A Reader First

I am, as the title states, a reader first, a writer second.  That must be true for all writers.  Reading isn’t always a form of entertainment or escapism, however.  It can be to learn, either in the sense employed in education, or for pleasure or personal interest.  For example, I read books on military history, particularly the Napoleonic Era, and some contemporary accounts of military action.  I’ve also been known to graze on encyclopedias and etymological dictionaries (I’ve never become so involved in non-etymological types).  Other than that, my reading tends to fantasy, science fiction and military history fiction.  I’ve read classics, too, like Les Miserables, War and Peace and a few others.  There are, however, times (like now) when I don’t read books at all.  I’m fairly sure that I’m not unusual in any of that.

As a reader, I’m looking for certain things.  First, and foremost, the subject has to interest me.  Second, the blurb needs to offer something intriguing, something that drives my curiosity to seek expansion.  Third, it has to be fairly easy to read, without huge expanses of complex language.  Finally, it should be reasonably well written.  Turn-offs include a plethora of typographical errors, darkly depressing passages and highly intellectual pieces.  I can forgive poor quality writing if the feat of imagination is sufficiently impressive.

Until very recently, I also had a strong preference for real books.  I love the feel and smell of books.  Put me in a second-hand bookshop and I can become lost just by the atmosphere!  That’s something no web site will ever be able to achieve.  That said, with book prices what they are, economics have forced me to look to ebooks as a serious option.  That and lack of space for more books in the house.  There’s no doubting that I’m headed down the eReader road, despite myself.

It may sound odd for a writer of ebooks to be less than keen on the technology  but I’ve been reading for many years, being on the wrong side of 50, and it’s difficult to shed the love of physical books.  It’s an inescapable fact, though, that ebooks are the real future, with physical books likely to end up being collectors’ items, for those who can afford them.  They offer so much more than a real book can, and future advances in eReaders must bring genuinely useful extras.  Eventually, there will be total domination of the world of literature by ebooks.

Let me just look at eReaders.  They can carry a good sized library, which would require a considerable space investment if the equivalent number of physical books were kept.  They offer ease of use and enhancements for those with vision problems.  Many allow annotations, bookmarking and dictionary access.  It is quite likely that we’ll see increasing use of access to things like Wikipedia, authors’ official web sites and audio.  For audio, we’ll see audio books and word pronunciation facilities in dictionaries.  Those annoying moments when we encounter the use of a foreign language we don’t understand will be overcome, by allowing access to a translator.  Interactivity is growing fast, too.  There are now many books aimed at allowing children to interact with colourful ebooks and that will be extended.  I fully expect to see things like the Encyclopedia Britannica no longer being offered as a software package but, rather, being sold preloaded onto an eReader, and providing the same interactivity as the software always has.

Much of this is simply beyond physical books.  With physical books, you need access to dictionaries and other reference works, increasing the space you need for all those beautiful books.  More, you can only access those extra volumes if you’re in the same location as them.  You’re not about to carry your whole library around with you!  I wonder how many people who voice opposition to ebooks use computers to access information as a consequence of their reading of physical books?

There are limitations on ebooks, at the moment, but very few of them can’t be overcome.  Ultimately, the ebook-eReader combination will be the victor in this revolution.

~ Steve

A Character More Famous…

I’ve been wondering.  What happens when a character becomes more famous than the author who created them?  There is a sense of the author losing ownership of that character, as they become a household name.  Sherlock Holmes is a prime example.  Holmes is legendary, and has long since been taken far beyond the original works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  That’s not a huge problem, as such, as Doyle is long dead.  What about similar famous characters, however, where the author is still alive?

Recent years has seen a massive growth in “fan fiction“.  Some of this leaves much to be desired, in quality or originality terms, but some is excellently written.  There is also a great deal of artwork based on the personal conceptions of characters and locales by artists who have become fans of literary characters.  Then, of course, there’s film and TV, where the famed characters are brought to life on the screen, big or small.  All are tributes to the author, in the sense that they have created a character who has captivated a very large audience.

