Saturday, 31 August 2013

Flying By the Seat of One's Pants

Some writers need structure. They have to rigidly map out every scene, every chapter and every possible direction that their book can take before committing pixels. I am not one of those writers. I like to give my characters the space to develop organically rather than in accordance with some preconceived plan. I would not consider doing it any other way. After all, how could I expect to surprise my readers if I cannot surprise myself?

Anyone who regularly reads my blog will know that I recently bought my first car. Now that I have my own transportation I no longer want to waste my weekends. I want to get out and do something worthwhile. Often, my wife, Katie, and I, will be walking along the seafront in our local town and we will see cars parked up facing the ocean. The drivers do not leave their cars and will usually have a fast food takeaway with them. This has always bewildered us. These people have a car, yet they waste it by just going to the drive-thru and then parking by the beach to eat the food before driving back to whence they came. Will we be doing that now we have a car? Not on your life.

This morning was our first Saturday with the new wheels and we decided to just fly by the seat of our pants as they say. We got up early and headed out in the direction of The New Forest National Park. The rough plan was to just find somewhere to park up and then go looking for ponies.

We left the car at a spot named Pig Bush and then set out on a walking trail. The trail was not marked out and the path to take was not totally clear, but we were feeling optimistic and did not worry about this too much. It did not take us very long to find some ponies. In fact, the ponies were everywhere. We became so engrossed by these beautiful animals that we completely lost all sense of direction and it was not long before we were hopelessly lost.

The next three hours were taken up with wrong turns, dead ends and a lot of backtracking. It was like being trapped in a maze, but the old rule of always taking the left turn did not work. To make matters worse, we had stupidly been trying to navigate by the ponies. You see, trees all look the same to me (especially in a dense forest), but each pony was distinctive in its own unique way. The problem was that unlike trees, they are not rooted to the spot. Therefore, our plan of following that little gray one was not proving very effective.

As the sun started to descend and we began to contemplate that we may be stuck in the woods after nightfall, Katie exclaimed "now I know why people get a McDonald's and eat it in their car!" We had failed. I could see why some people (or would that be most people) need some sort of structure. Signposts, a map, anything to point us in the right direction. And being a writer, I can see how whilst it is wonderful to be surprised by our muse, we do still need some basic structure. We need a direction in which to send our writing. We need signposts along the way to make sure that we are on the right track.

Even if we know where we are ultimately headed, the scenery can still surprise us as we make our way there. We can still happen upon unexpected events. Just so long as we can find our way to the end, it will work out fine. Nobody likes to be stuck going around in circles. Now if I can only find my way out of this bloody forest, I can start applying this logic to my next novel.



If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Why The Whole Is Greater Than The Sum Of Its Parts.

Take a look at the picture below. It is of a selection of loose change that I had lying around. It is not a random selection, as it contains one of each of the British coins under a pound. The total adds up to 88p. Four of the coins are silver coloured and two of them are copper coloured. Four are round and two are not. Is there anything else that can be said about them? Namely, why are they positioned the way that they are?


I apologise to my United Kingdom readers, as for them the answer to the above question is really quite obvious. However, it does also help to illustrate a valid and important point about writing, which I will come to in a moment. You see, it is very rare for a story to follow a single linear plot. It is possible, but in most cases it would be rather dull. To hold a reader's interest, a book must normally contain several subplots running alongside the main story arc. These subplots may not seem as important as the primary plot, but if they are to fully justify their inclusion, the story will not work without them.

Sometimes a writer will add subplots in order to bulk out a novella into a much more lucrative novel. This is not good. In fact, I would go so far as to say that these authors are cheating their readers. Look again at the picture of the coins above. What would happen if one of the coins were to be removed? The picture would have a very different shape, but would it have any more or less meaning? The answer is no, because the picture did not have any real coherent meaning to begin with. It is a collection of relatively disparate parts. If you can remove a subplot (or even a character or scene) from a novel and not effect the overall meaning, then it has no business being included in the first place.

