Book Thoughts: Format (Or how I unexpectedly fell into the arms of physical books)

Being a great writer, as the adage goes, means being a great reader. Taking this to heart, I’ve recently I’ve decided to consciously put books as my “modus operandi”, especially on Instagram – but I’ve a fair few things to say about books as a medium and my experience with them as a reader. Therefore, I’ve decided to start a new series of posts here on my site where I discuss in a bit more detail my experiences as a reader, not relating to specific pieces of content and not relating to my own work, and I’ve decided to call it Book Thoughts

Book Thoughts by Richard Holliday

It’s been an interesting reading journey for me. I’ve always enjoyed stories but I’ll be the first to confess that my reading – in terms of the leisure reading I’ve done as an adult – lagged until one day in October 2011 when I received my Kindle 4. That device really supercharged and re-invigorated my latent and ever-present passion for reading because it made books very accessible, plus it tuned right into my appreciation of all things geeky. It’s a wonderful device. It’s coupled to pretty much the biggest eBook infrastructure available and it was a great investment.

For a long time since then I was pretty much a Kindle-exclusive reader – I recall in my heady youth of being 21 wanting to maximise the opportunity my Kindle had. It still has a lot of great advantages – portability, storage capacity, and the eInk screen is like paper (reading on the Kindle app for phone or tablet is very much the inferior experience) but better – and I read many great books using it. I quietly vowed to be a digital-only reader – eBooks are largely quite cheap and accessible.

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So how often do I use my Kindle now, I hear you ask? Virtually never. Well, maybe to read drafts of my own work and others but for actual fiction? Hardly at all.

What happened?

One word: University.

Quickly, especially when studying Creative Writing, the Kindle began to show some of the limitations of using it in a reference environment. This became a bit clear before I started at Kingston; I loaded my Open University textbooks onto it, which were well-formatted… but the Kindle is more adept to contiguous reading of books from beginning to end; the Kindle is quite unwieldy to flick backwards and forwards through titles on. For a Creative Writing class this quickly proved inconvenience. When a medium becomes inconvenient it’s time to look elsewhere.

Oh, and another two words happened concurrently with University that helped me go back to the future: Amazon Prime.

This service is truly wonderful and worth every penny – I could get cheap books, usually cheaper than Kindle, with only a few hours delivery! What sorcery! Many times over the course of my studies I’ve ordered books for pleasure or class late at night for them to arrive quickly the next day – and sometimes even the same day.

These books would largely be paperbacks – now I’d never really given up on paperbacks or physical books, it’s just eBooks on Kindle were so much more convenient. But one thing about Kindle eBooks, and eBooks in general is there is a different, if you will, feel to the whole experience – and I began lending out books from friends, unable to lend them back due to the digital rights management baked into all of my eBooks.

Some notable friends don’t even have Kindles or any other form of eReader, bar a smartphone. But for class, and considering they were now, thanks to Student Prime, cheaper and effectively as accessible as the eBook equivalent, there’s no real contest is there?

Well… plus there’s the fuzzier side to the equation: paperbacks (and physical books in general) are lovely to have. There’s something about being able to turn around from my chair and admire my collection of books – not all of which I enjoy or even like, but I own them as they form part of my reading fabric; one has to take from the books one didn’t enjoy something to learn from – that just doesn’t hit that same sense of quiet pride with looking at the list of titles on my Kindle. And even that, once you get past 10 or so “pages” on the main menu, that becomes laborious.

And when things become laborious, things get neglected.

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But still, the point stands – I’m proud of my book collection and it’s always, steadily, expanding. I’m even rebuying books I have on my Kindle – The Fog, Ready Player One as two notable books I love – because the physical experience of reading a book is just something nice. It’s a little irrational but it’s just, if you like, a purer way of experiencing literature.

And that’s not just me being nostalgic – paperback and physical book sales have seen a resurgence in the face of eBooks, which seems odd given the theoretical advantages of the digital format. But, I guess, readers are romantics; getting your nose stuck in a paperback just has a different quality to that of staring at a screen, even one as wonderous and paper-like as eInk.

