Today’s Art (15th January 2020)

Well, I was still in the mood for photo-based paintings. So, today’s digitally-edited painting is based on this photo I took of some buildings in Gosport last January.

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Gosport – Towers” By C. A. Brown

Three Tips For Choosing A Book To Read Next

Well, I’m not sure if I’ve written about this before, but I thought that I’d talk about choosing books to read. After all, there are literally millions of books out there and it is impossible to read everything that has ever been written. So, if you’re reading regularly, then you have to be selective.

However, whilst I’ll probably talk a bit about buying books, I also want to write this guide in a way that will also be useful if you just want to choose a book from the ones you already own or from a library etc… too. Plus, this guide is mainly aimed at people who are new to reading novels – since, if you’re an experienced reader, then you probably either know most of this stuff already or have worked out your own methods of choosing what to read next.

1) Try it out: I’ll start with the most obvious way of choosing a book. In other words, reading the first few pages of a book to see if it is something that you want to read more of.

Yes, this isn’t a perfect way to judge whether a book is worth reading (after all, some books only really get good after a few chapters or once you’ve got used to the writer’s style, and some books are only good at specific times in your life) but it’s a good first test and there’s no shame in putting aside a book that you’ve read a little bit of and looking for another one instead, if you’re going to get more out of another book.

After a while, you’ll get a knack for this kind of thing. For example, the novel I’m reading at the moment (“The Afterblight Chronicles: Kill Or Cure” by Rebecca Levine) wasn’t my initial choice of what to read next after I’d finished reading Clive Barker’s “The Damnation Game“. Originally, I’d planned to read an urban fantasy novel with an interesting title and a really cool-looking cover but, after reading the first few pages of it, I realised that I wasn’t really in the mood for it at the moment. So, I set it aside and went for a post-apocalyptic thriller novel instead.

So, although it takes a bit of practice and getting to know yourself, the best way to choose what to read next is simply to read the first part of a book and see if you want to read more of it. This is the best, and perhaps only, way to test out a book (and better than things like cover art, reviews etc..) that you are thinking of reading next.

2) Set rules: One good way to choose what to read next is to set yourself rules. However, these need to be rules that have a good practical reason behind them (so you’ll actually follow them) and should be made with the goal of increasing your own enjoyment. Making rules for the sake of showing off or anything like that won’t last for long and will result in a lot of bad book choices too. So, your rules actually have to mean something to you.

For example, when I got back into reading regularly a little over a year ago, I started by binge-reading eight thriller novels by Clive Cussler. By the end of the eighth one, I was so used to this author’s stories, writing style etc… that reading his books had gone from being exciting fun to being a dreary chore. Likewise, after reading the six main novels in Jocelynn Drake’s excellent “Dark Days” series within about a month, I found myself wishing that I’d spread these books out a bit more so that I didn’t feel the intense sense of loss that I did when the series was over.

So, I set myself some rules -in addition to my long-standing “If you enjoy it, read it. If you don’t, then don’t” rule – to avoid these problems.

To avoid getting bored with any one author, I initially started with a rule that I’d read a book by another author to the one I’d just finished reading and then, to avoid reading amazing book series too quickly, I also added a rule that I wouldn’t read more than one or two books by any particular author in the space of a month.

So, yes, making some rules can be useful for choosing what to read next. But, as I said earlier, you need to have a good practical reason for these rules because – if you don’t – you’ll either end up ignoring them or they will ruin your enjoyment of reading.

3) Serendipity: If you read a lot, then you’ve probably got a chaotic collection of unread books, including a few that you’ve forgotten about. If you haven’t got one of these, then look for a library or either a website or physical shop that sells second-hand books. The goal here is just to explore a collection of books until something catches your interest.

Earlier, I mentioned looking at second-hand books and this is important because these tend to contain a much greater variety of authors, genres etc… than shops selling the latest bestsellers do. They’re also cheaper too, which is good for building a personal library on a budget. Looking for interesting random books is a bit more difficult if you’re looking for second-hand books online – but things like going through several layers of recommendations (eg: “People who liked this book also liked…”) on sites that include them can give you something vaguely similar to it.

The advantage of doing this, rather than following a set reading list or anything like that (although these can be useful), is that it forces you to choose on the basis of quality. When you’re looking through a collection of random books then things like an author’s fame, awards etc… matter less than whether the book you’re looking at right now has an intriguing opening chapter, a fascinating blurb etc…

But, the key word here is “random”. So, this tends to work best when your book collection consists of chaotic piles of books (rather than neat shelves) or when looking through the shelves of a second-hand bookshop/charity shop.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Four Reasons To Read Older Novels

Well, I thought that I’d talk about some of the reasons to read slightly older books. This is mostly because, for most of my teenage years during the 2000s, I mostly read older and/or second-hand novels from the 1950s-1990s (in addition to the occasional 19th century/early 20th century novel or short story) and actually preferred them to modern books.

