1 January 2014 by Nicholas in Books
I have read altogether too many guides and handbooks in the past six months or so. Not necessarily finished them, as many have shortcomings. There have been books that have been almost convincing, where they have provided a singular point of view and a coherent argument. And then an utterly stupid typo or misused phrase or the wrong incidence of a homonym appears.
It’s horribly jarring and amateurish. It takes me out of the reading experience and makes me question everything the author has written and is trying to achieve. Worse still have been the books that seem short on what I would consider vital information: books that skirt around or straight across fundamental steps as if they are sufficiently explained or obvious. What you tend to find is that all books of their ilk will do the same thing, leading you to believe that the people writing them are bluffing and rewriting everything they have found in another tome.
Cheap volumes by multi title authors are incomplete and filled with entreaties to buy their other works to get the missing information. Their other works, of course, merely repeat what you have already read in a reworded or re emphasised manner. You never feel like you are getting to the heart of the matter.
Among the most disappointing book was a manual on Drupal from Sams, a company I previously associated with inherent quality and accuracy. I genuinely believe it had been written for whom English was a distant second language and had not had an editor at any stage. It was terrible.
Write. Publish. Repeat. Kind of explains how those terrible books came into existence. It’s also the anti thesis of them. I’d argue there is a word used incorrectly once. It’s consistently very well written and pretty much free from errors. I know it sounds like that this should be the most basic achievement that a book aims for but I have first hand proof that it is a bar that a lot fail to meet. Even books I would consider reputable.
It’s a large book but engagingly written. At no point does it skirt a subject or cause you to suspect that the authors don’t actually know what they are talking about. It’s deflating and inspiring, it will make you realise that some other books are perpetuating myths and making blanket assertions with precious little to back them up.
The authors apparently have a veritable cottage industry of novels on Amazon (and other online book sellers) and explain how they go about presenting and selling the content in order to make money from it. They also go into quite a lot of depth on how they create the content in the first place, but that is arguably a secondary consideration (if, as a writer, being told to actually write comes as a surprise then you are in for a rude awakening generally) over the mechanical nuts and bolts of business. They’re candid and the work is full of citations and the evidence of their own experience.
The book is full to overflowing with examples from their own catalogue and their conclusions drawn from their experiences and how to apply this practically. It never really feels like an effort to sell you on this work though, and there is no sense that the book is incomplete in any way. Nor do you actually think that there is lip service paid to any of the topics covered. They’ve done the work and the research, some of which are tomes I have read and would heartily agree with.
The book is rounded out with some interviews with other authors. It’s great and comprehensive and actually feels well worth the money. I won’t be tracking down any of the writers’ fiction work, but I will be looking at some of the sources that they cite and be keeping an eye out for anything factual that they write in future. And I will give even less shrift to badly created or presented work from now on. This book proves that it is possible to know your stuff, communicate it and do so in a professional and engaging manner.
Gun Machine by Warren Ellis is his second novel. It revolves around a detective who uncovers a room full of hundreds of guns linked to unsolved crimes and an overreaching conspiracy hinging on their use. It’s already been optioned as a TV Series, which it is a brilliant premise for. What it is not, sadly, is a great story in its own right.
There is a great premise here (enough for a series of novels, really), and some engaging characters (although there always feels to be a degree of repetition to Ellis’ characters), but there isn’t enough plot.
The problem with a lot of thrillers is that they believe their plot should be terse and lean. This means a lack of red herrings, dead ends or superfluous characters. This leads to the entire plot hinging on a ridiculous coincidence that utterly undermines the story. There is precious little detection on the part of the detective and the guilty party is introduced early on and easily recognised just by the fact they serve no other purpose in the overall story.
There is another problem as well: the tenant of the room with all the guns in isn’t really fleshed out and Ellis cheats to leave him as essentially a cypher and relatively mysterious. It’s akin to a clumsier version of Hitchcock’s Rebecca where someone yells “redacted” or there is a bleep every time someone mentions the new wife’s name.
I wanted to love Gun Machine. It opens so well, the characters are funny and the events relatively horrific. I’m sure that the level of unsolved crimes has been researched and the basic premise is great. I can even believe the initial coincidences that set the plot in motion. But it doesn’t work as a thriller or a detective story. As anything other than a dark comedy (without enough jokes) or a character piece (without enough character interaction or development) it fails. The lack of characters means that the culprit is obvious. And the climax is incredibly lazy, something you’d expect from a tv show long since devolved into lazy formula.
For my birthday my sister got me “The Best of Norman Rockwell”, which is a lavishly illustrated book with no real biography or notes. The plates and prints are incredibly well produced and run the course of Rockwell’s career. It’s a beautiful book and one of my favourite art books.
Rockwell was primarily an advertising and magazine illustrator who started work on some nicely presented but rather flat advertising paintings. They’re nice illustrations and show great technical skill, but they don’t really show the products off and tend not to look striking at a distance. His magazine covers started later and tended towards a formula, often effective as images but showing a high degree of repetition.
And then something happened. Because the work in the book is presented mainly chronologically you can see the moment where Rockwell goes from capable but limited to being something else entirely. In the late 30s he married his technical skill with great composition and even better draughtsmanship. There is a piece called “Simply a Sharpshooter” (that, unfortunately, I can’t find a good copy of on Google to link) that marries composition, a great use of light and dark, sheer technical bravura and a dynamic and exciting set of figures. It has foreground, middle ground, background and far background. It is, put simply, absolutely incredible. And the 40s onwards are full of works near that quality.
It’s a beautiful, inspiring and intimidating book. Made all the better for having surprises in and because of the wonderful level of reproduction.
I watch a lot of thrillers and mystery films. In addition I also watch a murder mystery tv show. Unfortunately, combined with my general predisposition to pick things apart and a lack of innovation within the genre, it tends to lead to me knowing how the plot will work.
When I was younger, I bought a comic called “Gotham by Gaslight.” It’s a Batman Elseworlds (basically, where familiar characters and concepts are dropped in different milieus than the one they are normally published in to see how they work) where Batman is operating in Victorian London and comes across the work of Jack the Ripper. It’s a beautifully drawn book featuring artwork by Mike Mignola and P Craig Russell.
I lent it to my mother to read and she told me she knew who the killer had to be and that it was disappointing to her. This surprised me, as a ten year old (or so) I had no idea who the killer had to be. She told me it had to be the one extraneous character. That, combined with the Death of Jean De Wolffe (a Spider-Man comic written by Peter David about the death of a supporting character) led me to start looking at extraneous characters more suspiciously.
When you have a story containing a murder or act of betrayal, often the killer is a supporting character who is emotionally close to the leading character, especially when he or she acts as a mentor and has an emotional link to their past. It’s become a crutch for the writers in the age of lean stories without distracting characters, especially in films and tv. As we identify with the main character we’re meant to feel their sense of disappointment and betrayal.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work like that. Often the mentor figure or old family friend may as well be hanging round at the back with a long black cloak on laughing maniacally. Any time you watch a murder show and someone is being entirely too helpful in the face of insurmountable barriers that the investigators are facing they may as well have daubed their fingers all over the crime scene. It’s unfortunate, but there it is: the necessity of creating a lean story has led to a dramatic shorthand which makes the eventual reveal unsurprising.
So what is the alternative? Multiple mentors and a cast full of helpful suspects? More deus ex machina reveals coming from nowhere? I have no idea, I just wish that writers weren’t so frequently lazy. I want to be entertained and surprised, to admire the solution and twist rather than just the mastery of form.