Three Thoughts About Re-Reading Novels

One of the interesting things I’ve noticed about this month’s horror novel marathon is that I’ve been re-reading more books than usual. I’ve re-read Shaun Hutson’s “Relics” , Clive Barker’s “The Hellbound Heart“, S. D. Perry’s “Resident Evil: City Of The Dead“, James Herbert’s “The Rats” and I’m currently re-reading Graham Masterton’s “The Hymn”.

Before I got back into reading regularly the best part of a year ago, I hardly ever re-read books. The idea of it seemed absurd, especially when I could just read another book where I didn’t know what was going to happen next.

So, naturally, this made me think about re-reading and I thought that I’d offer a few random thoughts.

1) Leave it at least a decade: Re-reading novels is only truly fascinating when a lot of time has passed since you last read the book. Personally, I’d suggest leaving it at least a decade for the best results. After this amount of time, you’ll often only have a hazy memory of the entire storyline and maybe a clear memory of a couple of scenes. This, of course, allows the book to surprise you once again.

And, yes, books can surprise you when you only remember them vaguely. This can be both a good and a bad thing. On the plus side, you can notice things like great descriptions, interesting themes, plot twist foreshadowing, subtle details etc… that you might have missed the first time around. On the downside, parts of a story that have aged badly can be a lot more noticeable when you re-read a book many years later.

Re-reading a book after more than a decade is also interesting because of the fact that you’ll probably be a fairly different person to the one you were when you first read it. You’ll be more mature, you’ll be more intelligent and your imagination will be more well-developed. In other words, you’re more likely to discover hidden depths that you might not have noticed the first time round.

2) Choose carefully: If you read a lot, then books will be connected with your memories of the past. With most of the books I’ve re-read, I can usually remember something about where and when I originally read them. So, re-reading books can be a good way to evoke rose-tinted memories of your past.

On the other hand, this can be a reason to be selective about which books you re-read. When you re-read a book, you can also create a new set of memories surrounding it that can sometimes crowd out or dilute your older memories. You’ll be older than you were when you first read it and you’ll probably also be re-reading it in a different context too.

Whilst this can sometimes be a good thing, be careful with re-reading books that are linked to your very best memories and/or which seem to symbolise especially great times in your life. Sometimes, it is best to keep these books as a fond memory – however much you really want to re-read them.

So, choose what you re-read carefully. When you re-read, you are overwriting your past.

3) Read new books too: Seriously, I can’t stress this enough. Read new books too! Not only will this give you something to re-read in the future, but it’ll also allow you to get more out of the books that you re-read too.

For example, reading several modern horror novels over the past few months has allowed me to see how the older 1970s-90s horror novels I’ve been re-reading differ from them. It has allowed me to see how the genre has changed over the decades (eg: modern horror novels tend to focus more on atmosphere, psychological horror etc… than gory horror). It has also dispelled the myth that the horror genre has declined in recent years. If anything, it has got scarier!

Reading new books also reminds you of the value of a good story. It stops you from focusing on just one author (and being limited to reading only the novels that they have written). Having to search for new reading matter also means that you’ll probably end up finding brilliant books by authors that you’ve never read before.

So, don’t fall into the pattern of just re-reading the same books or authors again and again. Re-reading can be awesome, but you also need to read modern books and/or books that you haven’t read before.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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Three Things That Novels Can Learn From Computer Games

Well, although I was originally going to write another opinionated article about how, unlike computer games, books don’t have system requirements and how this means that modern novels are open to a much wider audience than modern games (which often require an expensive modern computer), I thought that I’d turn things round and look at some of the things that novels can learn from computer games.

So, let’s get started:

1) Series: These days, book series seem to be all the rage and there are a lot of reasons for this. Not only does it give readers something to come back to whenever a new book comes out, but it also means that an author doesn’t have to create a totally new set of characters for each book (which means that further books can be quicker to write etc..). Series also allow for deeper storylines, characterisation etc.. too.