It also helped that, thanks to charity shops/second-hand bookshops, I was able to belatedly experience both the paperback horror boom of the 1980s and glimpse the golden age of sci-fi. These days, such books are unfortunately less common in these shops 😦

But, when I got back into reading regularly a year or so ago (after about 3-4 years of not reading much), I focused more on slightly more modern fiction. It was more readable, more fast-paced, more interesting in some ways etc… For a while, I actually preferred it to older fiction. But, every now and then, I’d find an interesting older novel or re-read one of the books I enjoyed when I was a teenager. And, since I’m doing this at the moment, I thought that I’d talk about some of the reasons to read older books.

1) They make you a better reader: When I started re-reading Clive Barker’s 1985 novel “The Damnation Game” a few days before writing this article, I was surprised at how formal and slow-paced the writing seemed to be. Then, I remembered reading this book for the first time when I was about nineteen or so. At the time, it had been just another ’80s horror novel – something I’d read for relaxation and enjoyment. I didn’t remember the writing being so elaborate or the pacing being so slow – it was just an “ordinary” older horror novel to me.

Of course, I read older books more frequently back then. So, I was more used to and well-practiced at reading this writing style. It was pretty much standard. I was, in short, a slightly better reader than I am today. Yes, some traces of this lingered in the vaguely formal writing style that I use for most of these blog articles ( I blame the many essays I wrote in school/college/university and discovering both Sherlock Holmes and H.P.Lovecraft at the age of seventeen for this. I actually find it easier/quicker to write non-fiction like this than to use a more informal style), but I was less used to this writing style than I was when I read older books more regularly.

Still, there are good reasons why modern books often use a more streamlined and fast-paced style. Not only is it even more relaxing and fun to read, but it also allows modern books to compete with the distractions of the internet, smartphones and other such things. Even so, reading older books still makes you a better reader – it’s kind of like a workout for your brain or something like that. Not only that, if you get used to reading older books (with their slightly slower and more complex narration), then modern books will seem even more thrillingly fast-paced by comparison too.

2) They’re a really interesting type of history: Older books, by their very nature, are dated. Sometimes, this can be a bad thing (eg: dated attitudes etc..) but sometimes it can be a good thing. In short, older novels are one of the most intriguing types of history out there. Not only are they a completely immersive glimpse into the past, almost like a type of time travel, but they often present a more “realistic” version of the past than stylised modern historical films, pop culture nostalgia etc… do.

After all, these books were the “modern literature” of their day. They were new once. They were written about the “present day” in the way that modern novels are. And this provides a much more complex, interesting, nuanced and unvarnished glimpse into the past than you might expect. Sure, you can sort of do this with other mediums – for example, watching the first series of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and various Beatles music videos will give you a highly stylised glimpse of the general “atmosphere” of 1960s Britain – but, because books force you to use your imagination, they are a bit more vivid and immersive.

Not only that, there’s also something cool about experiencing exactly the same type of entertainment as people in the past used to enjoy too. And, unless you’re reading a modern reprint, it’s also interesting to think that the book you’re reading right now is exactly the same book that someone twenty, thirty etc… years ago also enjoyed too.

3) They can surprise you: Although books are one of the oldest storytelling mediums out there, they can often be further ahead of their time than films, TV, videogames etc….

For example, Dashiell Hammett’s 1929/30 novel “The Maltese Falcon” feels much more “modern” than films of the time. Even Mickey Spillane’s 1947 novel “I, The Jury“, a pulp novel that has otherwise aged terribly, is written in a surprisingly fast-paced style that wouldn’t be entirely out of place in a modern thriller novel.

Then there’s the way that Shirley Jackson’s 1959 horror novel “The Haunting Of Hill House” includes humour, a group of “misfit” main characters etc… in a way that is at least vaguely reminiscent of modern horror films.

Then, there is science fiction. Whether it is the way that Neal Stephenson’s 1992 cyberpunk novel “Snow Crash” reminded me a lot of mid-late 1990s sci-fi films like “Ghost In The Shell” or “The Matrix”, the way that William Gibson’s 1996 cyberpunk novel “Idoru” almost seems to be a novel about the modern internet or even how Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” is a satire of the 1960s that was written in the 1930s, it is absolutely amazing when you find an old novel that is eerily ahead of it’s time 🙂

4) You don’t have to read “classics”: One of the most off-putting things about older books is the whole idea of “classics”. You know, the boring old novels that you were forced to read when you were in school. Most older novels aren’t like this!

