7 Things I Hate In Fiction

No matter what genre of fiction or medium of story-telling you’re into (even if you’re into nearly all of them, like me!), we all have our own little things in fiction that we don’t like. Sometimes it’s the little things that can absolutely ruin an otherwise potentially good story for us and make us seriously think about leaving it unread/unwatched/unlistened to.

For your enjoyment, therefore, I have compiled a list of my own fiction bugbears with expositions. Maybe you won’t agree with them all. That’s okay. I’m not for one second suggesting any of these are hard and fast rules about what constitutes a bad story. These are just things that, for me, are a bit of a turn-off. So without further ado and in no particular order…

Obvious Morals

Don’t get me wrong. I definitely think it’s a good thing for stories to say something meaningful about real life. I’m not knocking stories that have morals to them. I’m not even knocking controversial morals. Quite the reverse, a good story definitely should have true and important morals or observations about life. But there’s nothing that puts me off reading a book or watching a film/TV show/play quite like that horrible sinking feeling you get in the first five minutes when you think to yourself: ‘I think I know where this is going…’

Even if it’s something I profoundly agree with, that’s not the point. I don’t read stories to be preached at, whether I agree with the message or not. Entertain me, and by all means make me think, but don’t preach at me.

Excessive and/or Long Fight Scenes

On TV and film, I can just about(!) put up with drawn out fight scenes, but in novels… boy, I find them tedious. They’re often either too detailed (and so, the pace is dragged right down at what should be the most exciting part) or else they’re not detailed enough and I lose the thread of what’s going on entirely. If you’re going to write a fight scene, I want it to be described in such a way that I feel like I’m really there witnessing it, which must by necessity include experiencing the danger and urgency of being in a battle. It can be done with words, but only a few writers seem to be able to do it in a way I find truly enjoyable.

More on fight scenes here.

Unnecessary Profanities

Sometimes in adult fiction, a little profanity may be justified, if it becomes the character (remember boys and girls, a character’s voice can have a profound impact on their identity). After all, in real life, people do sometimes use foul language. However, I find that in fiction, it loses its effectiveness very quickly and can come across as a fairly amateurish attempt at generating tension. Therefore, use it sparingly. If you’re struggling, watch the soaps for some inspiration: Eastenders, Coronation Street, Emmerdale and so forth.

No, really, hear me out. I don’t have a lot of good things to say about soaps, but I’ll give them this: because they’re usually on before the watershed, the writers of these shows are forced to generate tension and outright screaming matches between characters without using a single profanity. Study these carefully if you’re really struggling to write tense dialogue without the potty-mouth.

Flashbacks

As a rule of thumb, I find that flashbacks tend to interrupt the pace of the narrative too much. In addition, I often find that they are simply used as a way to info dump the backstory and as we all know, info dumping is bad, bad, bad. I might, possibly, maybe let you away with them if the story absolutely requires that one character tells another character a lengthy, detailed story about something that happened in the past (Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels, for example, frequently include flash back style chapters where one witness is telling Poirot their version of events) but on the whole, I find flashbacks a bit of a drag.

All Action; No Substance

If I wanted a meaningless thrill ride, I’d just go to Alton Towers. Don’t get me wrong, a bit of excitement is needed to keep up the momentum of your story, but if the protagonist is doing nothing but jumping over walls, dodging bullets and crashing helicopters from the outset, I won’t have any opportunity to get under the his skin enough to sympathise with him or understand his goals and motives.

All Substance; No Action

The opposite is also true. I know I want to understand the characters’ goals and motives, and I know I want the odd profound or emotional scene but I don’t want to be bored to tears either. Sooner or later, we need a bit of excitement.

Call Your Story Confessions of an [Optional Adjective] [Noun]

This will make me hate your story before I’ve even read it. See my previous post On Titles.


Well that was cathartic for me at any rate.

Did any of that ring true for anyone else? Or maybe you actually love flashbacks, lengthy fight scenes and tedious titles? Maybe I’m alone in disliking these things…

I know! Why not leave a comment below and share your own fiction pet-hates with the rest of the world? You might feel better if you get it off your chest. And if you enjoyed this post, be sure to follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if you feel so inclined.

Until next time!

Need Help Deciding What to Read?

