Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

No, it isn’t.

Like a lot of these clever phrases, it sounds good, but the truth is not stranger than fiction.

Take any true story, rewrite it as fiction and it’ll have equal strangeness, obviously, then add a dragon. (Or, if it’s a true story about discovering a real dragon, add zombies.) That has to be stranger. Even with reality’s recent importing of fiction in the form of fake news to up its quota, fiction wins.

What we’re talking about here is believability. Truth is always a trump card. (The irony of that sentence given what this blog is about.)

The first novel I published, I, Phone, was set about five years in the future. A deadline that’s now some time in the past. It’s stood up remarkably well. Google Glass has come and gone, AR and VR look poised to make their breakthrough, phones won’t be more intelligent than us for a couple of decades yet, etc. And it’s still all believable.

My latest, Crossing the Bridge, is set sort of now, but suffered from going out of date before I’d finished a draft. It’s a political novel and politics over the last year has been insane. Seriously, we have a scenario that the Russians fought a cyberwar to get a reality star into the Oval Office to destabilise the West from within and return everything to the glory days when Putin was a proper KGB spy. That’s a viable possibility.

It makes you ask, who is James Bond?

The plot isn’t Daniel Craig, Timothy Dalton or George Lazenby as their tenures were a return to basics. So, it’s a silly Roger Moore, a later Pierce Brosnan or a Connery a couple of films beyond Diamonds Are Forever. Except that somehow Putin putting Trump in power is parody, so it’s Austin Powers. (My title would be Squidfanny.)

Someone might say, “You couldn’t write it” – another clever phrase: but yes, of course you could write it. And it would be strange. And with a dragon (or zombies) it would be stranger than reality.

But would anyone believe it?

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The Other Voices

Two pieces of advice.

One) A writer should write what they want to read. I mean, if you don’t want to read it, why should anyone else?

Two) A writer must develop their own ‘voice’ – whatever that means. It’s not something you can teach. How can I tell you what your voice will be when it hasn’t developed yet? It’s something someone else points out to you when you’ve written enough for it to magically appear.

Recently, my first published book, The Other Christmas Carol, became an audio book.

Carol

In addition to stage productions, a theatre company, Circle of Spears, create audio books. They wanted to do my Christmas story, The Other Christmas Carol, so it was up to me to pop over to their website, listen to their sound clips (one of which included a piece from another novel of mine) and audition.

I picked Tracey Norman, rightly thinking that her voice most matched that of the protagonist Carol. She’s done an absolutely brilliant job.

However, her voice is not that of the voices in my head (the characters I mean) and isn’t ‘my voice’. Does that make any difference? Well, yes, but only that it’s ‘different’.

I proofread it. (I use the word read, because I know from my days doing The Drabble Project to raise money for ‘Books for the Blind’ that blind people use that word for when they listen to a book.) It’s been a long time since I read it from the page or screen, and so I’d forgotten a lot of it.

I recently came across research that people enjoy a story more if the ending’s been given away. Knowing the destination means they can savour the scenery.  Apparently. Personally, I have a horror of spoilers, finding them out and giving them away. Surprise is a vital weapon in a writer’s arsenal.

So, I was walking around the block listening to my words, having some surprises, but with it coming back to me, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was moved, genuinely moved, happy, thrilled and upset in all the right places, feeling all those emotions I’d cunningly panned to manipulate all that time ago. You can be too: https://www.circleofspears.com/

And obviously, being English, I now feel deeply embarrassed.

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The Earthman

I wrote this for a Book Club and decided to include it here.

Earthman picture

Launch Day (Wed 27th May)

Launch Day (27th May) – I was in Works and saw The Martian for sale.  On a whim, I bought it.  It’s the Andy Weir indie-published book that was such a breakout.  It went on the ‘to read’ shelf.  Perhaps it was an omen, a sign of things to come, but the book wouldn’t fit vertically and so had to lie upon its side on top of other books.  It was the first of many of what are called in the trade ‘challenges’.

Sol 1 (Wed 15th June)

Less than a month later and I discovered that the BSG Book Club is doing The Martian.

