Storytelling Is Not Just Telling A Story

CC0 Public Domain image by MorganRen via Pixabay

Storytelling Versus Telling A Story

Recently I got this lovely email from someone who had read a few of my books (and left glowing reviews online, which is the way to make any author smile!):
"I have to ask--have you ever gotten or tried to get your books picked up by regular publishers. I'm not a pro but I've read enough stories to know good from...well, not so good. Yours, in my humble opinion, are a cut above what I have read recently...It just seems to me that many are just trying to tell a story, and there's more to story telling than just telling the story, if you get what I'm trying to say. You seem to have that knack. Anyway, I hope you have a terrific response to your book. I loved it."
The email writer said they weren't a pro, yet they picked up on something that eludes many writers. An inexperienced writer thinks that what a story is about on the surface is what the story is about. Then they go off and write something one dimensional. It may be okay, but it won't resonate. A good example is my novella Harvest Festival. I'll assume you've not read it so I won't give away spoilers - let's pretend the danger is a night-time attack of the Wombles. So a beginner writes an exciting tale about an attack of the Wombles, and thinks the job is done. But actually my book isn't about that. It's about rediscovering how much you love and respect those close to you. The Wombles could be replaced with Zebedees or Trumptons or rabid Ivor the Engines and it wouldn't matter. But taking away the central theme of rediscovering love would gut the story and leave it hollow. That's what it is really about, the rest is set dressing. You'd be surprised how many first-time authors don't realise that. Every story needs more than one level to it. The one on top has to be entertaining, and the one underneath has to have depth and some universality.

Action Horror Thriller

My correspondent also wrote (in their review of Turner):
"It reminded me of The Thing where the characters are trapped in the middle of the Arctic in a small building trying to fight off an alien. It's one of my favorite movies for that very reason. Turner does the same thing."
I love The Thing too. I've seen it loads of times, including once at a cinema, and I always champion Who Goes There?, the novella it was based on. It's another good example of depth: on the surface a scary tale of something totally alien taking over our bodies cell by cell; but beneath that are universal questions to do with identity, and how you can know who to trust, and appearances being deceiving. Those ideas really get under your skin (just like The Thing itself).

As an aside, I didn't actually count The Thing as one of my influences - see here for a full list of the ones that I thought of. When I wrote Turner it was because I didn't feel like I was getting anywhere with my literary work, so I thought "Why not just write the kind of book I like to read: action, survival, horror, and a setting where I would try and imagine what I would do in that situation?" Hence staying for a week on an island with no electricity, and writing Turner. Harvest Festival (which now has a brilliant audiobook version available) was an attempt to write something else in the Turner vein, just shorter.


What Do You Suggest For Good Horror Reading?

CC0 Public Domain image by bykst via Pixabay

I love reading. For entertainment it has to be something riveting - good horror, sci-fi, or thrillers mainly. Though I do love the classics as well. Being eclectic and trying new things sometimes is also important.

In one of the book groups I'm a part of I was recently asked: "What do you suggest for good horror?"

I thought I'd share my answer.


Well, the obvious is Stephen King (Night Shift; The Shining; It) and Dean Koontz (Phantoms; Midnight). I wrote about their works here.

A recent (for me) novel I loved was The Descent (Jeff Long): I wrote a review here but I'd actually recommend going into it without knowing anything.

If you can deal with something riveting and horrible and surprising, consider Housebroken by The Behrg.

Oh, and some short stories. As I said here:
"Sometimes short stories can stand alone, and have the strength to survive through time. In the past I’ve written about my love for many of these, such as The Yellow Wallpaper, and The Lottery. And as a fan of horror, I can’t neglect classics such as I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison (five people trapped inside a sadistic computer which tortures them forever); I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (last man on an Earth of monsters); and Who Goes There? by John Campbell (paranoia and alien body horror in the Antarctic). Count them as recommendations."
Some people may ask "Why should I read horror? Isn't it ... horrible?" I would suggest the case I made for horror over on this blog.