Someone recently asked me how I decide what books I want to read. Good question, I thought. The truth is, I find choosing new books (and new TV shows, movies and everything else) exceptionally difficult. As a rule, I try never to immediately follow a sci-fi with another sci-fi or a mystery with another mystery but that still leaves me spoiled for choice.

Blurbs are, of course, useful pointers to give you a hint as to whether or not a story might appeal to you but just because a story has an interesting synopsis doesn’t mean that it’s been well written or that it will appeal to your particular tastes.

As you might expect, the internet is ready and eager to try to help. Here’s a whistle-stop tour of three websites that give you customised book recommendations.

Goodreads

Let’s get the most well known one out the way first.

To be honest, Goodreads is much more than just a website for getting book recommendations. It’s more like a social network for book-lovers. However, unlike Facebook, Twitter and all the other more general social networking sites, Goodreads allows you to build a library of books you have read, want to read and are currently reading. It will then give you recommendations based not only on what you have on your ‘shelves’ but also based on the reviews you give them. If you give a book a very positive rating, it will recommend more books like it and vice-versa. It will also organisation your recommendations based on genre. So, if you read a lot of sci-fi novels and a lot of murder/mystery novels, but never read romance novels, it will give you separate recommendations for sci-fi and mystery… but nothing for romance.  If you don’t like what it suggests, it’s easy to tell it that and it will adjust future recommendations accordingly.

It’s also easy to link your Goodreads account to Facebook, Twitter and WordPress and has a large enough community of its own that you can find plenty of other user reviews about each book.

The only downside I can find is that its recommendations can often be a bit hit or miss, so be sure to read user reviews before blindly buying the books it recommends.

What Should I Read Next?

If you can’t be annoyed with all the bells and whistles of Goodreads, you might want to give ‘What Should I Read Next?’ a go.

If all you want  to do is get recommendations based on a particular book you like, you don’t even have to register. Simply type in the title of a book you liked and boom! It’ll give you a long list of similar books you might want to try (when I searched for Brandon Sanderson’s The Final Empire, it came up with a whopping fifty recommendations – only three of which were written by the same author).

However, if you want to refine your search parameters, you can register with your e-mail address and make up a list of your favourite books. One you have done that, you can search based on some or all of the books in your list.

Another way you can refine your search is by choosing what it is about your favourite book that you are looking for in a new book. For instance, when I told it I liked The Final Empire, I then had the choice to search for books about courts and courtiers, woman revolutionaries, magic, heroes, imaginary places, etc.

Whichbook

Unlike a lot of websites I consulted on this matter, Whichbook does not simply try to find a book ‘similar’ to one you have already read and liked. Instead it asks you what kind of book what you want to read. There are two different approaches you can take to this.

The first approach involves using sliding scales to tell Whichbook exactly what kind of feel you’re looking for in a book. Do you want a long book or a short book? An easy book or a demanding book? One with lots of sex or one with no sex? Happy or sad? Safe or disturbing? There are twelve such sliders to choose from (though you can only use four at a time) by which you can specify exactly what kind of book you’re after and it will give you recommendations based on what you tell it.

Alternatively, you can ditch the sliders and ask it to search for books with a particular kind of main character (the choice of details includes race, age, sexuality and gender), a particular plot type and/or a particular setting (in which you can choose from any country in the world or ‘imaginary’). You can mix and match these details as you see fit and it will make recommendations accordingly.

Whichever approach you decide to use, each recommendation comes with a mini-synopsis to help you make a more informed choice. You can also make lists of books in a similar way to Goodreads.

The major drawback is that you cannot specify a particular genre or author you’re fond of.


I hope you find some of these suggestions useful. I’m always looking for new things to read and watch (I won’t lie to you; the main reason I wrote this post this week is because I was looking for something new to read myself) so if you can recommend any other good review or recommendation websites, do let us know in the comments section!

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.

Our Daily Ray Bradbury Diet

“Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.” –Ray Bradbury

Makes it sound simple, doesn’t it? It’s quite another thing entirely when you’ve got a headache, a family to look after, a day job which drains every iota of energy and the will to live from you and a gas engineer in your kitchen drilling and hammering so loudly that you think the whole house may collapse from the noise alone. Just finding the time, never mind the motivation, to write and to read every day can be a challenge for those of us who live in the real world. Throw in a few unavoidable distractions from external sources and you’ve got a recipe for accomplishing nothing at all. Nevertheless, Mr Bradbury was quite correct in saying that the best way to be a writer is to read with gusto and write without ceasing. In fact, I do not believe that it is possible to succeed as a writer if you do not read widely and I am convinced that it is impossible to be a writer if you do not write often.