I have the book, I could read it, but the first snag was discovering what day they were due to have the meeting.  This was straightforward to solve: it was on the internet.  It turns out it’s on Sunday 26th June, which seems far away and doable.

No, wait, it’s the other one!

I did the math: it’s 11 days.  That’s 11 days including this one.  So, in keeping with the book (and retrofitting this log), today is Sol 1.

Is it possible to read the book in time?

If I’m going to do it, I have to start now.  That’s now!

But the book is at home and I’m at work.

Five miles is not the distance between the Earth and Mars, but it might as well be.

I have a plan.

My book may be at home, but Amazon sells it and Amazon has a ‘look inside’ feature.  All is not lost.  I logged in and found it – fantastic.  I started reading and then disaster.  The ‘look inside’ feature ends on page 6, part way through Sol 6 in the book.  That’s only the first section of the first chapter.  I have made slightly more progress than that suggests as the book starts incorrectly on page 1, rather than proper publishing methodology of beginning on page 3.  Their mistake means an extra two pages for me, but that’s still scant progress.

My computing skills and my expertise in indie publishing came to the rescue.  I was reading the paperback on-line and ebooks have less of what’s technically called ‘front matter’.  I shifted over to the ebook version and sure enough, there was more there.  I’ve no idea how many ‘pages’ more, because ebooks don’t have pages, but I reached Sol 25 before this version ran out.

This all has a strange resonance because I was solving things much the same way as the protagonist, Mark Watney, does.

It’s a breakout indie book and I’m a fan already.

Home finally and I decided to read the book, the actual paperback now, in the bath.  It seemed like such a good idea, but my reading glasses steamed up.  All was not lost, because the water in the bath made an excellent cleaning fluid.  Glasses clean and it was on with the reading.

Sol 4 (Sat 18th June)

Having started so well, it’s been two days with no reading.  One lost to a writing group meeting in the pub and another to flooding.  (I swear it wasn’t the water from my bath, it was the rain.)

Anyway, today I had a kip in the afternoon, but beforehand I read some of The Martian.

Sol 5 (Sun 19th June)

A pattern to my life has developed, but today I went to bed in the afternoon and when I woke up, I read more of The Martian.

Sol 6 (Mon 20th)

Committed now.

I ticked the box to say I was going to the Book Group on the Martian.  I have to read 2.3 chapters a day, and I’ve just managed 3.  I split the days into ones that require 2 chapters and others that need 3 to be read.  It won’t do to try and predict what’s 0.3 of a chapter and it’s good to stop at a logical break.

It’s quite exciting in the sense of following Mark Watney, the protagonist, in problem-solving.  It’s not life or death mind, but it is real life, so my task is a lot harder.  It does mean that this has the priority over the novel I’m writing.  I am sort of stuck on that at the moment anyway.

However, I can’t just read haphazardly.  I must get organised.

So, I put post-it notes at each chapter break as markers of how much progress I need to do each day.  This was a very tricky operation because it required me to put the notes in the right place without looking.  It’s important that I don’t ruin everything by accidentally reading ahead.  I had to do this awkward task twice as I had to remove all the post-it notes and replace them with colour coded ones to indicate which chapters to read on each day.

All those people at University, when I was studying software engineering, mocking me because the construction of a revision plan left no time for actual revision will realise just how wrong they were.  This works really well.

And I managed an extra chapter too, so that’s 4 today.  I’m rattling along with one chapter in hand, so maybe I won’t need to push things on Friday (Sol 8) and read three chapters.

Sol 7 (Tue 21st)

I read two chapters today, which was my target for the day.  It means I’m still one chapter ahead.  The major difficulty has been that reading is a stationary activity and this room that uses a detector to cut the power to the lights if I’m still for too long.  It’s to save power, but it means I suddenly in the dark and I have to get up to turn the lights back on.

Sol 8 (Wed 22nd)

Catastrophe.

Absolutely no reading done today.

All that good work to get ahead undone in an instant.  Or a day.  That means that I’ve gone from a chapter ahead to a chapter behind and time is running out.

