Four Reasons Why Short Stories Are Awesome

Well, although it may be a while before I get back into reading novels again [Edit: Expect book reviews to return for about a month or so in about two and a half weeks’ time], I recently found myself testing the waters by reading a couple of short stories from Jodi Taylor’s “Long Story Short” collection. Admittedly, they were the two shortest stories in the book but I enjoyed reading them more than I’d expected. And, although I still seem to be more interested in films, games etc… at the moment, I was at least reassured that I hadn’t got any worse at reading during this break.

Still, all of this made me think about short stories. Although they are probably my favourite type of fiction to write, I have a rather weird relationship with actually reading them. For example, although there were at least three short story collections I’d thought about reviewing during all of those book reviews I wrote during the past couple of years, I always found myself drawn more towards reading traditional novels and novellas instead – probably because they were either easier to review or because I wanted to spend longer focusing on a single story.

Even so, reading a couple of short stories recently has reminded me why this format is so awesome. Here are a few of the reasons:

1) They’re like a TV series (that is older than TV): One of the cool things about short stories is that they are probably closer in style and format to a traditional TV series. After all, they are usually self-contained stories (sometimes featuring recurring characters) that can be enjoyed in satisfying 15-60 minute instalments.

But, interestingly, short stories were “TV series” from before television was a thing. In the 19th and early 20th century, one of the main forms of popular entertainment were short stories published in magazines. You would literally get a new short story every week, fortnight or month. The most famous example of this is probably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” stories – many of which were first published in magazines, rather than books.

These are detective stories that feature recurring main characters, in a similar way to pretty much any detective TV show. Yet, as you’ve probably guessed, this series existed long before television did. In an even more prescient move, the Sherlock Holmes stories are almost structured into “seasons” – with each collection containing about 8-12 stories or so.

In fact, two of the collections (“The Memoirs Of Sherlock Holmes” and “The Return Of Sherlock Holmes”) even do the classic TV show thing of splitting a two-part story – with a cliffhanger- between the collections. Again, this is a series that is so old that the copyright on it has actually expired (in the UK and mainland Europe, at least. In the US, the final story collection – “The Case-Book Of Sherlock Holmes” – is still copyrighted).

So, yes, short stories are surprisingly similar to TV series – but with all of the added benefits of the written word (eg: better characterisation, interesting writing styles/descriptions, the creative vision of one author etc..).

2) Structure, pacing and focus: Another cool thing about short stories is that their structure and pacing are often a lot more focused than novel-length stories are. After all, a short story has to tell a full story in a fraction of the space that a novel has, so every word and sentence matters even more than they do in a novel.

Yes, this means that short story plots will often be slightly less complex than novel plots, but it also means that the writer has to focus on what is really important. For example, whilst short stories might have a smaller number of characters or locations than a novel does, these things will often be a bit more “intense” because the writer can focus on them a bit more.

Because short stories have to get to the point a lot more quickly and also have to do more with fewer words, this results in a more intense and memorable experience that is very different to what you might expect if you’re more used to novel-length stories.

3) Stuff you won’t find in novels: Because of this short length, short stories can also explore creative or quirky ideas and themes that really wouldn’t work if they were stretched out into a full-length novel. This means that short stories can often be more amusing, interesting and creative than novels can sometimes be.

For example, Isaac Asimov’s memorable sci-fi short story “Victory Unintentional” just wouldn’t work as a full novel. Without spoiling too much, the whole story is a very elaborate joke set in outer space, and the payoff to reading the earlier parts of the story is absolutely hilarious – but it probably wouldn’t be if you had to trudge through a whole novel to get there.

Likewise, Chuck Palahniuk’s notorious dark comedy short story “Guts” wouldn’t work at novel length either. Not only would the story’s shock value start to wear off if the story was too long, but the story also relies on a very precise three-part structure too. In addition to this, “Guts” is also a story that is best when it is read twice – because a second reading (when you know what to expect) will reveal all sorts of comedic elements and amusing themes that you were probably too grossed out to notice the first time around. Because it is short, it is a lot easier and quicker to re-read the whole thing and get the most out of it.

Although short stories can work really well in a wide range of genres (sci-fi and horror especially), you’ll notice that the two examples I’ve given here are both comedy stories. This is because short stories are an absolutely brilliant format for certain types of comedic fiction. After all, most jokes are technically very short stories of one kind or another and short stories allow for a similar set-up and punchline/plot twist structure in a way that longer stories don’t.

4) Getting into reading: If you’re new to reading fiction or are out of practice with it, then short stories are also a really great way to get into reading. Because of their short length and focused plots, they can often seem a lot less daunting than reading a full-length novel (which can take hours).

Likewise, if you don’t feel like you have the time for a full novel or don’t want to take notes (although many modern novels include small recaps to reduce the need for this) in order to keep track of the story over the days or weeks it might take you to read it, then short stories can come in handy here too. After all, being able to start and finish a story in a single reading session is a satisfying experience that feels surprisingly similar to binge-reading a full novel.

Yes, short stories aren’t the only way to get into reading fiction. Other things, like fast-paced thriller novels, can also be a useful way to ease yourself into reading fiction too. But, if you’re interested in reading, then short stories might be a good place to start.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Three Downsides Of Taking A Break From Reading Novels

As regular readers probably know, I’m taking a break from reading novels at the time of writing (Edit: Expect book reviews to return, for a month or so, from end of this month). This is mostly because, after 1-2 years of frequent binge reading, I just felt totally burnt out with the entire medium and needed some time to allow my enthusiasm for it to return again. But, although there are good things to be said for taking a break from reading, I’ve noticed that it also has some downsides too.

So, I thought that I’d talk about some of the less fun elements of taking a break from reading.

1) The crushing ennui: Books take a lot of time to read. If you’re interested in reading, then you’ll either find a way to set aside time for it and/or keep a book handy for smaller spaces of time which can be used for reading. So, when you take a break from reading, you suddenly find that you have a lot more free time than you previously had.