Seriously, reading older novels doesn’t mean having to trudge through “the classics”. Yes, some 19th and 20th century “classics” are actually really good books (and are well worth reading for fun), but one of the cool things about old books is that there are so many of them – most of which end up being forgotten. In other words, you can find some absolutely brilliant hidden gems if you are willing to look.

Of course, this was a lot easier a decade or two ago, when lots of mid-late 20th century literature was easily available in charity shops and second-hand shops. Yes, finding and buying books is ten times quicker and easier using the internet, but it lacks what made shopping for older books in the 2000s so interesting – serendipity. The fact that you don’t know in advance what old books will be on a shop shelf and end up accidentally discovering all sorts of great authors, amazing novels etc… because of this.

I mean, my interest in 1980s horror fiction (which reignited my love of reading when I was a teenager) was sparked because I happened to find an old Shaun Hutson novel on a market stall when I was about thirteen. I hadn’t expected to find it there, but I did. So, yes, finding hidden gems was a lot easier a decade or two ago than it is now, but there are a lot of hidden gems out there if you read older fiction.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Should Writers Take Influence From Films?

When I was reading the 1980s horror thriller novel that I reviewed yesterday, one of the things that surprised me was how cinematic it was at times. How I could very easily imagine various scenes from the novel being part of a low-budget “Video Nasty“, an enjoyably cheesy old TV show or something from one of George Romero’s classic zombie movies. So, naturally, this made me think about whether writers should take influence from films.

The short answer to this question is that it depends on your story. It works for some stories and doesn’t for others. A lot of this has to do with pacing, atmosphere and what you are trying to do with your story.

In short, if you want to write a fast-paced story that has a slightly stylised atmosphere and is written to entertain the reader, then taking inspiration from films is a good idea. After all, by virtue of the medium, the majority of films are relatively fast-paced. After all, they have between 90-180 minutes to tell a full, self-contained story. So, things like well-planned pacing and efficient visual storytelling (eg: the whole “show, don’t tell” thing) are at a premium. And, when used in novels like Shaun Hutson’s “Deathday” or Clive Cussler & Graham Brown’s “Zero Hour“, this can result in a truly gripping novel.

Likewise, if your story contains spectacular set-pieces or other such things, then taking inspiration from films can also be a good idea – especially since novels have a massive advantage in this area. In short, novels don’t have to worry about a special effects budget or the technology needed to create special effects. One person with a word processor (or even just a pen and paper) can create better “special effects” than a giant film studio with millions of pounds or dollars at their disposal. So, if your novel is going to contain a lot of spectacular moments, then it might be worth taking inspiration from films.

Plus, if you’re writing in the thriller genre, then film and television can offer all sorts of lessons about how to make your story more gripping and dramatic. Whether it is the clever use of mini-cliffhangers and/or multiple plot threads, how to create a gripping premise, how to use suspense, how to write snappy dialogue etc…. Or whether it is more cautionary lessons, like how making the main character too powerful/invulnerable can ruin suspense and lower the reader’s investment in the story (compare the first and fifth “Die Hard” films for an example of this), films can teach us a lot about the thriller genre.

In addition to all of this, because your reader will probably be imagining the events of your novel visually, taking inspiration from film can also help you to refine and think about the overall “look” of your novel too. When done well, this can result in a very atmospheric and memorable story.

On the other hand, there are good reasons not to take inspiration from film when writing a novel. First of all, there are things that novels can do that films can’t really do, and you can use these to give your reader a much deeper and richer experience than they will find in a film.

For example, novels can directly show a character’s thoughts, novels can easily use non-visual storytelling (and, yes, sometimes it is better to tell than show the reader something), novels can use a distinctive narrative voice, novels can use detailed descriptions and an author also has much more control over the flow of time (eg: the events of a minute can take either a single sentence or several pages) than film-makers do.

All of these things give novels a level of vividness, immersion and depth that films can only dream of. At the same time, doing all of this stuff will probably slow down the pace of your novel a bit. But, for stories where the emphasis is on the characters, atmosphere, fictional world, the writing itself etc… then it can really work wonders. So, if you are telling one of these stories, then taking inspiration from films probably isn’t a good idea – because films can’t do this stuff as well as books can.