Sol 9 (Thu 23rd)

Back reading, one chapter done.  But the light still keeps failing.  It’s still on a timer and you don’t move much when you’re reading.  I have to get up every time it times out and flick the switch again.  I suppose I could drag my comfortable chair over to the switch or wave my arms about every page or so.

There’s another massive snag too.

I constructed a bookmark with everything on it: my reading schedule – lights just went out again!

Back on.

So, I’m crossing of the chapters and marking the day, and I’ve left space to make any notes for the Book Club.  Unfortunately, when adjusting the progress chart or making notes, I can’t keep my place in the book.  It would be devastating to lose my place and have to start over after so much progress.  The simple solution was to rip the bookmark in half.  I now have two: the main bookmark and a backup system.

The bookmark system failed.

I didn’t use both at the same time and somehow the blank one for notes (what notes?) ended up in the book.  It’s completely useless, there’s nothing written on it at all.  I don’t have the progress chart, so I’ve no idea whether I’m on schedule or not.

I sorted this by going downstairs and fetching it.

Sol 10 (Fri 24th)

Seems pointless to read something about Mars, when the Earth has self-destructed.  The UK left the EU, so the UK is doomed.  The EU will struggle as calls for more referendums for each country.  Will there be an Earth to return to when I’ve finished the book?  If I finish?  What is the point of anything?

Due to the battle with aliens today, the Earth is safe, but the amount of reading was sadly curtailed.

Only one day left.

Sol 11 (Sat 25th)

Sol 11 here already, but wait, I made a mistake in my maths.  It’s wasn’t 11 days to finish the novel, but 12, because I started on Sol 1.  There still tomorrow.  Finally, something goes wrong in my favour.

And I didn’t need it anyway, I managed a chapter and a bit, early in the afternoon and reached the last chapter.

Could I get to the end?

Was it humanly possible?

Well, it was.

With a day to spare too, so it wasn’t even exciting.  A lesson I learnt in my freelance software development days: a realistic deadline with safety margins and contingency, and you never miss a deadline.  I never did then, and I haven’t now.

I write this with the soundtrack to the film running in the background.  The point of this tale is that if you plan, and it’s a sensible plan, and you stick to the plan, then you can achieve anything.

All that’s left is to make it to the Book Club tomorrow…

Sol 12 (Sun 26th)

The day has arrived.  There’s nothing more I can do and there’s nothing more to do.  All the preparations are done: the train times checked, the soundtrack downloaded to the phone and the route to the Urban Coffee Cafe, I sit in my seat like an astronaut, the countdown to setting off already running.  Once launched, I’ll be rocketing to the Urban Coffee Café to rendezvous with the others.  If they are there, then everything is saved; if not, then there will be nothing I can do about it anyway.

Wish me luck.

Godspeed everyone.

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The Doctor’s No Longer Male!

I am bitterly disappointed by the casting in Doctor Who.

David Wake (two)Don’t get me wrong, I happen to like female protagonists.  I write them after all.  Indeed, I think there are positive advantages in doing so.  I thought Joanna Lumley and Barbara Benedetti both did excellent interpretations of the Doctor.  I particularly liked the latter’s interplay with her companion.  So, the Doctor being female can work.  It all depends on the stories.  Any character needs good writing.

There are always pros and cons to anything.  (Well, not Brexit, obviously.  Have you tried to get someone to give an argument for leaving the EU that isn’t a slogan, platitude, soundbite or a lie?  I have, so far, not heard a single one and I’ve asked.)  So, this isn’t a rant that the Doctor should be male, it’s a complaint about something else.

You see, I have an argument as to why the Doctor should be male.

As young girls everywhere are pumping their fists and shouting “yes!” in pleasure, the boys are losing a role-model.  Indeed, one of the very, very few male heroes who doesn’t rush around shooting everything with guns.  There aren’t many examples of a main man who uses his wits, wins by knowing stuff and has a clear moral code.  I remember the Fourth Doctor solving a problem using chemistry and I thought I’d pay more attention at school as all that “mix this with that” in the fume cupboard might actually be useful in the future.  We do live in an age when young lads need better role models.