It has to be said that many famous characters are more abused than used by people other than the original author.  It must be intensely disheartening to see a carefully crafted story being altered to fit the mediums of film and TV, even if the author is involved in the production to some degree.  From what I’ve seen of some productions, it would be a serious mistake to assume that the presence of the author’s name in the credits guarantees that they have been able to adequately protect their creation.

I guess most writers would be delighted to create a character who gains fame beyond all expectation.  I wonder, though, if we could resist the potential profit in allowing our creations to be remade for film or TV?  Would we even want to?  Do we, in some sense, give ownership of our characters to our readers?  By creating such a popular character, we provide our readers with a new person in their lives, somebody who really matters to them.  It’s not unlike soap operas which involve some viewers do strongly that the death of a character causes genuine grief.  People have been known to send tokens of that grief.  Equally, some such deaths have caused real anger amongst the fans of the programme, even to the point of the producers being forced to contrive the reinstatement of the character!

As an author, I would probably feel genuinely honoured to have a character achieve such fame.  I would be less happy, I suspect, to have that character taken over by all and sundry.

~ Steve

Prophecy or Guesswork?

Science fiction has a reputation for being of three sorts.  First, there’s the pure entertainment, with no other agenda than to tell a good story.  Second, there’s the kind that uses the genre to make a comment on contemporary society, sometimes suggesting what consequences might lie ahead.  Third, there’s what has also been called “speculative fiction”, in which the writer looks to how our future might evolve

There’s no doubting the fact that some authors have been phenomenally accurate in their predictions, even though they may not have had contemporary references to work from.  Just about every technology we know today was predicted by a science fiction author at some time.  Jules Verne is just one author who seemed to have a window into the future, and his works certainly didn’t have the benefit of established science to be referenced.  He wasn’t alone, either.

The question is, however, whether the visions of the future we read are the consequence of pure guesswork, speculating on the evolution of science (mainstream or not), or some kind of prophetic utterance inspired by the dreams of the author.  Perhaps both operate, either together in one writer’s works, or separately according to the nature of an author.  Reading science fiction, you can find sophisticated computers at a time when the best technology could offer was a comptometer, or electronic devices that are remarkably similar to the eReaders that have made such an impact in the last few years.

Of course, there is the possibility that science fiction actually helps to drive technology forward.  Are our devices the result of inventors and technologists being intrigued by a science fiction concept?  This is actually a strong possibility!  There are more and more devices appearing which aren’t driven by an existing need.  They come about because they can.  It is easy to imagine some inventive person reading about a device of the future and feeling challenged by the concept.  It would be natural for them to attempt to create that device, or something very similar.

Considering how often I’ve heard book critics sneering at the genre, it is rather amusing to think that it is changing our very society, at a fundamental level.  I wonder how many of those critics routinely make use of the technologies the genre has inspired?  I doubt any shun the devices that have come straight out of the pages of science fiction tales.

Prophecy or guesswork?  Does it really matter?  The fact is that we are all surrounded by the consequences of the genre today.

~ Steve

Books and Children

Book-child-readingThere can be absolutely no doubting that children should have access to books.  Sadly, many children show less enthusiasm for them than they should.  Why?  I think part of the problem stems from school.  Very young children are usually avid readers, loving the books that they are allowed to borrow from preschool, and even the earliest years of school proper.  Unfortunately, over time, reading the mass of text books and set books that they must review erodes the interest.  Reading becomes a chore, and thus something to be avoided.