If you’re anything like me, however, you might find that it’s easier said than done on both counts. Reading and writing both require a certain level of time and freedom to do them effectively and real life doesn’t half get in the way sometimes. I wish I could give you some magic words to try and make it easier. Unfortunately I can’t. They do not exist.

What I can do is make a few suggestions to try and help you along the way. Take or leave them as you see fit. As with most writing tips I’ve come across, what works for me may or may not work for you.

The first and most important step is to prioritise the things you have to do in life generally (reading, writing and everything besides) and organise your schedule accordingly. Think of everything you are likely to do regularly  – even trivial things like time spent watching TV – and list them all in order of importance with things you are unwilling to compromise on at all at the top and things you would be willing to sacrifice altogether at the bottom. Some people would have you believe reading and writing absolutely must be at the very top of this list. I’m not sure I agree with that personally (if, for instance, my wife goes into labour at the start of my writing time, I fully intend to get no writing done that day. Sue me), but I do think the closer you have it to the top, the easier you will find it to make the kind of time you need to read and write.

Once you’ve done this, the next step is to figure out exactly when you’re going to do each thing, affording more time to the items higher on your priority list. This means, of course, that things lower on your list may be afforded only a very small amount of your time – or may have to be sacrificed altogether. But I would argue that more important than how much time you afford to reading/writing is what time you decide to do it.

Not all hours are created equal. If you can only afford to write for a few short hours every week, you want to make sure you do it at a time where you are the most likely to produce your best work. Exactly what time this will be depends on a great deal on your personality and your circumstances. For me, it’s usually between 8-11am on Wednesdays-Saturdays. Here’s why:

  • I have a part-time office job to be at on Mondays and Tuesdays so can’t write then
  • Sunday is my weekly day off. I write only for as long as it brings me pleasure
  • Before 8am, I tend to still be a little too groggy (what can I say, I’m not a morning person) to focus on what I’m doing
  • After 11am, I am distracted by hunger and since I tend to do most of the cooking in my house, I am usually thinking about what to make for lunch.
  • For some reason (explained here) I turn into a Proctrasinationasaurus after lunch.

That’s not to say I only write at those times. But those are the best times for me write, and therefore I am particularly strict about using those times for nothing but writing, especially on weeks where I have lots of unusual distractions (like this week, I’m having a new heating system installed).

Reading, like writing, also requires a decent amount of time and concentration. You will occasionally hear people boasting that they read thirty books a week and other such nonsense, and maybe they do, but I would question how effectively they’re reading them in such a short space of time (assuming they have all the other demands on their time we normal people have). Don’t get me wrong; it certainly is possible to skim read a book, understand it and enjoy it if you’re just reading for casual entertainment, but if you’re wanting to grow as a writer, you’ll want to take a bit more time to appreciate the way the story has been crafted. That means recognising and understanding figurative language, character acts, story beats and the like so that you can see for yourself what turns a nice story into a quality work of literature. Even if you don’t know the technical jargon, you should still be able to recognise the structure, literary techniques and why they work when you see them.

Personally, I’ve got the attention span of a goldfish, so I find the best way to read is in frequent short bursts throughout the day: early in the morning, during my lunch break at work, last thing at night, during my writing breaks and whenever else I get more than five minutes to myself. It might not be the quickest way to get through a book. It won’t help you win any ‘Read 100 Books Challenge!’es but I do think that when it comes to reading, quality beats quantity every time. If you’re strapped for time, don’t waste the little time you do have trying to power your way through your whole library in less than a month.

 

The End…?

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not seen the ITV TV series Doc Martin, the 2002 film Star Trek: Nemesis, or the ABC TV series Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (season 4) is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

It can be tough knowing when to call it a day with your fictional creations. Knowing exactly where and how to end your story in a way which is both memorable and satisfying is hard enough (though if you’re a novelist, you probably long for the day you can gather all your friends and neighbours around your desk to set off party-poppers while you write ‘THE END’ at the bottom of your manuscript), but if you’ve created characters and a world you’re proud of, you might never want to stop. You might feel like there’s a sequel, a trilogy or a whole saga of novels/films/TV series still to be written. Sooner or later, however, it has to come to an end – as all good things must.