At first, this can be really cool… until it isn’t. Although having a lot of time is really awesome and you’ll probably find various ways of filling it, these probably won’t feel quite as satisfying as books can. One of the great things about books is that they have a defined beginning and ending. When you read a book, you take a journey and you can easily measure your progress (in chapters, pages etc..) towards a goal. You feel a sense of accomplishment when you finish a book after putting several hours of effort into reading it.

Yes, you can also get this feeling from videogames too. In fact, I only realised that this was why I felt so directionless and “empty” when I finished the main story of “Saints Row: The Third” and found that just messing around in the game’s world wasn’t as fun as I’d expected it to be. I craved structure, missions, goals etc.. and every remaining side-quest or optional part of the game suddenly felt a lot more interesting than it did during the main part of the game.

So, yes you can get this feeling of progression and accomplishment from videogames too. But, even then, it isn’t really quite the same as books. I guess that the lesson here is to have some other project or type of long-form entertainment (TV show boxsets could possibly be another example) ready to fill the time and the role that books can have if you’re taking a break from reading. If you don’t, then you can sometimes feel a crushing sense of ennui and directionlessness.

2) Your tastes will change: So, you’ve taken a break from reading books and you find yourself filled with a sense of possibility. After all, with all of the time you’ve spent reading, you haven’t really had a chance to spend as much time with other entertainment mediums. Other entertainment mediums that other people are actually interested in and which are a part of popular culture. If you’re tired of books, then the idea of just chilling out with some random popcorn movie can feel absolutely heavenly.

And, for the first time, it might be. But, if you’ve been reading regularly for quite a while, you’ll probably notice that your tastes have changed. Because you’re so used to books, slower pacing will feel natural to you, complex themes and intellectual depth will seem like “normal” parts of a story and you’ll expect characters to have a lot more depth to them. In short, if you read novels regularly, then you become more of an intellectual. This isn’t a sudden thing and it can happen so slowly that you don’t even notice it until it has happened.

Of course, one annoying side-effect of this is that a some stuff you might have previously enjoyed might not always appeal to you in the way that it once did. This can make finding interesting films to watch, TV shows to watch etc.. a bit of a chore. Yes, films with a similar level of complexity and intellectual depth to novels certainly exist. But, aside from a few well-known examples (like “Citizen Kane”, “Blade Runner” etc…), they can be a bit more of a challenge to find than you might expect (not to mention that they can sometimes be more expensive than popular films too).

Plus, if you’ve been reading regularly, you’ll also notice the lack of variety and individuality in other mediums too. Yes, imaginative, unusual and interesting stuff does exist in other mediums but – because films and games take longer to make and cost more to make than novels do, there often isn’t quite the same level of individuality and variety in these mediums than you might expect if you’re a regular reader. So, don’t expect looking for interesting films and games to be quite as easy as looking for interesting, creative and unusual novels (where you’re pretty much spoilt for choice).

3) Your “to read” pile: Several weeks after taking a break from reading (which, since I prepare these articles in advance, was sometime last autumn/winter), I happened to visit Titchfield and was looking around one of the charity shops. I noticed a couple of sci-fi novels and instantly bought them. Force of habit and all that. It’s easy to get into a rhythm of keeping your “to read” pile topped up at regular intervals.

Of course, I opened one of them and read the first couple of pages, hoping that this would be the moment when reading suddenly felt fascinating again. Nothing. Zilch. Nada.

Still, I’ve added them to my “to read” pile (or, more accurately, piles. Who only has one of these?) – which has now gone from being a fascinating personal library to being a cross between some kind of forlorn relic of a different time and some kind of accusing monument to failure. I try to ignore it most of the time, despite it’s size.

Yet, on a positive note, being more conscious about having a giant pile of books means that whenever I see characters in films with one of these (eg: Tilda Swinton’s character in “Only Lovers Left Alive” or the spies in “Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers), I instantly feel more of a connection with them. So, it isn’t all bad.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Three Reasons Why Mid-Budget Creative Works Are Important

Although I’m not sure whether I’ve talked about this topic before, I thought that I’d talk about mid-budget creative works today. This was mostly inspired by watching a few movies from the 1990s over the past few weeks and, during a few nostalgic moments, watching Youtube videos about old early-mid 2000s Playstation 2 games.

One of the great things about movies in the 1990s and videogames in the early-mid 2000s is that mid-budget stuff tended to be made a lot more often. Yes, there are still mid-budget creative works being made these days (such as “AA” computer/video games like “Remothered: Tormented Fathers” and “Skylar And Plux) but they are a lot less prominent or common than they were a couple of decades ago.

But, what’s so great about them? Why is mid-budget stuff so important?

1) Creativity: The main reason why mid-budget creative works are so awesome is because they add a lot of extra creativity into the mainstream. Yes, a very low budget can spur creativity and innovation but it also limits what can be done with certain ideas and certain genres, not to mention that these works often don’t get the kind of publicity that larger-budget stuff does. On the other hand, a high budget allows people to do more but it also usually means that there’s a lot riding on one particular project. It has to be optimised for the largest possible appeal. Creativity and imagination can often take a back seat to focus groups, market trends and a kind of safe “one size fits all” blandness.

Because mid-budget creative works sit in between these two things, they get to enjoy the best of both worlds. Because there’s less money invested in them and therefore less of a loss if they don’t do well, the people making them have a bit more freedom to actually be creative and try new things. Because they also get more money and publicity (eg: cinema releases, advertising etc…) than low-budget works do, they can do a bit more and there’s also more of a chance that a decent number of people will actually take a look at them.