Yes, I know that movies, TV programmes and computer/console games also impact on the desire to read, but I honestly believe that they have less of a rôle in the problem than the burden of reading placed on children by schools.  Apart from text books that are so dry and uninteresting that it’s amazing the authors managed to stay awake long enough to write them, the concept of “set books” imposes the tastes of educationalists upon children.  There’s no doubting that some books are definitely worth promoting as reading matter, but to force any book on a person, of any age, will not make a favourable impact on their desire to read.  To add to the forced reading, the child is then expected to write a good review, according to a set formula.  Under this mountain of pressure, only the most avid readers will continue to read for pleasure, usually those who have access to a large number of books at home, or via a good local library.

How can we fix this situation?  There are many excellent books being written for children of all ages, so the supply is fine.  Some books will break through the barriers because of hype and mass marketing tactics in general, such as the Harry Potter series by J K Rowling.  Generally, the hyped books still have to be good enough to keep the child interested.  Some TV series contribute by having a complementary series of books.  All this helps somewhat.  Ultimately, however, we really need to look at the system used in schools.  The initial “borrow what you like” attitude should be carried forward.  The selection of “set books” should be increased significantly, and include popular books – not just those with critical acclaim.  I know that I wrote far better reviews of books that I enjoyed reading, when I was a child.

As a matter of interest, one of my own children had the same set book, George Orwell‘s Animal Farm, every year for three years!  That’s obviously a ridiculous situation.  I know for a fact that initial liking of the book was quickly replaced with a weariness that means that very few of the children from that time will ever read that book again.  I also know, from my own children, that self-selected reading was always far more enjoyable than forced.  Of my three children, two continue to enjoy reading.  Sadly, the third can’t be described as a keen reader.  All had a large fund of books at home at all times.  The two “natural readers” have survived the system, despite its faults.  The other reads those things that are related to other interests, and I tend to think of them as being a “natural text book reader” (though the interests in question aren’t founded on non-fiction subjects).

I believe that ebooks could make a very big difference in the number of children who enjoy reading.  Being based on the use of popular technology, and with an ever increasing number of interactive ebooks, they should have greater appeal.  It’s important, of course, that such ebooks reflect traditional reading matter in format, starting from picture-heavy books, through partially illustrated titles, to almost pure text.  Another aspect of ebooks is that font sizes can be adjusted, helping those children with sight problems.  I envision a time, too, when ebooks will incorporate other enhancements, such as audio pronunciation guides and assistance for people with reading difficulties, such as those with dyslexia.  It’s an exciting time and we need to think clearly about how to make the maximum use of ebooks to encourage more children to read for pleasure.

~ Steve

Logic In Fiction

In fiction, one thing that must be present is a strong logic.  That’s not a problem for many, who don’t venture beyond normal human activities in normal circumstances.  For those who go beyond our reality, however, the question of applied logic becomes critical.  A tale can’t work if its internal logic doesn’t work.  That said, the logic in our tales doesn’t have to be the same as in the real world.  It doesn’t even have to be the same from tale to tale, if they are unrelated.

If we populate our worlds with things that defy reality, such as vampires and werewolves, their existence must be made both natural and logical.  We might not explain how such creatures can exist, but we do have to have a system that constrains them.  In fantasy works, the created world and what may be done there must adhere to an internal logic that is unbreakable.  The Universe, even an invented one, obeys a definite rule.  For every action, there must be an equal and opposite reaction.  Magic cannot be employed without consequences.  Beings we create must have evolved to their present form.

Everything is held together in any story only by a logical system.  If we start ignoring that fact, we enter a kind of chaotic existence that most readers will find not only difficult to read, but basically incomprehensible.  We may borrow from Dali or Roger Dean, but once we do so, the story must adhere to their vision of a different reality.

All that said, a story can have two, or more, universes, where the systems of logic vary.  Our human world will be ruled by the logic we know, but our characters can pass into, say, Faerie, and be ruled by a different logic.  Reality, for our characters, can be very different to our own version.  More, it can be flexible if our universe is multidimensional.  But, each dimension must have its own internal logic.