Essentially, what we have in the picture above is not a novel, but an anthology of short stories (metaphorically speaking). Lennon and McCartney may have made a career out of patching together unfinished songs that each had written in order to create a whole (I've Got a Feeling from Let It Be is a brilliant example as is A Day in the Life from Sgt Pepper or We Can Work It Out), but to try this in a novel is just cheating. There is one particular famous author whose books I will never read again after catching them doing it so shamelessly.

In a novel, all of the subplots should be there to create a much richer overall reading experience. Every character, every scene, must effect the whole so that its meaning would not be the same without them. Now I want you to take a look at the picture below. At first glance it may appear no different to the one above. There is a slight difference though. I have flipped each of the coins over. Now they no longer seem so random and disparate. In fact, now I would say that they make rather a good metaphor for a novel. 


For anybody who has still not spotted it, here is an image of the final coin in the set.


If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

More Sex Please?

After completing my first novel, The Outback, I asked my wife, Katie, what she would like to see in the follow up book, Stealing Asia. Her answer was instant - "more sex!"

And so I sat down to begin the story. At the time I had no idea what the novel was going to be about. I just used Katie's suggestion as my starting point. Two strangers brought together in an exotic location. The narrator talks of his anticipation of what is about to unfold.

She rolled onto her back, adopting a position that was both vulnerable and alluring.

I then had to begin the action.

Smiling mischievously, she made her way along my arm with a series of short, delicate kisses.

It was my first sex scene and I was conscious of spending too much time on the foreplay (ironic?). It was soon time to heat things up.

...she redirected the kisses downwards, across my chest and over my abdomen, before finally taking me in her mouth.

And then...

And then a voice in my head screamed STOP! I had to pull out (figuratively speaking). Nobody wants to read what happens next. They are welcome to think it. The reader's imagination is free to take them wherever it pleases, but they most certainly do not need me talking them through every step of the journey. You see, there is a reason that many authors choose to avoid sex scenes.

The main problem with writing sex scenes is the language that is used. Both slang (cock, knob, dick) and formal (penis, vagina) sound awkward and out of place. They are just not, well, sexy. Any passage laden with these terms is going to induce laughter at best. Such writing is certainly not a turn on. So what do writer's do. They revert to using stock literary terms for the sex organs. A penis becomes a "member" and is usually paired with the adjective "throbbing". Now I am no medical expert, but if one has a "throbbing member" then one should really pay a visit to a pharmacist and get some sort of cream to combat the problem. As for the vagina, I have often seen that rather lazily referred to as simply "sex" - I felt his throbbing member enter my warm sex (really; I actually read that somewhere). Or avoiding that there is the downright bizarre - My inner Goddess was doing the merengue with some salsa moves* (?!?!) Suffice to say, descriptive sex scenes are probably best avoided.

But stories need sex, don't they?

If there is a love arc in a novel, then sex has to come into the picture at some point. This brings me back to Stealing Asia. The lead female character, Asia, is a bit of a nymphomaniac, which made it pretty hard for me to try and avoid the issue of sex. What I decided to do was to focus on the emotional aspect of copulating (Oh God, I really typed that, didn't I? Even a blog post about sex is awkward). In a key scene, the story's hero, Ben, is sharing what I will call an "intimate" moment with Asia, when they unexpectedly discover that they are not alone. In this scene, Ben sees a wild, dangerous side to his new love that he was previously unaware of and he likes it. I do not give a detailed description of what the couple are doing in this scene, but of what they are feeling whilst doing it. If I tell you any more it will be a spoiler.

Now I want you to picture a very different scene altogether. It is Paris, on a clear, moonlit summer's night. A young couple are walking hand in hand along the banks of the Seine. How would a writer approach this?Would they talk us through the mechanics of what the young lovers are doing?

Their hands joined by interlocking their fingers tenderly. They each progressed along the path by raising one foot, bending it at the knee and then pushing it forward, before repeating the action with the other leg.

Of course we do not. The reader knows what holding hands and walking is so they do not need it describing to them. It is much more interesting (and relevant) to know what the characters are thinking and feeling at that time. It is no different to sex. We all know how it works and do not need to be talked through every detail. We only need to know when it happens.

In short, the author needs to know when to turn off the light.

