Bah Humbug! – The Inspiration of the Other Christmas Carol

CarolIt’s been a cold June.  It reminds me of when I was going slowly insane.

I used to do technical stage management and had a gig running the Christmas Show at the Tamworth Snowdome.  I’d collect the cast in the dark and drive them through the dark, cold snow-covered early morning to arrive at the wonderfully warmed reception, then we’d go into the refrigerated snowdome itself.  After tramping through the snow-covered inside, we came to our ‘green room’, which was thankfully heated.  And then, like another Russian doll, inside that was a fridge to keep our milk cold.  The heat being pumped back and forth was an environmental nightmare.

We did 475 shows over 27 days.  Hearing ‘Frostie the Snowman’ made me twitch.  Father Christmas was wonderful, but incredibly blue in his anecdotes off-stage.  Goodness knows what would have happened if I’d ever forgotten to bring down his mic.  I spent the time huddled around a heater (in the snowdome) trying to keep warm and watching it all on a small TV set ready to raise the lights, hit the music cue (not ‘Frostie’ again!) or rush out to head off some disaster or other.  But mostly it was just sitting there being cold.

I had to do something to keep sane, so I took in my laptop in to write.  But I couldn’t.  I needed to be ready for the lighting and sound cues, and it was just too cold to type.

Instead, I spent ages staring at a single screen gradually working out an anti-Christmas story, slowly changing the bullet points during the none button pressing sections of the show.

When it was all over, I thought I’d see if I could type up the story within the twelve days of Christmas.  It turned out that this was no challenge at all.  I didn’t need the whole dozen, the words just poured out of me.

And it’s not that anti-Christmas either.  More a dig at the commercialism.

This was the screenplay.  Much later, I rewrote it as a novella.  And later still, Tracey Norman of Circle of Spears narrated it to make the quite wonderful audiobook.  Go and have a listen, because it’s a story that’s not just for Christmas, but also for this cold, cold June.

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Star Trek versus I, Phone

81l4iversus I Phone (Front Cover Rounded Cracked)

I’m still working on decorating a room up to be my new study.

This involved making a Star Trek pocket door, as you do, and I needed to find the stud behind the wall.  My usual technique is to buy a brand-new detector, wave it about near the wall to obtain inconclusive results and become confused.  Finally, I looked it up on the internet and discovered that there’s an app for this.

Seriously?  My phone has a built-in metal detector!  I had no idea.

And, while trying to download it, I found out that I already had this as part of Smart Tools.

So, I waved my phone like a tricorder near the wall, obtained pretty good results.  It worked better than the purpose-built gadget.

That’s extraordinary.

Which makes me wonder what else it can do?  Etheric beam location?

When I was writing I, Phone, I never in a million years thought that in the future a phone would have a metal detecting function.  Thankfully, the plot of I, Phone didn’t require metal detection, so I can still say it was in the specifications of my future artificially intelligent phones.  That’s good because the book is still holding out as a predictive SF work.

Star Trek had three gadgets used by a landing party: a communicator, a tricorder and a phaser.

Already we have a communicator and a tricorder, and they’re the same thing – the mobile phone.  True, the functionality is different, the communicating part requires phone masts everywhere and there are loads of things that a phone can’t scan (life forms, etheric beams and unknown energy sources) that a tricorder can.  However, it’s also true that on Star Trek, a communicator can’t text or Skype and you can’t play Angry Birds on a Tricorder, not even on Next Generation, so swings and roundabouts.

So, we just need to up the infra-red level on the remote control function to get a phaser.

Who knew what was in our pockets and – swish – a door opens on a whole new future.

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Migrating from Createspace to KDP

I suspect most indie authors have a soft spot for Createspace.  It’s the first outlet most people used to generate a paperback book.  Ebooks feel virtual and imaginary, a book is a solid thing and Createspace gave us that.

The advice was always Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) for ebooks, but Createspace for paperbacks.  Each offered the other, but they weren’t very good at it.

