I had planned a festive short story to go out on my site today but various real-life things – a new job for starters – have put paid to those plans, which is a shame. The work in progress I’ve been nibbling at is still coming for sure and I am very excited by it – it’s still untitled, annoyingly, but can be described thusly as a spooky sea shanty, riffing a little, and intentionally so, on a classic sci-fi story from way back when.
I am, however, giving something for Christmas this year – I have made available a ~6,000-word short story I wrote in 2018 as part of my university course, Pandora’s Box. I hope it makes adequate festive reading! (Link at the bottom of the post or in the navigation!)
It’s a good story to revisit – written as part of my Narrative Techniques in Popular Fiction module that I recall enjoying quite a lot. This story was borne out of a great discussion we had in class about science fiction where an extrapolation of a real-world topic or concern.
The concern I took to extrapolate was one I am legitimately concerned about – government collection of vast amounts of personal data, and the nefarious means by which this data could be used. There’s also a hint of extrapolation against nationalising of private industry. Here’s my premise notes from my University notebook:
The story is set on New Year’s eve, a year after the radical PANDORA group swept to power promising that, after an unfortunate industrial accident that they use to highlight the “callous profiteering” of the gene-modding industry, the “immoral” practise of “buying” genetic enhancements (or screening for flaws and correcting them) to create the ideal human body would be outlawed and the technology used to ostensibly “better humanity”. This event is called the “nationalisation”.
Over the course of the preceding year, under the surface, PANDORA uses this technology to screen the population for their perceived enemies who start to disappear after the gene clinics are used to surreptitiously build a gigantic genetic database on the entire population.
How does the story link in?
A breakaway group, Nexus, is rebelling against these practises finagles their way into acquiring the master genetic database code and is able to stop the powers that be from continuing to screen the population. However, confronted with such a pandora’s box of information and possibilities, the tables turn with the breakaway group inevitable becoming just as bad as the revolutionaries before them.
This piece did well when assessed – scoring 67 marks, 3 marks off a First – and it was another one of my University pieces that garnered comments that it could work as the beginnings of a novel. I’ve pondered it myself, it’s certainly a setting and a premise I think holds legs!
As December closes out and the festivities of the season die down it’s always a great time to reflecton the yearthat was. I’ve done this in the past and I was doubly inspired by the lovely Charlotte’s recent post. So I definitely want to take stock on what happened to me in 2018 and, importantly, have a think about where I want 2019 to go too. Obviously it’s futile to really commit too rigidly to goals for the year as stuff invariably happens that cannot be foreseen but that doesn’t stop one from being as aspirational.
There were a handful of “big” events that I’m very proud of having taken place in 2018.
The first of these was my graduation this summer. In the past I may have alluded to some dissatisfaction with the Creative Writing course I undertook at Kingston University, which is an experience I still feel I should chronicle in my blog in the new year now my immediate, somewhat… passionate thoughts about have subsided and mellowed. One thing from the whole experience that I take away is a sense of pride that I managed to get through it and succeed in this endeavour. My graduation was a very happy event and I end 2018 in the knowledge that I made my friends, family and most importantly myself proud with the achievement.
The second “event” of this year has to be the finishing of the first, gruelling edit of my work-in-progress novel The Thaw, which I’ve mentioned previously I’m sure of. I went to Kingston to expend the remainder of my printer credits to print off the second draft which I’m very proud to have completed. I’m doubly excited as I’ve just received some of the first substantive feedback (thanks to the amazing Rosie) to that draft that I sent out in July; I’m eager to work on this project some more in the early part of 2019 so I can finally submit it to agents, editors and publishers. I’m still immensely proud of my work on this book, I definitely feel it’s a worthy piece of work and I look forward to taking it on the next step of its journey.
Reflecting on my year in reading I remain content that I made the right decision to not undertake a Goodreads reading challenge this year as it’s really helped with some anxiety that participating was otherwise emanating from that. I’ve had a more sedate year in reading in 2018, which is good as I’m better able to enjoy my books as opposed to racing through them.
Here’s my pick of the titles I read (or re-read) this year:
The Boy on the Bridge by MR Carey. This was a book I thoroughly enjoyed – having previously been captivated by The Girl With All The GiftsI was intrigued to read the prequel. It was a haunting, atmospheric novel of the highest order.
Artemis by Andy Weir – a case of lightning indeed striking twice with Andy Weir of The Martian fame – one I enjoyed a great deal, an excellent, accurate but not intimidating space thriller.
Silo by Hugh Howey – One the bookseller in Waterstones highly recommended it when I bought it! Another example of enjoyable, atmospheric post-apocalyptic fiction in a well-realised, contained world. Very excited to read the second in the series, Shift in 2019!
Misery by Stephen King – a re-read but a worthy one on the back of Charlotte’s review, and there’s just so much to take from this lean, taut thriller I might make it an annual re-read.
The Fog by James Herbert – I was inspired to re-read this classic book from this Tweet from Iain Dale and the scene, and the book itself, remains a high-water mark of Herbert’s prowess. My collection of his work grows!
Still, however, I feel I’ve been a little… conservative in my reading and that does bother me a little – I find myself almost being slightly self-conscious of my reading, especially as I let Goodreads post to my Twitter in public view. I feel I need to be less in a comfort zone for authors/genres I like and experiment a little. I certainly want to read more non-fiction; indeed, I took a recommendation from a friend to take on Chernobyl by Serhii Plokhy – a book I do need to finish, as it happens, but it’s again great to be able to take these on entirely at my own pace.
And lastly, going again back to another post by Charlotte, that of her Halloween Story, I want to try to write more short fiction again; I’ve done it in the past way back when and I feel it’d be great to do so again, especially as I had such a positive reaction to The Landlady, my first foray into horror fiction which I wrote for my Creative Writing dissertation. I’ve been absolutely amazed at the reaction from friends, well-wishers and colleagues to that endeavour which has been absolutely lovely.
Charlotte’s Halloween piece has inspired me to write more “seasonal” work for events such as Halloween, Christmas… I’ll see how it goes. I had planned to release a festive horror short about this time but personal circumstances have eaten in quite considerably to my writing time, but it’s an idea I would definitely like to try out more in 2019 – I have missed writing short stories a bit and, having reorganised my website in 2018, I had to look again at my early work and there’s some solid ideas. Maybe I might revisit them, we’ll see!
I also managed to lose about two stone this year which is fantastic – thanks to the brilliant Chris Kenny for being a great inspiration for my progress there! Let the side down a little toward the end of the year (who diets at Christmas?) but I’m already raring to reclaim the ground again in 2019 and really power through it!
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
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.
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.
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.
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 resurgencein the faceof 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?
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!
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.
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!