However, if you’ve ever played a series of computer games, then you’ll know that you can almost always jump into a game series at any point. After all, games are expensive to make – so, each instalment of a game series has to be made in a way that allows new players to pick it up and enjoy it without having played the previous games. This is awesome 🙂

Whilst some genres of fiction, such as the detective and thriller genres, are pretty good at this – with each new novel in a series usually featuring a self-contained mystery for the main character to solve, this isn’t always the case in every genre.

Seriously, there is nothing worse than discovering a really cool-looking/cool-sounding book that turns out to be the fifth in a series and then deciding not to get it because it might require you to buy four other books first.

So, even if your series is telling a continuous story, you need to be aware that each book might be the first one that a new reader picks up. As such, you need to write it in such a way that people can start with each book. Although most authors do include recaps these days (which is good), you also need to think in terms of story arcs too. In other words, there should be a few points in your series where a new sub-plot or story arc starts and new readers can jump into the series from there.

2) User experience: If there’s one thing to be said for games, they are focused on the audience. A lot of game design revolves around planning and structuring games in such a way that they are fun, intuitive and compelling for the player. Game designers will do things like using subtle visual cues, including clever limitations/rules etc… to ensure that a game is a really enjoyable experience. Likewise, game studios will often rigourously playtest games in order to see how actual players react to them (and modify the game accordingly).

But, what does this have to do with writing? Simply put, it means that you have to keep the reader in mind at all times. Whenever you write something, you have to ask yourself “how will this make the reader feel?”, “how will the reader experience this?” etc…

And, yes, this means that you’ll also have to edit ruthlessly too. For example, whilst a brilliant description, sub-plot, scene or background detail might have been really fun to write and might really impress you – if it interferes with the pacing, readability or flow of your story, then it should probably be shortened, reworked or removed. The thing to remember here is that your story is meant for the people who will be reading it.

3) Length: This is a bit of a cautionary example. In games, length has often been seen as a virtue (in part, due to fact that new games are expensive). And, in some cases, long games are a good thing. But, most of the time, longer games also mean that most players never actually finish the games they buy.

Annoyingly, within the past couple of decades, this “longer is better” attitude seems to have seeped into books, publishing etc.. too. And, most of the time, it is a bad thing.

Not only can a giant tome-size novel put people off (with the thought of “I don’t have time to read all of this!”), but it can also sometimes result in lower-quality writing too. When a book is short, the author has to make sure that every page matters and they have to find ways to cram as much storytelling as possible into a limited number of pages. This results in a more well-written, focused and streamlined novel.

In other words, shorter books will often be more compelling than long ones. Yes, there are obviously exceptions to this, but if you want a satisfying story that remains consistently compelling and can be finished within a reasonable amount of time, then short is good.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Obscurity And The Written Word – A Ramble

A few days before I wrote this article, I was reminded of one of the major differences between film/TV/videogames and novels. The novel that I’m (still) re-reading at the moment is a spin-off novel based on the “Final Destination” horror movie series. This was a novel that I first read in 2005/6 and, when I first found my old copy of it, I thought “I remember this! I’ll look online for other books in the series“.

It was quite an eye-opener. Whilst DVDs of the films from this series were reasonably cheap, most of the spin-off novels (all less than two decades old!) were surprisingly expensive out-of-print copies. Whilst I was pretty amazed that I unwittingly owned a book that had become a collector’s item, it also crystallised one of the major differences between prose fiction and other mediums.

Namely that it is much easier for books to be obscure than it is for stuff in other genres. After all, if you see an interesting film or play an interesting game, then there’s a good chance that quite a few people have heard of it. There will be Youtube videos about it, fan art about it and maybe even mainstream press coverage too. On the other hand, if you find a really interesting novel, then there’s a fairly good chance that most people haven’t even heard of it.

There are, of course, a lot of reasons for this. Books take more time and effort to enjoy than other mediums. Publishers’ advertising budgets are lower, so only a few big name authors tend to get promoted. The experience of reading a book is slightly different for every reader. It costs less to produce a book, so there are many more of them. Reading is an inherently solitary activity. I could go on for quite a while, but there are a lot of reasons why books will often be more obscure than things in other mediums.