Createspace only two issues.  One was putting your book into ‘file review’, which took 24 hours, and you always realised that there was something to change as soon as you clicked the button.  However, you couldn’t cancel the file review, so you just had to wait.  The second, and fairly unforgivable, was that proofs and author copies had to be printed in the States and shipped over the Atlantic.  (Actually, it was even worse than that, flown into Heathrow, then taken to Dusseldorf for sorting, then flown back to Heathrow to be put in a van.)  The Print-On-Demand for readers was printed locally, so why not the author copies?

Unfortunately, Createspace has been taken over by KDP.  Amazon owned both and it does make business sense.  I think Amazon might have bought Createspace to deal with the competition.   So, we all had our books shifted across.  The transfer of files went smoothly for me, but I know of a publisher who lost over a hundred titles somewhere in the ether.

It’s a shame they didn’t take the best of Createspace across as well.

Createspace had a wonderful ‘Interior Viewer’ with a shaded gutter, so you knew if your text was too close to the middle, and an animation of your book rotating, so you could check the cover, see the spine and realise that it would be a wondrous object.  None of that in KDP’s ‘Previewer’.

However, KDP was, and is, for ebooks, it’s 80% of the market, so it’s an interface you already know.  Why remember two systems?  Paperbacks are the same as ebooks in the sense that it’s just uploading files and choosing options.  Although with KDP there’s a lot of scrolling down the screen to find the buttons, text boxes and squares to tick.  KDP also doesn’t allow you to delete books that have been assigned an ISBN (which you have to do), even if it’s never been published, which means all your experiments clog up your ‘bookshelf’.

Createspace used to take a few moments to prepare your files for viewing, KDP is slow, really slow – I mean really, really slow.  The display suggests you go and make a coffee while waiting.  Later, it suggests you make a sandwich.  It’s that slow.

KDP Or make a sandwich

As I scoff my peanut butter on rye, I realise that I miss Createspace, and I miss its forum, when it used to be good.

Still, KDP do print your proofs and author copies on the continent you live in, though, so at least we’re not burning fossil fuels to fly dead trees half-way across the warming planet.

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Genre Part 2 – Pandering to the fans

Part one of this defined genre as follows.

A set of conventions that shapes the telling of a story and, in so doing, produces a film that meets an audience’s expectations in a satisfying way.

But does that mean you should pander to the fans?

Star Trek and Star Wars have both been in trouble recently.

Simon Pegg, when writing the last film, Star Trek Beyond, reportedly quit a few times because executives kept asking him to remove all the Star Trek stuff.  Fans have been up in arms about Star Trek: Discovery, because of all the changes to Klingons and so on.  (My opinion of Discovery is that it’s good, but it isn’t Star Trek and STOP PRESS – Klingons have their hair back in the second series.)

During and after the filming of Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi, Mark Hamill kept saying to Rian Johnson “But what about the fans?” as the director went about killing the past, making a clean break (even from The Force Awakens) and doing his own thing.

This has been going on for quite a while.  To jump back in time from 2,000AD to 1995, there was Judge Dredd, the first film.  Sylvester Stallone was reported to be happy to keep his helmet on, but the director said something like “…the fans need to grow up”.

All of these were criticised for this.

Star Trek and Star Wars (and Judge Dredd and Uncle Tom Cobbley…) are sub-genres in their own right.  Gene Roddenberry wanted a show a future were diverse people got on with each other, the sort of world we’d want to live in.  Star Wars “…surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together” and isn’t about midi-chlorian twaddle.  (George Lucas was not true to the expectations he himself had set up.)

So, does this mean pandering to the fans?

No.

You do need to move things forward otherwise they stagnate.

But it’s still not that.

Fans are up in arms because of the deeper misunderstanding.  Their reaction is a symptom and not the cause.  It’s the expectations again.  They should not be taken out, killed, broken, or grown out of.  They are the very elements that create the sub-genre.

To put it another way, whatever you are writing, whether it’s in an existing sub-genre or something entirely new, you must be true to the material.

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Genre Part 1 – A Genre Defining Moment

I had this epiphany recently.