The important thing here is that mid-budget works allow film-makers and game devs to smuggle some actual creativity into the mainstream. They allow for interesting new ideas, memorable concepts, subtle experimentation, fascinating experiences and all of the other cool stuff that would be “too expensive” for a low-budget project but “too risky” for a high-budget one. Not only is this great for the audience, but all of this experimentation and innovation can also help to improve larger-budget stuff too. Which brings me on to the importance of…

2) Variety: A couple of decades ago, a major “blockbuster” film could be a sci-fi film, a thriller, a superhero movie, an action movie, a historical drama, a romance, a horror film etc… These days, “blockbuster” is often synonymous with “superhero movies”. A couple of decades ago, a “major” videogame could be a racing game, a fighting game, a first-person shooter game, a strategy game, a stealth game, a role-playing game, a survival horror game, a platform game etc… These days, popular “AAA” games usually fit into a much smaller number of genres.

This dwindling of variety in the mainstream is a symptom of what happens when the middle is neglected. When companies pour all of their resources into a few large-budget releases rather than spreading them out over a much wider range of mid-budget things. Because several mid-budget projects can be made for the same amount that one large-budget project costs, there’s more incentive to put out a good variety of stuff. Not only does this lessen the risk from the financial failure of any one thing, but it also means that these works appeal to a wider audience in a much more meaningful way than just making one “one size fits all” large-budget thing does.

Variety is an important thing for so many reasons. Not only does it mean that people can actually have individual tastes without feeling “left out” by popular culture, but it is also seen as “good practice” in almost every other area too. There’s a reason why most countries don’t allow monopolies to form, why a lack of genetic variety will often doom a species, why the internet is platform-agnostic and distributed amongst a huge variety of servers across the world (rather than just one giant server), why democracies last longer than dictatorships do etc…

Variety is essential. It prevents stagnation. It means that any errors, failures or mistakes don’t have catastrophic consequences. It is good for innovation and creativity (since there’s a wider variety of ideas, genres, styles etc.. to be combined and mixed in interesting ways). It also just makes everything richer and more interesting (for example, imagine how limited the English language would be if it hadn’t incorporated and adapted numerous words from other languages over the centuries). Ironically, if you want to appeal to everyone, then just having a single “one size fits all” thing is the very last thing you want to do.

3) Quality: Going back to the first point on this list, one of the great things about mid-budget creative works is that they still have to appeal to an audience. Whilst lower budget creative works might enjoy being “avant garde” or “experimental”, the slightly larger amount of money invested in mid-budget projects means that they also have to make sure that all of this interesting stuff can appeal to and be understood by a slightly larger audience.

This might sound like it would lower the quality of mid-budget works, but it often still results in more innovative, intelligent and/or interesting creative works than those that have been built from the ground up for a mainstream audience. For example, whilst a mid-budget 1990s sci-fi film like “Dark City” might have fast pacing and might explicitly spell a few things out to the audience, it still has a lot more visual creativity (inspired by film noir, German expressionism etc…) and complex ideas (eg: What makes us human? What is reality? etc..) than, say, a modern large budget CGI-fest might have.

A medium-size budget means that the balance between producing thought-provoking innovative art and producing art that can actually be enjoyed is a lot fairer. A mid-budget film won’t be full of dry intellectual rambling but it also won’t be a completely hollow and meaningless spectacle either. Because the freedom to create something interesting is paired with the requirement to actually sell a reasonable number of copies, this results in better quality.

Yes, mid-budget creative works might not always have ultra-impressive special effects or hyper-realistic graphics, but they will be a better and richer experience. You’ll get many of the benefits and innovations of intelligent “high brow” stuff, but converted into something that is a bit more immediately enjoyable.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Four Reasons Why People Enjoy “High-Brow” Creative Works

Well, I thought that I’d talk about “high-brow” creative works today or, more accurately, why people enjoy them. Although I’ll be talking in generalities here, it’s important to remember that this isn’t a “one or the other” thing. It is perfectly possible for a work to contain both “high-brow” and “low-brow” elements. In fact, many of the best creative works will fall somewhere between these two categories.

Still, I thought that I’d look at some of the reasons why “high-brow” creative works can be so enjoyable.

1) Difference and possibility: One of the great things about “high-brow” creative works is that they tend to be a bit more original and unpredictable than you might expect. Not only that, they also show off the possibilities of their chosen medium too.

For example, unlike the numerous CGI-heavy superhero thriller movies in the cinema over the past few years, an art film film like “Only Lovers Left Alive” (2014) is a character-based drama with very little plot, a deliberately slow pace and lots of atmosphere. It feels very different to watch than a blockbuster film – with, for example, the slower pacing actually giving the viewer time to appreciate the visually complex set designs and to drink in the mood of the film. It shows you all of the things that film can do which you might not expect if you’re more used to more mainstream Hollywood movies.

If you read a lot, watch a lot of films or play a lot of games, then you’re probably going to start to get a bit jaded. After all, most things made for a mass audience are aimed at people who only enjoy these things occasionally and are a lot less likely to notice things like familiar tropes, conventions, stylistic similarities etc… So, more “high-brow” works try to do something a bit different that will be refreshing to jaded viewers/readers/gamers who have “seen it all before”.

This, by the way, is why the opinions of critics (who read, watch, play etc.. stuff regularly) can sometimes differ from the opinions of ordinary audience members. If you spend a lot of time around creative works, then things that rely on linguistic creativity, nuanced discussion, aesthetic design (rather than special effects), innovative gameplay mechanics, unusual pacing etc… tend to be really refreshing to look at.

2) Depth and puzzles: A good “high-brow” creative work is like a puzzle. It doesn’t spoon-feed you literally everything, and you actually have to work things out for yourself. This isn’t to say that “high-brow” works are always difficult to understand, but they often credit the audience with enough intelligence to be able to think about things for themselves and this not only gives the audience a feeling of accomplishment when they notice something or work something out, but it also means that these creative works can be returned to again and again because they always have something new to offer.

Not only that, when you notice something clever that a writer, director etc… has done, you then have to work out why they have done it. For example, Hilary Mantel’s 2009 historical novel “Wolf Hall” has a plot that jumps backwards and forwards in time in a way that can be incredibly confusing and frustrating to read at first. Yet, when you eventually work out that Mantel did this to mimic the way that memory itself works, then the non-linear plot suddenly makes a lot more sense. After all, people rarely remember things in exact chronological order.