The feel of a paperback in your hands – and yes, I’ll admit, the scent of a fresh book – is just incomparable. I’ve found myself not only becoming a reader of physical books but a collector, furnishing my own private library of great reads. And that wholesomeness lies at the root of this truly irrational but fiery passion – books are to be read, studied and analysed, but also enjoyed.

Physical books still have that fuzzy, wholesome sense of wonder to them – they’re an object, a tangible thing to hold onto, a physical representation of ideas in their purest form, language, that’s so accessible – no batteries to worry about, or DRM to content with, or USB cable to lose, just bound, beautiful paper. I can proudly combine all the aspects of my reading life together – The Expanse via the Jack Reacher books while sitting proudly on the same shelf as the battered copies of Harry Potter I read when I was eight years old.

Throughout writing that last section I’ve had to consciously temper myself from typing paperbacks where I intended to type physical books. And that therein exemplifies my current crossroads, and evolution in my experience as a reader in the most literal sense.

For a long time, I considered hardback books as the realm of large, off-size, hard to handle books, usually non-fiction. Hardbacks, while very attractive, just never seemed very convenient for how I was reading. Considering earlier I called myself a collector earlier, this may seem strange… but as the majority of my fiction bookshelf is paperbacks of the standard trade format, why would I mix that up? Consider it a degree of OCD, the desire of uniformity, just being plain weird… a mix of the three?

reading reader kindle female
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Happily, I’ve rowed back from this in a pretty big way; for Christmas 2017 I received a copy of Artemis in hardback – it was a great book and, I must confess, the hardback wasn’t as… awkward to read on a physical in my bed or while I was out than I feared; if anything, its larger dimensions helped. And recently I acquired a library-bound hardback of Shift which was a bargain I couldn’t refuse.

But the pleasurable experience with Artemis – bar it being a fantastic novel – challenged my assumption that fiction hardbacks wouldn’t be the same. While hardbacks are generally m ore expensive, they’re also, crucially, usually the first editions available; with paperbacks usually, months behind. That long-held, irrational assumption that “hardbacks are for non-fiction books, paperbacks are for stories” was shattered while reading one brilliant book!

Overall… my journey through format has been interesting, especially considering I’ve largely gone from digital back to physical. But ultimately what’s important is that, regardless of format of choice, books and reading has never been so accessible.

Got any thoughts of own? How do you order to read? Be sure to contribute to the discussion!

Articles cited

The Guardian: Paperback fighter: sales of physical books now outperform digital titles

The Guardian: How real books have trumped ebooks

The Telegraph: How printed books entered a new chapter of fortune

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Workflow: Switching from Dropbox to OneDrive

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I thought it might be interesting to chat today about why I’ve made a pretty big (but hopefully seamless) change in how I carry out work. I’ve been using Dropbox as a file-storage and backup system (indeed, all my important project files are live on my Dropbox for seamless syncing and backup) but I’ve been pretty limited by the 5Gb limit my Dropbox account has.

I’ve used Microsoft’s email service, Outlook.com, since before it was even Outlook; I finally switched to an ISP-agnostic email in 2009 with Live Hotmail – who remembers that? A bonus of this loyalty on the basis of having an account that long was that I qualified for an upgrade to the storage capacity of my email’s associated OneDrive (back when it was SkyDrive) to 25Gb.

25Gb… 5Gb… can you see the immediate comparisons?

But I have only recently made the step to move my writing projects to OneDrive. There was more behind my decision than just the voluminous amount of free cloud storage that I had been ignoring for the most part!

As part of my Creative Writing course at Kingston University I have been granted access to Microsoft’s Office 365 subscription service for free. Having used this for three years now I’m pretty much a convert to this way of getting Office – I get useful new features fairly regularly but the key feature for me is adaptability:

  • autosaveOffice 365 allows me to legitimately own Office and use it concurrently on more than just my main PC but also my ThinkPad laptop, my iPhone and my iPad; the latter two require Office 365 to allow document editing on the go.
  • I recently received updates to the versions of Office 2016 that I have installed on my two PCs and there was one feature that pushed me over the edge to finally switch to OneDrive: AutoSave.