Do you need to explain a different logical system?  Generally, it’s a good idea to do so, if you have the space.  That can be difficult in a very short story, but anything of reasonable length can have the fundamentals, at least, explained.  Not explaining it could make it difficult for readers to figure it out.  You don’t have to write a weighty thesis on the logic employed, though!  It suffices to mention, at convenient times during the story, how the logic applies.  If there’s one thing worse than confusing your readers, it’s boring them!

~ Steve

The End… and Beyond

It’s not a subject most of us really like to think about.  Our ending, that is.  No, not the ending of a story, but our own end.  As writers, though, we may be forgiven for a certain touch of vanity.  It would be nice to know that our hard work won’t be lost when we depart this world.  It would, in fact, please us to know that any incomplete manuscripts would pass on to somebody who cared enough to complete our work.

There can be few people who don’t know how the many letters, notes and manuscripts of J R R Tolkien have been used to produce many volumes.  He isn’t alone in that.  Another author whose partial works have been completed by others is Robert E Howard.

Now, I’m not saying that every writer has a following so avid that similar treatment will be afforded their unfinished tales.  The first question is what do we cherish about those works that might involve us in thoughts of leaving them as bequests?  Do we, indeed, have such works?  Perhaps we’re content to leave only our published works to posterity.  Then again, do we have some masterwork which we’ve been working on in the background for years?  Something which we believe will make a true contribution to literature.  Can we bear the thought of that being lost forever?

You may think that most writers are rather like pop stars.  We may love their work but we can’t honestly say that it has made a profound difference to the world of music.  Our works may equate to those songs, but that doesn’t make them of no worth.  Tolkien may be a giant of literature, making the continued exploration of his works, published and unpublished, understandable.  Howard, is not truly a giant in the same way, but his creation, Conan, is much loved and he did, in fact, create a world to accommodate Conan just as Tolkien created a world to fit his own tales to.  Howard is “pop” and Tolkien is “classical”, but both have merits which have so enthralled their readers that other writers have found it desirable to continue their work.  In vanity, we may believe that we at least match up to Howard, but we may also be such harsh critics of ourselves that we can’t believe that anybody would bother to treat our unfinished works as reverently.  Personally, I think that the vain approach is better, as it expresses self-respect.

If we decide that we would be happiest leaving our collected works to somebody, then the question arises as to just who we should entrust with our treasures.  It’s a pity that there isn’t some central organisation that can provide a safe, secure home for our works.  Instead we’re left with uncertainty.  Do we opt for a family member who has always supported us in our writing?  Or do we choose an author we believe could do justice to what we leave behind?  Neither offers more than a hope that our efforts will be preserved for posterity.  The only thing that we can be certain of is that we can include a clause in our Will to provide for our families in the event that future income goes to them, and that the rights to both published and unpublished works remain with the family for as long as the family survives.

I’ve encountered the situation several times where I’ve been enjoying the continuing tales of a writer, and then being utterly frustrated because the writer has died.  In a few cases, this has happened leaving the works incomplete.  Worse, in some cases it’s known that a body of work lies somewhere, unpublished, perhaps awaiting some bold writer to complete the work.  It seems almost criminal that such works are left to gather dust, at best, or may even be destroyed as being left unassigned to somebody who might value them.

Our works may not have a value that can be calculated in financial terms, but there are other kinds of value.  I honestly believe that we should give due consideration to the intrinsic value of all our works, disregarding some false financial valuation.  We leave our families, and friends, memories of ourselves.  Through our works, we can leave them something else of ourselves.  Never underestimate what that might mean.

~ Steve

Christmas Thoughts

Christmas TreeWith Christmas fast approaching (I’m convinced that it’s now coming around every six months!), I’ve been thinking about what it could mean for some.