3) Ambiguity: “High-brow” works are also interesting because they often make heavy use of ambiguity too. They give the audience a puzzle with no clear answer or, more often, many possible answers. Not only is this interesting to think about, but it also mirrors the real world in a much more “accurate” way than the storytelling found in “low-brow” works can often do. After all, there are many questions (eg: the classic one is “What is the meaning of life?”) that don’t really have any definitive right or wrong answers.

There’s something refreshing about creative works that quite literally push you to make up your own mind and think for yourself. “High-Brow” creative works don’t spell things out or lecture at the audience, they just present them with characters, images, places and situations and then let the audience come to their own conclusions. Yes, a “high-brow” work will usually hint at something or make a point in a subtle way, but the whole point of “high brow” works is that the audience actually has to think.

4) Limitations and money: Whilst “high-brow” creative works can certainly be well-known and/or well-funded (just watch “Blade Runner” (1982) for a good example), this is often the exception rather than the rule. Because these creative works often aren’t made to make as much money from as many people as possible (in order to satisfy corporate shareholders), they often don’t have the funding that “low-brow” works have. What this means is that they have to be creative in order to get around their limitations.

What all of this means for the audience is that, unlike slick corporate-made creative works, “high-brow” creative works will often be a little bit rough around the edges in a way that shows that a living, thinking human being has made them. Because these works don’t have to aim for mass appeal, they can actually have a distinctive personality to them. Likewise, because the people making them have to think about clever ways to get around the limitations they face, this often results in a higher level of general creativity that the audience will experience. Plus, because the motivation for making these things isn’t primarily “money, money and more money”, they often have more interesting things to say too.

This, incidentally, is why even the most “low-brow” novel will often feel slightly more “high-brow” than an equivalent film or videogame. Because novels are usually written by just one person and because literally all novels are technically “low budget” (since they only use words), they pretty much automatically have this quality to them.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Three Thoughts About Taking A Break From Reading Novels

Well, although I’d planned to finish reading at least one more novel, I suddenly realised that it had been two days since I’d last read any of it and that I should probably just admit that I need to take a break from reading novels. Luckily, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened to me and, whilst I hope that the break doesn’t drag on for 3-4 years like the last time, I learnt a lot from that experience.

So, I thought that I’d offer a few thoughts about taking a break from reading novels in case it is useful to you.

1) It’s ok to take a break: Simply put, reading novels is meant to be fun. If it starts feeling like a chore or an obligation, then this is a sign that you might need to take a break from reading for a while. Yes, there are other ways that you can solve this problem (eg: reading less per day, reading a different genre of books etc…), but sometimes you just need to take a break from reading for a while.

Yes, if you’re proud of the fact that you’re a reader, then this can be disturbing. Don’t worry, you are still a reader. It might take days, weeks, months or even years but – if you enjoyed reading in the past – then you’ll probably have the instinct to pick up a book again at some point in the future. You are still a reader, even if you’re taking a holiday from reading for a while.

So, don’t worry about the idea that you’ll never pick up a book again if you take a break. You will. I mean, even in my previous 3-4 year break from reading, I still ended up reading a few occasional detective and thriller novels. Sure, it probably only averaged out at about 1-2 books per year but – looking back – it showed me that I wasn’t a “non-reader” even when I wasn’t reading every day. If you’ve enjoyed reading in the past, you’re probably still going to enjoy it at some point in the future.

The whole point of taking a break is to give yourself enough time away from books so that they feel exciting and interesting again when you return. The point is to take enough of a break, so that reading feels “new” again when you return (rather than just “ordinary” or “boring”). It’s about making reading feel special again.

And, if you take a break with this in mind, then you’ll probably have a lot less worries or guilt about not reading for a while.

2) You don’t have to pick up where you left off: If the wind goes out of your sails and reading loses its magic when you are in the middle of reading a novel, don’t worry about finishing that novel. Just take a break. There is nothing more off-putting than reluctantly forcing yourself to read or feeling needless guilt over an unfinished book. It is ok not to finish reading a book.

It is also ok not to finish it when you get back into reading again. When you get back into reading, choose whichever book interests you the most. Choose whichever book makes you excited about reading it. It’s ok if it is a different book. The important thing is to read something that interests you right now.

And, if the idea of leaving a book unfinished is an anathema to you, just remember that you can always return to it after you’ve read a few other books first. Again, the important thing is to read something that interests you right now.

3) It gets easier: The first time I took an extended break from reading, I didn’t really notice. It was only when I got back into reading again that I realised what I’d been missing out on and my horror at this led to me binge-reading whole novels in a couple of days, as if I had to prove to myself that I was a reader again. As if, if I wasn’t churning my way through half a novel a day (and not watching TV/films or playing games), then I’d never read a book again. After a while, I kind of fell into a rhythm of doing this until eventually, I just slowly got burnt out about the idea of reading books.

Like the last time, I didn’t really notice that much when I gradually started losing interest in books this time. However, it’s not so much of a big deal as it was beforehand. Yes, I felt a little bit like a “failure” for a while, but I remembered that I’d been there before and – more crucially – I also remembered how much I missed things like watching films, playing games etc… back when I was reading a lot. I remembered how reading had gone from being a fun “everyday” thing to being more of a chore or an obligation.

And taking a break this time round wasn’t so much of a big deal to me, because I’d been through it before. I know that I’ll probably end up getting back into reading books again. I’ve still been enriched by the experience of reading all of the novels that I’ve read over the past year or two. I still have a large “to read” pile waiting for me whenever I decide to get back into reading again. I know what it is like to take a break from reading and what it is like to get back into reading again.