A quick self-promo (I can't get shot for it on my own website): I tried to fit a range of styles of horror in my latest book, They Move Below.

Regarding that work, the author Julie Cohen told me:
"You are really good at building up a slow atmosphere of uncanny and suspense, and also in creating characters in oblique strokes so that the reader has to do some satisfying work. [...] This is so freaking scary. [...] Okay, so I am properly terrified at this point reading this story [...] This is so clever and awful. [...] The stories I’ve read remind me really strongly of Stephen King’s horror shorts (which I LOVE): they have the same feeling of creeping, growing menace, the same sort of foreshadowing and inevitability, and then a twist of gut-churning horror at the end. And they all explore, to some extent, the idea and tropes of good old-fashioned horror movies: the teen party, the boat in trouble, the monster in the deep, the horror stories that come true. To a lover of the genre, they are an enormous treat. [...] I absolutely LOVED reading these."
My more traditional horror novel Turner is probably the most Koontzian thing I've done. Basically it's set on a Welsh island you do NOT want to visit.


Interactive Horror, Teenage Imaginations: Fighting Fantasy And Harvest Festival

A small part of my collection

Fighting Fantasy

When I was a kid I loved Fighting Fantasy books. They're a type of book some people refer to as "Choose Your Own Adventure", since you aren't meant to read them cover to cover: instead you have roughly a page of story, then make choices as to what you do next. Should you go left, or right? Listen at the door, or barge in? Each page/paragraph would be numbered, and each option would have a number after it too - once you chose an option you would riffle through the book to the appropriately numbered section and see what the results of your action were. A battle, a treasure, a piece of information, death, or a new choice.

I still have a full set of the books, since I started collecting them right from the time they launched, along with Warlock magazine. At the age of 12-13 I would sit in the parlour with my dice, character sheet, and a chocolate digestive, and lose myself in creepy forests and dungeons. As soon as I completed one book (or, more likely, died) I would start the next. If a character somehow survived I would let them start a new book with all their statistics and equipment from the previous adventure intact. Note that this didn't happen often, since Fighting Fantasy books were notoriously unfair - sometimes the direction you pushed a lever might be the different between success, and immediate death. Just like life, I guess.

My First Book

My obsession endured, and eventually I created my own Fighting Fantasy adventure when I was 15 (my first ever book, I suppose - pre-dating Turner by many years). I wrote this book because of another obsession: I'd fallen in love for the first time. I sat in the deep window ledge of my bedroom to write the book, in case the object of my affections walked past my house. It didn't matter that I hadn't spoken to her yet. I planned to wave and smile casually if she looked up. You know, unrehearsed, natural, cool. It couldn’t have been further from the truth. I had a cardboard Halloween skeleton on the wall next to my bed. I found out later that it was visible as you walked down the passage by my house. Some of the locals thought it was a real skeleton, and I was this creepy 15 year old Boo Radley figure in thick glasses and a mess of hair with a skeleton in his room, sat spying on people. It would have taken more than a wave to give me any kind of credibility.

Anyway, I wrote that book so I had something to do while I waited. It was a Fighting Fantasy (FF) book of 500 entries (they normally had 400). I spent all summer writing it by hand in a hardback book, with no planning - there wasn’t much room for sheets of notes on my window ledge once I’d crammed myself in. I got by with just a lot of knowledge of the gamebooks, and my love for Port Blacksand, the setting I chose from my favourite FF book City of Thieves, with its cover showing the undead Zanbar Bone stroking a scythe below a nightmarish city adorned with heads on spikes. Despite my lack of planning, the last entry finished on the last page, final line of the book. Fate, eh? I found that handwritten book recently.

I have never played it. No-one has. It's been in a box for the last 30 years. I should re-read it. It’s a testament to what you can achieve when you’re in love.*


Harvest Festival - Interactive!

For Halloween I decided to try something new: taking my novella Harvest Festival and making the opening of it interactive, like a Fighting Fantasy book. Harvest Festival seemed ideally suited because of the rapid nature of the action, with split-second choices that could mean life or death for Callum and his family.