And, yes, this can be somewhat off-putting at times. I mean, when I got back into reading regularly a few months ago, I soon felt the familiar feeling of disconnection that comes from enjoying a medium that really doesn’t have a mainstream fan culture in the way that games, films, TV shows etc.. do. Or, rather, one that has a very limited mainstream fan culture. Seriously, aside from classic literature and a few big name authors, books really don’t get the kind of press that games, films etc.. do.

And, yes, this can make being a reader, rather than a gamer or a film/TV buff, feel somewhat lonely. But, it isn’t all bad news. For starters, the obscurity of most novels means that there is a whole culture that is “hiding in plain sight” in the modern world. Whilst film franchises might be well-known about, there are loads of even better book franchises that no-one has heard of. And discovering one of these is like finding hidden treasure or joining a secret society or something like that.

Likewise, this obscurity also gives books a level of freedom that other mediums can only dream of. After all, the more mainstream something is, the more it has to appeal to a mainstream audience. Because most novels won’t become well-known, this gives authors a lot more creative freedom. This includes everything from the choice of main characters to the types of stories told to things like censorship-related issues (seriously, read a 1980s splatterpunk horror novel. It’ll make even the most gruesome modern horror movies look tame by comparison.)

Plus, because books don’t require things like special effects, teams of programmers etc… books can do things that films, TV shows and games can’t do. Or, to put it another way, even the cheesiest and most “low budget” novel can be considerably more impressive than even a mid-budget film, game or TV show.

This obscurity also means that books can be years ahead of other mediums too. For example, this horror novel from the mid-2000s actually seems like it’s from the mid-2000s, rather than the “1990s in disguise” that films from the time often inhabited. This sci-fi novel from 1992 reminded me a bit of a sci-fi movie from 1995-99 (like “The Matrix” or “Ghost In The Shell”). I could go on, but because books don’t have to fit into mainstream expectations, they can often be years ahead of more popular storytelling mediums.

The obscurity of books also means that, if a genre that you aren’t a fan of becomes popular, then there are still loads of other good books out there. I mean, whilst superhero films and online multiplayer games might be all the rage these days, lots of new books in all genres are still being published all the time.

So, yes, books being the most overlooked and obscure storytelling medium out there these days isn’t an entirely bad thing.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Four Reasons Why Novels Are More Punk Than You Might Think

A while before I wrote this article, I happened to watch a rather interesting Youtube video about punk videogames. Not only was this video absolutely fascinating, but it was also fairly thought-provoking too. In addition to reminding me why I love the original “Doom” so much, it also made me think about books too.

The more I thought about it, the more… punk… books seemed to be. And, yes, even the most “mainstream” novels are still more punk than things like mainstream films, mainstream games etc…

But, why? Here are a few reasons why novels are more punk than you might think.

1) Much less censorship: This was the reason I used to read so much when I was a teenager. Books were rebellious. Unlike films, books don’t have to pass a censor before they are published. They didn’t carry patronising age restrictions, they didn’t have scenes excised by tutting people in London or any of that sort of nonsense. And, to my teenage self, this was the coolest thing in the world.

So, when I was a teenager, I read a lot. In addition to general fiction, I also read old second-hand splatterpunk horror novels I found in charity shops, I read “edgy” high-brow fiction (eg: Ballard, Burroughs, Burgess, Thompson, Kerouac etc..), I read dystopian fiction etc… This got me interested in writing, it improved my imagination and it widened my perspective on the world. And it was because books were the only uncensored storytelling medium available to me 🙂

Whether it was the result of the landmark “Lady Chatterley” trial here in the UK, or the American first amendment, books are one of the most free forms of creative expression available to us. And, with the possible exception of theatre, no other creative medium can even come close in this regard. And, if this isn’t punk, then I don’t know what is.

2) No system requirements: [Note: This part of the article was originally prepared when I still used a slightly older mid-2000s computer, rather than a vaguely modern refurbished one. Even so, the point probably still stands] A few hours before I wrote this article, I was losing interest in reading again. I was getting nostalgic about the days, not that long ago, when I played retro/indie computer games and watched DVD boxsets instead of reading books. So, out of nostalgia, I went back to one of my favourite game sites with the possible idea of looking through the “sale” page and getting a cheap copy of a game I hadn’t played before.

