The big story and the small story

Very few stories are only one story. The common writing exercise of encapsulating a story in a single sentence often shows this. Yes, Jack and the Beanstalk is the story of a boy who fights a giant. But it’s also the story of a giant pestered by tiny humans. And of a beanstalk forced  to early germination. And of what happened to a poor cow after it was sold to a swindling bean merchant. Much of the richness of storytelling comes from the many stories that are woven into one. It’s how the artifice of story comes to resemble the complexity of life. But amidst the infinite stories within every story are two that deserve special attention. The Big Story…and the Small Story.

The Small Story is, most commonly, the internal transformation of the story’s central character. In The Godfather we follow the transformation of Michael Corleone from a moral young hero to an ammoral old villain, all the more chilling as it’s a transformation driven by love of family.

The Big Story is the transformation of the world in which the story takes place. You have to pay attention to catch the Big Story in The Godfather, because it plays out in the narrative background. By the end of the second movie the Corleone family is no longer a gangster organisation. It and the rest of the Mafia families have become great powers in American society. You’re watching the story of how criminals become the government.

Weak stories tend to play out either the big or the small story without the counterbalance of the other. Genre fiction can spend ten books showing you the rise and fall of an empire without ever touching on a single real life. Literary fiction can immerse itself inside one human life while ignoring the very real world of politics and power that we all live in. Both end up failing in different ways.

The Big Story and the Small Story have to be deeply interrelated. Because this is how the world is. Sweeping arcs of history produce the circumstances that create dramatic lives and larger than life characters. Even the smallest life has some impact or consequence on the lives of those around it. It might be that your story’s Big Story reaches no further than a tiny village. Or that the Small Story has to play out between car chases and gunfights. But understanding the outer boundaries of the story in this way helps build a unified story. Any event that doesn’t belong either in the big or small story probably doesn’t belong in this story at all.

Are fantasy meganovels swamping the genre?

If, like me, you haven’t had the chance to catch up with John Gwynne’s ongoing four-book series The Faithful and the Fallen, then you might have greeted the news he’s landed a “six-figure deal” for another three novels with a shrug. But the arrival of yet another writer “in the tradition of George RR Martin and David Gemmell” has set me thinking about how the fantasy genre found itself overrun by multi-volume novels.

Read more @ The Guardian

Will I be doing paid reviews? Yes.

But it took a lot of thought to arrive at that answer.

A little while ago I opened a discussion about the ethicality of book reviewers accepting payment directly from writers. I got a LOT of responses, all of them well considered and constructive. They ranged from “yes, the more reviews the better” to “no, that would violate the relationship between reviewer / reader / writer”. And the truth is BOTH of these perspectives have validity, as do many of the positions expressed between those two poles. A better question than “should I do this” turns out to be “if I do this, what are the consequences and can I live with them?”

The outcome of the debate is that I’ve decided I will do a limited number of reviews paid for by writers on this site, accepting in advance that I will likely face some criticism for doing so. My first paid review is God Bless The Dead by Evan Geller, an indie SF novel with an interesting core concept that I’m looking forward to getting into. But before I do, I think it would be useful to get into why I’m making the decision.

There is an oft quoted and generally correct principle that guides many ethical issues in writing and publishing. Money moves towards the writer. A writer should never pay money to a publisher for anything, any more than you should be paying your boss money. This needs to be reiterated because vanity publishers and other borderline publishing outfits pretend to publish authors while taking money from them for various services.

The indie publishing revolution has created a new market of writers who are also their own publisher, and who are therefore buying services as a publisher. Money still moves towards the writer, but in their role as a publisher, money also moves away from the writer to other service providers. There’s now a substantial market for editorial, design and marketing services. I already offer a number of these services to my editorial clients.

But reviewing has remained a grey area. Not because writers won’t pay for them, I get offers of payment quite frequently. But because readers wonder how far they can trust a review paid for directly by the author. Would I as a reviewer give a stinking review to a book by a writer who has paid me for the review? Yes. I very definitely would. But readers walking in blind from the internet aren’t to know that. And that really arrives at the heart of the matter.

Because I have a long track record of book journalism with many high profile publications, I have a relatively strong audience of people who pay some attention to my opinions on new books. But. If I fill my blog and twitter feed with glowing reviews of terrible books, my opinion won’t be worth much for long. If on the other hand I do occasional, select reviews of interesting books that my readers will otherwise miss, that is providing a positive service. It’s not about whether I get paid, or who I get paid by, its about ensuring that payment doesn’t distort my review.

To that end, I’ll be doing a very limited number of reviews paid for by writes. Before doing any reviews I’ll be curating from a pool of possible books to ensure there is always something interesting about the few I choose, even if it has major flaws. Authors won’t have any editorial input to these reviews, but I will give authors the choice of whether to have the final review published or not. That seems the fairest balance to strike. I’ll also share some thoughts about these books as I’m reading on social media, so others can read along and see if they agree with my take.

Reviewing has always been something I both enjoy and find tremendously useful. I began reviewing a decade ago, primarily SF & Fantasy books, because I was researching the field for my own understanding. Getting paid for the reviews has never been so much about the money itself, as offsetting the time I was investing in doing that research. I’m hoping adding a few paid reviews to my schedule will help me stay in touch with the work of writers I might otherwise miss, as my writing schedule becomes ever busier.