I gave a talk at ArmadaCon on ‘Genre’ and I was thinking about the Powerpoint slides on the drive down to Plymouth (great convention by the way) when this lightbulb pinged on.

As chance would have it, a friend and fellow author, Andy Conway, had just given a genre lesson as part of a script writing course, so I nicked some of his slides. You could easily them apart: his had an orange background and mine had unnecessary animation.

Genre

One of his defined genre.

A set of conventions that shapes the telling of a story and, in so doing, produces a film that meets an audience’s expectations in a satisfying way.

Mark Kermode in his recent, and excellent, BBC4 The Secrets of Cinema series covered exactly this. Romcoms, Coming of Age and Heist movies were all defined by their structure, their conventions and our expectations. Romcoms are a sub-genre of Romance, but with jokes. Romances are all ‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again’ and anything missing from that leaves us disappointed. (There are variations, of course. As Mark Kermode pointed out, these range from Splash (boy meets fish, boy loses fish, boy gets fish back again) to The Shape of Water (girl meets fish, girl loses fish, girl gets fish back again).

Some genres that have the same expectations, the same structure, and so they translate easily. Consider all those Samurai movies that have been turned into westerns: Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven, Yojimbo/A Fistful of Dollars, etc. A lone Samurai or Ronin or gunslinger walks or rides into town, kills the baddies and walks or rides on. It interesting to note that High Noon was remade as Outland, starring Sean Connery, and despite all the futuristic trappings, it is so obviously still very much a western.

But what about Science Fiction?

The Secrets of Cinema had an episode on ‘Science Fiction’ and it was merely an unsatisfying list of types of SF film. Some SF has spaceships, some robots, some both, some encountered aliens, some none of that… it’s like defining, say, Literary Fiction as fiction that has cars and houses, or sometimes doesn’t.

So, Science Fiction is not a genre, but rather a category. Somewhere were you collect spaceships, robots, aliens and so on. Or none of those, but other stuff.

Unless, when thinking about Science Fiction’s expectations, it is to expect the unexpected.

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Colonoscopy

I’ve been having a problem with my colons.  Yes, plural.

You see, I like this: “I say.”

But my recent editor (who I shall keep nameless to avoid Andy getting embarrassed) objects to them.  Colons.  Really objects.  So much so that he removed them all and went for full stops and commas.

This is the more traditional way of punctuating dialogue.

Let me show you, I could say, “This is a second example.”

It’s that awkward comma followed by a capital.  The sentence starts with ‘Let’, but then there’s a second full sentence starting with ‘This’.

I could say.  “This and use a full stop.”

But the speech tag ends and isn’t connected to the dialogue.  In theatre, you just give the character’s name and then what they say.

David: Like this.

But that doesn’t signify the actual words spoken aloud.  Whereas:

Earnestine: “One could say this.”

Works fine, I think.  (Yes, double quotes rather than single, but then that’s another debate.)

It’s a reaction against ‘said bookism’.  This strange expression derives from when door-to-door salesman used to go around America selling books of alternative words for ‘said’.  With this volume, you could then articulate with greater eloquence and therefore sound educated.  It’s nonsense, because people don’t actually read the word ‘said’, it’s a form of punctuation.  Indeed, alternatives culled from the thesaurus stick out and break the flow.  They should be used sparingly if there’s a really good reason, say, if the character SHOUTS or whispers.

So, why not go the whole hog and use punctuation: “Like this.”

Having had a go at Americans, their method of punctuation when the speech tag follows makes more sense.

“This is how we do it,” said the Limey, “and there’s no argument.”

“Uh-uh, put the comma after the quotes”, said the Yank, “and not before.”

You see, the phrase spoken in both those examples doesn’t have a comma in the middle.  If you remove the speech tag, you also need to exorcise the comma.  Whereas, across the pond, the commas bracket the sub-clause of the speech tag.  It makes more sense.

However, I went to a posh school, so there’s no way I can do that.

So, colons then, I say: “What you do you think?”

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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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