‘But when?!’ I hear you cry.

It depends very much on your story. Some stories naturally lend themselves to a certain number of sequels. For example, if J.K. Rowling had stopped writing Harry Potter books after Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, her readers might have reasonably felt a little cheated. True, that particular story was complete (as it should be; every book in a series should still work as a self-contained story) but the premise of the story – a boy who discovers he’s a wizard and goes to a special school to learn magic – was still left very much open. After all, he still had several years of magic schooling to complete. There was plenty of scope for the character to go on another five or six magical adventures.

On the other hand, the ITV series Doc Martin – one of my favourite TV shows, I should add – is apparently due to have an eighth series in 2017. While I’m looking forward to it, I am, nevertheless, a little concerned that series 7 should have been the last one – and I’ll tell you why.

For those of you who don’t know, Doc Martin is a fish-out-of-water type story about Dr. Martin Ellingham; a grumpy and socially inept surgeon from London who develops haemophobia and is forced to become a GP in the seaside village of Portwenn. Most of the first few series focused on his awkwardly developing romance between himself and a local school teacher, Louisa. For the first four series or so, it worked quite naturally. In the dramatic finale to series 4, Martin and Louisa’s child is born and they resolve to give their relationship another go. It seems like a neat and tidy ending to the story…

But then, a 5th series was announced.

Is this necessary? I wondered. Hasn’t this story now finished?

Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised by what followed. Martin and Louisa’s baby added a new dynamic to their on-off relationship and series 5 worked as well as the rest. Then there was a 6th series, which focused on their new and swiftly failing marriage. That also worked. Then there was yet another series which focused on the two characters trying to save their marriage – and another happy ending! Mr and Mrs Ellingham were again reconciled and life goes on. Once again, we have a neat and tidy ending to the story. They’ve got together, fallen out, had their baby, got together again, got married, split up and once again reconciled. I’m finding it difficult to imagine what more there is for Martin and Louisa to do that justifies another series that they haven’t done already – much as I love the show and wish it could last forever (and I do hope they prove me wrong once again).

So… when you feel the urge to write a sequel to your story, there is one very important question you should yourself before you write anything: ‘do I need to write more?’

There are three possible answers to this question:

  1. No, the story is complete and there is no conceivable way to expand the story without spoiling it (e.g., Star Trek: Nemesis — the final film in the Star Trek: The Next Generation series — ended with most of the series’ cast leaving the Enterprise for one reason or another. Since the series is so focused on the lives of that particular crew of that particular starship, further sequels would have been impossible).
  2. Yes, because there are still some glaringly obvious loose threads that need tied up (e.g., at the end of Doc Martin series 6, Martin and Louisa were still separated and Louisa was planning on moving to Spain. Is this the end for them? We needed another series to find out).
  3. Maybe. The original story has a satisfying ending, but there is no reason that our favourite characters cannot go on brand new adventures based on the same basic premise (e.g., the aforementioned series 4 of Doc Martin could have been a satisfying way to end it forever, but as it turned out, there was still some life left in the old dog after all).

If the answer is no, then it should be obvious what you must do – or not do, rather. It will all end in tears if you try to expand the inexpandable. The best you could hope for is a spin-off, and spin-offs are seldom any good.

If the answer is yes, then by all means, you absolutely must write that sequel! The last ever episode of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman ended with a baby wrapped in a House of El blanket, being left on Lois and Clark’s doorstep! That was it! No more Lois and Clark after that! I mean, what are they trying to do to us!?

If, however, the answer is maybe… then think, long and hard, before you write. To carry on a series, your newest offering must be both old (that is, the premise must be unchanged) and it must be new (no rehashing the same old adventures). The reason Harry Potter worked so well as a lengthy series of novels was that by using a school as the main setting and making each novel last roughly one academic year, Rowling was able to write seven very different stories based on exactly the same premise (though I can’t help feeling that more recent offerings, no matter how good they may be, are causing the saga to drag on beyond its natural lifespan). That’s what you need to be able to do, if you plan on writing additional stories for your fictional world. Identify the natural lifespan of your story and work within it. Don’t bombard your audience with extra waffle. I might enjoy a pizza, but if I was fed it non-stop, I would eventually vomit. A good story should end like a good meal; leaving the audience with a big feeling of satisfaction and only a small tinge of regret that it’s over.