AutoSave in Word (and other Office programs, but Word is my mainstay) has changed how I work quite profoundly, and I’m now a lot more flexible in how I work as changes to documents are synced in real-time without any user intervention, so I can switch from my PC to my laptop to my iPad with so much ease the transition doesn’t even need thinking about. Dropbox, while very good with syncing, just doesn’t quite have the baked-in integration that allows total flexibility – I’d always need to hit Control + S and leave it a couple of seconds to sync. Even little things, like the syncing of my Recently Used document lists in the Word 2016 backstage view just give the impression of a tightly-integrated solution which saves on wasting valuable seconds. They add up!

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I’ve also found that the significant bump in available storage space allows me finally to back up my Camera Roll from my iPhone as iCloud has a similar, restrictive “free” storage allocation which isn’t really suitable for people who have owned an iPhone for a while, or have a high-capacity iPhone like I do (my current iPhone 6S is a 64Gb model as 5 years of a 16Gb iPhone 4S became… fun to say the least!). It’s a pretty seamless process – and being seamless is precisely why I’m enjoying the transition to OneDrive as it’s not as much “effort” as I was expecting!

Obviously this new-found convenience comes at some abstract cost – my privacy, arguably. There’s been stories about an update to Microsoft’s terms of service that on face value seem quite severe – swearing or profanity no longer “allowed in Office 365 documents”, but this isn’t something that concerns me deeply. I’d have to be a paid-up member of the tin-foil-hat brigade to buy into that being a valid and pertinent threat to myself on a personal level, and besides, Microsoft’s service is free and providing great convenience. The fear of “everything I upload being scanned” just seems a bit far-fetched, and with recent revelations about companies like Facebook and Google (the latter coming as no surprise) it’s almost to be expected. My data is gloriously uninteresting anyway.

At the moment I’ve just moved my critical writing folders to OneDrive and my camera roll but I’m evaluating at the moment, once the pressures of University work are over with, whether to migrate a lot more of my local documents and photos folders. Considering that a few years ago I was quite dead-set against the idea of “cloud syncing” (when I only used one computer at a time, and ferried USB drives everywhere, which are risky if lost) but I’ve totally turned a corner. Certainly when my University-provided Office 365 expires I will be looking to buy my own plan (it’s not unaffordable; around £80 a year or so) for my future endeavours. That bump from an already capacious 25Gb to 1Tb would alleviate my storage frugality concerns too!

Overall though, I’m pleasantly happy with the OneDrive experience as it fits into my workflow even better than Dropbox did – and I had no real issues with Dropbox’s integration! But the very tight fit that OneDrive provides to the other Microsoft products I use – Office and Windows – and their recent embracing of alternate mobile platforms after seeing the light that Windows Phone was doomed to irrelevance means that it provides an even-tighter integration for my workflow and, ultimately, a more productive me. And that’s all good!

Authenticity in Writing

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It’s always rewarding when discussions with friends plant seeds of thought into my head; indeed, this happened recently with a friend who was discussing his enthusiasm for the thriller novel First Blood, which was adapted as the movie Rambo. One of the aspects my friend enthused about was First Blood’s apparent “emotional authenticity” and implied this infers the writing with a special quality.

Emotional authenticity, my friend asserted, tied into a theory of “characters driving the car whereas the story just kind of picks up the radio station.”

Well, let’s buckle our seatbelts and enjoy a cruise on a road trip to discover what emotional authenticity is and whether I agree with it being the motor that purrs under the hood of every decent story.

But first, what is “emotional authenticity”? A good question, not easily answered. From the various reading I’ve done on it since the question flew like a paper aeroplane into my mind and continues to circle, caught on an updraft of latent thoughts and musings. On a literal definition, emotional authenticity is a genuine expression of emotion. Whether we are emotionally authentic is a concept that seems so deeply ingrained in the psyche – the experience, the emotional response to it, the acknowledgement of the emotion and the assigning of adjectives to it and the expression of those emotions – that it is almost beyond definition. We as humans do this subconsciously many times a day, to many levels that seem to pass the conscious mind by.