STEALING ASIA is available now in paperback and for Kindle.

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(above) On our last day on Koh Samui we had the choice of visiting the country's largest seated Golden Buddha statue or the unimaginatively named Cock Rock. I let Katie make the decision.
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*I believe that this quote is from a certain trilogy by E L James. Not that I have read any of those books, by the way.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my three published novels The Outback, Stealing Asia and Diamond Sky. All three are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Why Buying a Book is Like Buying a Car

I received my first royalties from Amazon yesterday and today I bought a new car!

Unfortunately for me, the two are not related. One was a pleasant (if rather modest) surprise and the other is something that I have been putting off for the best part of four years now. When the guy who gives me a lift to the office handed his notice in last week, I realised that I could not face going back to commuting by train and there you have it.

Being a writer, I obviously managed to take something from the car buying experience that I can turn into a blog post for the intelligent, supremely attractive people who are kind enough to drop by and read the stuff that I put on here.

So here goes.

When shopping around for cars, the first thing that we tend to notice are the aesthetics. We all have a favourite colour and particularly for males, the sportier the model, the better. It is no different to browsing covers in a bookstore. Of course, practicalities come into it. We cannot just buy the first car that we like the look of. We have to find something in the correct class and with the most suitable engine size etc. Essentially, this is like finding your genre.

So now we have narrowed the choice down, we need to learn a bit more about each model in order to make an informed choice. We ask the dealer if we can see the car's papers and service history, just like the reader turns to the back cover and checks over the blurb. Up to date and accurate papers are just as important as an interesting and engaging plot teaser. If we are still interested it is time to take it for a test drive.

From the moment that you turn the engine on, everything has to be perfect. You have to fall in love with the vehicle. The way it feels and the way it sounds has to be exactly what you are looking for, because you and the car will be together for a good few years. Likewise, those first 2 or 3 pages of a novel have to flow effortlessly. It has to grab you and keep a hold of so that you do not want it to let you go. The commitment may not be quite so high financially, but it is one that if you make the right choice, may well stay with you for a lot longer.

We will all remember the words of our favourite novels long after our first car has taken its final ride.


In an extremely loosely related photograph, here is my wife Katie next to a car. It is not even a real car. It is a character from the Pixar movie, Cars.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Sowing the Seeds of Fiction.

As with my debut, The Outback, Stealing Asia begins with a true event from my days travelling. In this case, a very stressful border crossing from Malaysia into Thailand.

There were two points where the overland crossing could be made. One at a town named Bukit Kayu and the other at a town named Sungai Kolok. At the time, the latter had come under scrutiny as a potential trouble spot between warring factions in the area and tales of bombings and targeted attacks on tourists were not uncommon. Obviously, when buying our tickets we made sure that we would be using the safer crossing at Bukit Kayu.

Thankfully, we made it into Thailand without incident and upon arriving at the transport hub of Hat Yai, it was just a case of securing further transport to take us on to the islands. Unfortunately, this was where things started to go wrong.


A tall, dark skinned local helped us with our bags as we left the minibus, which had delivered us to the town. I assumed that he worked for the company we had travelled with.

I was wrong.

The man took us to a small travel agency and asked us to wait whilst he arranged for tickets to take us on to Donsak and the connecting ferry to the island of Koh Samui. I handed over 500 Baht and he handed us the tickets, which had been filled out entirely in Thai script. He then led us to the bus station and put us into a small minivan. The driver was not Thai and all of the passengers were women wearing headscarves. Having spent a month in the predominantly Muslim Malaysia, I did not blink an eye at the head attire. I thought that like my girlfriend and I, these women were travelling to the islands for a holiday.

It was after 2pm when we finally set off and I made sure that we bagged the seats on the right hand side of the minivan. We were travelling north and since it was the afternoon, the sun would have been strongest on the eastern side. The fact that it was not and I had the full glare upon me, should again have alerted me to the fact that something was not quite right. Only when we came to the roadblocks did I start to suspect something.