I tried various tools, and it took a long time to get as far as I did, with lots of varied options for the player, but it is now available for the world to play. I first released it via the book website Life Of A Nerdish Mum, but you can get to the adventure directly:

Have a go, let me know what you think. Did you win? I'm not ruling out the idea of doing this properly at a future date, with a full version of the story and multiple endings, possibly as both an online game and as a printed Choose Your Own Adventure format. A few of my short stories could work like that too. We'll see. Thanks for playing it, and thanks to everyone who bought or reviewed Harvest Festival - and to everyone who does in the future.


* Just to fill in the gaps - yes, I did eventually go out with that girl, even though she was way cooler than me. My first girlfriend, and I loved her dearly. Sometimes nerds get lucky, which is probably why I wrote Cold Fusion 2000 and 2000 Tunes.


More Promo Images

I recently shared some promotional images I'd made. There's a new one above, and some fun newsy ones for those that have read my books below!

Ref: "Sinker" in They Move Below

Ref: Turner

Ref: Turner


Where To Buy Books - Secondhand Is Valid

Image via Pixabay (CC0 public domain)

Where can you buy books? In a bookshop, obviously. And, nowadays, through the miracle of trumpets, cables and wireless, you can buy them online too. I try to offer a number of such places (called "websites" by the kids) where you can BUY MY BOOKS. I'm a canny promoter in that way, using my psychology background to implant subliminal ideas in a blog post that isn't overtly about self promotion. No-one even noticed.

I don't want to just point you to the usual suspects like The Zon. I used to be a librarian. A pretty good one. As part of that role I sometimes had to track down rare books, or find out more details about them while working on reading lists with a lecturer. Some of that knowledge might be useful to readers, so I'll share it with you. Round about ... now.

Books And Ethics

Where's the best place to buy books? The wonderful Ethical Consumer can help here. Look at their Ethical Shopping Guide To Booksellers. They point out that secondhand is best. I agree. Too many publishers will try to dismiss this option, but buying new all the time is wasteful. The ethical consideration for me is always this one:

Reduce > Re-use > Recycle.

Secondhand books count as re-use, whilst also reducing the demand for new products, so it is a double win. And if a writer on a (zero) budget - i.e. me - can totally support people sharing my books because I care about the environment more than money, then so can big publishers. Please take my blessing. This article may also help. Bear in mind that when you resell your sofa, your phone, your DVDs or your car the original manufacturer/producer doesn't get a cut - why should books be any different? My librarian persona also likes to shout "Reading is a good, and culture should be shared!" at the top of its voice. Usually before they cart me away in the little white van. Again.

The other advantage of secondhand sellers is that you can get books and editions that are no longer in print. Here are some options:
Or pop into your local independent secondhand bookshop or charity shop, I'm sure they'd be pleased to see you. They struggle in the face of chainstores and supermarkets. And just in case you're wondering: no, I don't have any connections with these sites. No affiliate schemes, no profit to me.

If you're in the UK you might want to just swap books. Read It Swap It is one free service for that (I've never tried it but it still seems to be running). Feel free to put other ideas in the comments.

Should Authors Be Worried About Second-Hand Books?


I encourage people to do what they want with my books. I don't mind if they're given to libraries, charity shops, friends, sold on, composted, or carved into book sculptures.

In the long run, the more widely you're spread, the more people will have awareness of you. It's like music or games. When I was a kid people shared these round. Some of those games, musicians, bands and developers went on to become my favourites, where I'd buy everything they created - but if I'd never received copies for free off someone else, I'd also probably have never become a fan.

Buying books is a commitment (partly money, partly time ... and partly storage space!), and only occurs if the reader/buyer has enough impetus to make that commitment. And that requires a number of things, one of which is interest in the author, which often comes from having seen their previous work around. So don't be worried. The more your name is out there, the more it is shared, the more chance you have of becoming a name that people will pay for and support.


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