With all of the gaming-based videos I’d found myself watching on Youtube over the past week, I was excited about the idea of getting back into playing/reviewing more than just the occasional fan-made “Doom II” level every month. Plus, there were lots of interesting-looking indie games on the site too. Then… I looked at the system requirements for these games. And I remembered why I read books these days.

Unlike computer games, which will often require you to have a modern computer just for the privilege of playing them, all that books require is literacy. If you can read, then you can read books published last week, you can read books published decades ago, you can read pretty much anything. You can read cheap second-hand paperbacks and expensive new hardbacks.

There’s much less of a barrier to entry. If you can read, then you can read. You don’t need to splash out on expensive technology just to keep up with the latest books. Again, is there anything more punk than this?

3) Individuality and humanity: Even the most mainstream of mainstream novels are usually written by just one person. Everything inside a novel is shaped by the imagination and sensibilities of one author. This might sound obvious, but it doesn’t really apply to some other popular mediums.

After all, films are large, expensive, collaborative projects. Games even more so. There’s a lot less room for individuality, a lot less room for personal expression or anything human like that. Plus, with more people involved, more money tends to get involved too. And this usually means that there’s someone pushing for things to conform to whatever they think will sell the most copies and please the shareholders.

Books, on the other hand, have slightly less of this. Sure, there are still editors and publishers in print publishing. But, because most books rely on one person to tell the story in their own way, books often tend to have a lot more individuality and humanity than most other mediums. And, even with the blandest of mainstream novels, this is still pretty punk when you think about it.

4) It’s easier to start writing one:
All you need to write fiction is a pen and paper. Even the most primitive word-processing program on the most low-end computer will also do the job too.

Not only are the tools needed to write fiction very cheap and easily accessible, but the basic skills of writing are usually taught to everyone at school too. Yes, you’ll still need to practice and read a lot to become good at writing fiction, but anyone can get started with it fairly easily.

Now compare this to something like film or computer games. To make these things even vaguely well, you often need a lot of expensive equipment and a team of people. In other words, the barrier to entry is much higher. Whereas, writing doesn’t have any of these problems. Again, this is really punk when you think about it.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

When Does Cover Art Really Matter?

Whilst you (and your readers) probably know the famous adage that you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover, this doesn’t mean that you should skimp on the cover art. Seriously, good cover art still matters.

Not only does good cover art catch the reader’s attention and, with physical books, make them want to leave a copy of the book lying around – but it can also make an already good book seem slightly cooler too. The emphasis here is on “already good”. Whilst cool-looking cover art can be used to briefly disguise second-rate writing, it can also enhance the experience of reading a good novel.

Still, there are three main ways that cover art can have an effect on a novel.

First of all, there there are good and great novels that also have cool cover art ( that include things like visual storytelling, well-chosen and visually-striking colour schemes etc…). Whilst these are cool novels because of the writing, the cover art is one of the things that makes you want to keep a copy nearby and read it as often as possible. They are also books where the cover art is good enough that you’ll want to take a look at them, even if you’ve never heard of the author before.

Secondly, there are great novels that have ok cover art. It isn’t terrible but also isn’t as attention-grabbing as it could be. These are books that go for a more understated, generic or “respectable” look with their cover art (often featuring soft colours, minimalist design etc…)

They’re books that have to rely on things like the author’s reputation, word of mouth or a chance discovery in order for people to read them. And, although there’s the cool feeling of finding “an awesome thing in disguise”, the cover art probably won’t play quite as much of a role in getting readers to choose these books.

Thirdly, of course, there are mediocre novels with cool-looking cover art. I won’t show any examples (since, upon reflection, it seems a bit harsh), but you’ve probably encountered at least one of these type of books before. They are the books that gave rise to the old adage about not judging a book by its cover.

So, I guess that the main lesson here is that cool cover art matters the most for “really good, but not always truly great” novels. A great novel will still find a way (through word of mouth etc..) to reach those who will truly appreciate it. And, mediocre novels need all the help they can get when it comes to cover art. But, novels which are really good also need great cover art too – especially if they’re by less well-known authors.