I’m a traditional Doctor Who fan, so it’s required dogma that the previous Doctor was better and to loathe any suggestion of change.  We proclaim which version we saw first as best in a game of onebackmanship.  (I have a time machine in my front room, so quite soon I’ll be bagging the opening episode back in 1963.)

I just hope the next series isn’t suddenly all about gender issues.  Like all that fuss about Chekov being gay: who cares?  It’s not that fantastic; I mean, you meet gay people all the time, but – come on – he pilots a starship!

So, good stories, space battles, monsters, aliens, strange new worlds and proper science fiction please.

And my bitter disappointment at the announcement?  It was like watching the lottery results live.  There’s a strange figure in the woods, TARDIS, pulls back hood, close-up…. and it’s not me!

Look, it’s always been other people!  Next time: definitely my turn.

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You mean it’ll be… Captain Tartan’s Redemption?

You should always sail into the sea of the unknown on a voyage of discovery.

I go to Science Fiction conventions, events full of… well, everything. They’re a maelstrom of activity that washes over you in a sea fury?

16999007_10154436347912709_2952900993454084050_nRecently, a convention up in Sheffield. ‘Redemption’, asked me to be one of their Guests of Honour.  Quite something.  My fellow guests included a senior lecturer on ‘War Studies’ at Sandhurst, a videogame developer, an artist and a film historian specialising in silent cinema.

It was fantastic to be there, but I missed most of it.

There was, apparently, Fight Choreography for Writers (which I think I’ve now missed at three different conventions), Lock picking, Ration Roulette (a tasting session for survival rations) and talks on The Prisoner at 50 and Star Wars at 40.  You could be involved in the cabaret, the play, the ceilidh, Morris Longsword dancing or a publishing project.  There was a sewing workshop, Victorian martial arts lessons, cookery through the ages and the now obligatory Tea Duelling.

Lectures and discussions ranged from historical re-enactment, Artificial People (a talk on robots and androids in media and reality), on dystopian fiction (perfect for those studying English), What Are E-Sports?, Post-Apocalyptic Survival, Where Next for the Large Hadron Collider, How Safe Are We Digitally to Victorian Costuming,

That covers subjects like English, Physics, History, Media, Sport and Home Economics. I can’t think of any environment, even University, that offers so much intellectual stimulation in such a short span of space and time.

Myself? My guest talk was on writing and I starred in the play, Captain Tartan – Redemption.  I also ran a panel discussion called Where Have All The Heroines Gone?, which, due to last minutes changes, turned into just me, a bloke, mansplaining feminism to a room full of women.

I sold some books.

And it had a pirate theme.

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Books you won’t find in bookshops

Joel Stickley of How to Write Well Badly (very funny) says writers write books that they think agents will buy; agents buy books they think publishers will publish; publishers print books they think supermarkets will stock; supermarkets stock books they think customers will buy; and, finally, readers wonder why the shelves are full of celebrity books.

I wrote I, Phone in 2009 and dutifully I sent it off to publishers.  I’d talked to the editor at a convention, so I was hopeful (it was a warm call) but realistic.  Two years later, after some reluctant pestering, they admitted they’d lost it.  I resubmitted and, after another year, they said it wasn’t their cup of tea.  Fair enough.  So, time to go cap in hand to another publisher to beg pathetically.

Wait a minute – no, it isn’t!

Now Indie Publishing is here, the rose-tinted glasses I used to view Traditional Publishing have fallen off. To send a manuscript without receiving an acknowledgement is rude, to take longer than a reasonable time to make a decision (say 3 months) is unprofessional and to lose a manuscript is plain useless.  You wouldn’t get it in other professions.

I, Phone predicted Google Glass.  I’m sure others did so before me, but you know, I was in the game, but 3 years twiddling my thumbs meant that that cutting-edge prediction became passé.  If it had been accepted then it would have been another 2-3 years before it reached Waterstones.  A development process that takes 5 years means that near-future SF is not a sub-genre that exists any more.

You may think I’m just ranting due to sour grapes and a chip on my shoulder. You many think that, and you’d be right.  But I have a point.

So, the following don’t exist in traditional publishing any more:-

 

Near-future SF.  (Traditional publishing is too inefficient.)

