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The man’s head protruded from the gutter and remained there, quietly taking in the world. The missing grill allowed him to pop up, but no further than his neck.

What a strange perspective to be at eye level with passing cars wheels, ear level with the slap of shoes on tarmac so close behind. A thin trickle of oily water dribbled down by his chin and he breathed in the tainted air.

Across the street, a coffee shop waiter did a double take before turning away at the call of a customer.

A throaty bus crawled by and the head descended below ground, thoughtful. What a view on the grubby sole of the world you could get looking up from the gutter.

Picture of road with white line and weed

Image courtesy of sritangphoto.

This story was inspired by mis-reading a writing prompt from Nancy Stohlman which said:
“Write a story about or featuring a body part. (Heads out of the gutters, people,
there are other body parts!)” 

At first glance, I took “heads out of the gutters” as an example. It stuck.

Is it Okay to Stop Reading a Book?

I am currently caught in a reading dilemma.

The book I’m reading isn’t very good. Or at least isn’t holding my attention.

Is it okay to stop reading a book? Logic says “of course!” and yet it feels wrong.

Book with glasses against the backdrop of a library

Image courtesy of pannawat

When I am enjoying a book I make time to read and rocket through the chapters to the end all too fast, but when the book I’m reading isn’t engaging me I tend to choose other things to do. I might have that book on the go for over a month, and not spend much time reading. So by forcing myself to keep going I read less over all and then I resent that. I want to read lots of books and this book is getting in the way!

Reading is supposed to be an enjoyable pass time; there must be something seriously wrong if I find myself procrastinating from it, right?

So why do I feel so reluctant to give up on a book?

There’s a part of me that wants to give the author the benefit of the doubt. The eternal optimist that believes that the next chapter is when it will start to get good.

Then of course there is the fear of missing out. What if the next chapter is where it starts to get good and I don’t give it that chance and I miss out?

If something doesn’t hook me within a chapter or two, I can put it back on the shelf on the basis that I’ll tackle it again at another time. Maybe I’m just not in the mood for that genre. I can justify that.

But, if I persevere and get a decent way into the book, by the time I begin to suspect that the author is never going to deliver what I want from the book, I’m already committed. I’ve already spent some number of minutes/hours reading. If I give in now that was wasted time and I also have to admit that I was duped or made a bad call, and no one likes to admit they were wrong.

There’s also a nagging fear that if I don’t finish it, it will sit there, unfinished, forever, constantly reminding me of my failure to read it. If I put it back on the shelf at this point I’m not going to want to try again. I’ve already come to the conclusion that it’s not for me. And if I won’t want to read it in the future, it’s now or never!

This is particularly a problem with printed books rather than digital. I struggle to part with books (okay, things in general, I confess) at the best of times. At least if I finish it I can part ways with it amicably as I donate it to a charity shop or drop it off at a book share, but how can I let it go if I haven’t read it? I chose it and bought it; I don’t want to get rid of it before I have had my money’s worth.

By this point I understand I sound like a crazy person.

Is it just me who feels this way?

… No seriously, is it? Leave a comment below and let me know how you feel about giving up on a book.

What do you do if you start a book and it doesn’t grab you? Do you persevere and struggle through to the end? At what point do you decide enough is enough and walk away?

Do you ever regret not finishing a book?

Over on The Great Escape I explore more about the implications of readers quitting on books in my article Fiction Industry News – Amazon and Pay-Per-Page

The classic advice to writers is to write what we know, or the more accurate alternative: “Write what you know, or can research.”

There’s an inference in the quote above, that information you research is inherently different from information you know. Which, I suppose, may be true, depending on your definition of knowing.

There are different types of information which feed into a book. The original advice to write what you know was never about all of that information. It was about themes. Write about ideas that you understand and identify with. That you know, intimately. The details: the characters, locations, events, back story, that’s what needs to be underpinned with a mixture of inherent and/or researched knowledge.

There are also different kinds of research. Some can bring you closer to knowing than others.

There’s a risk sometimes as a writer of experiencing everything from behind a computer screen, looking up facts, figures, descriptions and photographs. Where it’s just about factual accuracy, that’s exactly the kind of research we need. Last week I spent a few hours collating astronomical data and moon phases, and let me tell you, that is exactly the kind of task where the internet is invaluable. If you want to know when Jupiter aligned with Venus in the 18th century and what day of the week it was… no problem.

But a lot of what goes into a book isn’t about factual accuracy, it’s about perception, capturing the essence of something. Consider location for instance.

Christchurch College - Oxford

Christ Church College – Oxford – Image © 2015 Christine Harrison

There’s really no substitute for first had experience of places. I took a trip to Oxford recently, to research locations for my current novel. None of the pictures I’d seen prior conveyed the shear volume of tourists and the constant frustration over parking and vehicle access. The Oxford in my book wasn’t going to believable unless my characters were constantly shoving through crowds of people aimlessly looking up at the architecture.

If you need to describe a particular building from the outside, you might just about get away with streetview. But if you want to know what it looks like inside… well there things start to get difficult. Sometimes you get lucky. I found a conservation policy document for one of the buildings I was researching, which included pictures of all the restricted internal spaces, but even with the accompanying floor plans, it was still hard to work out how it fit together.

On my trip I visited the building and went on a guided tour, and that gave me an understanding of it that far surpassed what I could get from pictures. The pictures helped me research it, but the visit helped me know it.