I don’t have full review submission guidelines prepared yet, but if you’re interested in sending me a book just pop me an email on:

On resisting being just one thing

As I travel I write. I like to write on paper – every day I handwrite morning pages, and most of my ideas start life on paper. Paper is heavy. And for the last three months I’ve been lugging a fair weight of it in my backpack, through Sri Lanka and Kerala all the way up through India and now into the Himalaya.


This week I am reading back though months worth of handwritten material as I photo-archive it (the notebooks themselves will then be sent back home). Oh boy. a) I’ve written a lot b) I’ve changed a lot c) What I’ve written has changed. I am not the writer I was two years ago. I generate a lot of ideas, both for fiction and non-fiction, and I’m careful to make a record of all of them. There are are fragments of stories that I read back, and don’t recognise the me who wrote them.

Which brings me to my point.

There’s a pressure for writers – and I know this because I feel it sharply at times – to be just one thing. It’s both an industry pressure and self inflicted. Publishers want writers to be a brand, and for your name to equal a particular kind of story that the readers can come back for again and again. The writers who inspire you as role-models almost certainly have an established, singular identity. It’s so tempting to try and adopt an equally singular identity.

It’s also a mistake. Firstly, because it will happen without you trying. Even the most prolific writer’s bandwidth is limited, and when you reach the point of publishing, you’ll inevitably end up writing and publishing within a relatively narrow spectrum. Your identity forms as a necessity. Secondly, no writer is only the identity projected by their professional work. Read up about the writers who inspire you and you’ll find they have whole creative lives you never necessarily hear about, that don’t fit with the public persona at all.

My first opportunity to publish a book came when I was in my late twenties. And a second wave of chances came when I was in my early thirties. I’ll never know if passing over those opportunities was the right thing. But I am glad I did. Because I look at what I would have published, what my identity as a writer would have been, and I can barely relate that person to who I am today at thirty-seven. Maybe I was fortunate that I’d been around writers long enough to see the damage that trying to force yourself into being Just One Thing can do.

Because here’s the thing, until it becomes a professional necessity, you can revel in NOT having to be just one thing. I like that I can write a high brow literary critique for The Guardian one day, then scribble out a chapter of swords & sorcery fan fiction the next, without worrying how these things relate to the Just One Thing we’re pressured to try and be. Once your work is being read, and readers have an expectation what Just One Thing you are, you’ll have to dedicate most if not all of your writing time to that. Until then, enjoy being many things.

5 Reasons Why 50 Shades Of Grey Achieved Literary and Blockbuster Success

British author E. L. James’ novel 50 Shades Of Grey, along with its two equally salacious sequels, may have just as many critics as it does devoted fans. But there is absolutely no denying that the adult literature series, after its first release in 2011, became a phenomenon the likes of which we have not seen since the peak days of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. The question is, why exactly did this happen? It would be fair to say that a number of different factors contributed to the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, including:
1. Word Of Mouth
The popularity of the Fifty Shades trilogy owes much of its success to the power of word of mouth. The risqué subject matter of the novel proved to be interesting, inspiring conversation between friends, co-workers and even families. Before we knew it, every member of the office was picking up a copy so they could be in on the discussion. Sheer curiosity powered rampant made word of mouth for this series of books.

2. The Rise Of The E-Reader

It is no coincidence that the immense popularity of Fifty Shades rose in conjunction with the rise in mainstream E-Reader usage. Whereas twenty years ago a person may have been embarrassed about showing their fellow passengers on the bus exactly what kind of book they were reading, with the switch in preference to electronic literature, people can now sit back and read what they want, without having to worry about the opinions of others. Also, the ease of pressing a single button rather than having to walk in to a shop to buy a racy novel, also opened up the possibility of reading the book to people who had been too ashamed to read erotica.
3. Loosening Of  Taboos
It would be fair to say that on whole, society today is the most relaxed it has ever been. Whereas generations ago it would have been almost unthinkable to imagine your grandmother eagerly turning the pages of E. L. James’ work, changes in social and cultural norms have lead to much more mellowed views on the topic. What was once seen as ‘damaging’ or ‘unsavoury’ content can now be seen in the manner it was intended; as adventurous escapism.

4. The Power Of Cinema

Though the books were majorly popular before the big screen adaptation was released, it should not be underestimated just how much cinema can increase a property’s reputation and popularity. Many people simply do not like to read, but having seen the movie version they may have been inspired to read ahead, and become more invested in the series before the sequels hit the theatres.

5. One Of The Few Recent Adult Phenomena
With Harry Potter, Twilight, and the Hunger Games being recent examples of cultural sensations, which were mostly experienced by a younger audience. It would be fair to say the Fifty Shades phenomenon was set alight by a piece of work that was being consumed and enjoyed by an adult audience. The unique nature of this made the series almost something to ‘check off’, whether you enjoyed it or not; and this is evidence by the sheer amount of mixed opinion that the novels have garnered.

Image by Jules Holleboom used under the Creative Commons license

Image by alles banane used under the Creative Commons license