Novellas.  (Too short, even if you could get twice as many on the shelf.)

Poetry.  (No market for them, apparently.)

Local interest books.  (All decisions made at head office.)

Books in more than one genre.  (Where do I put this?  Ah, yes, the returns bin.)

Books the marketing department doesn’t know how to market.

Books by authors, whose previous two books in the trilogy sold well, but not in the J. K. Rowling or E. L. James league.

Books that you really, really want, but you’ve been busy and missed the three month window of opportunity and they’ve all been returned to the publisher on a sale-or-return basis and have now been pulped.

 

So, if you want to read anything above – tough: enjoy your celebrity books.

Or try an Indie Publisher.

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Fan-Fic versus Fan-made

At the recent SF meet in Birmingham, I tried talking about… well, I’m not sure exactly what I wanted to discuss.  The difference between ‘Fanfic’ (bad) and ‘Fan-made’ (good) perhaps.  It was pointed out that it’s ‘Fanfic’ (good) and ‘Fan-wank’ (bad) (thanks to Simon for that one).  However, labelling it doesn’t reveal the difference that’s bugging me.

You see, I read a couple of articles (thanks to David for finding them again) suggesting that Doctor Who and Sherlock were fanfic.  (See http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/01/sherlock-and-adventure-overzealous-fanbase and http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/tvandradioblog/2014/jan/03/sherlock-doctor-who-fans-influencing-tv – both including Stephen Moffat as writer.)

That Doctor Who episode when the Doctor recruits all his past companions to fight off Davros and the Daleks is just the sort of thing that a seven-year-old (or, to paraphrase, what’s the point of being grown up if you can’t be childish, and make up stories that would thrill you as a seven-year-old) would come up with.  Now Moffat (Gattis, Abrams, Lucas, etc) are in that situation where they can, so they do.  Moffat can write, any episode of Coupling proves that, Blink is a work of genius, etc, etc, but maybe he cannot resist the excited yapping voice of his inner seven-year-old…  and that’s probably why I shouldn’t be allowed to write my planned sequel to The Trial of a Timelord (just to sort out a couple of issues, you understand).

But, I’m comparing this with some fan-made Star Trek, that seem to ‘get’ Star Trek more than Paramount do.  The recent Star Trek reboots kind of illustrate this.  Simon Pegg, who was writing Star Trek Beyond, III in the series, had issues I believe with Paramount wanting to remove all that Trekkie stuff.  (“I think the studio was worried that it might have been a little bit too Star Trek-y.” – Simon Pegg.)  If you are worried about making something that’s too Star Trey-y, then don’t make Star Trek.  They are failing to realise their own USP.

Star Wars is another one.  The original trilogy, IV to VI, was marvellous, and then George Lucas somehow didn’t ‘get’ his own series and made the prequels, I to III, that weren’t ‘Star Wars’.  (Cue clip of Simon Pegg burning all his Star Wars memorabilia in Spaced.)  The Force Awakens, episode VII, felt like Star Wars.  (It’s only afterwards, upon reflection, that some problems became apparent.)  The upcoming Star Wars Rogue One really feels like fanfic: “oooh, oooh, I’ve a theory about how the rebels got the plans in the first place.”  We’ve ‘Han Solo, the Early Years’ appearing, which again has running through it like seaside rock the word ‘fanfic’.

Ridley Scott failed to understand his own Alien when he made the appalling Prometheus.  Coming soon, Blade Runner II, which fills me with fear and dread.

The advice is always to write what you want to read: so writers have to be fans of their own material, surely, but then isn’t everything just fanfic?

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Life on Other Earths: episode 1 ‘All These Worlds’.

Life on Other EarthsI caught Attenborough at 90 on BBC1 the other night.  (A good advert for the strength of the BBC and a need for it to be preserved from the greedy philistines.)  There is a series I’d like Sir David Attenborough to present.  He has the right gravitas and expertise for it.  Basically, Life on Other Earths.  Think Life on Earth and Walking With Dinosaurs in spaaace!!!