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.

Ink and Pixel: A Sibling Rivalry

Which do you prefer: traditional paper books or e-books? Perhaps you are a traditionalist who feels the magic of a good novel is somehow missing in an e-book, or perhaps you prefer the space efficiency of an entire library which (almost) fits in your pocket. On the other hand, you might share my tendency to read both without guilt or shame, recognising the unique joy of each one. Whatever your position, it won’t take you more than a casual search of the internet to discover that there are more people out there who share or oppose your point of view than you can shake a stick at – and some of them get pretty passionate about the whole thing.

Anyone who is an advocate of the traditional paper book will tell you that there is more to reading than simply consuming words. Reading a book is a whole experience in and of itself. The book which has not yet been read is neat, tidy and clean with a mild but intoxicating smell about its pages. There’s a delicate and almost virginal quality to an unopened book. Once it has been opened, its spine will never be quite that smooth again, its pages will never fully shut as neatly as they once did; yet it will bring you a lifetime of joy, if only you treat it like a lady (don’t go breaking its spine or using it as a coaster; ladies just hate it when you do that and so will your book). To the lover of paper books, the book is an almost sacred thing. Treat it properly and your future readings will be every bit as rewarding as the first.

Paper books also have the added perk of being undeleteable and pass-onable. A paper book is yours forever; even if the internet disappears, the electricity cuts out and you are forced to spend eternity in a cave, you can still read your book again and again (assuming you have a lifetime supply of candles). When you die, it can be passed on to your relatives with all the other items you care about (nobody wants to inherit an e-book reader you bought fifty years ago and there’s a bit of a question mark hanging over if and how your non-physical possessions can possibly be passed on). On a less morbid note, you can easily buy lots of books and wrap them up nicely and give them to me for my birthday. I received no less than eight books on my last birthday (my family know me well) but no one has ever given me an e-book as a gift. I’m not even sure if it’s possible(?).

Unlike paper, e-books really are just a collection of digitised words and that may mean that it cheapens the overall experience of reading for some. E-books are brutally efficient. You don’t get the sacred pleasure of entering the bookshop or library where you are surrounded on every side by an endless myriad of tomes to numerous to count; you don’t get that new book smell when you first open it; you don’t get to give it pride of place on your bookshelf like a trophy when you finally finish it; you can’t wrap it up and one must wonder if it was ever truly yours to begin with.

On the other hand, the more pragmatic reader might argue that with e-books, you get to carry the whole bookshop with you wherever you go; that while an e-book may lack the new book smell, it is also not likely to develop that fusty old book smell and that it is more space efficient not to clutter up your whole room with bookshelves (just ask my wife!). Books, they might argue, are nothing more than a convenient way to record a story but it is the story itself – not the smell of the paper or any other such nonsense – that really matters. Why, then, attach so much ritual to something as simple as consuming a story? It’s only a book! You don’t need to court it, marry it or pick out curtains with it! Just download the text, enjoy it and move on!

Another perk e-books have over their paper counterparts is that they’re often cheaper (most of the time anyway), assuming that you read enough of them to make it worthwhile forking out a hundred or so quid for an e-book reader. In that sense, value for money is somewhat relative to how many e-books you download and how often you actually read them. On top of that, there are plenty of e-books out there that are completely free if you have the patience to hunt for them and the wisdom to sift the wheat from the chaff. On the plus side, if you do accidentally download a really bad free e-book, at least you’re not going to be out of pocket. It’s easy to abandon an e-book you hate without guilt or remorse.

Personally, I’ve been able to find a place for both in my life. I am the proud owner of a Kindle Keyboard (which was very high-tech when I got it but is now starting to show its age) and the equally proud owner of more paperbacks and hardbacks than I care to count. I don’t know about you but I read for the story, not for the binding (or lack thereof). The convenience of the e-book or the familiar comforts of the paper book are both perks to be enjoyed, but neither matter as much as being stimulated intellectually or emotionally by a good story (that’s why I don’t like audio-books incidentally; it whizzes past too quickly and I like time to chew over the words I’m reading but that’s just me). Considering that e-books are a relatively new phenomenon, I can’t help thinking that this sibling rivalry between paper books and e-books is already getting really old.

To be honest, I don’t really care how a book gets presented to me. I just love reading.

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.