I have seen people carrying guns before. Armed police are always visible around the popular tourist areas of London (Buckingham Palace in particular), but this does not compare to witnessing armed soldiers in a foreign land. The machine gun turret replete with sandbag barricade was particularly disconcerting. We passed through three such checkpoints and at the third the vehicle was actually searched. Suffice to say, I was terrified (my girlfriend, Katie, was just confused).

By the time we approached the journey's end and were greeted by a large sign with the words "Selamat Detang" on it (Malaysian for welcome), I already knew what had happened, but still my brain tried to tell me otherwise. We were in a forlorn looking town and a pallid grey mist had set in. I asked the driver which way to the ferry port as we left the minivan and he he just stared back at me blankly. When I would not give up, he finally pointed me the way to go. Just a few moments later, the mist gave way to a long line of immigrants and a strong military presence. We had found ourselves at the Sungai Kolok border crossing.

What happened next is a little hazy. I just have snatches of images in my memory bank. I can recall confused soldiers herding us on like cattle. I remember faces in the crowd deliberately averting eye contact from the two confused westerners kicking up a fuss. I remember Katie crying.

Now, I realise that I may have blown everything out of all proportion in my mind (what do you expect - I'm a writer. By nature, my imagination is overactive.) At the time though, we were genuinely terrified. We were lost, alone and did not know who to turn to (the soldiers were only interested in getting us through customs and back into Malaysia). That was when we managed to find an office of the tourist police and our ultimate salvation.

For all that I know, we were just unfortunate. The ticket fiasco in Hat Yai had resulted from a misunderstanding. But what if it was deliberate? What if somebody had wanted to send us to that place? What if they were trying to prevent us from getting to the islands? This is where my novel, Stealing Asia, comes in. The stories central protagonist, Ben, has met his dream girl and is on his way to be reunited with her, when he too is sent on such a detour, but unlike with Katie and I, this is no accident.

Looking back, that day should be one I would want to forget. Looking forward, I am really glad that I didn't. We want our stories to be as realistic and believable as possible and that is why there is no better place to search for inspiration than our life experiences.

I would love to know if anybody else has also had an experience that may have been harrowing at the time (or magical - great art does not always come from dark places contrary to what some emo pop bands may have you believe) and they have then used it as the basis for a fictional story. If so, was this easier or perhaps more satisfying to write, knowing that a small part of it was real? All comments will be greatly appreciated.

As the picture below shows, we did finally make it to paradise. Eagle-eyed readers will spot that the photograph is not of Koh Samui, but an island off the east coast of Thailand named Al Maya. Although it is more widely known as simply "The Beach". (In the movie the gap in the cliffs was filled using CGI to give the bay the appearance of being completely enclosed).



Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Looking Beyond the Stereotypes

Sin City. Disneyland for grown-ups. A Mecca of sleaze and vice, where lives can be made or broken on the roll of a dice. Sound familiar?

What kind of stories would you associate with this place? Stag/Hen night shenanigans. Tales about pulling heists on unscrupulous mob bosses. Comedies, crime capers and intense dramas about the self destruction of the human spirit. How about a straight romance? Probably not, right? That would be more suited to Paris, Venice or even New York.

What do these three cities have that Vegas doesn't? The Eiffel Tower? No, Vegas has one of those. What about gondolas floating on a canal under a clear blue sky? Again, Vegas has that. How about the Statue of Liberty? Do I really need to answer?

Of course, people will say that Vegas is merely an imitator. It is often described as a city lacking a soul, so it borrows a piece from every other city. The thing is, Vegas does have a soul of its own and it has magic too. Whether it is caused by the build up of electrical energy in the atmosphere or simply the accumulation of static in the acrylic carpets - sparks fly. I mean this literally. On my recent visit, every time that my arm brushed against that of my wife, we would feel a burst of energy as the sparks erupted between us. At times, it was painful, but it was also uniquely Vegas. Nowhere else have I come across this with such consistency.

Of course, Vegas has its downsides. We all know about the sleazy strip joints. Except that I did not actually come across any of them when I was there. You cannot miss these types of places in any city centre in the UK, where I am from. In London there are entire streets that are nothing but strip clubs. London has not got a bad reputation, but compared to Vegas it is like Babylon. True, my wife and I did go to see some showgirls perform. They were topless, but not gratuitously so. More than half of the audience were women and the interval act was a female comedienne whose main target was, well, men. I do not think that I got a single joke, but most of the women seemed to be laughing (my wife wasn't, but she never gets American humour anyway).