A proper examination of SETI is long overdue and we’ve come a long way form left to right across the Drake Equation since it was first formulated in 1959 (around the time David Attenborough was first presenting Natural History). The estimates back then were hand-waving guesses.

To paraphrase the equation somewhat, the number of stars in this galaxy is about 300 billion stars and all of them have planets. The ‘all of them’ is really me sticking my neck out, because it seems that we are discovering them all the time.  You just need to look at all the complexity of the Saturnian system to realise that stuff naturally goes around other stuff.  Newton, as he rubbed his apple bruised head, could have predicted rings, gaps, shepherd moons, braids, spokes, etc, etc.  So, every star system has planets, I say.  However, a more sober analysis of the Kepler mission data reckoned about 40 billion planets in the habitable zone.

(There are about 200 billion galaxies, so… er, I make that 8 septillion. We do need words that are orders of magnitude larger than ‘astronomical’.  ‘Astro’ means ‘star’, so it’s appropriate for the huge numbers associated with those stars we can see with the naked eye.  Above that, it all becomes ‘galactonomical’, ‘clusternomical’, ‘superclusternomical’ and ‘observanomical’ all the way to ‘universonomical’.)

However, let’s ignore those too far away to chat properly by radio telescope.

So, 40 billion rolls of the dice for life developing, then intelligence, civilisation, communications and then that their window of survival is open now. (Given the climate deniers and greedy capitalists, it doesn’t look like our window will be open long.)

So, episode 1: stars, planets, large numbers… all narrated by David Attenborough.

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Blast and Gasp

I must thank Steven C. Davis and LM Cooke for allowing me on their radio show and for all their plugs of the Derring-Do Club and New Street Authors. It’s on (I’m listening to it now as I type) Blast 1386 and GASP is Gothic, Alternative, Steampunk and Progressive. It’s http://tunein.com/radio/Blast-1386-s6837/. If it turns up on download or Mixcloud, I must post a link. Strange to hear myself whiffling on about things, I’d quite forgotten what I’d said when it was recorded. Now the Englishman in me has to add some put down: it did almost sound like I knew what I was talking about at times.

There seems to be a renaissance in audio, podcasts and so forth. It makes you wonder what everyone is listening to on their earphones. It might not be mindless pop, but could be explanations of quantum mechanics, 18th century bread making, yak breeding in Tibet, or, gosh, someone whiffling on about science fiction.

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One Million Words

Million words

I read that Alan Moore’s second novel, Jerusalem, will weigh in at a million words.  To put that into perspective, I’ve published four decent sized novels and a novella, and, adding the forthcoming doorstop The Derring-Do Club and the Invasion of the Grey, to my total, I clock in at 0.8 of a Jerusalem.  It’s significant, because there’s a theory that you have to write a million words of crap before you become a good writer.  It’s another way of measuring the 10,000 hours to be an expert: it’s a drabble an hour.

Clearly, no-one writes a million words to have their millionth and first word declared a work of genius: the first ‘the’ in that sentence is rubbish, but, half way along, that second ‘the’ is beyond wonder!

The 10,000 hours theory says that you gradually become a master of the craft reaching it at the 10,000 hour mark, but you are ‘good’ and ‘better’, long before you are ‘best’. Also, it should be pointed out that Alan Moore has written an awful lot of words in his descriptions for the graphic novels, he’s known for the length of his instructions, so he’s well over the million by now, I’d have thought.

And all writing counts: shopping lists, ranting blogs… I’ve written a diary (or journal) since 1977.  The first years were all long-hand in school exercise books.  The problems I had finding a source for exercise books after I’d left school.  Anyway, in late 2001 to mark the new millennium, I went digital.  Basically, I couldn’t read my own handwriting and my typing speed was competent.  (Hmmm, another skill that I must have spent 10,000 hours on.)  Each of this millennium’s is novel length and adds up to 1.3 million words, which brings my overall total to two Jerusalems.

Does this mean I’m a Master of writing?

I am, literally, on the grounds that I have an MA in Writing.

But the point is that if you plug away at something, suddenly you’ve spent a lot of time on it and achieved something. So, keep at it, until you have built a Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.

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