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Sorry for the short article, but I hope that it was useful 🙂

Three Basic Tips For Writing Book Reviews

Well, since I’ve written quite a lot of book reviews within the past few months, I thought that I’d offer a few tips about how to write them.

I’ll mostly be focusing on book reviews that are posted online (since this is what I’ve had experience with), but hopefully most of these tips will be general enough to be useful for all kinds of book reviews.

So, let’s get started:

1) Take notes!: Yes, note-taking can be a bit of a distraction when you’re reading, but it will really come in handy when you’re writing your review – especially if it takes you a couple of days (or longer) to read the novel that you’re reviewing.

Having some notes prepared can help you quickly find important parts of the book you’re reading, in addition to helping you gather and clarify your thoughts before writing your review.

Different things work for different people, but my usual approach to note-taking involves taking two types of notes.

First of all, instead of a bookmark, I’ll use a small square of paper that I can quickly jot down page numbers and 1-3 word descriptions on. This means that I have an instant reference if I need to go back and look at any important parts of the book whilst I’m preparing the review. Plus, since I use it as a bookmark, these crucial notes are less likely to get lost.

Secondly, after every reading session, I’ll usually make some slightly more extensive notes in a notebook – mostly focusing on my general impressions of what I’ve read so far (eg: is it what I expected? What does it remind me of? What techniques does the author use? etc…). This is useful for coming up with the more general descriptions in the reviews that I write and it also helps me to remember the experience of reading the book in question too.

Of course, your ideal approach to taking notes might be different. But, nonetheless, it is a very good idea to take notes if you are going to review a book.

2) Watch and read reviews/criticism of other things: One of the best ways to learn how to write reviews is simply to watch and read as many reviews as you can. And they don’t have to be book reviews either – seriously, a lot of what I learnt about reviewing came from watching videogame reviews on Youtube, reading games magazines when I was younger etc..

If you can see how different people review things, then you’ll be able to see the sort of things that good reviews have in common with each other, what you look for in a review etc…

But, it is also a good idea to look at criticism as well as ordinary reviews. Criticism is where someone takes an in-depth look at something and analyses it in detail. Although this may sound boring, it can be fascinating if it’s based on things you love. And it doesn’t have to be about the thing you’re reviewing (in fact, it’s better if it isn’t – since it might influence your review).

So, why look at criticism? Simply put, because it teaches you how to think more deeply about things. If you look at enough criticism, you’ll learn to look for things like themes, motifs, references, literary techniques etc… in the books that you’re reviewing. You’ll be able to think more deeply about the book you’re reading. You’ll be able to look at why the author does certain things and how the story “works”.

So, look at both reviews and criticism. Looking at reviews will teach you how to make your reviews more interesting to read, and looking at criticism will teach you how to add depth to your reviews (so that, even if someone has already read the book you’re reviewing, they can learn something new from your review).

3) Have a template: One of the things that helps me when I’m writing book reviews is to have a general template that I can fall back on if I can’t think of how to structure the review. This helps to keep my reviews more focused, in addition to ensuring that I cover everything important during the review.

The one I currently use is something like: Title graphic, background information about why I read the book, spoiler warning, book cover scan, premise summary/partial plot summary, initial impressions, genre features (eg: why is this horror novel scary?), writing style, length/pacing, how well the story has aged (if it’s more than about 20 years old), a summary and then a rating out of five.

This does change somewhat between reviews, but having a basic template can be incredibly useful nonetheless. So, working out a basic template before you write your book review can really come in handy. Your template doesn’t have to be set in stone, but it’s something to fall back on if you can’t work out how to structure your review.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Reasons Why Books Are Better Than Film And TV

Although I’m sure that I’ve written these types of articles before, I felt like writing another one.

This was mostly because, ever since I got back into reading regularly a few months ago, I’ve sometimes found myself missing all of the films and TV shows that I used to watch back when I didn’t read regularly (but don’t really have time for these days, due to reading books).