The point I am making is that we do not really know what a place is like until we visit it for ourselves. Sure, there are always photographs and videos, but they do not tell you how a place smells, how it sounds, what its soul is like. Personally, I think Vegas is very much a place for couples. It is too clean, too busy and too glitzy for a stag do. It is also too corporate, safe and well run to be the focus of a mob caper. For me, these stories belong in bigger, more dangerous cities such as New York, Paris or to mix it up a little - Venice.

So why is Vegas always depicted in a certain way when it comes to story telling, or even Paris for that matter? It is because of stereotypes. And the worst thing is that most of the time those who are writing the story have never visited the place in question and are writing based on the stereotype and not the place. Just like an author needs to know their characters, they need to know their location too. The location IS a character.

Research may work for some, but their is no substitute for experience.


If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

2000 Words?

I have finally cleared the boards ready to hanker down and complete one of my three unfinished novels. Having several projects like this on the go simultaneously is not unusual for me, but not updating any of them in four months is definitely out of character. So what has happened?

Well in a word (or several), I became self published.

Once my first novel went live on Amazon, I was no longer just a writer. I had to be a marketer too. Of course, blaming Twitter, Google+ or even this blog (all began after self publishing) is too easy and also misses the point. Marketing my work is now an essential part of what I do and it is here to stay. If I cannot accommodate it around my writing, I may as well give up now. The real problem has been with my back catalogue.

I have 3 completed novels. The plan was to upload each to Amazon (I allowed a month for this) and then move on to completing more works. I now realise that 3 books in a month was ambitious. It actually took triple this time, just for the first. The reason being, that I soon realised that none of them was actually finished at all.

When I was submitting my work to literary agents it was always in the back of my mind that an agent would put me into contact with an editor. This editor, by some magic process, would transform my books from merely showing promise, to being equal to any bestseller on the list. In other words, I knew that they were not ready for publication, but assumed that this would be fixed by somebody else. With self publishing, I had to work that magic myself.

Each of the novels has since gone through numerous edits, until I was satisfied that they equal anything to be found on the shelf in a bricks and mortar bookstore. Almost everyday for the past four months, I have finished work and then started on the books from 5pm until 10pm (with a little self promotion on social media thrown in for good measure). It was worth it. I am very proud of the quality of the books and I know that they are as good as anything on the market. I am not just talking about the bargain section of Amazon either.

One of these books, as I said earlier, is already available and the other two are now completed and just waiting for release (actually, I still need to proof the paperbacks, but any alterations will be minimal). So I can now get back to writing. The thing is, that I am a little unsure of how to do so. When I wrote my other novels, I rarely used social media and was cut off from other writers. Now however, I am overwhelmed by advice and suggestions on how to write and I may just have lost my own technique amongst all of this noise.

I have never been a disciplined writer, but I now have self publishing targets to meet. I cannot afford to flit from project to project like I used to. I need focus. The common consensus seems to be that somewhere in the region of 2000 words a day is a healthy target for writing a novel. What they do not say is whether this is an average or a rigid target. You see, sometimes I write 5000 words and sometimes I write 50. It all depends how inspired I am feeling at the time.

I am a firm believer that writing should flow and not be forced. This is the biggest stumbling block to setting a word target. At least, so strict a target. It is the daily thing that gets me. 2000 words a day, I cannot do. If I want to write a novel quickly, I would prefer broader targets. So 30,000 a month is what I will be aiming for. That will give me 90,000 in 3 months and that is a novel. Easy.

Of course, as a writer, only working on one thing is not healthy. We need to garner as much experience as possible and we need to test ourselves. So maybe the 2000 words per day is not so bad after all. When I am not feeling inspired with the novel, I can try writing something else on that day (I have 10,000 spare words to play with each month given my 30k novel target). I can use these to write short stories or blog posts. I can experiment and try out things that, although never intended for others to see, can benefit me greatly as a writer. During the writing of my first novel, I actually wrote CV's for each of the characters and even put some of them through interviews. This is a very good way to get to know your characters and in figuring out what motivates them. As an author, one has to know every small detail about one's creations even if these details will never appear in the novel.