The point of all of this is that, whilst taking a break from reading for the first time might seem daunting or dispiriting, it gets easier the more times you do it. You learn more about yourself and your relationship with books. You become more comfortable with the idea that you don’t have to read literally all of the time. And, when you’ve experienced the wonderous, refreshing and revitalising feeling of getting back into reading after an extended break from it, then taking a break won’t feel too bad because you know that you’ve got this feeling to look forward to at some point in the future 🙂

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Two Things To Do When You Find An Obscure Genre (Other Than Internet Searches)

Well, I thought that I’d write about obscure genres today. In particular, what to do when you find something in an interesting obscure genre – but don’t know what else is in it or what makes it so distinctive. Although this has happened to me a couple of times (and I’ve probably written at least one article about it before), the thing that reminded me of it this time was listening to a song by The Beatles called “For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite”.

It’s this wonderfully weird vaudevillian circus-themed song that has a really distinctive atmosphere that is both creepy and amusing at the same time. It suddenly made me think about the “evil circus” genre (I think this is what it’s called) and I started trying to think of other examples of it for a list-based article about the genre. But, I could only think of about three or four other things that came close to fitting into this genre (eg: Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes“, a few parts of the movie “Paprika”, a level from “Blood” and two segments from “Silent Hill 3).

Noticing that this list was probably fairly incomplete and/or partial, I thought that it would probably be better to come up with a more general list of things to do if you find something interesting in a random or obscure genre that you don’t know much about.

I’ll also focus on non-internet ways to do this because, when I tried to talk about internet searches in the first draft of this article, it sounded really patronising and obvious. Plus, although the constantly increasing amount of stuff being put on the internet means that we live in an age when finding something cool and then thinking “How do I find anything else like it?” isn’t as much of a problem as it was even a decade or two ago, it also means that you don’t really get any of the fringe benefits of the “old school” methods I’ll be talking about in this article.

1) Passive searching: This is more useful if you’re looking for something that is hard to define, if you aren’t in a rush and/or if internet searches aren’t helpful. In short, just carry on enjoying lots of different creative works that interest you until something similar shows up again. If you’re the sort of person who reads, listens to music, plays games etc… regularly, then it will probably happen at some point. But, don’t expect it to happen that quickly. Still, it is really cool when everything just falls into place.

For example, in late 2008, I read “Lost Souls” and “Drawing Blood” by Poppy Z. Brite. The lush, poetic and vivid writing style in these novels really amazed me, but I had no way of giving this style of narration a name.

A little under a decade later, I was going through a “1990s films” phase and ended up watching the film “Practical Magic” . I learnt that it was based on a book by Alice Hoffman. Out of curiosity, I found one of Hoffman’s other novels and was amazed that it used a vaguely similar writing style to the two novels I mentioned earlier. Since all of the novels I’d seen this style in were from 1990s America, I thought of this writing style as a “1990s America” thing, which helped me to think of it in terms of time and place.

In a totally unrelated comment on this site, someone recommended Ray Bradbury’s 1960s novel “Something Wicked This Way Comes” to me. Eventually, I got round to actually reading it and – to my delight – I suddenly realised that it was probably the inspiration for this “1990s America” writing style I’d been trying to learn more about. Bradbury’s writing style was like the ones I’d seen before, but turned up to eleven. Suddenly the pieces fell into place and I had a much better definition of what this writing style was. Not only was it inspired by Bradbury, but it was also a slightly more understated 1990s version of the psychedelic 1960s too.

And all of this came from just knowing what interested me and/or looking for creative works that I thought I’d enjoy. It took a decade, but I gained the knowledge I’d been seeking. So, if you found something in an interesting obscure genre, then you’ll probably find out more about it if you just keep looking for things that interest you. It might not happen for years, but it’ll probably happen. Just enjoy the journey. In the meantime, you can always do some…

2) Study and creativity:
In short, if you can’t find anything else in an obscure genre that interests you, then make it yourself. Even if you’re fairly inexperienced at creating stuff, then it’s still worth having a go at this.

Begin by carefully and closely studying the creative work you’ve found and find a way to break it down into it’s most basic and generic elements (which can be described in just 1-3 words and aren’t specific to the thing you’re looking at). Be sure look for things like over-arching themes, prominent colour palettes, unusual techniques, emotional elements etc… too whilst you are studying. Then write a list of all of this stuff.

For example, if you’re interested in Sherlock Holmes, then your list of basic elements might include things like: “solving puzzles”, “complex crimes”, “genius and sidekick”, “eccentric detective”, “scientific study”, “formal narration”, “sidekick narrator” etc…

When you’ve got your list of generic elements, try to make something different that includes all of these things. Don’t write “fan fiction” or make “fan art”, make something different and original that also includes the basic elements you’ve found in the thing that interests you. Yes, it probably won’t be as good and – depending on your skills – you might even have to work in a completely different creative medium, but the experience will teach you a lot. It’ll also mean that your next attempt at making something will be a little bit better because you’ve had some practice.

Not only will this lead to you actually adding something to an obscure genre but, if you’re doing it right, then you’ll probably “fill in the gaps” by taking inspiration from other things and/or using your own creative sensibilities. This will result in better work than just simple “fan fiction” or “fan art”, because you’ll actually make something that is your own distinctive interpretation of the genre. You’ll also bring in new things from outside the genre that will make it more interesting. It’ll be something that, if you’ve had enough practice, might even inspire other people – and this is also how new genres also get started too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Lessons Creative People Can Learn From The Beatles

Well, since I seem to be going through another phase of listening to The Beatles quite a lot (after only really becoming a fan of them several months before I prepared this article), I thought that I’d look at some of the lessons this band can teach anyone who does anything creative.

1) Practice!: Although The Beatles are quite rightly praised for the more psychedelic music they produced later in their career, they would probably have never been able to produce music of this quality without all of the frequent practice earlier in their career. Not only were they already playing music when they were teenagers but, fairly early in the band’s history, they famously travelled to Hamburg to be the “resident band” in a nightclub, where they performed live sets ridiculously often.