On a personal level, I’ve not been concerned about any gifts I may get since I was a child.  In all honesty, I have nothing that I need so much that I would want any of my family to spend their much needed money on for my sake.  In fact, I usually become very uncooperative at Christmas time and near my birthday.  Of course, being human, there are things I would quite like to have, but I’m generally not going to divulge what they might be except under intense pressure.  This year, I’ve bowed to such pressure, but only after trying to find a sensible option.  That’s why I’ve informed my wife that I would be happy with a Kobo Mini eReader.  In truth, having looked at various such devices, I like the sound of that one most.  I do not, however, expect to get one!

It crossed my mind that many families will find themselves scattered around the world this Christmas.  It would be some compensation if these families could make use of modern technology.  Using webcams and computers, and/or other devices, it is perfectly feasible to bring families together as never before.  Of course, it’s likely that some adjustment to times of things would need to be made, but that would only require some mutual compromises.  Imagine it, if you will.  A family sits down to Christmas dinner, with a reasonably large screen occupying one part of the arranged seating.  The screen displays views of other family members from other parts of the world, also sitting down to their Christmas dinners.  The same arrangement could then be extended into the post-dinner period, including some games.  Such a coming together would, in my view, be the true culmination of technology’s shrinking our world.  Never mind business or political conferences using similar techniques.  They are simply using tools for profit or power.  Put into the scattered families arena, then technology proves a true benefit to ordinary people, in something far more significant and meaningful.

While much of this post is very definitely “off topic”, let’s look at ebooks and how they might be a positive influence on Christmas.  Of course, there’s the obvious aspect, with various well loved Christmas books being available for reading on any eReader.  Another option exists, however.  A family member could create an ebook that covered the family’s activities since the last Christmas, complete with photos.  Also, any storyteller in the family could produce little ebooks where their children, or younger nephews, nieces and/or grandchildren are the central characters, including little photos or even drawings.  These would make very pleasing gifts for anybody with a device that’s able to handle the  ebooks.  With the right software, it would even be possible to create printed copies for those without eReaders.

On the question of ebooks as presents, you don’t have to give what amounts to a gift voucher.  You could create a Christmas card that includes a CD containing the ebook(s), or even a pen drive.  I think that these would be more suitable than the more impersonal options.  There’s absolutely no reason, after all, why a CD or pen drive shouldn’t be made to look attractive in itself.

One final thought.  Apart from the personalised ebooks, similar ideas could be employed to produce personalised audio books.

~ Steve

Tactical Writing

So, I’ve conceded defeat… for the moment.  I simply can’t focus for long enough to accomplish much writing at all.  What I have decided on, though, is to employ Tactical Writing.

I’m not a good strategic writer, I fully admit.  That is, I don’t work to a carefully developed plan, a grand strategy for the work in hand.  I leave that up to chance, Fate, whatever you like to call it.  You won’t find me checking where I’m going against a nice plan.  What I can do, however, is employ tactical writing.  In this, I simply “go with the flow”.  At such times, I acquire a host of story scraps – mostly beginnings.  At the same time, I’ll sometimes return to an earlier scrap and add some more to it.  It sounds haphazard but it actually works quite well for me.

These tactical strikes are driven by moments of inspiration that manage to actually escape from my mind into actual written words.  It really doesn’t matter whether they are entirely new or a sudden realisation of where an existing storyline needs to go. The file is opened and the words tumble out, without a great deal of effort on my part.  Sometimes, I behave as if I’m feverish, the words are coming so fast!  Then, once the immediate mission is accomplished, the file is saved and closed.  Of course, it does require a good memory, otherwise stories would become a sad tangle.  Despite my problems with memory loss, somehow I usually manage to retain multiple tales in my mind.  It’s very much like the fact that I tend to read two or three books at a time.

The benefit of tactical writing is that ideas are rarely lost, and I even have the opportunity to bring several short stories to a conclusion at roughly the same time.  The disadvantage is that I gain a plethora of small files that need to be kept organised.  Still, during relatively arid periods, tactical writing satisfies the desire to write, and that can’t be a bad thing.  It also fits moods better.