So how many words have I written today? 859 and still going. That is not bad. I am almost half way to my total already. Maybe 2000 was not so high after all. Perhaps now, I will aim for more...

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

The Three C's (or Why the Rule's Do Not Really Matter)

We have all come across jobsworths at one time or another. You know the type. The kind of person who is such a stickler for the rules that they apply them without reason or logic. Whether it is the uncooperative service assistant, the over-zealous public official or maybe even your boss at work. These people all share one thing in common. They all know the rules (sometimes a bit to well), they just do not understand the purpose of them.

RULES ARE MADE TO BE BROKEN.

Okay, before everybody descends into complete anarchy, allow me to explain. I will use an example from my old workplace (a bank, which has since gone bust). The rule in question, regards the criteria for allowing employees to take holiday. It is as follows:

1) At least one weeks notice must be given in advance of holiday.
2) No more than two team members can be off at any one time.

It sounds straightforward and is clear to see in black and white. The rule was adhered to without question, which led to an overuse of the word "no" (as well as a vast increase in employee sick days). What the management failed to take onboard when so liberally alienating the staff, was the reason for the rule. Primarily, to ensure that the office was always adequately staffed. Due to a fluctuating workload, what could be defined as adequate staffing changed quite drastically from day to day. If everybody is stretched to their limit and struggling to meet their workload, it makes sense not to allow any more people time off on that day. If there is no work and half of the office are sitting twiddling their thumbs, then the rule is surely obsolete. There are times, like this, when something may contradict a rule, but it does not conflict with the REASON for the rule. This is when common sense should take over and rules should be broken (or simply ignored).

WRITING HAS A LOT OF RULES.

During the first draft, an author lets creativity and inspiration guide his or her hand. When it comes to editing however, they have certain boundaries. This is the time when they have to apply the rules. It is also a process that so many writers and editors get wrong. The problem is that they look solely at the rule and not the PURPOSE of the rule. Basically, the rules of grammar serve three functions. I will call them the three C's.

COHESION, COMPREHENSION and CONSISTENCY.

Grammar and punctuation are really just signifiers. They tell the reader how to read a particular text. Authors should not be consulting text books to decide the placement of a comma, they should be looking inwards, using instinct. One has to think about how they want the reader to read their work. Rhythm and flow are integral to producing an engrossing read. Therefore, do not ask whether a sentence is grammatically correct, but notice how it sounds when you read it back. It can be different for everybody and it is really a question of style. Basically, if I need to take an intake of breath during a sentence, then that will be a comma. Sometimes though. It will be a full stop. This really annoys Microsoft Word, because it will furiously start underlining everything with ugly green pixels and tell you that it is a fragment and to consider revising. I have many arguments with Word and I win every one of them. Why? Because I know what sounds best.

I am currently reading a thriller released through a major publishing house and one thing that I have noticed is that grammatically speaking, it is far from correct. A misuse of the Oxford Comma, missing Signifiers and a lot of fragmented sentences are common throughout. Do I care? No - because the story flows and that is what is important. The story has Cohesion, Comprehension and Consistency. It may not strictly follow the rules, but it sits perfectly with the purpose behind the rules.

One major problem that I see with self published novels is the fact that they are a bit too grammatically correct. What I mean by this, is that because all of the focus is placed on meeting rules, the reason behind the rule is often forgotten. A lot of writers use overly long sentences, which are clunky and awkward to read. When this occurs, I often have to reread a segment, because the meaning was lost in the impractical (albeit correct) sentence structure. When writers have this pointed out to them, they often hide behind the excuse of; "well, it is grammatically correct, so it cannot be wrong" as if it is out of their hands. Nothing is out of the writer's hands. Do not let so called correct punctuation disrupt the flow of your story. Not ever.

A reader will abandon a grammatically correct book, which is dull. They will not abandon an engrossing, exciting book, because the punctuation does not strictly adhere to a certain text on the rules of writing. 