In other words, although The Beatles had some level of innate talent, this was something that was sharpened and improved by a rigorous schedule of frequent practice. Yes, it’s probably the least glamourous part of the band’s career, but the grinding regularity of performing concerts repeatedly over an extended period of time probably played a huge role in the quality of their music. So, whether or not you have “talent”, practice is what really matters.

In addition to this, one of the really interesting things about The Beatles is the sheer number of alternate takes and earlier “work in progress” versions of their songs that can be found on the band’s official Youtube channel. The main reason that I bring this up is because it also shows that great creative works don’t usually just appear fully-formed in a sudden moment of inspiration. They often take editing, refinement, trial-and-error and, yes, practice too.

2) Variety and curiosity: One of the reasons why The Beatles are such a hugely influential and famous band is because they weren’t afraid to experiment with a variety of different styles. Yes, the gradually increasing musical differences between band members were apparently one of the reasons why they split up. But, the lesson here is not to be afraid to try different things if they interest you. To take inspiration from a variety of different genres and to experiment with them.

For example, although they’re more famous for their rock and roll music and their more psychedelic music, they wrote songs in a surprisingly large variety of genres.

There’s the jaunty music hall sound of their hilarious dark comedy song “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”. The energetic reggae/ska style of a song like “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”. The gritty, sleazy and vaguely proto-punk sound of a song like “Polythene Pam”. And, most famously, their proto-heavy metal song “Helter Skelter”. Yes, The Beatles played an early version of heavy metal 🙂

The lesson here is not to be afraid to try different stuff. Not to mistake having a distinctive “style” for just doing the same thing over and over again. Originality comes from having a wide range of different influences and not being afraid to try new stuff, even if it doesn’t always work out that well.

Because, if you want to make stuff that will influence other musicians, artists, writers etc… then you need to be original. You need to make something that is not only different from everything they’ve seen before, but which also makes them think “I want more of this” – only to find that they can’t find it anywhere else and have to work out how to make it themselves (and, in the process, create something intriguingly different).

3) Mistakes and personality: One of the things that makes The Beatles so timeless is how relatable they are. I’m not talking about the carefully-cultivated “wholesome” image that they tried to project during the early parts of their mainstream career, but when their actual personalities come across in things like historical accounts, studio mistakes etc…

Whether it’s the random snippets of studio dialogue that turn up in some of their songs, the occasional small studio accidents and imperfections that they left in their songs (eg: Paul almost laughing during “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, John’s startled exclamation in the background of “Hey Jude” etc…), the numerous legends/anecdotes surrounding the band or the weird references and moments of personal humour in some of their songs.

They actually come across as being actual real people, rather than carefully-manufactured “celebrities”. Their music is perfect because it contains some imperfections, which give their music the kind of uniqueness and personality that you don’t get when creative works are too “perfect”.

Ok, you probably shouldn’t take this to the extreme of some early punk bands or some conceptual artists. You still actually need to produce stuff that is sophisticated, good, well-written etc.. on a technical level. But, small mistakes aren’t the end of the world and they also show the audience that you are human too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Rambling Thoughts About Good And Bad Creative Works

Well, due to a mixture of binge-watching Jim Sterling’s game industry criticism videos on Youtube, binge-reading Winston Rowntree’s “Subnormality” webcomics, being slightly disappointed by a monster movie and deliberately not binge-reading an epic sci-fi novel from the 1980s (“The Snow Queen” by Joan D. Vinge), I suddenly realised that my thoughts about these four different things had one thing in common.

They all made me think about creative works and quality. So, as a way of writing all of this wasted time off as “productive”, I thought that I’d share some of three of these rambling thoughts.

1) Good creative works keep you returning (using honest methods): If a creative work is any good, then it is something that you will want to return to. For example, the “Subnormality” webcomics I binge-read were all ones that I’ve read several times before. I returned to them because of their amazing hyper-detailed art (that makes me care more about making art), the surreal humour/creativity and the profound dialogue.

Likewise, although I’m only reading about 20-30 pages of “The Snow Queen” almost every day (after getting burnt out by lots of binge-reading over the past year or two), I haven’t abandoned this enormous book. This is because it contains a really interesting fictional world, a complex storyline, compelling characters etc… Although my enthusiasm seems to have shifted a bit from reading stuff to watching stuff, I still find myself returning to this book almost every day because of these things, even if I’m reading it much more slowly than I would have done several weeks or months ago.

What’s the point of all of this? Good creative works are things that make you want to spend time with them because they give something to the audience. Because their quality is it’s own reward. These creative works don’t need to do anything other than be themselves because this is enough to make people want to look at them again and again. In other words, they keep the audience returning via honest methods. By using nothing more than the sheer quality, creativity and uniqueness of their writing, art, acting, lyrics, gameplay, instrumentation, journalism etc…

Bad creative works, on the other hand, can’t do this. So, they sometimes rely on other methods to keep the audience returning. Whether it is excessive advertising, cultivating peer pressure, various other forms of subtle psychological manipulation etc… that – as pointed out in many Jim Sterling videos – focus more on financial greed than on the audience’s enjoyment.

In short, when you experience a good creative work, you feel richer for the experience. When you experience a bad creative work, you feel cheated. When you return to a good creative work, it is because it has something more to offer you. When you return to a bad creative work, it is because it has tricked you into returning in order to take something from you (eg: happiness, time, opinions, money etc…).

2) Bad creative works still have value: If you spend long enough around creative works, you’ll probably want to start making some of your own. Surprisingly, both good and bad creative works can teach you a lot about how to do this. Whilst it’s fairly obvious that good creative works can spark your imagination, show you how to do things well and also inspire you to keep practicing, learning, experimenting etc… I thought that I’d talk about what bad creative works can teach you.

Because, yes, bad creative works do actually have some value.

They show you what not to do and this is just as important as learning what to do. For example, whilst it isn’t quite a “bad” film, the 1997 monster movie “The Relic” can teach you a few lessons about how not to handle lighting in visual media (eg: gloomy lighting is awesome – but you also need to include enough brightness to contrast with that gloom and allow the audience to see what is going on). It can also teach you the importance of including detailed characters (who the audience can get invested in) in the horror genre. I could go on, but all of this film’s mistakes are valuable lessons for any artist, writer, director, game dev etc… watching it.