But how does this normal, almost mundane subconscious response relate to writing? Essentially, it’s the ability of the author to be able to transpose themselves into their characters shoes and channel the emotion to something that others can relate to, empathise with and recognise as a genuine and believable emotional response.

This emotional authenticity is only half of the story though, literally. Obviously, characters should act and emote in a way that is broadly like how people act and emote in the real life; of course, this may be intentionally altered for the sake of characterisation. And this characterisation must, of course, be consistent – for example, if Jack Reacher from the Lee Child books was to suddenly start scrubbing the scullery floor this would be highly incongruous; likewise, if the downtrodden heroine from many a Catherine Cookson (my mum watches them on TV all the time) story were to suddenly find themselves in – and winning – a high-octane, action-packed fight then this would break the emotional authenticity of those characters.

The rest of the picture comes from situational authenticity. This can be tied into the example I just gave, switching the situations from a Lee Child and Catherine Cookson story, which are the most polar opposite I could think of on the fly. Situational authenticity is getting the events of the story right so they are not challenging, and in come cases, shattering the reader’s suspension of disbelief. This error with situational authenticity is something I have experienced a lot of issues with in books I have (attempted to) read.

While yes, anything can happen to any character, and in a work of fiction, anything can more or less go, imbuing a sense of situational authenticity just makes things seem plausible in the created universe. Do we expect the author to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of every situation they could be writing about? Of course not, and part of being a fiction writer is being able to transpose storytelling skills – indeed, imbuing emotional and situational authenticity – into situations the author cannot possibly have experienced on a first hand level.

For emotional authenticity, does this mean the author need have that literal sense of first hand experience the emotions characters are expected to exhibit. This doesn’t mean a like-for-like emotional equation; just the ability for the author to empathise. If the author can empathise with the characters emotions, that’s a success. They don’t need first hand experience of the direct emotional incident to be able to empathise; that empathy can be derived from personal, similar experience or even from so far as witnessing how other people react to the emotion the author wishes their character to exhibit.

Case in point, a good friend from my Creative Writing class brought in the opening to a story they had written for the class. The beginning of the story was of an autistic boy making a scene on a bus in public, and with a harsh rebuke from an unsympathetic member of the public, told from the viewpoint of the boy’s sister. It was a deftly-done and sympathetic piece, but a notable member of our class complained that about “neotypicals” writing about autism, as if to say “only autistic people may write stories about autistic children!”

I disagree profoundly with both this assessment and this person’s attitude; indeed, as someone diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome I feel qualified to answer – their usage of autism as a shield from criticism, and as an excuse for their poor behaviour is totally unhelpful. But they failed, too, to acknowledge the context of this writing (arguably to challenge that view) but also that the author’s brother is autistic and this imbues the story with that emotional authenticity because the author transposes their direct experiences and empathy into that protagonist.

Turning back to situational authenticity, this is largely down to two things: doing your homework and consistency. An author is quite lucky in being able to write about time periods, characters and worlds they could not have possibly experienced. Indeed, fiction is by definition made up; but a piece with situational authenticity will be backed up with studious research. Not to the point of the work becoming an essay or treatise, but with pertinent attention to detail that, again, doesn’t strain the reader’s suspension of disbelief. There will be no digital wristwatches in the Catherine Cookson, no laser pistols in the Lee Child, to give two examples.

But it is fantasy and science-fiction that I feel can experience the most difficulty with situational authenticity – especially with magic or advanced technology (which are sometimes indistinguishable, to quote Arthur C Clarke). Fantasy and science-fiction need to tread carefully to maintain situational authenticity to preserve the suspension of disbelief. Things must make sense in-universe; an example of this done well would be The Expanse by James S. A. Corey, which feels grounded in a sense of reality that is an effective dramatic device (spaceships don’t zip here and there like taxis, they’re very complex to fly); by contrast, a poor execution of this would be in The Soul Drinkers Omnibus by Ben Counter, where my suspension of disbelief was shattered by a poor explanation or build-up to the “chaos” theory within, which led to what I considered a clanger of a deus ex machina when the protagonist just happened to sprout a load of game-changing mutations at the climax of a key fight scene.