THE SINGER, NOT THE SONG

When I read a book, I want to hear the writer's voice. It is as much about the storyteller as the story. When we hear somebody speak with a particular accent, we do not refuse to listen until they start using Received Pronunciation. Why then, do we insist upon forcing a particular form of grammar on them when they write? So long as a story is Cohesive, Comprehensible and Consistent, I could not care if it is grammatically correct or not. Writing is an art form and with all art, part of the beauty is that you can see the individual strokes. These are not blemishes, they are adornments. It is about time that we stopped airbrushing them out.


If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Can Anyone Write a Review?

Okay, if you take the question posed by the title of this post literally, the answer is obviously yes. However, I am more concerned as to whether people understand how to write a review. It is not as easy as many may think; just a case of stating what you thought of a book and giving it some stars. There is much more to it than that.

When I joined Goodreads, like everybody, I was presented with a selection of books and encouraged to rate the ones that I had read. At first I found this to be fun, but after a while I began to notice a pattern emerge to the ratings that I was awarding, which troubled me. For example: Book A, I gave 5*. Book B, though very enjoyable, was not as good, I thought, as Book A, so I awarded Book B 4*.  Likewise, Book C was given 3* as I thought it not as good as Book B. The problem was that I was comparing the books against each other and not judging them solely on their individual merits. If Book C had been ranked independently, it would certainly have been worth greater than the 3* that I gave it. The problem was that I downgraded it, because I was bulk reviewing, a process, which I now realise does not work at all.

We can still rate individual books, though, can't we?

Well, this is where the tricky part comes in. I will use a hypothetical example. Say that I have a friend who is a big fan of Epic Fantasy novels. He loves a good swords and sorcery storyline, but I my myself, find them to be a bore. A real turn off. However, when my friend recommends such a book to me, thinking that it is so good that it will convert me to the genre, I give him the benefit of the doubt and agree to read it. The book has received 130 reviews on Amazon with an average score of 4.86 and does seem to be one of the best of its kind.

I read the book and I hate it. It simply reconfirms to me why I find the genre so terrible. If I had to give it an honest review based on what I thought, it would be along the lines of this:

"A terrible story. The plot was unbelievable and incredibly dull. I will not be reading any more books in this genre ever again." 1*

Now, is the above fair? Of course it isn't. It may be my honest opinion, but it also one that I should really have kept to myself. It is of no use to potential readers. A better comment would have been to state that I was not a fan of the genre, but read it on a recommendation from a friend in a hope to convert me. It did not and therefore I believe that whilst people who enjoy this kind of book would no doubt love it, anybody who does not normally read Epic Fantasy should give it a miss.

The comment is still honest and it no longer unfairly implies a bad book. However, there is still a major problem with this review. How many stars should be attached to such a comment? I cannot give it a 4 or 5 because I genuinely did not enjoy reading it. To give it 1 or 2 would be morally wrong, as it is a very well written book with a large fan-base. The conclusion that I have come to, is that I should simply not review the book in question.

I have noticed that many respected reviewers often give 4 or 5 stars to a book. Does this mean that they really like everything that they read? Are they being generous? The truth is that they are merely being selective in what they recommend. That is what somebody thinking of posting a review needs to bear in mind. A review is a recommendation. They are often the make or break factor as to whether a potential reader will become an actual reader. Many reviewers use the process to recommend books that they like and are not interested in talking abut the ones that they do not.

Does this lead to books only getting 4 or 5 star reviews?

In theory, this could happen, but is that such a bad thing? In a perfect world the good books would come with informative reviews to help us to decide whether to read and the bad books, well, they will languish in anonymity where they belong. Of course, this is not a perfect world and there are always authors who will get friends and family to post unjustly glowing reviews and sometimes even pay unethical reviewers to write what they want them to write.

I do not have the answers to the above problem. All that I have control over is my own choice to post a book review or not. When I make that decision, I will bear in mind that the author has put a lot of effort into writing their book and as a common courtesy, they deserve somebody to put a lot of thought into what they say about their book. And as the song goes, sometimes "you say it best, when you say nothing at all".


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