~ Steve

The New Kindle Fire

I was researching the eReaders that are currently available the other day.  It was a mission provoked by my wife expressing her desire to buy me one for Christmas.  I managed to locate some very reasonably priced ones but she was less than enthusiastic because they hadn’t got a trusted brand and were generally from Far Eastern companies.  That limited the possibilities significantly.

In fact, she’s most inclined to buy me a Kindle.  She has one herself and loves the fact that it so seldom requires charging.  Now, to be honest, I’m less of an ebook reader than she’s become, and I naturally tend towards devices that have multiple functions.  It made sense, therefore, for me to look at alternatives.  Some of the “unknown brands” offer audio and video in addition to eBook functions but suffer because of a bad experience I’ve already had with an imported Android tablet.  The Kindle Fire, though outside our budget by a considerable margin, does offer the extras.

I was surprised to discover, however, that the Kindle Fire has a major drawback compared to the original Kindle!  It makes me wonder if it’s really a step forward at all.  Quite simply, the battery life of the Fire is abysmal compared to the Kindle.  My wife has gone weeks between charges with her Kindle, but the Fire has an estimated battery life of less than twelve hours!  I know that it reflects the colour screen and everything else but that seems a huge difference.  If the primary use of the device remains reading ebooks, I can imagine that buyers will be less than impressed.

In truth, I think that Amazon have blundered.  While the name Kindle Fire is nice enough, I think that they should have not maintained the Kindle name with this new device.  The Kindle Fire is a tablet.  By retaining the Kindle name, the suggestion that it’s simply an improved eReader is clear.  The battery performance, however, will damage how the original Kindle is viewed.  If Amazon had gone with a totally different name, then potential buyers would be more inclined to compare the Kindle Fire with other tablets, where it competes reasonably well, rather than with eReaders, where it suffers from its reduced battery life.

~ Steve

Characters: Composites and Inventions

One of the established facts of writing is that characters are born of the people we know or have encountered.  Some are almost exact duplicates of individuals.  Some are composites constructed from several similar people.  There are a few, however, who are total inventions.  The duplicates are those who are the result of knowing a very strong personality, whose actions and reactions can be predicted.  The composites are created by drawing on the most pronounced characteristics of several people, or those characteristics which fit with the type of character we need.  The invented characters are more complicated in their origins.

It’s not uncommon for writers to create their heroes by drawing on elements of their own personalities.  That’s not to say that they are heroic or uncommonly gifted in some way.  In fact, there’s a certain Walter Mitty aspect to these characters.  They represent deep wishes that we were more like the characters we create.   We would like to be more heroic, braver and more able than we are.  It’s a way for us to achieve things which we could never achieve in real life.

Another form of invented character represents a type we would be attracted to.  They are idealised to suit us, and then expanded upon to give them more depth.  These are more prone to acquiring faults of character.  The faults are born of a certain pessimism.  We expect to be disappointed by people.  To prove that our expectations are accurate, our heroes will develop flaws, often as a result of some dark secret or a terrible event in their past.

There’s another type of character I’ve not mentioned.  These come not from real people or ourselves, except as modifiers, perhaps.  They are inspired by characters from literature we have read.  These, unfortunately, often tend to be shallower than the other types.  They are also dangerous to use, as they can be recognisable because they haven’t been redeveloped sufficiently.  I prefer to avoid such characters, but there is always a risk that they will creep in somewhere.

The principal characters should have greater depth than the rest, but it can be useful to have more rounded characters who can appear only briefly.  These equate to those people we meet and who have a profound effect upon us but only remain in our lives a very short time.  These transients can even be used as links, popping up unexpectedly in various circumstances.

Portraying our characters is the hardest task in writing.  Landscapes are easy, being either real or total fantasy.  A satisfying character is a much harder thing to create.  Characters can actually go through more changes than any other aspect of a story, evolving constantly.  In fact, they can evolve to such an extent that they may force some degree of rewriting to accommodate their new aspects.

~ Steve