Of course, in considering both of these things, we must remember that ultimately it is a combination of both emotional and situational authenticity that really does sell a piece of prose. It adds a dimension to the story and the characters within. We expect some liberties to be taken – these are fiction pieces, and fiction tends to be more dramatic than real life, as it should be. Would we want to read stories that rigidly reflected real life? It wouldn’t be as exciting or dramatic. But it is important that both characters and situations do have a sense of truth to them, derived from humanity.

I hope this helps delve into a literary topic; indeed, my research has led to me realising quite how important these facets that support inventive and engaging prose can be. So consider me an authenticity convert!

Further Reading and research

Is it possible for writers to write about an emotion authentically without ever experiencing it directly? – Quora

What is authenticity in writing? – Quora

Is This The Real Life? Why I Don’t Like Fantasy

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It comes to some shock when I say to my reader friends that I have a distinct dislike of fantasy fiction. As a reader and writer who is certainly a lot more comfortable dealing with plot-heavy genre fiction as opposed to more highbrow, high-concept literary work (that’s not to say I’m opposed to literary work; just not at the expense of plot, but that’s a whole other blogpost) my disdain and difficulty with fantasy may come as a shock.

High fantasy is where I struggle the most, and I know exactly which book it is that both, I think, set the example for the genres worst and compelled me to be hostile (and that’s being generous) toward fantasy on the whole to the point where now I don’t attempt it:

The Lord of the Rings.

I have one endearing memory of Lord of the Rings: an English class at secondary school where we had to bring in a book to read – a wonderful idea, in hindsight. But I brought in Lord of the Rings and I literally fell asleep reading it. Incidentally, I fell asleep watching the first two movie adaptations and never bothered with the third.

But The Lord of the Rings I feel is so archetypal of fantasy, especially high fantasy, and is so influential a work on that entire genre that I feel it’s hard to decouple a fantasy book from thoughts of it. And I find that subconscious comparison that’s always present does stunt and colour my suspension of disbelief toward fantasy books that, more often than not, I find I simply have no patience for them.

Let’s explore a few aspects of fantasy that do nothing for me.

Pacing and Plot

One of the major flaws I saw in The Lord of the Rings for a start is that the plot is glacial. Pages and pages of stuff is there but nothing happens. Tolkien has a gift for lush and detailed worldbuilding but it comes at the absolute expense of plot progress. Frank Herbert does this too in Dune, which reads less like a science-fiction novel and more of a fantasy; the plot moves like molasses and there seems to be a distinct focus on worldbuilding – it’s not done subtly but piled on to the degree that it leaves the reader confused – what details are important to retain now and which are mere backstory. And the pacing suffers, fatally. I prefer much more pacier narratives – that’s not to say that these pacey narratives have less depth than Lord of the Rings or Dune (which I actually consider a fantasy novel, not science-fiction).

I’ve also noticed that in some works I’ve attempted that the story just seems derivative and, ultimately, unworthy of my time, no matter the lusciousness of the characters or world. I was lent Twelve Kings of Sharakhai and I ended up abandoning the book roughly a third of the way in because it was unfolding in an extremely formulaic way – the book established the journey of vengeance the protagonist was embarking upon, and was doing some heavy worldbuilding but I found myself simply not caring to accompany the protagonist on the journey, figuring that, whatever happened, they were going to eventually get aforementioned vengeance and that was that. Yes, that may come across as extremely harsh but that assessment is a direct result of my longstanding antipathy toward the genre; I did not feel I was able to immerse myself in the world enough to allow my suspension of disbelief to fully take over.

Author Voice

Another major flaw I’ve experienced when approaching fantasy fiction – especially high-fantasy, toward which most of my ire is directed – is that writing a fantasy genre almost imbues the author to adopt an irritating, twee narrative voice which I feel merely gets in the way of comprehending the narrative, which is already a stretch given how I previously said how threadbare the plots seem to be, especially when poorly or glacially paced.