Likewise, learning how to recognise and avoid bad creative works can also teach you how to find good creative works. It teaches you to judge creative works on their own merits and to understand your own tastes more. This also means that things like manufactured popularity, advertising and other tricks that are sometimes used to foist bad creative works onto you won’t have as much of an effect.

But, saying all of this, remember that….

3) Sometimes good creative works can be popular too: Yes, a lot of “popular” or “mainstream” stuff is there because of advertising or marketing tricks used to disguise sub-par or mediocre things. Just because something is “cool” or “trendy” doesn’t mean that it is necessarily good. But, use your own judgement! Being the kind of person who automatically dismisses anything “popular” as bad will mean that you’ll miss out on those uncommon creative works that are actually popular because of their quality.

To give an embarrassing personal example: Although I’d heard a couple of their songs in the background over the years (it’s kind of impossible not to), I only really “discovered” The Beatles relatively recently. For many years, I actively avoided their music because of it’s mainstream ultra-popularity.

Then, after seeing a Beatles-inspired level in a “Doom II” WAD (for younger gamers, this is like DLC – but fan-made and free, like it should be), I felt curious enough about the band to actually properly listen to some of their music and… Wow… It suddenly made perfect sense why so many people have been fans of them for the past few decades. They were a timelessly brilliant and absolutely amazing band, who richly deserve those decades of praise.

So, yes, just because a lot of great creative works either languish in indie obscurity or are overlooked cult classics (just look at how the critics reacted to “Blade Runner” when it was first released) doesn’t mean that popularity automatically equals “bad”. Sometimes good creative works become popular because of their quality, rather than despite it.

So, again, the lesson here is to use your own judgement. To experience enough examples of good and bad creative works that you become aware enough of your own standards, tastes, sensibilities, emotions etc.. to be able to make your own decisions about the quality of a creative work, uninfluenced by popularity.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Tips For Reading Longer Novels

Well, since I’m still experimenting with reading slowly (which is why my next book review is taking quite a while to appear [Edit: Expect it in early June]), I’ve found that – freed from self-imposed deadlines – I actually ended up choosing a longer book to read (the 536-page sci-fi epic that is Joan D. Vinge’s “The Snow Queen”). This, of course, made me think about reading longer books.

So, here are a few tips for reading longer novels.

1) Know when length is justified: In general, longer novels are more common these days than they perhaps were in the past few decades. Length isn’t an inherently bad thing, although it is important to know when it is and isn’t justified. There is nothing worse than reading a novel that is quite literally hundreds of pages longer than it actually needs to be. Luckily, there are a few ways to tell if the longer novel you’re thinking about is actually worth investing all of that time in.

First of all, if a novel is a popular thriller novel (eg: by authors like Lee Child, Matthew Reilly, Dan Brown etc…) then the length is usually justified. This is mostly because any decent thriller novel of this type will be written in a fast-paced way which means that you’ll churn through it at about twice the speed of a “normal” novel. It’ll usually also have an intriguing premise, a mini-cliffhanger filled plot, lots of mysteries, shorter chapters etc.. which mean that you’ll also want to keep reading – so, the length will also feel like a good thing. Still, it’s usually worth reading a few pages first to see if it really grips you or not.

Secondly, if a novel turns out to be a later novel in a series, then it is usually a good idea to check out the shorter earlier books in the series first. Although some series are designed to be read in order, this also applies to series that aren’t. Generally speaking (and, yes, there are exceptions – like Joan D. Vinge’s “Snow Queen” series), many book series will gradually increase in length as they progress. So, taking a look at the shorter earlier novels will help you to see whether reading the longer novels will be something that you will enjoy.

Thirdly, if a novel is a sci-fi or fantasy novel, don’t automatically assume that it has to be long. Yes, many of the best novels in these genres are very long (and justified in this), but shorter examples of books in these genres were a lot more common as recently as the 1980s (yes, there are even short fantasy novels – like this one and this one). Still, given that these genres often involve creating detailed fantastical worlds, you should probably make a bit more allowance for length. Because of this, these novels can also sometimes take a while for the main part of the plot to really get going too. So, my advice here is to see whether you actually like the “world” of the story. If it interests you, keep going. If it doesn’t, read something else.

In general, my advice would be to either search for shorter novels by the author first (Like how I read Joan D. Vinge’s “World’s End” and “Tangled Up In Blue” before reading “The Snow Queen”) or to test-read the first couple of chapters or pages of a novel in order to see whether it is something that you want to spend a bit more time with.

2) Treat it like a boxset: It can be easy to take one look at a giant hulking tome and think “I’m never going to be able to finish this, so I might as well not even start reading it“. This is a perfectly normal reaction and, if you’re relatively new to reading novels or prefer to read quickly and/or binge-read, then it makes sense in this context.

However, the best way to think of longer novels is a bit like a DVD boxset of a TV series. Yes, modern boxsets are usually non-physical “streaming” things that are rented from large companies and designed around being “binge-watched”, but a traditional DVD boxset (with it’s large physical size and the requirement to change discs every 2-4 episodes) offers a better metaphor.

After all, when you pick up a DVD boxset, you don’t expect to watch all 10-24 episodes of it in one sitting. If it’s any good, you’ll also ration yourself to one disc per night. The size and slightly higher cost of it (even second-hand) compared to a DVD movie means that you’ll also want to get a bit more value out of it too.

In other words, when you’ve got a longer book, you need to think of it in this way. Yes, reading 500-800+ pages might sound incredibly daunting but, if you break it up into smaller daily instalments of 10-100 pages, then it becomes a lot more manageable and enjoyable. Plus, unlike an actual DVD boxset, there is no fixed episode length either 🙂 So, on days where you have more time or more interest in reading, you can read more (and vice versa). As long as you read some of it regularly, you will end up finishing it eventually.

