger of becoming a close second. It’s just a shame he is wasted on the disappointing stories that have been produced recently.
  • In fact, I just love sci-fi and speculative fiction in general. Sci-fi books I particularly enjoyed included:
    • The Man In The High Castle by Philip K. Dick,
    • Dune by Frank Herbert,
    • The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov,
    • the Awakened series by Jason Tesar,
    • Becoming Human by Eliza Green and
    • The Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis.
  • I do not like disaster films.
  • I do not like horror films.
  • I do not like rom-coms.
  • I hate Twilight and everything similar to Twilight. In fact I hate anything to do with vampires which isn’t Dracula.
  • I thoroughly enjoyed The Illusionist (2006 film) but I don’t know anyone else who has ever seen it.
  • John Steinbeck is one author who can do no wrong.
  • I love Agatha Christie’s Poirot. The best actor to portray Poirot was David Suchet.
  • I do not like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple.
  • I got bored of A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin.
  • I think Harry Potter is overrated at best.
  • I do not like Friends (NBC sitcom)Sue me.
  • I never met a C.S. Lewis book I didn’t like and I regret that he didn’t write more stories.
  • Remember what I said about guilty pleasures? I like Holby City (BBC medical drama). Sue me again.
  • I love Doc Martin (ITV comedy drama).
  • I love Fawlty Towers (BBC sitcom).
  • I love Only Fools and Horses (BBC sitcom).
  • I like most of the James Bond books and films. Daniel Craig is my favourite Bond with Roger Moore a close second.
  • I like superheroes in comics and movies.
    • I do not care too much for the darker manifestations of Superman that we have been seeing recently. I recently re-watched the ’90s TV show Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. It was very cheesy but that didn’t stop me watching all four seasons.
    • The Amazing Spider-Man (films) were oh-so-much-better than the Spider-Man films featuring Toby McGuire.
    • I liked the first two Batman films. I wasn’t so fussed about Batman Forever. I did not like Batman and Robin. I love The Dark Knight trilogy.
  • I like the Christopher Marlowe play, Doctor Faustus.
  • I bitterly regret being the only British person in history to have gone through the whole school system without a single lesson on the work of Shakespeare.
  • Yes, I do think e-books are just as valid as paper books, though I will admit that paper books have a delicious smell you don’t get with e-books.