While I get that the authors want to tell the story from the perspective of a narrator immersed and emergent from the universe created therein, it gets old real fast. I recall the most egregious example of this that I recall reading being Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb which borders on the unreadable, hence I abandoned it. Is this a predilection of high fantasy especially? I’d say so; again, going back to archetypes of high fantasy, which are “beardy-weirdy” tales from a pseudo-medieval time period definitely subconsciously encourage this.

Does it always have to be this way? Again, I feel no – there’s books of a high fantasy bent that avoid this trap and therefore succeed a lot more with me – The Gospel of Loki by Joanne Harris being a surprising and refreshing example. I’d also say that this is truer of A Game of Thrones which I feel drops a lot of the narrative pretention.

And that’s what I feel it is a lot of the time – narrative pretention on the part of the author, who maybe feels they have something to prove when writing a very genre-heavy fantasy book. But that’s no excuse to baffle or bamboozle one’s readers with some of the purplest of purple prose.

Overwhelming Lore & Magic

The final aspect that I have noticed rubs me up the wrong way is the lore inherent in high fantasy books, especially those that attempt to convey entire new worlds different to our own, is that of lore overload. The Lord of the Rings was a prime example of this, as I touched on earlier – there’s so much lore, at expense of plot or pacing, I feel that it’s overwhelming. It’s hard to pinpoint what’s important and what is just backstory, and to drop huge chunks of lore in the middle of chapters ruins the pacing. But it also encumbers the reader with a lot of extraneous information they feel like they need to retain, and that’s at the expense of plot comprehension.

What I’ve noticed is that glutinous blobs of exposition are poor in any fiction, but to which high fantasy seems the most vulnerable and does to the excess. The Lord of the Rings is an example where I feel it is done extremely poorly; A Game of Thrones strikes a much better balance of imparting backstory, when appropriate and to appropriate levels – just mentioning some random character’s unseen half-nephew as an aside is no excuse to divert for the next twenty pages on an intricate study of bloodline that goes nowhere. It’s about proportion; reveal backstory in layers, not chunks and then it feels less like the novel is a textbook and the reader is expected to sit an A-level in the lore at its conclusion.

And that’s not to say that high-fantasy is the only genre to which this is an easy trap to fall into. I’ve experienced a fair few lore-heavy space operas that indulge in this, memorably Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, and that heavy-handedness definitely gave me the impression that I was thoroughly confused.

One point about the lore in high fantasy which also comes to mind is the use of magic – something I generally feel is a narrative crutch and very unsatisfying, unless done correctly. Magic in fantasy should have clear and specific boundaries and limitations, otherwise why have a story with conflict, tension and jeopardy if a well-timed wave of a magic wand can solve the problem? It’s a deeply dissatisfying thing to experience when executed poorly and mishandled magic leads to many a deus ex machina. I recently experienced this with The Soul Drinkers Omnibus, which funnily enough is a science-fiction novel of the Warhammer series and it was a magical happening that broke the story for me – an all-too-convenient magical transformation in the nick of time to save a character in a fight… it broke my suspension of disbelief quite madly (I perhaps wasn’t well versed in the Chaos mythos but still, it was a poorly-written book anyway) to the point where I abandoned the book.

Now taking all that into account that’s not to say I’m averse to the elements of fantasy; I’m really not and I do have an interest in expanding into fantasy that doesn’t fall into traps I’ve outlined I feel are present. But I only have a certain amount of time for reading so I try to make sure I’m always reading well-written, pacey, plot-driven work that’s enjoyable. Everything I’ve outlined just spoils the enjoyment of books for me which is sad.

I recently re-read the first three Harry Potter books and mentioned this to friends while planning this post. They’re surprisingly-good books to read as an adult as there’s a whole layer of hidden depth that may not be apparent when reading as a child and that was a very pleasant surprise. But what do those books do well, as they’re unashamedly fantasy? My answer, considering what I’ve written above, can only be that they don’t fall into the traps I’ve outlined.

Now I have a ton on my reading plate but I am, on reflection from writing this post, feeling adventurous, so feel free to suggest some great fantasy to me – certainly eyeing up urban fantasy that’s a lot more contemporary!