So, I thought that I’d list three of the many reasons why books are better than film and TV.

1) More freedom: One of the great things about novels is that they have more creative freedom than films and TV shows do. In other words, they’re usually only written by one person, they only use words and they don’t have to pass a censor before they are published. This lends novels a sense of individuality and creativity that films and TV shows can often lack.

Only having one author means that a novel isn’t really “designed by committee” in the way that many TV shows and films are. In other words, a novel is usually the creative vision of one person – they get to shape the story’s world, how the reader “sees” the world etc… in a way that isn’t really practical in film and television. Likewise, because novels don’t cost millions to make, there’s less of a need to appeal to the most mainstream audience possible for financial reasons (which, for example, can lead to films becoming more generic).

Plus, since novels only use words, they aren’t constrained by the practical problems that films/TV shows have. In other words, if a writer wants to write about somewhere spectacular or something spectacular, they can just write about it. They don’t have to build elaborate sets or worry about the special effects budget. As such, there’s a sense that literally anything can happen in a novel. That even the most “low budget” of novels can do things that even mid-budget films or TV shows could only dream of.

Not only that, unlike film and television, novels don’t have to pass a censor. For example, although film/TV censorship in the UK is less strict than it used to be, the censors have been known to enforce bizarre or over-protective rules in the past (eg: they pretty much banned the depiction of various martial arts weapons in films between about 1979-1999).

Likewise, many US TV shows sometimes have to follow absurdly strict censorship rules (eg: even in a “gritty” TV show like “24”, the main character cannot utter any profanity stronger than “damn”).

But, thanks to both the Lady Chatterley trial in the UK and the American first amendment, readers and writers do not have to suffer any of these patronising restrictions. In other words, books are one of the few artforms that respects both the author and the audience enough to let them make up their own mind about everything – free from the controlling influence of a censor.

2) It’s like a boxset, but better: One interesting thing I noticed about the ancient Egypt-themed novel I’m reading at the moment (“Nefertiti” by Michelle Moran) is that, even though it started rather slowly, it eventually started to remind me of when I’d watched a DVD boxset of HBO’s “Rome” TV series about five years ago. It had the same vivid historical immersion, depth and gripping drama.

But, I don’t have to read it in fixed one-hour instalments. The story moves as fast as I can read it. I have the freedom to allow my imagination to work out what all of the interesting locations look like. I can quite literally see what the main character is thinking and feeling. The characters are characters, rather than famous actors. I don’t have to sit through an annoying unskippable copyright warning every time I open the book. I can experience the author’s unique narrative voice. I could probably go on for a while….

I also suddenly realised that one of the reasons why I watched so many DVD boxsets during the 3-4 years that I didn’t read regularly was because they offered an experience that is a little bit like reading a book. However, it comes with all sorts of limitations that books don’t have. So, yes, books are like boxsets – but better. Plus, of course, even second-hand, books are often cheaper than DVD boxsets too 🙂

3) They stand the test of time: One of the cool things I noticed when I got back into reading regularly is that I could occasionally read books (like “The Maltese Falcon) that were written when film was still a developing medium and television was a lot less popular. And the stories are just as vivid as a modern novel. Now, compare this to, say, a grainy old B&W film that could only use whatever limited effects etc.. were available at the time.

Plus, when I’ve bought old second-hand copies of horror novels that were printed during the 1970s/80s, they’re still just as readable today as they were when they were first published.

On the other hand, if I found an old VHS tape that was from the 1980s, I’d have nothing to play it on (so, I’d have to see if it was available on DVD) and, even if my VCR still worked, then the tape would have degraded over time. Whereas, an old book is still just as readable now as it was when it was first printed. And it’s kind of cool to enjoy something that was entertaining people 30-40 years ago and not only still exists but still functions perfectly too!

In other words, books have a timelessness about them that film and television really don’t have. They have more of a sense of history. They run on very reliable technology (eg: paper) that can easily withstand years of use or disuse. Plus, of course, the underlying “mechanics” of books (eg: letters, words, sentences etc..) have remained relatively unchanged for years – compared to the constant changes in technology surrounding film, TV etc…

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