Plus, thanks to things like the economics of film (a film costs a lot to make, so it has to appeal to a mass audience), film censorship (eg: the current trend for “PG-13″/”12A” rated films) and the dominance of Hollywood, there are either formal or informal limits on the types of stories that films can tell. On the other hand, writers have far fewer of these restrictions and can tell the kind of imaginative, quirky, subversive, unusual, complex, transgressive and/or personality-filled stories that would never make it to the screen.

What this also means is that, if you primarily take inspiration from films, you are limiting the kinds of stories you can tell. This will affect the characters of your story, the atmosphere of your story, the scale of your story’s drama (since large-scale stories tend to be more common in “blockbuster” films), the themes of your story (and the level of nuance they are presented with), the settings of your story (eg: the limited repertoire of cities that films usually take place in), the events of your story and even the emotional tone of your story.

In short, there isn’t really a clear answer to whether writers should be influenced by films or not. It depends on the type of story you are trying to tell, not to mention that it also isn’t a binary yes/no thing either. In other words, it’s possible (in fact, it’s normal) to be partially inspired by films whilst also being inspired by other stuff too. After all, pretty much everyone has watched at least a few films and has seen at least a couple that they liked enough for them to be an influence. So, it is more of a matter of degree and extent than a “yes or no” thing.

Still, depending on the type of story you are telling and what you want your story to do, you should think carefully about the extent you want it to be inspired by films.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

What To Expect Here In 2020

Happy New Year everyone 🙂 Like with some previous years, I thought that I’d write an article about what you can expect to see here in 2020.

After all, although my pre-made article buffer is a bit shorter than it was this time last year (it’s about eight months or so worth of articles at the time of writing. My art buffer is still about a year long though), I’ve still got a fairly good idea of what this year will look like on here.

Some of the changes are good ones, some of them perhaps less so. Still, I thought that I’d give you a quick preview:

1) Film reviews (for a couple of months): Yes, film reviews will temporarily return to this site in May-July 2020 – mostly because I needed to take a bit of a break from reading and reviewing books. But, you’ll be pleased to know that regular book reviews should return sometime in late July/early August (I can’t be certain of the exact date). Even so, film reviews will start appearing in addition to book reviews in May and then take over completely after the beginning of June.

There were a lot of reasons for this, but the main one was that I just lost enthusiasm for reading books for a couple of months… But eventually ended up regaining it and returning to books a couple of months later after realising that it was a lot easier for me to find good books than it was to find good films – probably because all of the reading I’ve done over the past year or two has changed my tastes.

Even so, although I will be reviewing at least one or two… less good… films, I’ll also be reviewing “Citizen Kane”, the original versions of the first three “Star Wars” films and all sorts of random films from the 1970s-2010s.

Again, regular book reviews should return sometime in late July/early August, but they might be posted every 3-4 days rather than every two days though. I’ve prepared two book reviews so far and am still working out the schedules and details for future book reviews. So, watch this space.

2) Comic hiatus and Art series: Unfortunately, my monthly webcomic will be going on a partial hiatus (with only one comic posted per month) between February and August, and then on full hiatus after that. Although I’ll possibly end up “rebooting” the comic at some point in the future, like I did in 2015/16, I need to take a break from it.

On the plus side, expect to see a few art series appearing on here in 2020 too – such as a series of retro/cyberpunk mini-drawings in around mid-August, a series of autumnal retro-themed paintings in late August/early September, a series of cyberpunk paintings loosely-inspired by my memories of the Tricorn Centre in late November/early December etc… Seriously, I’m surprised at the number of art series I’ve ended up making for 2020 🙂

3) Game reviews: Although I’d originally planned to take a break from preparing game reviews a few months ago (and, unless I edit it, the seventh anniversary article that will appear in April 2020 will mention this), they still ended up being a bit more of a regular thing than I’d expected for 2020.

In addition to the usual monthly “Doom II” WAD reviews (which I’ve still somehow managed to keep up with), I’ll also probably be reviewing the following games: “Dreamfall Chapters”, “Neverending Nightmare”, “Hard Reset Redux”, “Devil Daggers”, “Ion Fury”, “Saints Row: The Third”, “Saints Row 2” and “Saints Row IV”. But I’m not sure if I’ll review any more games in 2020, since – again – I’ll probably be focusing more on book reviews from late July/early August onwards. Again, watch this space.

…Anyway, that’s about it. Thank you all for reading and I hope that you have a great New Year 🙂

Today’s Art (29th December 2019)

This is a vaguely 1990s-style sci-fi/cyberpunk digitally-edited drawing that I made when I was feeling slightly tired. Although it ended up being a bit more minimalist than I’d expected, it still turned out better than I’d thought it would.

As usual, this drawing is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Data Room” By C. A. Brown