3) Take notes (the old-fashioned way): This probably isn’t practical in some situations, but one of the best ways to enjoy longer books is to take notes whilst reading. Since you’ll probably be spending days or weeks with the book, it’s likely that you might forget parts of the story. Yes, many well-written novels will include small recaps throughout the story that help to reduce the need for note-taking, but it’s often a good idea to take a few notes if you’re going to be spending a while with a novel.

My personal approach to this – which is probably overkill if you don’t plan to review what you’re reading – is to use a square of paper as a bookmark and to keep a notebook handy. If I see anything notable when I’m reading, then I’ll jot down the page number and a 1-5 word description on the square. Having tiny handwriting really helps with this, but you can probably use multiple squares (just make sure not to lose them) if you’ve got larger handwriting. After each reading session, I’ll usually also write a brief summary of what I’ve read in the notebook and then make additional notes about any themes etc.. that I’ve spotted.

You probably don’t need to make such extensive notes, but taking handwritten notes is usually a good idea with longer novels. And, unless it isn’t practical for you to do this, they really should be handwritten notes too. As several articles and studies (like this one) point out, taking notes by hand forces you to think about, condense and summarise things, which tends to help with memory.

On a more informal note, the sheer physicality and ritual of opening a notebook, clicking a pen etc.. and then writing by hand also goes really well with the low-tech ritual of reading a physical paperback book. Not to mention that, if you prefer reading books on a screen, then handwritten notes can also lend a bit of much-needed physicality and permanence to your reading sessions too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Reading Quickly Vs. Reading Slowly

Well, since book reviews will appear less often here in the future, I thought that I’d talk about the differences between reading quickly and reading slowly. A few days before preparing this article, I worried that I was losing interest in reading again.

After all, when I got back into reading regularly a little under two years ago, I’d enthusiastically read and review novels in about 2-4 days and, although – thanks to the magic of having a large “buffer” of pre-written articles – I’ve been able to keep this review schedule up, I found that I’m not really interested in binge-reading books quite as quickly at the moment.

In fact, the thing that temporarily shook me out of this “losing interest in reading again” mood was abandoning the fast-paced thriller novel that I’d originally planned to read (since these usually “work” when I’m not interested in reading) and instead reading a slightly slower-paced, but more richly-written, sci-fi novel at a slower pace.

So, I thought that I’d compare reading quickly to reading slowly.

1) It affects how you think about books: If you binge-read, then books feel smaller than they do if you read slowly. They go from being these substantial things that demand hours and weeks of your time to being more like DVD copies of films or something like that. This is really hard to describe if you haven’t experienced it yourself, but regular binge-reading really does change how you think about books.

This is both a good and a bad thing. On the one hand, being able to blaze through a novel in a couple of days feels really impressive. It makes you feel like a reader and also results in a much more focused and intense experience of the story. Likewise, because you’re reading the whole thing in a couple of days, the plot and characters are much fresher in your mind when you’re reading, which makes the story a lot easier to follow.

On the downside, you’re constantly worrying about what to read next. Piles of books also seem smaller, because they don’t last as long. Plus, unlike reading slowly, you don’t really have as much time to really build up a relationship with a book (to the point where it becomes a familiar companion for a while) and you don’t really have as much time to savour the writing and bask in the atmosphere of a well-written novel.

2) Book fatigue: Although there are techniques you can use to minimise this (eg: not reading two books by the same author in a row, reading several different genres etc…), one of the problems with reading quickly is that you can develop “book fatigue” after a while. This is a jaded feeling that you’ve “seen it all before”. That books are no longer the magical, complex and interesting storytelling medium they once were, but are instead as “ordinary” as TV or the internet. This “books are ordinary” feeling can seem really cool at first, but this doesn’t always last.

In other words, binge-reading regularly can actually make you bored of books. It’ll make you think longingly about watching films instead, even though you know that novels are a much richer storytelling medium. It’ll mean that any excuse to get distracted from reading by a computer game feels absolutely heavenly.

Reading slowly doesn’t really have any of these problems. Because you’re only reading a few chapters a day, books still feel “fresh” and interesting. It also frees up more time to explore other storytelling mediums too, meaning that books will feel more distinctive in comparison to things like films, games etc… They will feel a bit more “magical” and a bit less “ordinary”. On the downside, it means that you’ll read less books though.

3) Quality: One of the great things about reading quickly is that it makes you think about quality a lot more. Because you’re reading so many books so quickly, not only do “less impressive” books not last as long but you’re also able to get much more of a feeling of what is and isn’t a “good book” because you’ve been exposed to more books.

If you have a regular binge-reading reading schedule, then this also means that it’s easier to abandon books that you don’t like. If you want to keep up with your schedule, then not only is it more important to choose books that you know you’ll enjoy, but ditching a book that doesn’t interest you after a chapter or two is much less of a big decision. After all, you’ve invested less time in it and it’s just one book out of of many that you could read.

So, binge-reading is useful for avoiding the dreary pitfall of wasting weeks reading a book you don’t like out of a feeling of obligation. On the downside, when you find a really great book, then it won’t last as long. It’ll be over in a couple of days or so and, unless you’re lucky enough to have another great book on stand-by, then the next book probably won’t seem as good in comparison.

4) It doesn’t have to be one or the other: Reading speed is a personal thing that will depend on a number of factors like time, experience/skill and even the way that the book you’re reading is written. What I’m trying to say is that you don’t have to only binge-read or only read slowly. It’s possible to go through phases where you read lots of books quickly and phases where you slow down and savour them a bit more.

Both ways of reading have their advantages and are suited to different situations. So, I guess that the lesson here is to trust your own instincts. I mean, back when I used to spend at least a week reading a novel, I would still occasionally binge-read a book in a day or two if it really impressed me.

The important thing in all of this is to actually enjoy reading. If binge-reading is fun at the moment, then do this. If reading slowly is fun at the moment, then do this.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