Visiting the locations also created ideas. Once you can stand in a place, and visualise the scene, exciting new options suddenly begin to pop out. Previously invisible details present themselves for consideration.

The School of Natural Philosphy - Old School's Quad, The Bodlian Library, Oxford
The School of Natural Philosphy – Old School’s Quad, The Bodlian Library, Oxford – Image © 2015 Christine Harrison

Actually going there might sound like a “well, duh” suggestion for location research, but many writers skip it, if only because their location is a fictional place that doesn’t exist. But, in a way, it’s almost more important to visit your fictional places. Your imagination remixes and recycles experience and blends it with abstract ideas. If you have no experience to draw on you’ve limited your potential already.

Imagine your setting is a fictional forest on an alien world. You can’t visit it, but you can visit other forests here on Earth. Perhaps your location is a fictional factory; visit some other factories that do exist. You can find your location hidden a bit here and a bit there within the places you go. You can find it in the differences between what you imagine and what you see.

What goes for locations goes for everything else: pictures and descriptions = good, field trips = better.

That might sound daunting, but really it’s the best thing about being a writer! We get to try everything. We get to dip in, give things a go, observe, and then try to fake being an expert when we write. How renaissance.

So my philosophy is “write what you know, and get as close as you can to knowing about as many things as you can.” Not only will it make you a better writer, but it’ll be crazy good fun.

Over on The Great Escape we tried an experiment on National Flash Fiction Day. We happened to be at Cardiff Comic Expo on the day, so I asked the guests there to challenge me to write them a story. I got several different prompts which inspired some weird and wacky micro-tales.

Unzipped - a day in the life of a banana

The experiment went so well we decided to share the results on the website, and start developing new and improved story cards ready for our next convention. Rather than plain white cards, we’re going to print a selection of designs for people to choose from.

You can see all the “Prototype” Story Cards over on The Great Escape.

Tenth Man Down by Chris Ryan (book cover)

Geordie Sharpe and his SAS team are sent to Africa to train government forces in the war torn nation of Kamanga. After an accident leaves a young boy dead, the local witch doctor makes a chilling pronouncement. Unless they leave now, ten white men or women will die.

Geordie dismisses the witch doctor’s prophecy; they’ve got a job to do. While they’re only supposed to be there as advisors, when the Alpha Commando unit are sent forward to capture a rebel controlled diamond mine, the SAS team are concerned they’re not ready and go along to keep an eye on things. There they find the rebel forces are bolstered by white mercenaries.

Not long after the government forces takes control at the mine, things take a turn for the crazy. Suddenly a target to the very men they were training, Geordie and his team make a run for it. While trying to stay alive and dodging the rebels, Geordie has to figure out what the hell is going on and why their allies suddenly turned against them.


This story is gritty and frightening throughout. The bloodlust fuelled actions of the Kamangan fighters and their supporters, on both sides, are truly savage. It’s hard to imagine people stooping to such deranged violence, but Ryan describes things in such a matter of fact way, you get the impression some of it is drawn from experience.

The suffering of Geordie’s friend Whinger after he’s badly burned in an explosion was particularly hard to read for someone who recently suffered a bad burn. I could truly imagine the agony and it made my stomach churn.

What this book is not is a clash between SAS soldiers and ex US Navy SEALs as the tagline and blurb promises. Indeed, the only character identified in the book as a former SEAL actually helps Geordie!

I found this irritating.

Let’s face it, I’d been promised SAS vs SEALs and the book never delivered, so I felt cheated. But there was more to it than that.

The expectation created by the blurb influenced the way I read the story. Because I’d been lead to believe that this SAS-SEAL clash was going to be a major part of the story, I was constantly waiting for it to happen. As I read the book I was trying to figure out when and how it would be revealed, and what the implications would be to the story when it did.

I felt like the tag line and blurb were calculated lies to trick readers into picking it up. While I understand the need for compelling blurb on a book, I don’t believe in false advertising like this. Not least because it disrespects the book’s actual content, which is well worthy of readers.

One part of the book I found puzzling was the bookend scenes which took place in the UK. The opening scene features Geordie on a picnic with his son, Tim, and supposedly gives context for Geordie telling the story, but there’s no way the story you then read is something even the most incompetent of parents would tell their kids. Indeed, at the end, Ryan even has Geordie reflect that he didn’t tell his son the specific details that were in the book. So why set it up as if that’s who he is addressing?

The opening scene does provide a view of Geordie that makes him seem human and normal and shows the backstory of his family life. And the closing scene allows Ryan to wrap up the open ends of the story as a series of questions which Tim asks about the story he heard. But I can’t help feel that the story would have started more powerfully around the campfire in Africa which starts chapter 2.

The plot of this book is… messy… in a good way. Not only are there stumbling blocks on the path of the pursuit of goals, like in any good story, but often the goals themselves shift unexpectedly. On occasions the characters achieve things which then turn out to be completely pointless or counterproductive, which is much more like real life. At the end of the book, Geordie’s son Tim asks if the mission was a failure and that’s exactly the question the reader is left thinking, partially because it’s hard to define what success would have looked like. This gave the book a strong sense of realism.

Tenth Man Down is a gritty, intense action-adventure that hints at the bloody truth of war and greed. This was the first Chris Ryan book I’ve read and on the basis of this I will be seeking out more.


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